Ryse: Son of Rome Video and Text Review (Xbox One)

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Ryse is a game that has somehow defied expectations. When it was originally shown at E3 it was almost written off as a QTE-filled tech demo, a shakey hands-on demonstration didn’t help matters. When the initial reviews came out they lambasted the lack of content and the repetitive gameplay. But once we were finished with Dead Rising 3, we picked up Ryse as something else to play, hoping to get at lest a visually spectacular game. We were pleasantly surprised at what an impressive overall package the game is.

Taking place in the later days of Rome, you take control of a Roman soldier who tells his own story through a series of flashbacks, charting his promotions and victories as well as some of his darker moments. The plot borrows heavily from Gladiator but has time for a little mythology and some excellent characterisation. This isn’t an authentic reproduction of the period – there are inaccuracies in battles and histories eventually diverging into a kind of reimagining of the fall of Rome. It works well as long as you’re not expecting an education, with the plot managing to surprise and feature a few twists and turns, as well as some hefty moral commentary and numerous references to films. Some of these fall a little flat but are worth a chuckle even if you can’t take them seriously. The voice acting is consistently good, with a little bit of over-the-top drama fitting in well amongst the larger than life emperor and his children. The centurions are characteristically stoic, with brief flashes of anger actually meaning something, despite the hundreds of barbarians and soldiers you slaughter along the way.

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Graphically, the game is beautiful. We’ve played every next-gen game except for the sports titles and Ryse is currently out on top as the most visually impressive. Even Killzone lacks a real ‘wow’ factor as the first-person shooter genre has been producing beautiful games for a while on PC with Metro and Crysis. Ryse is remarkable as a third person brawler where everything in the game world feels solid and looks spectacularly better than anything we’ve seen before. The soldier’s clothing flows and shifts around you, the armour reflects sunlight with a realistic gleam, dulled by the dints and dirt that ends up caking your cladding, the environments are never less than immersive, from the busy streets of Rome to the beaches of Dover and the woods of Scotland. Occasional set pieces stand out but even within the main game features such as catapult-lobbed rocks are terrifying in their scale and heft, smashing into the environment as you’re playing. There’s less physics interactions than we’d like, with little of the terrain being damaged by anything unless it’s strictly scripted, and at times the environments can get repetitive with the odd ugly texture or piece of geometry, but Ryse is all about spectacle and it achieves this without any problems. If you want a game to show off your fancy new console, this is it, it’s hard to imagine anyone not being amazed by what Crytek have managed to achieve.

Of course we all knew Ryse was going to look great, it is Crytek after all, masters of pushing the boundaries of current technology. The big worries were about the gameplay – is it more than just a series of simple QTEs? Yes and no really. Combat is based around contextual button presses, that much is true. You press X for your sword, Y for your shield, A to block and B to dodge. Enemies will generally take two sword hits before they manage to block you, at which point you need to hit them with your shield and carry on with the sword. These combos tend to go on until a skull appears above their heads, at which point you can press the Right Trigger to start an execution. During the executions, the outlines of enemies glow either blue or yellow and if you press the right button in time, you get more points for the execution. In single player you can choose from four modes for your executions, so they reward you with health, focus, damage boosts or increased XP. The system might sound basic but it’s surprisingly nuanced as you weigh up how long you can go without extra health against how much you want more XP. The XP can then be spent on upgrades to any aspects of your character. There are unlockable executions but sadly they make very little difference to your gameplay, and many won’t even notice when a new one is triggered.

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The fights start off simple and generic, but once you start getting harassed by a variety of different enemies at once things get more interesting. Generally no more than two will ever engage you, with the others circling around instead, but you”re always free to attack towards anyone you want in the style of the Batman Arkham series. Blocks need to be timed well, there’s no button prompt, and occasionally larger enemies will glow red before they use a stronger attack that must usually be dodged, but can be blocked with a perfectly timed press of ‘A’, allowing you to open them up for a counterattack. Trying to keep a combo going (it’s counted on the screen) is an addictive game in itself and while there are only a few enemy types (around five) you really learn their attacks and tells, until by the end of the game you’re able to juggle huge hordes of them without taking any damage in an elegant ballet of death and destruction.

The game lasts around six hours and is well worth starting on the hardest difficulty available to you as it’s not a tough game. Once you’ve finished there are tonnes of collectables to pick up, or you can take on the co-op mode which sees you and another player fighting through waves of objectives in a clockwork shifting Colosseum, earning experience and completing challenges in order to unlock booster packs of armour and consumables to take on the harder fights. We’ve only spent a couple of hours in this mode but it’s a lot of fun and the bonus of joint executions makes teamwork more rewarding. Even though it’s co-op, as you’re unlikely to fail most of the challenges it quickly becomes competitive as you try to out-do each other’s scores.

All in all Ryse is an immensely enjoyable third-person brawler, with slightly repetitive sword-play that’s going to appeal to high-score and combo junkies but might leave players hoping for something for adventure-based a little cold. The story is entertaining and far more than just dressing for the visuals, but the impact of the visuals cannot be overstated. Every screenshot on this page is in-engine, that’s what the game actually looks like and in motion it’s even better. This is an incredibly good-looking game and a sign of the sort of treats we can hopefully expect in the future from this generation. Never has a character looked so good and rarely have environments been so consistently impressive. It’s an easy title to recommend to any early-adopters and later down the line it’s definitely worth a purchase if you’are at all interested in brawler games.

Verdict 8

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