Despite the obvious hit potential, there really hasnít been a console based action game set in ancient Rome. Most of the games themed around the period are PC strategy and simulation titles with hour upon hour of gameplay focusing on the minutiae of troop movement and management as well as behind the scenes political intrigue. The closest thing to action has probably been the tug-of-war mini game found in Warrior of Rome, which made it to the Sega Genesis ages ago. After the success of Ridley Scottís film Gladiator a few years back, a number of game developers decided to see if they can bottle up and sell you the same roar of the crowd and blood rush found in that movieís battles, as well as provide a sweeping epic storyline. Not too long after Lucasartsí interesting strategy/RPG/golf sim hybrid, Gladius, comes Acclaimís Gladiator: Sword of Vengeance, a decidedly more action oriented title that delivers the goods from start to finish.
Gladiator: SoV goes for a more visceral gameplay experience than Gladius, and is immediately accessible to those looking for as much action-based combat as possible. Itís not perfect, but it does what it does quite well, easily earning its M rating with some of the bloodiest action ever seen in a video game. There are some similarities to be found here if you compare the plot to the one from Gladiator (the movie), but things take a more welcome mystical turn after the gameís stunning opening scenes. As Invictus Thrax, a former slave to the dead emperor Trajan, youíve been fighting undefeated in the evil (and quite mad) emperor Arruntiusí bloody arena. Arruntius plans to raze Rome and construct a massive city named after him. Thrax suspects him of being responsible for the death of his former employer, and after dispatching quite a few foes (in an excellently implemented tutorial), he attempts to go after Arruntius. Unfortunately, Thrax meets up with an untimely demise, and he awakens under a tree in Elysium with the sons of Mars, Remus and Romulus above him offering a chance to return to Rome and end Arruntiusí reign for good. Thereís a catch, of course, and here the gameplay switches to combat-based challenges and some minor puzzle solving.
Gameplay and controls are simple to pick up, yet the game throws curveballs left and right with some really tough battle sequences. In order to progress to new areas or pick up new skills and certain item bonuses, youíll need to defeat enemies in timed combat areas. They start off quite easy and fun to blaze through, but soon get difficult and slightly frustrating. This is partly due to the automatic targeting system which canít be toggled off and forces you to learn how to properly switch between opponents or move and lead enemies to a specific point. The fighting is fast-paced and visually, some areas may remind you of films like Jason and the Argonauts or Demitrius and the Gladiators. And, yes, thereís a bit of Ridley here, especially in some cinemas and the amazing opening arena. You can practically hear Peter Graves doing his ďSay, do you like gladiator movies?Ē line from Airplane.
Depending on what weapon you have equipped (sword, axe, gauntlet), youíll have access to a number of specific combos and moves. There are two attack buttons, a context sensitive button that allows Thrax to roll, dodge, jump, or back flip in combat, and a magic use button. If youíre thinking Golden Axe, well think again (although thereís a decidedly good 16-bit vibe here). Combat is fast, fluid, and pretty exhilarating, especially when you master your timing. Button mashers will get to about the third puzzle area before tossing their controllers out the window (remember to detach it from the Xbox first- those things can kill most anything when dropped from any height). Itís all about controlled chaos and skillful weapon swinging. Bosses are another story altogether, though. There arenít many in the game, yet they all require you to be absolutely perfect in your attempts at executing them. The stages youíll pass through as you play are fairly linear areas based in some massive environments. Itís impossible to get stuck here, and if you do, itís because you missed a path, puzzle or enemy somewhere along the line. There is some backtracking to do once in a while, and itís definitely recommended to save as much as possible. Thereís nothing worse than playing for half an hour or more, getting caught up in challenges or battles, and dying, only to have to go through hell all over again. Fortunately, youíre not penalized for failing challenges. You get bounced out of the area and can try all over again until you complete the task, which is a welcome touch.
And you wonít mind much at all, especially when you see the game in motion. Gladiator: SoV has some amazing lighting and visual effects. The designers and artists went wild with the character designs for the mythical creatures and the in-game engine cinemas that give the game a very movie-like feel. Youíll be in awe from the moment the gates swing open for the first time and you see the overwhelming mob in the stands awaiting your every move (although if you look closely, the foreground folks are facing the wrong way- Díoh!). Compare this to the 14 or 15 spectators youíll see attending matches in Gladius, if you have a copy of that game lying about. That bunch reminded me of the number fans watching the last out of the 9th inning of the last Mets game this season, but I digress.
The game camera in Gladiator: SoV works beautifully, and is one of the best Iíve seen in a game of this type. Thereís a lot of excellent motion capture work throughout, and combined with the great story, voice acting and music, the overall production values are superb. Some character models and a few minor visual elements that could have been better push the score down a little, but thereís no denying the power on display here. Oh, before I forget: the fatalities are quite gruesome, and not just for the sake of the juvenile minds thatíll groove on them. When you set a game in ancient Rome you gotta show a bit of the red stuff, I say.
Back to the voices for a second- itís been a running movie joke for years that all the best Romans are actually British, and Gladiator: Sword of Vengeance continues the trend. All the voices are spot on, and the music is also just as great, varying from sweeping orchestral pieces to brief choral segments. Although I got a huge laugh when I was guiding Thrax through Elysium as my brother walked up behind me and said ďI didnít know they played Dead Can Dance in ancient Rome.Ē Ah, the folly of youthÖ The sound effects are good, but a bit repetitive, but you really wonít be complaining about that in the heat of battle, trust me. If thereís a major complaint itís that the game really doesnít innovate in any way, but it sure is a hell of a lot more fun than Gladius in terms of all-out action. Thereís also no two-player mode, but then again, the nature of the gameplay doesnít actually allow for a fighting game when you think about it. I doubt Acclaim Manchester will do a direct sequel, but if they do use the character or time period again, the next Gladiator game will definitely be something to look out for. These guys have some great talent on hand- Iím certainly looking forward to whatever comes next for themÖ
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