When Ryse was first announced at E3 in 2011 it was heavily marketed as Kinect-focused combat game for the Xbox 360. Fast forward more than two years later and Ryse: Son of Rome is weeks away from being part of the Xbox One exclusive launch lineup with Kinect taking a backseat. Criticized for Kinect, quick time events, and lack of meaningful gameplay, Ryse has a lot working against it. Though Crytek's strength has always been in graphics, you'll find yourself pleasantly surprised by how rewarding the combat experience is against the beautiful backdrop of Rome.
My single-player demo opened with a massive battle where I, playing as Marius Titus, was tasked with escorting the Roman emperor to safety. The story is set in an alternate version of history and follows Marius as he rises up the ranks of the Roman army. The narrative follows the common my-family-was-killed-and-I-must-avenge-them trope, but there are some other interesting elements which I cannot tell you about for fear of spoilers.
After some gorgeous-looking cut scenes, I was immediately thrust into third-person sword and shield melee combat with barbarian warriors. The combat is a mash-up of different elements from a variety of third-person and action adventure games. Design Director P.J. Esteves told me that "We definitely have a lot of influences from the creativity and flow from Batman, and obviously we like the executions in Assassin's Creed. But, we also like the snappiness of God of War so I mean it's hard to say we have one inspiration."
During my play through these inspirations were definitely clear and I enjoyed the simplicity of the flow. The buttons are mapped to basic movements such as attack, block, and push. Mastering timing in combat is key to scoring more points and thus being able to unlock more upgrades. When enemies are extremely low in health, an execution symbol appears where players then have the option to hit RT and start the execution sequence or continue with regular attacks. I often opted for the execution in my play through.
The highly cinematic sequence that followed is what gave Ryse such a bad rap after E3 this year. Many gamers cried "It's just a bunch of quick time events!" which is not the case. While the elements of a QTE are there, timing of button hits is indicated not by an animated button on screen but by flashing colors on the character models, something I have never seen done before. Perfecting your timing earns you extra points allowing you to earn new executions in the progression system. Performing executions also allows you to fill a designated power-up, Health, Focus, Damage, or Experience. In the harder difficulties, these small boosts can be the difference between coming out of a battle victorious or dying. So while you can play through the game without ever using these executions, why would you want to?
The part of combat I really wanted to test out, Kinect functionality, I was unable to due to the loud demo environment. Originally marketed as a Kinect-focused combat game, the Kinect features are now completely optional making it almost seem an afterthought instead of a focus. I think this is a better approach, but I am intrigued by what Crytek has done with vocal commands. Generally, in "Better with Kinect" games the vocal commands can be accomplished by quickly tapping a button. In Ryse one of the ways you use vocal commands is to call for an arrow storm by saying, "Archers Cover Me." You can also accomplish this by holding LB, but the time it takes to fill the meter by holding the button is painstakingly long. For the first time I've seen, it is actually quicker to use the vocal command, incentivizing players to use the Kinect features in heavy combat situations.
Though some may continue to hold a grudge against the previous demonstrations of Ryse, it thoroughly impressed me with addictive combat and stunning graphics. More time with the game is needed to see if the top talent Crytek brought in can make the story shine through, but it certainly shows us just how far game design has come from the launch of the Xbox 360. The very items people used to criticize the game just may make it the most memorable for getting them right.
To see the combat in action, check out the full video interview with P.J. Esteves featuring new gameplay.