Games like Ryse: Son of Rome make sense during a console launch.
Crytek's troubled new title, just by judging from shitty YouTube videos, was always the game that wowed me. It never looked too exciting or mechanically involved, but it perfectly fit the bill of the pretty launch game that I would show to friends and family to justify my very expensive new box. In fact, I dragged my Xbox One out to the living room and hooked it up, gathering my family around as I carefully selected what I believed to be the most visually impressive section of the game. They oohed and awed as the impeccably rendered Roman man almost drowned in an ocean, fighting the realistic water physics as the stunning light shined through.
But as soon as the game started, the gameplay did nothing for them. Despite flashy setpieces sequences or the close ups on the screaming, dying barbarian faces, Ryse did not hold their attention. They quickly walked away as I went through the motions, alternately hitting "X" and "Y", occasionally tapping "A" to block an enemy attack. As my family turned away I realized how bored I actually was. Games are repetitive by nature, but the trick is how long they can trick you into believing otherwise. Ryse wasn't a very adept magician.
I tapped "X" and "Y" some more until the next cutscene, hoping that would bring my family back. It did not. I instead booted up other games like Call of Duty: Ghosts, Peggle 2 and Killer Instinct and my family gathered around and engaged with those. The controller was passed around as they took turns pulling the left trigger then right trigger, lining up shots and bouncing balls around and rolling the analogue stick to throw fireballs.
I haven't played Ryse since.
The problem is that Crytek's latest title only does one thing, and that's its melee combat system which is similar to those of Batman: Arkham Asylum and Assassin's Creed. It doesn't even do that one thing amazing. It's solid for what it is and fairly satisfying, but it has about just as much depth as the combat system of an Assassin's Creed game. Maybe even less since it lacks an inventory of items and a selection of different weapons to equip. The point being is that it has a single attack button (your sword), a button to throw your spear, a bash/stagger button (your shield/boot), a block button, and a dodge button. You don't get any new weapons or abilities. What you're doing at the beginning of the game is particularly the same thing you will be doing by the end of it.
Again, it's satisfying stuff, the whole stabbing people thing, but it's not particularly inspired in its design. One specific wrinkle is how the quick time events tie into the core action. Ryse got a lot of heat early on when the QTEs were so prominently displayed, but it's actually interesting how they are integrated here. When you've wounded an enemy a fair amount, you have the option to engage in a QTE. Primarily it dispatches the enemy quickly, but also if you execute the QTE well you will be rewarded with health, XP, increase in your rage meter, or increases in your damage. Which one you receive you can choose via the D-Pad (Man, the D-Pad on the Xbox One is so much better than the 360's!) Successful QTEs also add to your combo score, which in turn increases your XP gained modifier.
It's cool how Crytek made QTEs more important and impactful, but hey guys, they are still boring ol' QTEs that aren't too imaginative in their execution (Asura's Wrath is still king of QTE land, all hail your master.) And apart from that there's a super shallow skill tree which only increases your various meters and how many spears you can carry, and some set-piece moments like you commanding a phalanx or manning a crossbow turret. Both of which are very, very simple. There's just not a lot to Ryse to get hooked on mechanically.
That's doubly true for its story. You play as professional Roman soldier man named Marius Titus, who -- of course -- witnesses his family get murdered by a bunch of barbarian assholes and declares his vengeance, journeying to the savage British Isles to combat the chaos that lies outside of Rome. It's a mind-numbingly poor and predictable story, filled with plot holes and thin characters and other such bad story goodies. Oddly though, it is bizarrely well-told. That is mostly because of its stunning production values.
Almost every single thing about Ryse's visual design is gorgeous, and its audio work is solid across the board, with a decent score and good sound effects. But the star of the show is its graphics, and it's easy to get super excited about the quality of Ryse's textures and lightning and other such nonsense that people spew about over-and-over again, and boy does all of that stuff look awesome. But it's the small things that make Ryse stunning, like its teeth and eye modeling. Ryse simply has the best faces of any game that I've played, which made it even more disturbing to kill one of the enemies in the game when it zooms on their screaming face. Their excellent faces also sucked me into the drama of Ryse's lame story, which is super weird to say. It helps that the voice acting and motion capture is all brilliant stuff, with a strong cast that deserve better than the script that they're given. Thankfully the story does give Marius an excuse to travel to a variety of locations, which are all lovingly rendered.
I haven't even mentioned ze multiplayer yet, but that's because there isn't much to mention. It's an objective-based co-op mode that takes place in the Colosseum where you and one other player stab things. It embraces the Mass Effect 3 style of progression where you earn money for your actions in the multiplayer, which you can spend on Loot Boxes which contain different kinds of loot you can equip including swords and different pieces of armor. It's decent for what it is, despite it crashing on me (Ryse had a lot of bugs, but nothing that broke the game like that), but after finishing the story mode of Ryse I was so done with its combat and didn't really wish to engage anymore more with it.
Ryse is a stunning looking game, but that's just about all it is. It has a solid melee system, but that's all it has and it doesn't even come close to the greats of the genre like Batman: Arkham Asylum. And it lacks a compelling story to push you forward, despite it being very well performed and shot. The only thing that pulled me through it was the incredible graphics and its decently satisfying combat. It's good to see a new IP at a console launch that isn't about aliens or elves or dumb stuff like that, but that only gets it so far.
A game like Ryse: Son of Rome make sense during a console launch. It's a good showpiece for the technical power of a new console, but lacks that special gameplay mechanic that excites and entrances people. Your family, like mine, will walk away as soon as the cutscene ends.
"Xbox, go to Call of Duty: Ghosts."
That'll bring 'em back.
THREE OUT OF FIVE
(A balanced game that has a mixture of strengths and weaknesses, meaning that it alternates between being good and bad in mostly equal measure.)