Friday, 25 February 2005
Buckle up and prepare to do battle with this somewhat tedious Gladiator-based game.
There’s something appealing about the ironic torture division of Hell. It’d be great to work there (well, if you're a sadist at least) but these days you wouldn’t have to be extreme as making someone push a rock up a hill all day only to see it roll back down again at night, or to have a vulture appear and peck out a guy's insides, then just as they heal up by the start of the next morning, return. Those were the myths of the ancient world, you could have fun updating them. Someone who loves to keep his office meticulously tidy you’d set a task to live in a world populated by messy children. If someone drank too much beer they’d have to contend with a never-ending pint (great at first, yes, but therein lies the irony). But what if a person’s only sin was buying into the idea of marrying an action game with a stealth game, what punishment would befit them?
On paper the concept works pretty well. Shadow of Rome sets out to split the game into two distinct parts that are two tried and trusted genres, relating to two playable characters united by friendship. One is a tough warrior general who partakes in the gory action segments, where he must fight for his life in the gladiatorial arena, battling criminals and various n'er-do-wells, and generally having a blast. The other is a waif like stealthy character with dashing good looks, who must use guile and cunning to infiltrate areas of high security and hide in a lot of the giant vases they always have sitting around in such places. Why, it’s none other than Russell Crowe and Orlando Bloom! Together they must solve the riddle of who was behind the assassination of Julius Caesar in time to save Crowe’s father (his actual name is Agrippa, apparently) from being executed for the crime he did not commit.
All good so far, but from the start the game tortures the player by sandwiching the brief action sequences between mammoth stealth-‘em-ups that only the most self-loathing player would enjoy, if this was back in 1998, or Roman times, for that matter. They are unimaginative and it’s never that clear what to do or where to go. Bloom lacks stealth-killing moves (unless he finds some rope or a jug) and can only take one hit, which is very frustrating. Worse, the levels too seem designed by the Devil himself with an ironic glint in his eye: oh, the endless long corridors that must be walked down! Hell, how you mock us; have we sinned in a past life? Why must you give us these corridors? They make the temptation to run, just to speed up the process a little tiny, teeny, bit, so hard to resist. But then we do, and the guards come and slaughter us with one hit. Back to the start we go, back to another long corridor of walking. Ad infinitum. Worse, if to make it a little easier we remove two of the pesky guards, then go and save, we come back and find they have returned. Sisyphus wouldn’t swap his rock for this; at least he was outdoors, getting some exercise.
Shadow of Rome seems intent on reminding the player they are playing a game as much as it possibly can. There’s the fact that each time you talk to someone time freezes and a dialogue box pops up, which is rare in this kind of game, in most RPGs the characters with nothing to say don’t make you stop. There’s the huge announcements appearing over the action to announce when a player has completed one of the six pages of signature action moves, such as “hole in one” or “Juicy Tomato” (not very Roman, exactly). This would be fine in a fighter, but Shadow of Rome has aspirations of telling an epic story so it’s not.
The plot is confused at best, with skipping around in time that doesn’t seem to match, and a lot of the dodgy dialogue. Why do characters speak almost exclusively in English and then burst into a token bit of Latin? “Let’s go to the Fora Romana!” indeed. There are also a lot of red herrings in static conversations that don’t help the stealth parts, e.g. While trying to get into the senate one woman professes to wash senators clothes, another says the guard has been flirting with her and offering private tours of the building. Both are impossible to follow up, but there’s no way of knowing this.
The movies can’t be skipped (even after a reload) and are almost as long as one of the aforementioned corridors. It isn’t a bad thing to have movies that are long, although don’t force the player to watch them time and time again. It’s just often in Shadow of Rome they don’t add much. After a movie you often still have to wander aimlessly and talk to some static characters before you know what to do. Why can’t the objectives be explained in media?
Take, for instance, the first Crowe scene after the introductory gladiatorial bout. It’s totally irrelevant. A movie plays about finding lost messengers. Then sets you in the camp. What to do? You try and leave the camp, “No there’s no need to go back the way we came, sir” so you wander up to the lookout point. “Do you want to assemble the men?” Umm, assemble the men for what? No, we don’t. Maybe it means the messengers are hidden in this camp somewhere? Go and try what looks like a cave - no, it’s just a box with a shield in. Go and try and leave camp now we have armour - still can’t. Trudge back up to the lookout point. Ok, nothing else seems to do anything - assemble the men! Yep there we go, out of nowhere the lookout point is under attack! Kill the three assailants and so begins another lengthy cut-scene. How is this supposed to keep the player interested?
The best parts of the game are the gladiatorial bouts, and thankfully, once they have been completed in story mode, they can be accessed from the main menu without having to baby-sit Bloom through the stealth sections again. The sheer brutality of historic Rome is pretty well depicted and there are a huge variety of moves and weapons. However the controls are sluggish and most of the strategy soon resorts to button mashing. Team events are a nightmare due to stupid buddy AI. And it is annoying that the other fighters don’t seem to inflict damage to one another, so you basically have to kill every last one of them. The graphics are pretty cool, so the fight scenes do look good with a lot going on and plenty of “wry humoured” gore (there’s a great feeling to lopping off someone’s arm and using it against them), but sound is a bit sparse though and the lack of speech in game surprising.
We suppose if we are really pushed, we can admit that the stealth is actually "alright" and well realised; it’s just that it is uninteresting and adds nothing new to the genre. Splinter Cell has the stylish use of shadow and gadgets, Hitman has various ways to complete objectives - none of that in Shadow of Rome. And it takes so long to get anywhere. It might take half an hour of Bloom frustration to get to a Crowe level that is two minutes of cut scene, and a similar length of play, and then it’s straight back to Bloom. In the end you are cursing when Bloom holds back Crowe and says “don’t worry, I’ll find a sneaky way in.” Why didn’t they just make it a fighter in the true Capcom style, or at least make the gladiator bouts accessible straight from the off so there was an easy way to get an adrenaline fix.
The banality of the stealth sections and the laboured story telling are not worth the fun of the combat. The idea to blend together the two distinct, yet very successful in their own right, styles was interesting - but here the sum of the parts is much less than the total, and that’s your irony. So, you’ve heard of the movie, Gladiator, right? Go buy that instead. It’s cheaper, better written, and a lot more fun (though lacking Orlando Bloom). As for the punishment for someone who thinks action and stealth can live happily ever after - I'll let them see for themselves.