As "I Gladiator", Acclaim Studios Manchester had a Gladiator game with an unusual name - quite a brave one, in fact. However, now it's called "Gladiator: Sword of Vengeance" - the sort of focus-grouped name that we see and suffer every day - and, perhaps as a result, until we stuck it in the drive of our Xbox debug we hadn't really given it much thought. It is, after all, a slash 'em up from Acclaim which hopes to hop on the Maximus bandchariot.
We will have our Vengeance
From what we've seen though it's neither a chariot-racing game (praise to be to our various Gods), nor an out-an-out homage to the consummate Ridley Scott's Hollywood blockbuster. For a start, the player actually controls Invictus Thrax (inspiration for the "Maximus" character, says the blessed interweb) fighting to overcome the evil dictator Arruntius, who, having allied with a couple of nasty Gods called Deimos and Phobos, plans to destroy Rome and rebuild it in his image. Git.
Cue plenty of hacking and slashing, from the coliseums and streets of Rome to caves and other typically "mythological" locations. Thrax can hack away at his enemies with the A and X buttons, combining attacks into simple 2-3 button combos, which see him swirling around, flipping and tearing at the flesh of his aggressors, who sprout plenty of claret and gradually disintegrate in front of you until you can offer the final mortal blow - or Mortal Kombat-style execution move, courtesy of a well-timed B button.
Enemies start off as other Gladiators, who grow in size and volume until you're facing massive axe-wielding brutes, but given the game's mythological grounding, you can expect to face off against skeletons, cyclopses, giants and other mythical bastards until there's no blood left to spill.
Fortunately, Thrax has some help from friendly deities Remus and Romulus, through whose heavenly Elysium Fields our hero is allowed to access the game's various levels and challenges. Victory in the latter sections allows Thrax to upgrade his weapons - swords, axes and gauntlets - a total of five times each. Thrax can also improve his magical skills, gaining Herculean strength, Plutonium soul-slurping regeneration skills and Jovian radial shockwaves. Naturally this is a bit of a boon for Thrax, who would be pretty screwed without an otherworldly inventory.
Although our code is clearly a preview build, with level select options and broken save game mechanics, it's already showcasing a goodly amount of combat, and enemies are already putting up a concerted fight (although we're sure they could vanquish Thrax if they really put their heads together). Naturally they do more and more blocking as they improve in skill, and they could do with a slightly more complete animation for successive parries, but blocking must seem like a luxury to poor old Thrax, who is limited to rolling around to dodge falling axes and sword thrusts. At the moment there is no block function for Thrax - just the ability to lock-on and roll to dodge, a bit like Link's simplistic dodging skill in The Wind Waker, except less satisfying.
That said, he can chain combos from opponent to opponent, so more power to him. Acclaim obviously feels the same way, because his weapons seem thoroughly galvanised following a tune up. He probably polishes them between levels. He could do with polishing the visuals a bit though - Gladiator offers the same bright, vivid recreation of Rome that the film managed, with some nice sun-scorched arenas and fast-moving combatants, but it looks like it's been compromised for the lesser PS2 hardware - even if we are told that we can expect 30 frames per second on that and 60 on the Xbox...
For the glory of Rome!
Although it's a bit early and our code lacks structure, Gladiator seems like a pretty basic slasher, embodying the cracking bones and gushing gore of the big-screen film it absolutely is not based on. Thrax's quest will no doubt be long, bloody and fairly good looking - we're just wondering how long we'll be prepared to put up with it, and whether the full game has more in store.