When a big studio’s much-hyped game turns out to be deeply flawed, it’s usually impossible for external parties to figure out where things went wrong. Game development on a large scale is a complicated beast at the best of times and besides, not many employees are keen to detail any developer dysfunction or drama anywhere in the general vicinity of the press. As such, we’ll probably never know for sure how Ryse: Son of Rome wound up being so disappointing, although its genesis as an Xbox 360 Kinect-only title and a late platform change are no doubt factors. Whatever the case, one thing is certain: Ryse is not only a pretty dire release, but one of the most disappointing marquee launch titles ever.
Ryse is a game primarily concerned with two things: cutscenes and combat. The eye-popping visuals do most of the work in the case of the often-lengthy former, but cannot mask the latter’s serious deficiencies. The bulk of the fisticuffs is spent in Arkham Asylum-style many-on-one melee dust-ups, whose botched implementation only serves to underscore what a nuanced system that game employs.
Here, the player as Roman soldier Marius Titus has four options available to him or her: light and heavy attacks with a sword or shield. However, with all but the lowliest foes blocking most lunges, players are better off timing their own blocks to put enemies off-balance, or opening their defences with a slow-to-execute heavy shield bash. That the controller’s A button rather than the traditional Y button is used to block is an statement of its importance, but being forced to adopt a passive, counter-striking style isn’t exactly interesting or empowering.
That Marius turns to face whoever’s shot he just blocked – even when mid-combo with another foe – is also somewhat annoying, and makes him look like the skinny kid in a circle of bullies trying to catch out whoever last kicked him in the ass. Again, not a huge deal, although wrangling focus back to his initial target can be problematic. The targeting can be almost wilfully contrarian, and occasionally sees Marius somehow turn his back on all opponents despite an aggressive lock-on system, or simply refuse to engage the preferred enemy, allowing vital attacking opportunities go to waste.
Amusingly, Ryse mostly follows the classic kung fu movie trope where enemies refuse to gang up on a lone hero – instead, they stand around and patiently await their turn in the meat grinder. That’s just as well because it’s not actually possible to block two simultaneous attacks.
Worse still, there are only a handful of distinct enemies in the entire game, all of whom are recycled ad infinitum, and all of whom always attack using the same laborious patterns. That’s right, there is one-swing guy, two- swing guy, and even – you guessed it – a ground-breaking three-swing guy! Patterns immediately memorised, the player need only follow the recipe.
Ryse’s Kinect heritage perhaps shines brightest when it comes to combat positioning, in that it is largely unimportant. Sometimes enemies that attempt an attack only to find that Marius has moved back or to the side will magically skate across the ground after him to make sure the blow is successful. The same occasionally goes for Marius too – there seems to be a rule that no sword swing shall taste only air, so he flies to the nearest opponent stiff-legged, like some Roman-era Silver Surfer.
This is an animation problem of course, but it’s not the only one. As pretty as it is to look at elsewhere, Ryse sure can be ugly in combat. Marius jerks around awkwardly as if changing his mind mid-step about which foot to place first, and there’s a decided lack of flow, like the combatants are constantly in positions that the game doesn’t quite know how to deal with. In some cases attacks don’t register because an enemy is mid-attack animation – an attack Marius eats, of course.
The most hilarious combat flaw is found in the game’s gleefully over-the-top yet soon-tedious slo-mo executions, which can be triggered on a staggered enemy from a dubious distance, and automatically make everyone but the victim back away quickly – even if their blade was a hair’s breadth from connecting with Marius’ face. It’s a get out of jail free by eviscerating a dude card, and plays out as if everyone but the victim was simply acting, complicit on his murder. And even these grisly showcase events have small problems – they sometimes look like two separate movie scenes mashed together that just don’t quite line up.
That said, the pure rage and violence on display make them pretty great the first couple of dozen times though, and tying health, experience, and focus (slo-mo ability) gains to how well these quicktime events are performed is a nice touch. Strangely, it seems that decapitation was removed from the game – arms and legs are frequently lopped off, but equally brutal neck chops do nothing, which is quite jarring.
Elsewhere, the game’s lengthy turret setpiece sections are nothing but dire. Here, Ryse enters FPS mode, and the player is tasked with shooting specific highlighted enemies among a field swarming with them. Helpfully pointed out by giant white arrows, these poor saps’ deaths are accelerated by a preposterous level of auto aim that almost negates the need to use the sticks at all. All this occurs while allies defend a position and enemies not designated as immediate threats by the giant white arrow gods flail impotently against them. These guys may also be killed, but are soon replaced by the same character model, and will repeat their canned fighting animation with a friendly until the section is complete. No-one attacks Marius directly, instead failure only arrives if the highlighted targets are ignored. It’s the sort of gameplay-free section you let a child play so they feel competent, but at least it will give them gory nightmares.
A final, terrible repeating gameplay mechanic involves leading a group of men into battle in phalanx formation against enemy archers. Here all there is to do is hold forward to close in, a trigger to block the arrows (from archers who all fire and reload simultaneously), and then the other trigger to loose javelins and kill them.
The core gameplay in Ryse is so underwhelming, there isn’t much the story can do to salvage matters, and it knows it. An adequate if predictable tale full of explanatory dialogue, it completely runs out of steam about two-thirds of the way through and so just plonks Marius in an arena for a series of drawn-out gladiatorial battles.
Crytek openly admitted it was playing fast and loose with historical accuracy so things like the main plot, Commodus and Nero living at the same lifetime, auto-reloading crossbows, and a sprinkling of the supernatural can be forgiven. However, naming an avenging centurion "Damocles" in the hope of trading off the Greek moral tale is pretty silly given his tale was one about the burden of power rather than revenge.
The co-op multiplayer arena modes fails for the same mechanics-related reasons as the campaign, but also due to a few extra faults. There, players grind out waves or microtransact their way to victory in order to upgrade weapons, armour, and abilities. The morphing arenas, environmental traps, and changing objectives are cool, but the climbing mechanics are clumsy, and it’s nigh-impossible to leave combat to complete goals due to the magnetic nature of the gladiators. Still, co-op is always welcome, and another human presence removes some of the tedium.
Ryse is clearly a game caught halfway between its Kinect roots and the tightly-designed action-fest it wants to be. Its blockbuster-worthy flashy visuals have consistently wowed gamers and rightfully so – the facial animation, cutscenes, and background vistas are often breathtakingly gorgeous. But Crytek clearly ran out of time to spice up the dull and shallow gameplay that is a hallmark of so many Kinect titles, and the result is a game stuck between stations. Literally a spectacular failure, Ryse is a monotonous, gameplay-deficient title that more resembles a tech demo than a hardcore launch title.