Ryse: Son of Rome is proof that you can judge a title by its E3 showing. Although I marveled at the game’s conversion from a surefire Kinect failure to a third-person action title, others around me were less than impressed. Copious executions aside, Ryse failed to wow the crowds with its quick-time events and Saving Private Ryan parody. Months later, my indifference now matches theirs. Son of Rome is the poster boy of the Xbox One's computing power, but the antiquated gameplay, albeit brutal, skimps on the entertainment.
Ryse rewrites history, too. Emperor Nero fathered a daughter, not two sons. Boudica and her tribe sacked cities in the province of Britannia, not Rome. The two leaders’ deaths never coincided, either. And who the hell is King Oswald? Fellow history fanatics may scoff at the inaccuracies, but Crytek's creative liberties make up a small dose of the narrative. Ryse is an action game to the core, and it shows. Players don the plumed helmet of a Roman centurion, Marius Titus, who seeks the blood of the bandits that assassinated his family.
Let me just swat that bee off your neck.
Ryse’s whole retribution thing has been done better by the intricate fantasies of Assassin’s Creed and God of War ‒ or even Gladiator ‒ but Marius’ payback carries him from grand panoramas of Italy’s capital to the shores and forests around England. He also meets several well-acted characters, including Nero and the gods. They have their agendas, and Marius has his, though everyone’s motives interweave and lend to the down-to-earth tale. Kudos to Crytek’s writing. Their twists made me second-guess my assumptions, and I sincerely hated their villains.
Combat, at least, is a little likeable, putting me in the minority. Visceral in its simplicity, Marius dissects opponents alive like Batman’s long-lost, homicidal ancestor, dodging hammers, axes, and bows before impaling vandals on his sword. You murder mongrels by the hundreds, though they all look alike.
Ryse pits you against a small amalgam of shirtless oddballs. The first bearded barbarian Marius encounters enjoys scenic walks through Rome, braiding his hair, and wearing nipple tassels into battle. Did I mention his 200 identical twins? Every cudgel-carrying savage clothes himself in wolf pelts, and obese brutes always brandish axes.
Are you not entertai— Oh, screw it.
Nevertheless, Ryse falls into a fatal rhythm of mashing X and searching for an excuse to carve your name into enemy torsos. Luckily, Marius controls smoothly, free of jerks in animation while he flows between rolls, blocks, and attacks. Heavy strikes can be countered if timed perfectly, but your best bet is to evade. And opponents predict your attack patterns unless you interchange sword swings and shield bashes. None of the simplicity disguises the notion that you are the army’s janitor, however, cleaning up invaders four or five men at a time.
Injure enemies enough and a skull appears over their heads. Time for the good stuff. Executions combine severed spines, slit throats, amputated arms, and Crytek's affinity for showmanship. When Crytek wants cinematic deaths, they mean cinematic. The camera angles highlight your foes’ pained expressions while you cut off their limbs, and the impact of a shield meeting someone’s face elicits a frequent grimace. It should be noted, you cannot flub quick-time events. The game plays itself. Once Marius begins an execution, he carries on start to finish whether or not you interfere.
The point? The faster players slice apart stomachs or cave in skulls, the more experience points Marius earns. New ranks unlock new executions, which confer crucial bonuses, rewarding people who do not put down their controllers or suffer repetition-induced comas. Executions regenerate health and focus (ancient Roman bullet time), and offer additional experience and damage boosts. Though you only equip one buff at a time, you can swap between them on the fly, mid-impalement.
Enemies glow blue or yellow during executions to indicate your next button press.
And with literally dozens of ways to leave enemies an immobile pile of body parts, I made it my duty to uncover every execution, even if they made me wince. Unfortunately, the rest of the game lacks similar awe. The auto-aim of scorpio turrets negates any need for precision, and testudo sequences, where you and a squad form a tortoise formation to ward off archer volleys, proceed on-rails. You push forward, hold A for cover, then return javelin fire. Rinse, repeat.
Still, I challenge you to find a better looking Xbox One title. Each segment of gold-etched armor moves independently. Bloody gashes adorn enemy chests, faces, and arms ‒ reminders of your unforgiving slaughter. The E3 beach landing is a parade of crumpled stonework, volatile catapults, and capsized ships, similar to a later castle defense where thousands of Britons assault allied walls using siege towers and ladders. Yet Ryse’s most haunting moments occur within Scotland’s woods. Imposing wicker statue/guardian in the distance? Natives wearing animal skulls? Ominous fog and stray campfires illuminating butchered corpses? Check, check, check. Even Ryse’s characters, with their greasy hair, imperfect smiles, and asymmetrical faces, conquer any uncanny valley created by prior console generations.
Multiplayer, however, leans a bit heavily on the fantasy elements. Two gladiators fight for spectators' approval in a series of cooperative Colosseum skirmishes, where forests and buildings shift about like Portal test chambers. Barbarians assail you and a buddy, but the developers keep contestants on their toes by introducing unique objectives ‒ holding a hill surrounded by spike traps, pouring boiling oil down holes that mongrels spawn in, surviving a sandstorm conjured by the gods, etc.
The Colosseum separates the men from the boys.
The ingenious environments make for an amusing afternoon, but Crytek bred Ryse for the long run. Matches provide gold, which unlocks booster packs for new armor and weapons. Sadly, you accrue money too slowly, and the random spoils inside every pack undercut character progression. While microtransactions let players turn hour-long grinds into questionable credit card expenses, I would buy Pokémon cards if I wanted my purchases to be a mystery.
Glitches/connection issues rear their heads, of course. I clipped through the railings of raised platforms, letting me walk on air while observing my teammate below, and enemies spazzed out or simply dropped dead during executions on the other person’s screen. “Xbox, record that.”
Ryse: Son of Rome epitomizes what people expect from a launch title. You have a story as memorable and evocative as what you last ate for lunch, and skirmishes shallower than a kiddie pool. But friends and family will hardly care as they become hypnotized by the facial hair and foliage of a game that does high-definition visuals right. With a few extra combos, I would gladly pay for a Ryse 2, if the developers learn from their pasts.
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Release Date: November 22, 2013
Number of Players: 1 (Campaign), 2 (Cooperative)
Platforms: Xbox One (Reviewed)