This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Ryse: Son of Rome.
As a child, I would gaze enviously at my friends with Nintendo and Sega consoles, who needed only plug the cartridge in and be killing brain cells within seconds; I had a Commodore 64, and gaming on such things hinged on being able to confidently state that you'll be equally keen to play Fantasy World Dizzy about half-an-hour from now. I remember thinking that, while you can't use a console to write a letter or print the words "sausage slaps" all over the screen in varying colours, consoles were clearly the platform of choice for those who wanted simply to game, without faff and nonsense.
I found myself thinking about those days as I attempted to play Ryse on the Xbox One, or, as I have come to call it, the Xbox Installing, and I had to wait until it had finished faffing up and down the garden path. I put in the disc, and up comes an exciting next-gen percentage that takes five sodding minutes to get to 1%. "Don't worry, you don't have to wait 'til it gets to 100% before you can start playing!" OK, so what percentage do I have to wait for? "I'm not telling you!"
Eventually the console let me pass the velvet rope like a disinterested theme park attendant, and I found that my patience had earned me the privilege of watching an in-game progress bar instead! "Oh well, at least all this installing means I won't have to faff about with the disc in future", I said aloud as the Xbox coughed awkwardly and directed its gaze elsewhere, but let's move on!
Ryse is a blatantly-misspelt historical hack-'n'-slash in which we play a Roman solder named Marius, as in "Thank you, Marius, but our emperor is in another castle." The game opens with him finding the other castle in question and sealing himself in the panic room with Nero as barbarians besiege the city, at which point Marius starts recounting his life story: the death of his family at the hands of barbarians and his adventures as a Roman soldier in occupied Britain, fighting the forces of King Oswald and Boudicca.
And at no point does Nero interrupt him to ask some pertinent questions like "How the hell did barbarian invaders get all the way to the middle of Rome to kill Marius' family without anyone noticing?" They're not exactly the ninja assassins of classical antiquity! And Boudicca wasn't the daughter of King Oswald, whoever the fuck that is, she was the wife of Prasutagus, although that seems a petty quibble later on when Boudicca besieges Rome with fucking war elephants! Are you sure you're not misremembering, Marius, mate? Must be that concussion you sustained while fighting the shark-people from the planet Outlandish!
"Are you seriously gonna complain about historical accuracy, Yahtzee?" Fair enough, I'll complain about originality instead. 'Cause the plot seems to have been written in five minutes by someone who watched half of The Eagle and half of Gladiator, while someone playing God of War in the same room occasionally fired a gun into the air. "Oh, fuck plot! We're just here to watch several thousand barbarians get stabbed to death in glorious next-gen!" Although the more realistic graphics get, the stupider it looks when enemies glitch around the battlefield in order to be in the right position for your pre-animated finishing move, like Nightcrawler has acquired a death wish.
Combat's your standard "light attack, heavy attack, oh-no-you-don't, counter, ha-hah!, pre-animated finisher interlaced with quick-time events", but you'd better make sure you don't miss any of those quick-time events, because if you do, the finisher will continue regardless and be pulled off without a hitch. Wait, what? This is the next bold step forward, is it, even less player involvement!? Ten years from now, games will have one button prompt at the start, labelled simply "resolve", and then play themselves for six hours while we tearfully jerk off with handfuls of corn flakes.
I suppose the pertinent question is "what was so bloody demanding about the game that only a next-gen console could contain its mightiness?" Well, the environments are pretty! Although the actual level design is insipid, and if you're gonna shepherd us around with invisible walls, at least be consistent about it. Some ledges the same height as Marius, he's content to pull himself onto (in full armour, no less! He must have forearms like whale testicles) whereas at other times I got to watch Marius angrily hopping up and down next to an impassable chain that came up to his fucking shin, his dignified little miniskirt billowing with each hop.
And dull level design meant I was constantly getting turned around and going back the way I came, especially if I've had to fight a few dudes and watch pre-animated five or six more times, so that the camera had been sweeping all over the place and keeping track of which way was north was like trying to keep track of which cup the ball was in during a Matrix fight on a merry-go-round. "But, Yahtzee, the environments are pretty!" Oh, shit, I forgot! 10/10!
And it wouldn't be a next-gen launch title without mandatory hardware gimmicks! So you are occasionally invited to give the Kinect a stern talking-to. You give commands to your men in the heat of battle by yelling them out loud, whereupon Marius yells them a second time which rather undermines the point of it all, but at times, I had tremendous difficulty being understood. I've had problems like this before with speech recognition, 'cause my accent is on a permanent walking tour of the entire United Kingdom, so I found myself experimentally yelling "fire volley" in a succession of comedy American dialects. And there's only one voice command you can do at a time, so they might as well have let you shout whatever you want to fire the sodding volley. Indeed, there's also a button you can press to activate the command if you're too shy, but if you take that option they make you hold it down for no particular reasoning except to punish you for being a spoilsport.
This is all part of a gameplay aspect wherein you command a squad of crack Roman troops in such a way that you don't have to make any actual decisions at all. Well, sometimes you can pick which of two different places to put some archers. Wow, just call me Stonewall Fucking Jackson! And there's a repeated segment in which you and your fan club alternate between raising your shields and throwing pilums at pillocks as you advance in a straight line. Oh man, just what we needed; even less decision making! It only happens at determined moments in the plot, but you know, if I could've blown a whistle and formed a tortoise at any time, I might've appreciated it as a mechanic. I was gonna say it would really liven up the romantic scenes, but there are none. Who needs romance when we can watch limbs flying off in such a way that, if smooth jazz was playing, you'd think it was a Cinemax production?
It really is the Modern Warfare shooter decked out in sandals and fashionable miniskirts: repetitive combat broken up by battle-porn set pieces, the most powerful military force on Earth presented as a victimized underdog to an inferior foe with massively overstated resources, and a protagonist who gets thrown aside and knocked out with clockwork regularity every time a scene transition is needed. All it needs is a central cast consisting exclusively of burly white du– Oh. Well, let's just say that the Xbone starts as it means to go on - with a brick on the accelerator and a hose on the exhaust pipe!
- In vino veritas: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- Audacter calumniare, semper aliquid haeret; now there's a phrase I'd put on my coat of arms
- Tu fui ego eris
- In wine, truth
- Slander someone enough, some of it will stick
- What you are, I was