For whatever reason, I have a strange fascination with advergames. From free web games that are advertising Coca-Cola to strange localization wonders like Yo! Noid, I’ve gone out of my way to play games that mainly exist in order to get your attention on a certain product. The latest brand that players can interact with is a chariot racing game based upon the upcoming film, Ben-Hur.
Chariot racing is undeniably rad, and that core concept could conceivably be made into a great game even if previous attempts such as 2002’s Circus Maximus: Chariot Wars failed to do so. Sadly, Ben-Hur doesn’t attempt to do that, or much of anything for that matter. As the game being free would indicate, this is simply an attempt to get a title out on the Xbox Store to advertise the upcoming film. That’s fine, but if you’re trying to build goodwill toward a brand, you would expect it to be fun in some way.
Upon starting my first chariot race in Ben-Hur, I was greeted with a skippable trailer for the film. That’s alright — if anything, I’m surprised it was skippable — and I happily watched it so I had some context for the upcoming race. Once the trailer ended and the level loaded, I was thrown right into the action. There was no way to view the controls in the pause menu (instead you have to go out to the main menu to view how to play the game), so I pressed every button on my Xbox One controller until I figured out how to control the game. Thankfully, it’s all pretty simple: the player taps the ‘A’ button in order to make their horses run faster, but can’t spam the button, as they eventually tire out. Other than steering the chariot with the analogue stick, you can also whip enemies by pressing the left and right trigger to attack in that direction.
There isn’t much to the actual game. Each race is two laps long, and I simply competed against six other racers in each one. Both the player and the A.I. competitors have health bars, so if you ram into a racer enough times, then they’ll eventually crash and be out for the race. The levels are all a simple oval, and there isn’t much challenge here let alone anything interesting. There are three levels in all, and the only thing that makes the final level more difficult than the first is that the developer threw in a few more obstacles to steer clear of. Mashing on the ‘A’ button repeatedly just isn’t a fun mechanic, and there’s nothing exciting here to make any of it worthwhile.
All told, it takes about 15 minutes to successfully complete Ben-Hur (although some levels might take a few tries, so there’s potentially a whole half-hour of gameplay). If you’re a masochist who wants to try to top the leaderboards, then you can jump back in and try all three of the races again, but I had my fill after just one race. It’s pretty impressive how a game can be this short yet still drag on as if it was on its 30th repetitive hour.
Perhaps more interesting than the game itself is the behind-the-scenes featurette that can be selected in the main menu. It’s a brief video, only going on for about two minutes, but it shows off that the film didn’t rely on CGI for its action scenes. I found it pretty cool that real horses were used for the racing scenes, but it still didn’t enhance my enjoyment of the game in any way. There’s also a funny moment where director Timur Bekmambetov compares chariot racing to NASCAR, which gave me a good chuckle. It’s kind of sad that the best part of this game is just a short video on the film it’s based off of, but also bizarrely fitting for an advergame.
The only real appealing part of Ben-Hur is the allure of easy achievement points, and it certainly delivers in that regard. After completing my first race, I saw several different achievements pop up and I had over 200 points. I didn’t even win that initial race, so I was shocked to be heavily lauded over my fourth place performance. After about 10 more minutes of play, I had unlocked even more digital ego. So, at least it’s a pretty easy game to complete if you’re an achievement hunter.
All things considered, publisher AOL has put out a pretty boring video game here, one that doesn’t entertain or thrill at all. It didn’t make me anticipate the upcoming motion picture but it did make me aware that yet another adaptation of Lew Wallace’s book was being made, so maybe that’s enough of a victory from a marketing perspective?
Ben-Hur doesn’t have the wackiness that made Sneak King one of my favorite terrible games, nor does it do anything well. It’s a self-serious advergame that isn’t much fun to play, and really offers up nothing other than a bunch of easy achievement points. Considering the price of admission, that will likely be enough to get many players to download it. I guess in some way the game actually manages to fulfill its goal then, even if it didn’t make me at all excited to see the upcoming film.
This review is based on the Xbox One exclusive, which is free-to-play.
Ben-Hur doesn't succeed as a game or as an advertisement for the film. In fact, all it's really good for is some easy achievement points.