What exactly is it that you want from a next-generation console? It’s an important question really, even if the answer is a little too multi-layered to provide an obvious answer. What is important changes from gamer to gamer, and while you may well be content with an update in graphics, another person down the road from you might be more interested in seeing what features a new console can bring to the table. Regardless of your preference, it’s undoubtedly the launch games that everyone turns to find their hopes of next-gen. It’s with this often limited bunch of games that players will find disappointment and excitement in equal measure – but is it fair to expect much more than a visual upgrade?
In the case of Ryse it’s hard to assume little else outside of Crytek’s heritage. There’s no doubting the developer’s technical capabilities; if we reviewed a game engine, CryEngine 3 would be 10/10 all the way. But it’s easy to be blinded by God Rays and particle effects; look beyond Crytek’s output, including its latest, and you’ll see a selection of games that are limited in innovation but expansive in technical prowess.
What this means is that Ryse: Son Of Rome is bloody gorgeous. Much has been said of the game’s lower resolution prior to the Xbox One’s launch (for those not in the know, this runs at only 900p) but you know what, you wouldn’t be able to tell. This game is as gorgeous as they come, as slick as the rain swept cobblestones of Rome itself. Whether it’s the sun peeking over the Coliseum, the murky swamps of Scotland or the sea-lapped shores of dreary England, there’s always a spectacle to witness in Ryse. Explosions from catapult artillery or the flicking flames of a torch in the darkness may be more subtle uses of the engine, but they’re nonetheless impressive. The cutscenes in particular, which are still rendered in engine, impress from start to finish with the minutiae of facial animation – up there with the best – or the exceptional effects of steel on steel. Needless to say, if you wanted a game to prove without a doubt that the next-gen is here, then Ryse: Son Of Rome is the game to do that. At least visually, anyway.
See, it would be unfair to say Ryse offers something that would be impossible to get on Xbox 360. Sure, technically it’s highly unlikely the Xbox 360 could muster up enough last-stand gasps of air to get even the main menu of Ryse running smoothly, let alone all of this visceral, all-action combat. No, the problem with Crytek’s latest is simply its lack of ambition. Gameplay revolves around two key features, the largest crux of which being the sword and shield hack and slashery. The other, less frequent feature is Centurion control, an element that has you giving orders to your Roman allies, whether directly controlling them in a platoon or picking an option for archers to provide covering fire from.
Combat itself focuses on a very simple base setup: X to strike, Y to shield bash, A to counter and B to evade, with your task being to piece them all together in a combo. So far, so typical. Here we’re dealing with the Batman: Arkham school of combat, where each button press has an exact action and that particular actions are best employed to deal with particular types of enemies. Shielded foes, for example, need to be stunned with a shield bash of your own to open their defence, while heavy attackers can’t be countered so you must first evade. Simple. The difference to Batman: Arkham here is that you can’t simply bash X until you’re safe. Timing is important, but even the basic enemies will evade your attacks after a certain number of successful strikes, so you’ll need to mix it up.
It keeps the hack-’n’-slash flowing quickly and you need to always think about what you’re up against and how you’re going to defeat it. The problem is the repetition. The same enemies you’ll encounter at the end of the game will be defeated with the exact same method you’d been using at the start, and while this is true of Batman: Arkham those games at least do enough to mix it up a little. Sure, some enemies of Ryse will require evading twice instead of once or three successful counters before you can get a hit in, but there’s very little to keep the combat feeling fresh. Though the base mechanics are solid, more needed to be done to change things up a bit.
That’s not to say Ryse doesn’t have a fair amount of variety. While combat might not evolve much throughout, the environments do. There are only eight chapters to battle through – this isn’t a particularly lengthy adventure – but there are enough differences to make each level feel new, at least visually. This is also where the Centurion control comes in. At prescribed points in the game you’ll be tasked with giving orders to your allies, either commanding a platoon to march forward, carefully ordering the use of shields to protect them from archer fire or giving an order during a defensive standoff. The former is more interesting, at least in terms of gameplay, since it gives you a direct control over a pack of Romans, rather than just one.
Sadly there’s no real reward to these sections, though. Yes they add a further dimension to Ryse’s core gameplay, but it doesn’t matter if you lose none of 90 per cent of your allies. There’s no motivation to really try, beyond the personal desire to not want a bar to decrease. Hardly thrilling, really. Giving orders fails to excite either, with a binary choice over what your archers attack, or where they attack from. In gameplay terms what this means is picking between one of two binary opposites: do you want your archers to assist you in a melee fight or do you want them to pin the enemy archers down, freeing you up to focus on the fight yourself without having to evading enemy fire too. Both are really great ideas from Crytek – the closest Ryse comes to providing innovation – but neither are nearly deep or explored enough to provide a sense of importance about them. It’s not possible to lose a fight, regardless of your choice, as long as you manage to stay alive. And that’s a shame, because there is potential in these ideas.
And that’s really Ryse: Son Of Rome in a word: ‘potential’. It’s amazing what a change of scenery can do, and setting a game in Ancient Rome will do enough to draw you in, in spite of the often repetitive combat and gameplay. Main character Marius’ story of vengeance is well told, with enough intrigue and believability to keep you hooked until the end. It’s not too flashy or elaborate, and though a number of large scale battles take place it’s more of a personal tale than an over-the-top epic, and that’s good. Hopefully Crytek learns from what it has achieved with Ryse, because – genuinely – there deserve to be more in this series. Perhaps not in Rome, perhaps not in Marius’ timeline, but certainly in a similar vein to what Crytek has started with here.
It’s a game that shows promise, and you’ll never dislike playing the seven to eight hour campaign. The problems lie – as already mentioned – in the skewed focus that Crytek has when it comes to its games. Graphics are important, we’re not so naïve as to deny that, but first there needs to be a baseline of impossibly solid gameplay mechanics to pin it all together. That is vital, above all else. As an Xbox One launch title, however, it has our blessing. Stick it on Hard, practice those combos and marvel at the visuals and you’ll be thankful you bought that Xbox One – maybe not surprised, but pleased if nothing else.