News, Views, and Reviews
Ryse: Son of Rome is the Xbox One launch title I’ve been the most curious about since it’s E3 debut earlier this year. Anticipation for this gorgeous looking game was offset by concerns that it was nothing more than a tightly scripted, interactive movie. As months passed, and the media were given opportunities to try the game in progress, some of those concerns subsided. This review will scrutinize the game further, but if I had to give a quick summary, Ryse is sort of an acquired taste. Personally, I’m glad I avoided reading reviews of Ryse and played it anyway, as I will argue that the solid game play and unique qualities of Ryse should put it on anyone’s “must have” list for the next generation of consoles.
I also find it interesting that Xbox is usually known as a “shooters” console, yet it doesn’t have an exclusive shooting game for the launch of the Xbox One. Crytek, the game studio best known for its first-person-shooter series of games, Crysis, developed Ryse: Son of Rome for the Xbox One, and it is definitely not a shooter. What type of game is Ryse? I believe that’s the most important question to answer in this review, so I’m going to change my regular format a little, and discuss the game play, first.
Game Play: Before its release, Ryse was criticized as a “QTE-fest” based on the trailer shown at E3 that contained many “Quick Timed Events” and little else. The graphics and attention to detail were stunning, but it seemed that high fidelity came in sacrifice of player control. The development studio, Crytek, listened to those criticisms, and changed the “tells” or onscreen prompts from obtrusive flashing icons to subtler, colored outlines, that represent which button to press. Forget those concerns and criticisms: the game is actually a very solid, player driven “hack-and-slash” type action game, and the “QTE” prompts only occur when “executing” weakened opponents. These executions aren’t mandatory and can be completed without pressing the prompted button, but the player is rewarded with a lot more points and other rewards for successfully timed executions. The combat itself awards proper timing, and expert players will combine blocks, openers, attacks, and heavy attacks into a gory ballet of ancient sword and shield warfare. Like the executions, there is some wiggle room for not getting perfect timing, it just makes the game more satisfying – and easier to progress.
In essence, Ryse is a very straight forward action game that could appeal to a good range of player ability. Some players will enjoy hacking and slashing their way through a short, but very satisfying, epic adventure, and other players will learn to appreciate the depth of a fairly unique title. Either way, players are rewarded with valor points as they play, and these points are used to buy upgrades such as a longer health bar or the ability to use “focus” for longer periods of time. “Focus” briefly stuns nearby enemies and slows them down, allowing players to attack much quicker than normal, and get some quick kills and breathing room when they are surrounded by too many enemies. Valor points are awarded for regular actions such as weapon strikes and successful blocks, but the player is awarded more points for timing those actions with more precision. The executions, especially if they are timed correctly, award huge point bonuses, and one out of four rewards chosen by pressing in one of the four directions on the D-Pad. These four choices include: attack power, which makes regular attacks more potent for a period of time; experience boost, which increases the amount of valor points awarded from execution and regular actions; focus regeneration, this refills the focus meter so it can be used sooner; health regeneration, this refills the health bar. These rewards can be switched, even mid-execution, based on whatever the player feels they need at any given time. Players with full health may gamble, and try to earn extra valor points or regenerate more focus, but then switch to health regeneration when they get closer to dying.
Controls: If this sounds confusing or overwhelming, I apologize. I believe Ryse is very straight forward and intuitive. I also feel like it’s being unfairly criticized for being either a mindless action game or a “QTE-fest” and it is neither. True, players can progress with little attention to timing their offense and defense, but once they learn the ways each enemy attacks and time their blocks and attacks accordingly, the game becomes much more satisfying. It is also, literally, more rewarding, as those bonus valor points will add up much faster, allowing the player to increase their abilities at a quicker rate, and progress through the game more successfully. I will admit that, because it is somewhat unique and different, it is sort of an acquired taste. Therefore, it may appeal more strongly to some people than others.
Throughout the game, regular combat is exchanged for other actions, like throwing spears at archers in the distance, manning a ballista, choosing field orders to give to your men, or organizing your men into a shielded formation, essentially turning your army into a walking tank. These actions enhance the game and make it feel more like an authentic, ancient Roman warfare simulation. Well, except for the ballista parts, which seem more like rapid fire crossbow turrets. Unfortunately, some of these diversions don’t have the same level of polish as regular combat, leading to some frustrating moments. For example, the “A” button blocks enemy attacks, but it’s also used to take control of a ballista, so beware the problems caused by trying to block an enemy’s attack while standing too close to a ballista. Throwing spears is also a little frustrating, as the “left trigger” activates a “lock-on” target and the “right trigger” throws the spear, but, even when I was directly facing an enemy the “lock-on” wouldn’t always register for some reason. I also recommend leaving the Kinect on, as yelling orders to your men like “archers, cover me!” increases the immersion, although appropriate button presses replicate those commands for those that don’t feel comfortable yelling at their TV.
Narrative: Set in the ancient Roman empire, Ryse follows the career of Marius. Marius’ story isn’t told in chronological order, but it always makes sense, and has some interesting plot twists. There are some strong themes throughout the game, such as the virtues of honor and loyalty, and it’s all proudly appropriate to the Roman setting. Marius has to deal with the enemies of Rome, both without and within its spectacular cities, and faces Barbarians, Bretons, and treacherous politicians. The game takes a few liberties with history – and the myth of Damocles – but as an “untold tale” it works wonderfully. One can’t discuss virtues without discussing vices, and the honor and loyalty of Marius are tested by dishonorable and greedy men, his quest for justice is opposed by his feelings of mercy, and so on. The conflict between fate and free will is also quickly and firmly established. Just when the story has really escalated into something wholly unexpected and awesome, it gets dragged out a bit through a strange gladiator arena sequence, but then it resumes momentum and builds to an amazing, epic conclusion. Marius is clearly given the most attention in both looks and sound, with a very convincing Russel Crowe type performance, and some of the supporting cast stand out with their odd behaviors.
I have to admit that completing the story only took me five hours, though it felt longer than that. The game has eight chapters, and after a chapter is completed, it can be repeated to hunt down missing collectibles or earn more points and increase Marius’ abilities. I can imagine that some players might have to “grind” previous chapters to earn more valor points if they are struggling with the more difficult final chapters. I appreciate that, for the most part, each chapter feels unique, in both theme and setting. One chapter might be skulking through a dangerous forest, trying to liberate fellow soldiers captured by ruthless barbarians, and another chapter might be a D-Day-like invasion of an enemy fortress, consisting of siege ships, catapults, and hundreds of characters on the screen at once.
Sound: Epic battles set in ancient Rome wouldn’t be as satisfying without the tremendous work done by the sound department. Clashing swords and shields and thunderous catapult explosions are all well represented, as are the memorable and lifelike performances from the different characters. The background music also stays firmly planted in “authenticity” with brilliant orchestration that would fit in epic movies like Ben Hur or Gladiator. One or two of the character’s subtle nuances in their delivery made some of their lines hard to hear, so players might consider turning on the subtitles. I was also impressed by the background chatter in some of the scenes, such as aristocrats complaining that their luxurious lifestyles are in jeopardy, or anxious citizens pleading to their gods as chaos erupts around them.
Graphics: There isn’t much to say about the graphics, because Ryse is so OBVIOUSLY good looking. It is clearly the best looking third-person-action game of the year, and even rivals Killzone Shadow Fall for the best graphics of the year. There is so much detail and variety in the characters and the environments, and so much can happen on screen at once, that it blows my mind that this is a video game. Seriously, the entire experience could be mistaken for a CGI movie. The attention to detail is astounding, and finally, textures look like the textures they are supposed to represent. Metal looks like metal, fabric looks like fabric, wood looks like wood, and so on. It will be hard to go back and look at current-gen games the same way ever again. Just looking at Marius’ arm, for example, there are clear differences in texture and detail between the metal armor on his shoulder, his fabric sleeve, his skin, and his leather wrist guards. Oh, and fires look more realistic than I’ve ever seen in a video game.
But Ryse isn’t just impressive to look at, the animations and fluid, realistic movements of the characters translate directly into game play. When the core mechanic of the game is to reward players for their timing, the animations have to be perfect. As such, the different enemy types will share the same set of attack patterns and animations, so there is plenty of repetition, but that is necessary. Outside of game mechanics and animations, there are a few sore spots, such as during cut scenes with a lot of dialogue. The lip syncing or the motion capturing of different expressions sometimes look a little off. This is perhaps due to the “uncanny valley” problem, or CGI recreating human faces and expressions in an eerie or disturbing way, they just don’t look quite natural. Other than that, Ryse looks amazing from start to finish, with a great variety of environments and locations, each as detailed and breathtaking as the ones before.
Multi-Player: I normally do separate reviews for single and multi-player portions, but the MP in Ryse is rather sparse. Two players can assist each other in defeating waves of enemies in gladiator-arena-type scenarios. It’s a little unrealistic, but the environment changes and transforms from jungle settings to Roman cities and others, even during a match. Players that enjoy the unique game play experiences of Ryse will undoubtedly enjoy multi-player, as most of the settings and combat scenarios are replicated here, with the added benefit of a second player. With such a player driven story, it wouldn’t make much sense to play through the campaign with two people, so this is a good compromise. Instead of controlling Marius, players each get their own “gladiator” to control, and these gladiators can earn points and progress, separate from the progress made in single player. Unlike Marius, these gladiators can also earn new outfits and equipment as they progress, letting players customize their appearance. Like the progress in single player, there is an option for players to buy “gold” from the Xbox store, with real money, and use that to purchase skill upgrades and equipment. I have to admit, I haven’t bought any gold, so I can’t detail how that works or if it gives players unfair advantages. Still, for a relatively short game that features only one player, I think adding a co-op feature, as deep and complex as it is, is a greatly appreciated bonus.
Conclusion: I stand by my statement that Ryse is an acquired taste. There is some wiggle room for those that can’t quite master perfect timing, but even without worrying about perfection, Ryse plays a little differently than other action games. In other words, people will either get into the way combat works, or they won’t. If they don’t appreciate what Crytek is attempting – simulating ancient Rome, its warfare, and how a Centurion of Rome would engage in sword and shield combat – they might not like Ryse. Personally, I enjoyed it tremendously, and I strongly recommend people ignore previous criticisms and just play it. Regardless, nobody can deny that Ryse is a very good looking game, and I boast that it is a candidate for best graphics of the year. I also suggest that Ryse should be on everyone’s “must have” list for the next generation.
Ryse: Son of Rome is rated ‘M’ for Mature for Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Partial Nudity, Sexual Content, and Strong Language, and was released exclusively for Xbox One on November 22nd.