Talk of the Town: Ryse: Son of Rome (E3 2013 Demo)
Occupying an entire corner of Microsoft’s bright green Xbox booth was Crytek’s Xbox One launch title, Ryse: Son of Rome. It has been a game mired in a lengthy development cycle, reportedly being toyed with at Crytek for some seven years, during which time its only public showing was as a first-person Kinect-only game for the Xbox 360. While it’s legacy might be cause for concern for some, the E3 demo proves emphatically that the current incarnation of Ryse is a worthy pillar among the maligned console’s launch lineup–quite possibly even capable of the illustrious “killer app” label.
The demo I played was the same one shown during Microsoft’s press conference, with protagonist Marcus Titus leading a Normandy-esque beach landing to assault an unspecified enemy’s castle fortress. Seeing the game during a choppy stream of the press conference was impressive enough, but playing it in real time served to champion just how far ahead of the 360 the Xbox One is in terms of graphical horsepower. The detail in the lighting reflecting off armor and sea gave tactile detail to the game’s vision of an Ancient Roman battlefield, as did the blooming smoke, the sputtering frames, and the gory injuries inflicted by steelclad warfare. In fact, the demo could be considered gratuitous in its initial focus on the atmospheric elements of the game, refusing to relent control for over a minute so that I could soak in every polygon and particle effect its native hardware was pumping out.
It was actually taking control of Marcus Titus that had me most skeptical going into the demo; the press conference presentation was heavy on QTE-executions and appeared to struggle a bit in the camera department. I Â am happy to report that actually playing the game bred much more promising results. The abilities available during the demo were limited to the four face buttons: X to attack with your sword, Y to shield bash, A to parry/counter, and B to trigger an execution, when available. There was no dedicated block or dodge in this demo, and it was unclear if there would be in the full game as the demo attendant would only say that the triggers and buttons didn’t perform any in-game functions “right now.”
Combat itself reminded me most of Rocksteady’s Arkham games, albeit with swords, shields, and plenty more blood. There is a certain rhythm to button presses that allows Marcus to attack more smoothly, while adversaries circle him and attack, for the most part, one at a time. The counter mechanic appears to be ripped directly from Arkham as well, with the caveat that there is no on-screen indicator and timing counters required keeping an eye on enemies’ wind ups. The executions were just as brutal as seen during the stage demonstration, but were impressively varied; I noticed some executions were even environmentally contextual like in The Last of Us. It wasn’t very clear, however, what would happen if the player failed to press executions’ QTE prompts properly, for my attempt to find out resulted in the execution continuing anyway. My concerns about the camera’s lack of focus during combat were not assuaged by actually playing the demo, and while it’s an issue worth keeping an eye on, it does not come off as something unfixable for the final product.
After getting used to the basic combat mechanics mopping up enemies on the beach, I reached the point in the demo where Marcus called his fellow soldiers to his side to form the Roman army’s signature testudo formation. There wasn’t a tremendous amount of depth to this section of the demo as gameplay merely alternates between marching forward, throwing up shields to fend off arrows, and throwing spears at at the archers once in range. I did think it was cool, however, that Crytek was looking to add a bit of real-life Roman tactics, which was so critical the the Empire’s sweeping conquest of Europe.
After the phalanx, the demo sort of fast-forwards to the storming of the castle. Marcus directs his fellow soldiers to capture a catapult with a press of the left bumper, suggesting there may be some kind of tactical command mechanic in the final game. Meanwhile, I fended off a couple more waives of enemies, this time in greater concurrent numbers that forced me to use counters and executions effectively. Once that was done, the catapult fire and destroyed the fortress’s main tower, providing one last flex of graphical muscle as the stones collapsed and crumbled before the demo came to an end.
Just being set in Ancient Rome already made Ryse stand out in an industry and a platform dominated by shooters and racers and surprisingly bereft of games inspired by this period of history. The impressive showing stillÂ left plenty of questions unanswered, however, such as what the story is or how much it would factor into a game that was presented so cinematically. It is also unknown how many abilities or weapons Marcus will be able to use, although when I asked about the dagger strapped to Marcus’s back, the attendant coyly hinted that it wasn’t merely decorative. There was also no hint of the game’s purported Kinect functionality, despite the presence of the next-gen sensor at the demo station. It was clear that the demo was a very thin slice that was stringently designed to focus on two objectives: show what the Xbox One was capable of, and provide the most baseline examples of what combat in this world would be like. If the answers to those unknowns resemble the quality of what was shown during this demo, then Ryse: Son of Rome could be in prime position to be the Xbox One’s standard bearer.