Ryse-Son-of-Rome-4Crytek’s Ryse: Son of Rome came in for a lot of flack before it was even available to buy. Firstly, it was an Xbox One exclusive, and that was enough to tarnish the game in the eyes of many. Secondly, it was from Crytek, a development studio that some feel prioritise graphics over all else, while others believe the team don’t know how to end a game.

And then there was that E3 reveal that saddled the game with the reputation of being a QTE fest. While not entirely undeserved, it seemed clear to me at the time that these quick time events were simply finishing moves, so I found the uproar a little difficult to take seriously. Still, I had no idea how the game would turn out and early previews were less than glowing – one even likened the game to dialling in numbers on a phone.

I decided to add Ryse to my pre-order list after a short demo of the multiplayer gladiator mode at a GAME lock-in, and having just finished the single player campaign today, I’m glad I did.

Ryse is the tale of Roman soldier Marius Titus, who returns home just in time to see his family butchered by barbarians rampaging throughout the Eternal City. Marius is taken under the wing of Commander Vitallion of the XIV legion, an old friend of his father who is leading the assault on the barbarians’ point of origin – our fair isle of Britain. Suffice it to say, not everything goes to plan, and Marius stumbles upon a realisation that will eventually lead him back to Rome to exact his bloody vengeance on the true architects behind his family’s demise.

The story is pretty standard revenge-tale fare, though it’s handled well with likeable characters and excellent performance-captured acting. Lip-synching is up there with the best and facial animation isn’t just for cutscenes; if you happen to catch Marius’ face in the middle of an attack, you’ll see his teeth clenched, his face tensed in the moment, and you can frequently see full lip-syncing in dialogue that pops up while you’re playing.

If you’re looking for a title to show off your shiny new next-generation Xbox, Ryse is the one. It’s the richest, most lavishly produced video game my eyes have ever borne witness too. Marius’ arms and armour glint convincingly in the equally convincing sunlight that bathes Rome’s marble courtyards in golden shafts. Verdant forests are packed with lush green vegetation that moves underfoot, and real-time reflections in a dingy puddle genuinely stop you in your tracks – I lost count of the number of times I stopped just to pan the camera and gawp at my surroundings. Throughout the campaign I saw no dodgy textures, no clipping, nothing to destroy the perfectly-polished sense of place – everything was solid, pristine. Ryse really is an outrageously pretty game.

Crytek’s stated ambition with Ryse was to create the best sword-and-shield game they could, and in mechanical terms they’ve done pretty well. Controls are simple: ‘X’ to slash with your gladius, ‘Y’ to shield bash, ‘B’ to dodge-roll and ‘A’ to deflect incoming attacks, and if you have a stock of spears in your back pocket, you can aim and throw these with the triggers. Combat is strongly timing-based; if you see an attack coming, hit ‘A’ to deflect your assailant’s blade and you open them up to your own attacks, timing your next sword slash or shield bash as the previous one lands to chain your combo together. Once you’ve done enough damage, a skull icon will appear above your enemy’s head – a sign that you can pull on the right trigger to begin the execution animation.

These are the QTE kills that we saw in that E3 reveal, though thankfully without the intrusive button prompts. Instead, as the world slows around Marius, the enemy is quickly outlined in colour – yellow for the ‘Y’ button, blue for ‘X’ – and hitting the correct button will grant you perks selected via the d-pad – extra health or xp, for instance. Rather controversially, these QTEs cannot be failed – you can ignore the button prompts altogether and your enemy will die all the same. But you’ll miss out on those perks. It’s a curious choice, but at least if you screw up you still get to see the excellent animations at play.

In gameplay terms, it often feels like Ryse is action gaming boiled down to its absolute basics – certainly when you’re one on one with a single enemy. There’s not really anything else to do besides fight hordes of barbarians or fire the odd arrow-turret, and while you often get a chance to form a phalanx and advance on archers, or order soldiers to hold a certain point while you defend another, it still generally ends up in third-person combat. Levels are linear in the extreme, and while that’s not a bad thing in and of itself, the environments are so beautifully-crafted and inviting that you’ll often want to go off-grid and explore a bit. All you can do is keep barrelling forward through the level. There are a number of collectibles hidden in alcoves or dead ends to find, however.

Ryse‘s combat really comes alive when you’re battling against a number of enemies at once. They don’t patiently wait for you to dispatch their comrades, instead lurching in while you’re busy trying to thin out their numbers. You’ll often find yourself surrounded, having to watch out for signs of attack from every side, and if you should happen to weaken two enemies and place yourself between them before pulling on ‘RT’, you’ll perform one of the game’s almost-balletic double-executions. The fluidity of animation helps here; no matter what you’re doing, you can always bail out with a dodge-roll, or throw in a hasty shield bash to throw an enemy off balance. It’s a fantastically responsive system.

In my seven or eight hours with Ryse, I was constantly reminded of three games. The first of these is Final Fantasy XIII, which is another game that distilled its genre down to the barest essence. As with that game, I enjoyed it for what it was, but wouldn’t necessarily want the next instalment to follow the same design paths. Secondly, combat reminded me of a stripped down version of The Witcher 2‘s sword-play system, as in that game you also had to know not only when to attack, defend and evade but when not to do these things, risking punishment if you read the situation wrong (also, a number of environments reminded me quite strongly of Geralt’s medieval fantasy world).

Finally, I was most often reminded of one of the big hitters from the Xbox 360. It feels to me as if Crytek wanted to create the Xbox One’s Gears of War, but with a sword and shield rather than a chainsaw gun. It’s got the same all-out action feel, the same rule-of-thirds camera, the same focus on cinematic storytelling, and that same occasionally bleak tone. Granted, these aren’t elements that are particularly rare in modern gaming, but I couldn’t escape the feeling that Crytek want to be to Xbox One what Epic Games were to the 360.

A few days before release, I read a review that likened Ryse: Son of Rome to the first Assassin’s Creed – a title that was a decent foundation for an excellent sequel. I hope Crytek take another shot at Ryse; I thoroughly enjoyed my time with it and I’d like to see the concept reach its full potential. As long as it isn’t simply more of the same, I’d be very happy to see a continuation.