Well, I had to get SOMETHING on launch day with my XBone because, as is well-documented, I’m a well-documented Playstation Hater. In fact, one of my great joys about my shiny new console is that I will finally be able to watch Blu-Rays without using a PS3 controller (a controller that, I note, sometimes seems to drain itself if I watch 2 movies in a row, despite the fact that it does nothing but sit on the coffee table during that time). So yay.
I chose Ryse because Crytek seems like a very good choice if you want to see how far a new console can go. And for what it is, it is very good, if what you are looking for is a graphical tech demo. And it is definitely a launch title – short, slightly buggy, and oddly enough, load times that alternate between being near instantaneous and up to 45 seconds long – sometimes for the same fight.
The game is gorgeous, with several breathtaking views and scenes that really sell the total war experience. There are several gorgeous set piece areas, although for my money, my favorite was the sojourn into the ‘Edge of the World’, an outstandingly creepy looking forest that culminates with facing the barbarians at the food of a Wicker Man filled with your legion.
Now, the game itself can best be described as ‘quick time events as core gameplay’, which surprisingly doesn’t play like a bad thing. Every enemy you face can be finished with a QTE. Miss the QTE and your bad guy still dies, but pull it off and you’ll be rewarded with some kind of boost – health refill or damage boost – and doing so is pretty crucial to some of the larger fights.
The biggest problem with the game is that there is precious little change to the formula you encounter early on. You unlock more wonderfully gore-y finishers as the game progresses, but the core combat you pick up at level 1 remains fundamentally unchanged, with growth coming mostly in the number of enemies thrown at you in a row between breaks. For this reason, the game’s short length (I’m figuring about 6 hours, or 45 minutes per chapter) is probably a good thing, as the combat starts to wear out its welcome not long before the end.
The main hero is supposed to be about strength more than agility, which means he never seems as fast and nimble as I want him to be, although this may be a product of my recent forays into Tomb Raider, Splinter Cell and Last of Us.
There are some very nice experiments and new game feels in here. In larger battles, you can direct your archer support to fire volleys into the crowd (a fun task to pass to the wife while I’m trying to kill fools). Every now and then, you command your army to form on you and march as a phalanx, ordering when to shield up or do a mass pilum throw – something that is by no means challenging, but is a lot of fun, and a nice change of pace experience.
The game’s bosses all are fairly vanilla, although the level designer who did Boudica’s first boss fight deserves to go to a special level of hell for throwing a pack of not-very-easy trash at you when you chase her off, which you have to fight at depleted health. It’s not a lot of fun to wax a boss 4 times in a row, only to end up being smothered by a motley mob you’d easily dispatch if you were at full health.
Also with you in that special level of hell can be the jackass who decided that I can’t skip through the expository dialogue before a boss fight when I fight a boss 10 times in a row.
The story is… well, close enough to Ridley Scott’s Gladiator that you’ll believe that someone, somewhere, should be getting royalties. That being said, I liked Ryse’s characters a lot better, with some great dialog and mocap. In particular, Basilius’ mocapped soliloquy in Bretonnia was a delightful treat, and the aforementioned Boudica is a wonderful character, despite the fact that her character’s face lies broken and bruised at the bottom of the Uncanny Valley. Also, I am fascinated that the Keira Knightley’s Guinevere apparently is going to be the new template for costume design for warrior babes from pre-medieval England.
Microtransactions are present in the game from the outset (you can buy level upgrades and multiplayer customizations). They are obvious enough to be annoying and prompt a muttering of ‘I already gave you guys $60 bucks’, but weren’t in any way necessary to beat the game, nor were they advertised very heavily. The GUI itself follows the new Microsoft Windows 8 ideal of multisized panels on an assortment of pages, which would actually work well if the flow didn’t suck terribly.
Overall, this is a nice game and does a good job of validating your XBox One’s existence, although it’s certainly not going to win any GotY awards. It definitely does herald a higher bar for game visuals that we’ll be seeing over the course of the next gaming generation.