In these cynical times, a mates-down-the-pub quickie explanation of Shadow of Rome arguably fails to excite. Blending hackandslash, stealth and the Roman coliseum, it sounds like a marketing concept borne out of someone's love for Solid Snake and Russell Crowe. Cynicism? Et tu, Capcom? In practice though, while it certainly draws inspiration from a number of well-known franchises both cinematic and electronic, it's hard not to enjoy the execution of these familiar elements when they're handled with this much gusto.
Here's what the Romans are doing for us
Essentially, from what we've seen, Shadow of Rome is two different games - one that lets you emulate the ferocious and spectacular violence of something like Gladiator, and one that lets you get the better of the ferociously violent Romans through observation and lateral thinking.
Focus is split between Agrippa and Octavius, both of whom share the common goal of saving Agrippa's father from wrongful execution at the hands of the next gladiatorial champion. Agrippa aims to do this by slaughtering his way to the pinnacle of that gory profession and staying his own hand at the critical moment, while Octavius is attempting to sleuth his way past the highest ranks of the Roman Empire and expose the conspiracy that put the old man's head on the chopping block in the first place.
Whether or not we think that's justification enough for this amalgamation of popular premises, it certainly lends itself to a varied and consequently more enjoyable game. Should the elements of violent combat (including plenty of limb loss, decapitation and violent showboating to the crowd) start to wear a little thin, there's always a sneaky path to pick through columns, halls and streets littered with bandits and patrols. And in any event, we reckon both elements are shaping up as decent examples of their respective fields.
Fiery strongman Agrippa's hackandslash antics, first of all, are violently enjoyable without simply being gratuitous. Combat is a mixture of blocking and striking enemies with a primary weapon or backup, and it's possible to pick up all manner of weapons from the floor of the coliseum, whether it's from an enemy slain by Agrippa's hand, one of the other potential gladiators, or something torn from the grip of a rival by ramming into them or reacting quickly and literally tugging it from their grasp. And by holding down X, Agrippa unleashes a more powerful attack, often sheering off heads to rapturous applause and a geyser-like fountain of gore from the victim's neck stump.
There's a certain amount of depth to it as well - in one scenario, players have to choose whether or not to hang on to a shield or sacrifice it in order to keep hold of a bow and arrow before proceeding to the next area, while each weapon wears out with repeated use. And although larger weapons do more damage, they can be more of a hindrance than anything when slowly swinging a giant mace in a crowded area can mean the difference between life and gruesome disfiguration.
The 'salvo meter' is another thoughtful addition. All the while he's fighting, Agrippa is also trying to entertain the crowd, and by varying his approach and combining moves he'll fill up the meter and reap the rewards. What's more, by pressing the square and X buttons together after a particularly impressive flurry, Agrippa will raise his arms in expectation and often find himself rewarded with cheers, streams of confetti and quite possibly a new weapon thrown in by the spectators. We certainly enjoyed swinging our donated chains around and lashing people's heads off.
Agrippa can also dodge blows by locking on to enemies and sidestepping away at the crucial moment, allowing him to grab them as human shields and then either use them to soak up punishment or suplex them in brutal fashion. He can even climb onto the walls and throw rocks from above, and pull dizzy enemies up from the ground to mete out more punishment.
Fruit is bad for you
Octavius, meanwhile, works in a very different rhythm. He's not gifted with bulging biceps like his friend Agrippa, and while he can kill certain casts of enemy, he's much better suited to stun blows and outright evasion. In the first of the missions we played, he knocked out guards with jugs, nicked their outfits and then had to emulate their style of movement and even supply the correct response when questioned in order to avoid confrontation.
The second scenario was a bit more involved. Faced with a pair of bandits in a narrow alleyway and no obvious way through, progress seemed rather difficult. While we could tempt both bandits into a nearby building by whistling loudly, there was only one way out, and the opportunity to use it was gone as soon as they turned in the direction of the noise and came galloping up the stairs.
Fortunately, having picked up some nearby fruit, we were able to crouch and sneak Tenchu-style and use the directional pad (left button for left hand, right for right) to lay down a banana skin right behind the nearest bandit, before retreating to the safety of the balcony and using the first-person aiming view to lob an apple at his head. Both enemies turned, and the first one slipped on the banana and knocked himself out cold - only for the second to wind up so pre-occupied arousing him that we were able to nip past to the relative comfort of the far wall.
Out of the shadow
Alas, our work was not yet done. Another bandit patrolled the next street. Leaping into a basket opposite to avoid detection, we sat and plotted. Examination both visually and via the map implied that he would walk to the end and turn 180 degrees to his left. Following closely the next time he passed, we kept out of his gaze as he did so and spied a small jug nearby, which we subsequently used to incapacitate him.
From here, it was a simple matter of borrowing his outfit (including his helmet) and then bluffing our way past the two bandits in close discussion barring the way out. "Hey, it's Lucia!" one of them exclaimed before asking us how we were. "Never been better," we chose from the list of options, as we felt and heard our heart beat faster via the pad and speakers, and the alert meter simmered close to danger level. "The Gods smile upon us all this fine day!" they responded as we nervously waltzed past and on towards a Coming Soon splash screen.
Had we said "None of your business," however, which we obviously did on a subsequent go, we would have been in a spot of bother. Single blows from hefty centurions and bandits are good enough to kill Octavius, and he only gets three 'continues'. Fortunately there are plenty of ways to evade enemies - hiding in boxes, sidling up against walls, and even taking advantage of the context-sensitive X button to clamber up onto the tops of bookshelves, before nipping back down with a rope in hand afterwards to strangle a nearby senator and pinch his robes.
It's all quite thoughtful, even if some of the context-sensitive stuff and the placement of baskets to hide in feels a little contrived in the sections we played. What's impressive though is that rather than simply picking a moment to run or hoping for a convenient shadow, Octavius is forced to rely on observation - and will reportedly have to consider combining various weapons to achieve his desired goals. Generally speaking, it's knowing what he has to do and making sure he does it with a minimum of error that makes progress - walking around as a senator is fine, but unless we remember to drop the rope we used to strangle him, or can bluff our way out of a dialogue by calling upon something from a cut-scene, it's all for nothing.
Technically, the game isn't particularly ambitious, working comfortably without much of a let-up in pace, but what it does attempt it generally manages with a degree of style. An opening in-game cut-scene emphasises how versatile Agrippa's combat can be with an awful lot of parrying and counter-blows, and the meaty sound effects, clouds of dust, showers of confetti and violent expulsion of gore from all concerned leave little doubt that we're in the coliseum.
Character detail and animation also makes an impression - enemies are just as detailed as Agrippa and Octavius, sporting metal plating, togas, horned headwear and arm bracelets and even the odd feathered helmet, all of which casts real-time shadows as they struggle to thump people with huge weapons under the sepia-tinted gaze of a crimson sun. There are some nice and subtle touches, too, like the way Agrippa can pick up a severed head and batter enemies with it, and how fair-haired Octavius' ill-fitting stolen armour hangs off his svelte form like a barrel wrapped round a broomstick.
The smoothness of control is another plus. Analogue movement on the left stick is very fluid, and although the camera sometimes takes its time (and perhaps ought to accelerate the farther we push the right stick away from centre), it's generally well executed - and the distribution of functions is both efficient and logical. We won't have to worry about accidentally moving too fast in crouched stealth or walking modes, for example, because both speeds are determined by the L2 button rather than the angle of the left analogue stick.
Although it's notoriously difficult to judge the quality of games stood in the sweaty, artificially shadowy halls of the LA Convention Centre, it seems fair to say that Shadow of Rome makes a good first impression. If Capcom can keep up the variation and link the two campaigns together effectively, and tie it to a storyline that the average button-masher will find engaging, it's certainly a name to chant from the grandstands between now and its release this coming winter. Throw in the tantalising promise of a third playable character (a freed gladiator by the name of Claudia, who could perhaps bring the violence of the coliseum to the streets, uniting the two), and Rome has the potential to rise in spectacular style.