Thursday, March 20, 2014

RYSE: SON OF ROME REVIEW



Ryse: Son of Rome is the much-maligned Xbox One exclusive that launched alongside the next gen system in the fall of 2013.

The Abridged Video Review

The game has a 60-metacritic score from critics and a 6.0 from users. While the visuals have been praised, the gameplay is often criticized for being too repetitive and simplistic, the combat mechanics far too forgiving on the gamer.

Having just completed my playthrough (I only recently got an Xbox One), I can confidently write that Ryse: Son of Rome is a victim of expectation and gamer group-think, and that it is in no way deserving of the vitriol it has received.

The expectations going into this game were skewed by the fact that it was a launch title for a console that promised to usher in a new era of entertainment. To discover that Ryse is a fairly straight-forward (yet sophisticated) hack & slash game (not a third person action adventure as it is described), affected critics' and gamers' ability to judge the game more fairly. The Internet also has a way of galvanizing for the purpose of hating a game the instant there are any complaints or issues with it, oftentimes without having actually experienced said game, and Ryse is yet another victim of such a dangerous trend.

With the benefit of time and tempered expectations, here is, what I hope to be, the fairer assessment the game deserves.

THE GAMEPLAY
 

The combat in Ryse is the main criticism the game has received. It is the same three fights repeated for about eight hours. It does step into quick-time-event territory with colorful prompts that indicate what button to press during executions.
 
But it's also relentlessly fun.
 
What hack & slash game isn't like this? What were the people who bought this game and reviewed this game expecting?
 
The combat in Ryse is what the game is about (apart from the excellently crafted tale of vengeance), and the system in place is nuanced, visceral, original, and, by the end, emotionally powerful. The complaint leveled at the execution animations completing regardless of whether or not players press the right button would seem correct, at first glance. But once open-minded gamers delve deeper into the game they'll discover that this becomes irrelevant. It's not about forgiving the gamer for messing up, it's about teaching the gamer how to get better. Also, would Marius, a skilled Centurion, mess up an execution? The failure to complete an execution correctly is every bit as disheartening as if the execution itself stopped entirely - albeit less annoying.
  
You will feel the sting of not pressing the right button at the right time regardless, and you will gradually perfect your skill to anticipate the prompts. Over the course of the game I became so engrossed in the fluidity of the combat that I felt connected to Marius. I learned his animations so as to time the executions perfectly, achieving as many "Legendary" attacks as I could. That becomes the challenge in the game - perfecting one's rhythm and response-time so as to increase not only the XP or Health of your character (depending on which execution modifier you have selected), but the satisfaction of having executed your foes perfectly.
 
The developers wanted to highlight the expressiveness of their character models, and it works to great effect throughout the game, making the combat feel fierce, brutal, and devastating.
 

Playing Ryse, I was reminded of the excellent, but forgotten Lord of the Rings hack and slash games of the Gamecube, Xbox, PS2 days. Anyone who is a fan of such games will surely take pleasure in Ryse, for the set pieces are massive and the mechanics, for the most part, fluid and satisfying. It's not anything particularly new in terms of the video game medium (save perhaps the fact that it's actually well-written), and for this reason I believe it was judged harshly as a next gen game. But while it's no great leap forward in that sense, it is a subtle first step towards perfecting a specific genre.
 
My only gripes in terms of gameplay are the obligatory asides that are clearly meant as a respite from the hacking and slashing: throwing pilum (Roman spears), manning launchers, gathering collectibles, a finicky Kinect voice command system, and leading your troops in a testudo formation. These systems could work if they were just implemented more efficiently and excitingly.
 

The controls for the spears are a little awkward and, at times, completely unintuitive, it's unclear, based on the LB-button prompt, if the Kinect actually listens to what you're saying (towards the end I was doing a lot of shouting to no avail when I really wanted this part of the game to work, because it's potentially awesome), getting into formation with your troops feels a little too much like an on-rails shooter, and scouring the map for Vistas and Scrolls does nothing but create anxiety in a completionist gamer.
 
I found my desire to gather everything and my desire to just push forward to the next awesome battle and the next awesome cutscene at odds with each other, disrupting immersion. When you're an OCD-gamer, it's hard to let things go. It's also hard to progress further when you see there are two different paths to take, unsure which one leads to the next set-piece, and which leads to a tucked away collectible. Ryse being the kind of game it is, the collectibles shouldn't have been implemented in this way. When your adrenaline is pumping because you just cut down a massive barbarian horde, you don't want to switch mental-gears and start running around in circles knocking pots over and combing the corners of the map. You just want to keep going, engaged by the action. The inclusion of collectibles in this traditional way also means your eyes won't be fixed where they should be, on the beautiful character model of Marius. You'll be scanning, constantly, for an off-the-track nook or a glowing green shield or bucket, hidden amidst the dark architecture.
 

It would make more sense if the numerous collectibles in the game (which are worth getting as they unlock art, videos, and even a Ryse graphic novel) were somehow implemented into combat. For example, players should have to achieve a certain number of "Legendary Executions" to unlock a series of concept art stills. Or, perhaps each level could have had an optional objective, with a lower level boss tucked away in one of those nooks that, when defeated, yielded unlockables, achievements, and other such rewards.
 
Ryse is largely aware of itself, however, ensuring that the players are squarely focused on the most fun the game has to offer, in an increasingly nuanced tale of retribution.
 
THE SIGHTS AND SOUNDS
 

Ryse has one of, if not the best sound design I've ever had the pleasure of listening to. Marius' armor clinks and clacks with each step, noisily and realistically, the melee weapons and the shields clash with appropriate weight, and the musical score is among the very best I've heard in a video game. The soundtrack is appropriately operatic, rousing and in keeping with the cinematic Rome we've seen in films like Spartacus and Gladiator.
 
The graphics are certainly among the best around, with each detail of Marius' face and armor displayed proudly and precisely. Many modern games display their powerhouse graphics engines simply for the sake of doing so. Ryse is not one of them, instead utilizing Crytek to more efficiently immerse gamers in this lost world of brutality and misguided ideals.
 
THE STORY
 
And, finally, the most overlooked aspect of this game, it's surprisingly excellent narrative. Gamers and critics are certainly far-too desensitized to violence. But, even more than that, they are desensitized to bad dialogue.
 
Most modern games, save perhaps those produced by RockStar and BioWare, are terribly written and terribly performed, with dialogue that sounds like it was lifted from bad 1980s and '90s action films. Because gamers are so used to this, ingratiated to the point where they don't even know it's bad, a game as mature and honest as Ryse is overlooked.
 
Because it's easy to call a game "repetitive", because it's easy to criticize "quick-time-events", a fleshed-out narrative where the protagonist actually grows, where the man the players control gradually starts to question all the on-screen violence, where the voice-acting and the motion capture create what is the best Roman-themed media-experience since Ridley Scott's Gladiator, goes almost entirely unnoticed.
 

I cannot emphasize enough how refreshing it is to watch the avatar I control in a game actually have thoughts. The story is focused entirely on Marius, and, as a result, players will feel more and more connected to him and his evolution if they are so inclined.
Marius' comrades and his nemeses are also brilliantly crafted, engendering the tale with emotional depth.
 
The only aspect of the story that takes away from it is the vague inclusion of The Gods. The game is mostly heightened realism, grounded in a very believable Rome. I thought, throughout the majority of the story, that Marius' interactions with a chesty, golden goddess were in his head (which I would have been fine with). But considering the way the game ends, it seems I was supposed to take those scenes more literally than I want to.
Regardless, by the end, I felt Marius' pain. I believed his actions and I understood his psychology.
With so few games on the market even attempting to do such a thing, Ryse deserves higher praise for this achievement alone.
 
THE CONCLUSION  



Ryse: Son of Rome is fun.

Simple, direct, non-stop fun. Like a few games of late it has fallen victim to an easy, negative Internet Perception that largely ignores reality. The reality is that Ryse is a good hack & slash game that could easily be perfected in future installments, a noble first foray into the genre on next-gen systems, and tells an emotional story that most of its peers can't even touch.
The addition of a SmartGlass app for those with a Windows Surface tablet is a welcome and effective use of a second-screen that tracks your progress, offers tips on finding those pesky collectibles, and provides access to a custom graphic novel and a PDF file of an extensive "Making Of" book.
 

The inclusion of Gladiatorial online combat, various campaign difficulties, and a bevy of unlockables (in addition to the joy of replaying some of Ryse's best fights) makes Ryse a worthy addition to one's gaming library.
 
This game is designed for a specific audience, and, given its stigmas, requires an open-mind going in. I cannot imagine anyone not being excited and satisfied after participating in some of the game's best moments - particularly the darkest, most unsettling chapter of the game that takes Marius to "the edge of the world".

The game has some shortcomings, and anyone who isn't a fan of nonstop melee combat won't enjoy it, though they probably shouldn't be interested in the first place.
There are only eight chapters, so the game is relatively brief. Regardless, especially after the intensity of the final two chapters, I wasn't left feeling shortchanged. There is a great deal of room for more Marius stories in the future (his journey back to Rome from the land of the barbarians, told in voice-over here, would be nice to play), and he's a character worth exploring again. He has the potential to be one of this gaming generation's top tier characters.
 
So, if you like hack & slash games, movies like Gladiator, and want a fun, brutal adventure to occupy your time, you can't do much better than Ryse: Son of Rome.
 
Thanks for reading, live long and prosper, get in formation, and follow me!

All pictures and videos created using screen-capture and Xbox One's Game DVR.

Twitter: @MaximusWrestler
Tumblr: TheFutureMachinePresents

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