Review: Ryse: Son of Rome

This review is based on the Xbox One version of Ryse: Son of Rome.

Launch games on new consoles can be tricky, especially titles designed as graphical and/or technological showcases for the capabilities of the new hardware. The standard challenges of game development can become compounded by new hardware challenges such as an evolving SDK and a hard deadline, both in effect for the launch of the Xbox One as it came under fire from both gamers and the press for being perceived as less powerful in comparison to Sony’s PlayStation 4. There was a lot riding on the graphical prowess and launch day availability of the Microsoft exclusive Ryse: Son of Rome from developer Crytek leading up to November 22, 2013 for the brand perception of the Xbox One, and it mostly delivers on those expectations.

You experience the story as Marius, a Roman general who leads the forces of Rome to fend off a barbarian invasion and eventually bring the battle to their lands in a fight for Centurion society. The story is framed around a conversation between Marius and Emperor Nero as they blockade themselves inside a chamber to delay an attacking army, but the specifics are unimportant: Crytek creates enough of a narrative threads to bring the player to different combat arenas, and then lets you loose to wreak havoc. The game is visually stunning from top to bottom, with a polish and attention to detail that supersedes even pre-rendered cut scenes from the previous generation. Each level is a distinctly designed field with its own unique architecture and colour palette that feels fresh as you play through the 6-8 hour story campaign, and translates smoothly into multiplayer combat arenas with a few adjustments. The limited assortment of enemies and bland boss designs are unfortunately not as impressive, but the brevity of the campaign and each combat sequence reduces the repetition of a small variety of combatants.

The controls are quite responsive, but their importance is mitigated by the game’s focus on quick time events as the key score and experience earning tool. Every combat action can yield additional score or experience, but more powerful bonuses such as health restoration and increased focus must be earned by triggering a quick time event driven execution of the single or double variety that resembles the equivalent from the Gears of War series. The extended duration and artificial feel of executions (including snapping enemies into place) loses its appeal quite early in the campaign, and stands out as the biggest flaw in Ryse. It becomes even stranger in the only online mode of 2-player cooperative combat, when swarms of enemies end up bubbling around you and your partner in an orderly queue awaiting destruction as you both engage in time shifting execution sequences necessary for victory. The online arena mode peppers the modified levels with capture points and a variety of traps that emit spikes, fire or other deadly results, which holds up for an afternoon before every vista is explored and the lack of replay appeal kicks in.

In the end, Ryse: Son of Rome is nowhere near an all-time classic in either narrative or gameplay mechanics, but it still stands out as one of the better launch titles for a new console in a long time. On the strength of its gorgeous graphical presentation, this is a game that looks great, plays okay and feels shallow: it works as a showpiece for gamers who want a technical state of the art console experience, and that’s not a bad start for a new console generation.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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