Nasty, brutish and short, Ryse: Son of Rome has emerged from a seven-year development hell as a visually resplendent, preternaturally dumb action game that exhibits a galling, monotonous bloodlust. As a gladiator in the console wars arena, it should wow the crowds, but it's not likely to keep them on side for long. It doesn't have the staying power.
Ryse was at one point going to be a showpiece for Kinect on Xbox 360, before its standard-bearing duties were transferred to Xbox One. It's for the best, as a new console platform allows developer Crytek to play to its strengths and stoke the pixel-furnaces of its mighty graphics engine until they roar. All this technical industry is then brought to bear on building ancient Rome just so Crytek can burn it down again.
That's no spoiler - the game begins at its end, with Rome in flames and overrun by barbarian hordes, while a fat and cowardly Emperor Nero runs for cover. He's soon under the wing of our hero, Marius Titus, a proud Roman warrior who, once he has Nero to himself, starts telling the Emperor his story. Cue flashback, and the game's true beginning, wherein a newly commissioned Marius sees his father and family die at the hands of another barbarian raid, before setting off for the untamed wilds of Britannia to subjugate the rebels and claim his revenge.
If you're about to point out that the great fire of Rome wasn't started by barbarians, you should know that Ryse has no regard for history. It's a kind of slapdash historical fantasy in which the Celtic queen Boudica rides a war elephant, England looks like Middle-Earth, Scotland looks like Transylvania, the Colosseum is a kind of clockwork Holodeck and someone has invented exploding barrels. Nero's two fictional and comically evil sons are leading the Roman Empire into a Caligulan nightmare of debauchery and mass crucifixions. Marius' fate is somehow linked, via a magic lady in a very low-cut dress, to the legend of Damocles, a wronged warrior who became an undead "spirit of vengeance" - which has precisely no resemblance to the actual, extremely well-known and very much Greek legend of Damocles.
This is all garbage, but it's passably entertaining garbage - if rather more humourless than I'm making it out to be. The Roman setting is underused in games this side of Creative Assembly's scrupulously researched Total War strategy titles, so Crytek can get easy mileage out of the fun stuff: legionnaires moving in phalanx formation, savages wearing moose heads, sadistic nobles showing some nipple, skyscraper-sized wicker men. The script is blunt but inoffensive and a cast of jobbing British TV actors do a good job keeping their faces straight, or voices anyway.
It's just a shame the game has to take itself so seriously, adopting that air of grim cynicism that's so fashionable these days, when a little camp might have gone a long way. Worse, it dulls the refreshing effect of its setting by reaching far too often for the video game copybook of cut-and-paste set-pieces, including yet another retread of the beach landing from Saving Private Ryan.
Does it ever look the part, though! If Killzone Shadow Fall is all about lighting, Ryse is all about texture, surface, material: burnished bronze, gritty sandstone, flowing crimson linens, all of it lit low and glowering. The water is incredible. Although the performance capture is a little stiff, the character models are so lifelike they can sometimes elicit a double-take. The bigger moments are carefully stage-managed and the art direction is cod-Gladiator, but still - for sheer in-your-face splendour, Ryse can stand toe-to-toe with Guerrilla's PS4 game, and it ought to silence a lot of sceptics of Xbox One's capabilities.
As a melee-combat action game, however, Ryse suffers from a stultifying lack of variety and a depressingly mechanical approach to gore. The basics of its fighting system are competent, but those basics are all you get. There's zero embellishment, there's no room for players to express themselves and there is an absolutely disastrous paucity of enemy design - there are maybe half a dozen basic enemy types, whose tactics are scarcely all that different to start with. It's brainless stuff, and quite boring.
You usually face enemies in small groups that encircle you and approach, dutifully, one at a time. You block their attacks with your shield to open them up, hit, hit, push with shield to keep them open, hit, hit. Watch out for others interrupting this flow with an attack of their own, then block, hit, hit, push, hit, hit... The rhythm is deliberate and stodgy. Timing is key, especially when facing tougher, heavier attacks; you can throw in an evade if you want to change position; and different combinations of enemies mix it up mildly. But this is an action game that essentially has one combo.
Wear down an enemy's health and you'll see a skull mark which means they're ready to execute. Pull the right trigger (which is sometimes sluggish to respond) and you enter a violent QTE where coloured flashes indicate whether you should use your sword or shield button to dismember, gut or brutalise your opponent. Time these better and you'll be rewarded with more of your choice of health, damage, XP (used to unlock upgrades) and focus (used to trigger a get-out-of-jail slow-mo frenzy). Switching around between these bonuses on the d-pad and deciding when to use focus is about as tactical as Ryse gets.
There's nothing exceptionally gory about the execution animations. However, you will execute the great majority of enemies you fight, so you'll be watching necks get stabbed and arms get severed hundreds of times in the eight hours or so the campaign lasts. The ceaseless repetition is overwhelming, desensitising, and whatever base satisfaction you got from it at first soon turns to numbness. Ryse takes the excesses of other games and makes them grist to its bloody mill; it's meat-factory carnage that's offensive in its thoughtlessness.
Keep pushing Marius down what amounts to one long corridor to the next encounter, and if you're lucky, you'll get a section where you form up into a phalanx with your fellow legionnaires, commanding them to shield themselves from enemy archers and to throw volleys of spears. These parts feel great. If you're unlucky, you'll man a 'scorpio' turret for a rickety, badly designed shooting gallery. Then there are more barbarians to bludgeon. Block, hit, hit, push, hit, hit...
There's no brains, no muscle, no fibre beneath Ryse's extravagantly engineered good looks - this game rings loud but hollow
As repetitive and shallow as it is, Ryse is always blandly playable; its handsome looks and the daft vigour of the scenario will easily get you to the end of a game that doesn't outstay its welcome. The closing chapters even manage a kind of idiotic grandeur. Marius brings a reckoning back to Rome and ends up reliving earlier events at the Colosseum, where fanciful contraptions transform the scene like the set of a lavish Broadway musical, and there's a clanging reference to Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus (as opposed to the trashy TV series which Ryse much more closely resembles). There's even an authentically Roman tinge to the way Marius' story ends.
By the time you've seen that ending, though, you'll have unlocked the majority of Marius' upgrades, and there's nothing like enough substance to the gameplay to tempt you to run the campaign on another difficulty setting or to lure you into long-term engagement with the two-player arena mode. There's no brains, no muscle, no fibre beneath Ryse's extravagantly engineered good looks - this game rings loud but hollow. Crytek likes to contrast Marius' moral strength with the vanity and cruelty of Nero and his made-up sons, but Ryse feels like a product of their dying empire. It's just empty decadence.