As an Xbox One exclusive, and one of the more prominent launch titles for Microsoft’s new console, Ryse: Son of Rome has a lot riding on it. With a severe lack of exciting choices populating the launch line-up, Crytek’s latest project seemed to be one of the few bright spots in an otherwise pretty mediocre handful of games. Promising breathtaking visuals and visceral combat, all set against the backdrop of Ancient Rome, it’s easy to see why anticipation is so high for this one. But with so much resting on it, can Ryse: Son of Rome carry the weight of the console on its shoulders, or does it collapse under the immense amount of pressure being placed upon it? Let’s find out, shall we?
In a story that can best be described as a Call of Duty take on the Ancient Roman Empire (think 300 meets Gladiator directed by Michael Bay), we follow a Roman general named Marius Titus. Out for vengeance after his family is brutally murdered by a tribe of barbarians who are intent on invading Rome, our hero embarks on an “an epic tale of revenge spanning an entire lifetime.” Or at least, that’s how the game is billed.
Admittedly, things start off alright and for the first couple of levels of the six or so hour campaign, I found the story to be engaging and well written. The game uses flashbacks at the beginning to flesh out Marius and present him as something deeper than just your typical “army general out for revenge” character. Unfortunately, things soon veer off into madness, presenting us with corrupt politicians, mystical forces, betrayals, twists and turns and a whole bunch of other cliches that only serve to over-complicate and muddle up what could have otherwise been a somewhat interesting plot.
But no one comes to Ryse: Son of Rome for the writing. Well, maybe some of you did, but if that’s the case, I highly suggest you check out the aforementioned films instead. The reason that most people are eyeing this launch title as their first purchase for the new system is because of its promise to deliver a fun, unadulterated, bloodbath set in Ancient Rome. Does it deliver on this promise? Well, partially.
Let’s get one thing out of the way first. Ryse: Son of Rome is a damn fine looking game. I’d even say that it’s the best that the Xbox One currently has to offer. Everything from the characters themselves to the environments that they inhabit look absolutely, positively stunning. The CryEngine 4, coupled with some superb motion capture, results in a game that at times, will leave you breathless. If you want to show off the graphical power of your Xbox One, this is the game to do it with.
Whether it’s in a lush green forest, the gigantic Colosseum, the ruined city of Rome, the beaches of Britannia or any of the other locations that Ryse: Son of Rome puts you in, everything looks gorgeous. Never before have you seen such realistic smoke and particle effects, and you will be downright amazed at some of the animations in character’s faces. I’m not kidding when I say that particular moments in the game could almost pass for a movie. Almost.
Now, as impressive as the game is visually, it does suffer from a few bugs that just have no business being here. Falling under the map, enemies stuck in the walls, NPCs failing to do what they’re supposed to….these are all things that caused me to reload my checkpoint on several occasions. Thankfully, checkpoints are generous, and these bugs didn’t occur all that often. But still, for a next-gen game, and a high profile one like Ryse: Son of Rome no less, this kind of stuff should not be happening.
Technical aspects aside, what’s most important here is how the game plays, and unfortunately, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. You see, at its core, Ryse: Son of Rome is a hack and slash title with a heavy focus on combat. Like the story, the combat system presents itself well initially, showing much promise and eliciting genuine excitement. You can attack with your sword or shield, and when an enemy has taken enough blows, you can perform an elegant, slow-motion execution that plays out as a quick time event. Though it can be seen as a crutch, these executions are bloody and brutal and do add a bit of a punch to the gameplay. It’s all very satisfying at first. Throw in the ability to block, dodge, counter and use Focus power (slows time and makes you invincible for a bit), and for its first hour or two, Ryse: Son of Rome is a devilishly addicting game, filled to the brim with potential.
But then hour three comes, and then hour four, and then hour five and after a while, boredom sets in. You see, the combat system here is all surface level, offering no depth whatsoever. Each fight consists of the same thing: strike, dodge, counter, execute, rinse and repeat…or some variation of that. You do earn experience points during the game and you can level up several of Marius’ attributes, but none of it really makes much of a difference in the actual gameplay. In fact, you could probably go through the majority of the game without levelling up at all and be relatively fine. Ryse: Son of Rome is never really a challenge. Playing on normal difficulty I only died a handful of times and that’s because once you have the combat system figured out, it’s so damn simple and rudimentary that you can emerge from most fights more or less unscathed just by doing the same thing over and over again.
While there are different enemy types, the variety is slim. Some will carry shields, meaning you have to bash them before striking, while others continuously block, meaning you have to deflect or dodge to land a hit. Despite this, you’ll likely be seeing the same, predictable enemy types time and time again, and once you’ve figured them out, the game becomes a breeze.
The combat system here is hack and slash gameplay at its most primitive and basic, and without any additional depth (no new weapons, combos etc.), the pretty visuals and initial feelings of excitement soon don’t even matter. I’ve seen the comparisons drawn to Batman: Arkham Asylum’s combat system (in that you’re constantly facing off against multiple enemies and have to time your strikes, dodges and counters), and those comparisons are correct. It’s just that Ryse: Son of Rome completely strips down Rocksteady’s mechanics to their core, leaving us with not enough to do. Very little skill is required to progress and the combat remains fairly flat throughout, which takes a lot away from the otherwise epic set pieces and visceral feeling that the game delivers on in other areas.
Admittedly, there is a bit of variety here, as the game does switch things up at times. Some fights will have you manning a turret (or the Ancient Rome equivalent of one) while other moments will have you marching in line with your soldiers, all huddled up, towards enemy forces, which is kind of cool to watch. Also, during a few of the battles the game will prompt you to shout out orders at your troops using the Kinect. While this doesn’t really do much outside of making you feel cool, it’s still a nice touch to help keep you immersed. As you would expect though, none of these mechanics show up often enough and for the most part, you’ll find yourself being ushered from one linear area to the next, taking out groups of enemies with the same, basic combat that you’ve been using since the moment the game opened.
Speaking of linear areas, that’s another place where Crytek really drops the ball. Now, I wasn’t expecting Ryse: Son of Rome to be Fallout with an Ancient Rome setting, but some freedom would have been nice. As it is, the world you’re placed in feels very restrictive. There is literally one path to each objective, no deviation. So many times I would try to take another route or search for another way around, but this always resulted in running into invisible walls, or getting stuck in them. It was frustrating too, because this is such a beautiful world that Crytek has crafted and its scope and scale is enormous, it’s unfortunate that we’re confined to such a small space in it. In fact, it’s almost a tease, seeing these breathtaking and detailed cities around us but not being able to explore them. As I said, I wasn’t expecting Fallout here, but the amount of invisible walls that are put up is incredibly annoying and it’s a bit surprising that the game world feels so confined in a next-gen title.
Anyways, once you’re done with the campaign, which shouldn’t take you long at all, you can hop online for Gladiator mode. Those hoping to find something fresh and different here will be disappointed to know that it’s really just more of the same. Playing alone or cooperatively with a friend, you will enter the Colosseum, pick a god to serve (each has different bonuses), and then embark on some more barbarian slaying. Each round in the match tasks you with a new objective, and the environments do change throughout (which is a nice touch), but it’s still the same combat that’s being used and like with the single player, it becomes tedious. That’s not to say you shouldn’t check it out, as if you find a good co-op partner you can lose yourself in the mode for a couple hours of fun, but it’s not something that will keep you coming back.
Lastly, there are micro-transactions involved in Ryse: Son of Rome because, well, why the hell not? Though I still struggle to understand the point of this, you can pay REAL money, to get IN-GAME money, to buy items for your character. Micro-transcations are something that I refuse to take part in, and Ryse: Son of Rome has done nothing to sway my decision on that. I just find the entire concept so ridiculous and will not support it. That being said, the option is here for those who don’t mind wasting money on this sort of thing.
At the end of the day, Ryse: Son of Rome will probably be considered a must-have launch title. It’s perhaps the best example of the Xbox One’s graphical capabilities and arguably has the most commercial appeal out of the console’s current exclusives. Despite all the criticisms that I’ve levelled against this title, by no means is it a bad game. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have fun during my time with it, because I did (especially at the beginning). I just wish that a little bit more thought had gone into the gameplay.
Ryse: Son of Rome has so much potential and so much going for it that it really is a shame to see just how hollow it is beneath the surface. Still, with the Xbox One’s launch line-up looking as weak as it does, the game sticks out more than it probably should, and due to the fact that the console is low on exclusives right now, I’m going to give Ryse: Son of Rome a recommendation. Just know that it’s not much more than some solid next-gen eye candy. If you’re OK with that though, and just want to see the city of Ancient Rome in all of its beautiful glory (and mercilessly kill some barbarians while you’re at it), then you’ve come to the right place.
This review is based on the Xbox One version of the game.
There's no denying that it looks absolutely stunning, but sometimes a pretty face isn't everything and due to some extremely bland combat, Ryse: Son of Rome fails to be the killer app that many had hoped it would be. Still, for a launch title, you could do worse.