November 11, 2013, 11:00

Taking Up Arms: Hands-On With Ryse: Son Of Rome

By Dave Irwin, Sub-Editor

Ryse: Son of Rome seems to be the underdog of the Xbox One launch line-up and for good reason. With a disastrous showing at E3 and with an overwhelming “meh” at EGX this year, Microsoft and Crytek had one last chance to really sell it to us before release. They were finally going to show the big guns – the single player campaign. Just what the heck is Ryse all about and did what we see impress us as it did various others?

Kinect No More & A Focus On Timing

At a recent Microsoft event I got the chance to go hands-on with the game and speak to the Design Director for Ryse, PJ Estevez. Son of Rome has had somewhat of a polarised life to date having originally been a Kinect game for the Xbox 360, but what changed?

“We originally billed this as a Kinect game before Microsoft asked us about bringing it to the Xbox One,” admitted Estevez. “We wanted to take it into this other direction and the stars just aligned really! We got the hardware early so were able to work on graphical fidelity and we wanted to tell a story through this action adventure.”

Such a transition from the gesture-based nature of Kinect to having a controller in your hand was something that was both easy and difficult for Crytek.

“We had made a lot of headway with Kinect, but the thing is that the devil is in the details. To make a solid third-person melee combat game is actually really difficult, so I think we said that we wanted to tell a really good story and to bring a new dynamic to our games. Crytek has been known for pretty first-person shooters, so now we want to show them a pretty third-person melee combat game. I think that it is a big step forward for Crytek as a company.”

Having seen many trailers and had a go with multiplayer before, what about the single player portion of Ryse – what is the plot of Son of Rome?

“It is a classic Roman revenge tale with a really nice plot twist at the end. The main thing is that you’re playing as Marius Titus as his family are brutally murdered. So he leaves Rome to get revenge, but he also grows a bit along the way. He goes from a Legionnaire to a General by the end. So essentially it is about his quest for vengeance and where it takes him along the way. I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, but he finds himself along the way as a leader and as a Roman.”

Moving through the ranks up to General also has an impact on gameplay. You can shout orders like firing a barrage of arrows on the enemy by saying ‘Archers, cover me’ or ‘Archers, fire!’.

“How often you use your voice to command is how much you feel like a general,” Estevez explained. “There is even a leader vision where you place units in position, but as you play the game we give you more options.”

Mapped to the d-pad are an ability called Quick Kills which is the game’s perk system.

“How it works is that you select what perk you want on the fly, and get rewarded in that way after every execution. Let’s say I’m being attacked by two guys and my health is low. I can select the heal perk so that after I kill one of those guys, depending on how well I timed the button presses, I gain more or less life back. If I don’t press anything, I get a basic reward back, but if I hit legendary timing, I gain a lot of health back.”

Legendary timing? What is that? How fast you press the button?

“It is more about the apex of the action,” clarified Estevez. “So when [the protagonist] Marius pulls his sword back, we wanted the player to feel that when they are pressing the button, Marius does the stabbing. Once you get good at the game, by hearing the sounds and looking at the animations in order to get perfect timing. Also, it is not always the same execution twice, so you really have to stay engaged. We want the player to feel involved.”

“If you’re near a ledge and you’ve positioned yourself at the right point, you’ll see a different skull icon appear. If you see a Red skull rather than a white one appear, you’ve performed a special combo that gives this guy an execution window. If you’re really good, you can get these kills in early, which is helpful for when dealing with say six guys at once. I personally like getting my hit counters up and lining up six guys to execute them all at once.”

Taking Care Of All Gamers

“I really like a good story campaign,” said Estevez when pressed about the best things about Ryse, “and were definitely geared up for that type of gamer. On top of that, we have a combat system that you can continually get better and better at. Then we have Gladiator mode, which feels like such a bonus on top of all that because when I’m tired of playing a level, I can just hop on to play with a buddy. So if you like all that stuff, there is no better game at launch.”

Even this close to launch there’s surprises in store with a lot of multiplayer having never been showcased according to Estenez.

“We haven’t shown off a lot of what the game has to offer for multiplayer. The best way to look at it is that there are modes that are objective based where you have to work together to complete goals, so for example you might have to take down a wicker man that is burning. Then there is the other kind which have a dynamic tile set, which are more pick up and play. My favourite thing is that the playlists can change, so it doesn’t feel like you’re going through the same map rotations, meaning that you can have totally different experiences from one minute to the next.”

Multiplayer is something that Crytek intend to update, especially over the next few months, and the recent announcement of a season pass highlights this.

Day One

The real question though, is Ryse a new exclusive IP that will gamers have been hoping for as a launch title for the Xbox One?

“I think the gamers will be the judge of that. We just do our best to make the game you want to play. When you look at all the passion expressed during the development, we were getting beaten up for a while about what Ryse: Son of Rome is, but we bided our time and just kept working on polishing the game. I believe we have a gem on our hands and I’m not just saying that as someone who worked on the game, as here at Crytek we’re very critical of our work. Ryse will establish itself in the third-person action adventure genre, because of the amount of detail that has gone into the game, both visually and in terms of gameplay.”

“One of the beauties of being a launch title is that you can’t do everything, so we boiled down the game to its bare essentials. From Microsoft’s perspective, they are stoked to get such a pretty launch title. Whatever you might have heard about next -en not having beautiful graphics is untrue as you can see with Ryse. The visuals are so good that it isn’t just about videogame art any more, but rather art itself on the screen.”

Worthy Of The Fight

Prior to my chat with Estevez, I went hands-on with Son of Rome to finally see if it’s been unfairly mocked or if it’s the real deal.

Marius as it turns out is quite the badass, dishing out about as much pain as that famous Spartan in the God of War franchise. But while Kratos’ carnage is barbaric and gory, Marius uses a bit more finesse when dispatching his foes. While Kratos would have the same QTE sequence for each foe, Marius’ action sequences aren’t reliant on what button you press, but when you press it for the most skilful kill. You also choose what reward you get for each kill, whether it is replenishing your health, gaining a damage boost filling the focus bar up further or just grabbing extra XP.

While several levels of the campaign were available, I only had time to look at a couple. My experience began with a sparring session, before barbarians invade the city. What struck me was that the sheer spectacle of what is happening around Marius was just stunning to watch. Every little detail is marvellous to see in action, fully sucking me in. For a moment I felt as though I was actually in Rome, fighting for survival. There are even occasions where Kinect asked me to shout something to order your legion to do something, which also helped me to feel like an armchair General.

If the odd resolution and subsequent upscaling sounds scary, don’t be too alarmed. The game runs well in its 900p resolution upscaled to a more palatable 1080p, keeping a consistent framerate all the time. While it does fall into the trap of “British” sounding Romans that most Roman epics seem to, it comes across as a polished experience all the same. Levels are big, full of spice, and there is not a dull moment from that early point in the game.

It is with a happy heart that I can report that Ryse: Son of Rome has finally taken up arms and is ready to fight alongside the Xbox One on launch day. It should be an interesting match!