Review by Evil Dave
"Shadow of Rome is gladiator combat done right - it's just not done often enough."
Throughout history, athletes have always held a position of reverence within any given society. Each culture has had its own unique forms of competition, and those who can rise to the top in them inspire awe and admiration from the spectators who marvel at their feats. Gladiatorial battles were ancient Rome's contribution to the spectrum of athletics. These clashes were fought not on a battlefield, but in an arena, where the competitors killed and died for the amusement of the crowd.
Shadow Of Rome is one of the few videogames to put the player in the shoes of one of these warriors. You take on the roles of Agrippa (a hulking gladiator) and Octavianus (Agrippa's effeminate friend) as you attempt to clear Agrippa's father of guilt for the murder of Julius Caesar. During the course of the game, Agrippa will take part in various gladiatorial matches, while Octavianus sneaks around Rome attempting to solve the mystery of who really killed Caesar. SOR definitely has an interesting premise, but does the game deserve to live, or should it be thrown to the lions?
SOR was developed by the team behind the Onimusha series, and that influence is very apparent. Character models feature a high level of detail, and showcase impressive flourishes in action. All of the main characters are modeled so well that you can often tell the emotions the developers were trying to portray from a simple glance. The animation is similarly outstanding, with each and every character moving in a manner you would expect. Worth particular note is the gore, which features quite prominently in the gladiatorial sequences; while it's certainly over-the-top (you can carve enemies' extremities off, among other things), it gives the combat a gritty and dangerous feel that should help to draw you into the game.
Game environments include a mix of pre-rendered and full-3D areas. Everywhere you go has an impressive look to it, and there is plenty of detail to boot. Again, the gladiator levels shine in particular, as there are so dangers and pratfalls to traverse that each encounter in them becomes memorable. Graphical effects are also aplenty in SOR, and they match the quality of the rest of the visuals. Particle effects make the dirt and dust of the arenas come to life, while lighting effects do an impeccable job of highlighting the manner in which light reacts with reflective surfaces, or even the sweaty bodies of the gladiators themselves.
During either character's gameplay, the camera is never a problem. Octavianus' levels make use of an occasional static camera, and these angles always give you a good picture of your surroundings. The remainder of the game, including the combat levels, use a more free-flowing camera, which is freely adjustable with the left analog stick. You shouldn't experience any serious problems with the camera as you play.
In another nod to the developers' Onimusha roots, SOR accomplishes cutscenes with a mix of in-engine and pre-rendered videos. The in-engine shots look as nice as you would expect, and the rare pre-rendered scenes look spectacular as well.
From both a technical and an artistic standpoint, SOR's visuals are some of the best the PS2 has seen up to this point. They sport a remarkable amount of detail, in both the animation and the graphics, and yet the frame rate somehow stays steady virtually all the time.
As with any game possessed of so many combat variations, SOR's gameplay contains a large array of sound effects, and they all manage to enhance the game's atmosphere. Audio during combat once again takes center stage amidst the game's excellent effects score. Each weapon sounds right where you would expect it, as do the various contraptions and opposing fighters. The most extraordinary of the sound effects come from the crowd; these spectators often play a crucial role in your battles, and they will cheer and boo in tune with your actions in the arena, which develops the game's aura even more so.
For the most part, SOR's voice actors do their jobs admirably. The major characters are voiced with a fair amount of emotion, and few of the actors seem like they're just mailing it in. A couple of discrepancies do exist among the performances, though, and these stand out like sore thumbs. Some of the chatter gets repetitive as well, especially during combat.
Background music accompanies much of SOR's gameplay, and it is decidedly middling. The triumphal music during the combat sequences ebbs and flows adequately with the action, and the lower-key tunes that accompany the stealth sections does the same. In general, though, none of the music is all that memorable, and on top of that, it repeats quite a bit.
There's nothing terribly wrong with any of SOR's audio components. The sound effects are definitely the stars of the show, with their presence adding a layer of depth to the game experience. It's just too bad that the voice acting and music couldn't wholly match the effects in quality.
By this point, you may have gathered that the game's technical aspects are given the best opportunity to excel during the combat sections of the game. Without question, this theme extends into the gameplay itself SOR's gladiator combat is some of the fiercest, most brutal, and most enjoyable gameplay you'll see in an action game. Unfortunately, it only comprises about 2/3 of the overall time you'll spend playing.
Controls are easy to get used to in SOR. Most of the buttons are used repeatedly, and after a little while of using each character you should have their move set down pat. During the gladiator competitions, you'll gain access to a wide variety of vicious contextual attacks that help you raise your favor with the crowd.
The crowd actually plays an important role as you're fighting these battles. The nigh-insatiably ferocious audience wants to see you cause all manner of havoc, and if your actions please them, they'll reward you by supplying you with a devastatingly powerful weapon, or some food to recover your health. This system adds a slight strategic element to the bloodshed, while at the same time keeping you on your toes, searching for new methods of dispatching your foes.
Among the other interesting facets of the combat are the weapons, which are all breakable. You won't be able to rely on any one item all the time, and this keeps the game entirely fresh every time you experience it. Finding all of the weapons and learning the best ways to utilize them adds even more depth to the fighting system.
Enemy A.I. is simply outstanding during these clashes, to the point that you'll feel very good about outwitting your computer-controlled opponents; however, there are still occasional bugs, such as repetitive behaviors that you can easily abuse to your advantage (of the I'm going to climb this ladder over and over, no matter how many times you've knocked me off' variety). Overall, though, the computer-controlled opponents are generally smart enough to utilize their surrounding well, and provide a staunch challenge. A.I. for friendlies is similarly solid, although those minor flaws that you see in the enemies are magnified when they're performed by someone you're depending on.
Not entirely due to the A.I., the gladiator matches become fairly difficult at times. The first few combat missions are nearly effortless, and they help you get a good feel for the challenges you'll be facing ahead. They don't, however, give you any idea how tough some of the later contests are going to be. There will unquestionably be fights that you'll die on, because each new match adds more wrinkles in the gameplay that you'll need to manage. The difficulty still manages to feel fair, though, and never ramps up too quickly to catch up.
So, you say, what will you be doing during the remaining third of the game, when you aren't bludgeoning your foes to death in front of a bloodthirsty mass? Mostly, you'll be sneaking around as Octavianus on stealth missions. Hands down, these are the weakest part of the game, and at their worst they will make you wish that you could simply bypass them and get back to the combat.
The stealth portions play basically like those of any other stealth game on the market. You're given a task to achieve, such as acquiring information or tailing a VIP, and you'll have to stay hidden from the many guards and other obstacles along the way. Genre staples such as knock-out attacks, disguises, and repetitive A.I. abound, making these sequences little more than tiresome trial-and-error time-wasters.
Besides the annoying sneaking sections of the game, a significant amount of Agrippa's combat will also be done outside of the arenas. These fights make use of the same fighting engine as the gladiator contests, and they play quite smoothly as a result. They can't manage to maintain the same lustrous entertainment as those fights, however, because they don't include the crowd. Agrippa's interplay with the crowd is what makes SOR's battles so fun, and taking those imaginary viewers out of the equation dulls the excitement appreciably.
There are several boss fights that Agrippa must complete, both in and out of the gladiator arena, and each presents a new challenge for the player. The majority of these confrontations come across as new and genuinely challenging, and are welcome trials of skill. Unfortunately, there are some fights that devolve into austere bait-and-attack rituals, though these are in stark contrast to the majority of the gameplay.
To put it simply, SOR could have done with a lot more gladiator, and a lot less other stuff. The complex, visceral combat is the best aspect of the game, to the detriment of the other areas of the gameplay. Each foray into Octavianus' sections just serves to reinforce how much you'll want to go back into the arena.
SOR borrows the names of many a historical figures to tell its tale, but make no mistake about it: the story here is almost entirely fictional.
The plot revolves around Agrippa and Octavianus' joint efforts to spare Agrippa's father, Vipsanius, from a death sentence for the murder of Julius Caesar. Agrippa, once a Roman Legionnaire, is forced to enter a gladiator tournament to prove his father's innocence or, to spare his life, since the winner of the contest will be given the privilege' of performing the execution. In the meantime, Octavianus sneaks around Rome, spying on its elite in an attempt to uncover the identity of the real murderer.
The narrative offers a decent setup for the events of the game, and is enough of a diversion that it should keep your attention when you're not fighting in the tournament. It also manages to wrap itself up nicely in the end, which is a rarity in games nowadays. There are some spots where the translation from the original Japanese is a little rough, but on the whole the ride is pretty smooth.
SOR's storyline is suitably epic for its Roman setting, and features enough interesting characters and events that it should at least occasionally pique your interest.
It should take about 15-20 hours to complete the main story mode in SOR, which gives it a good length in general. After you've completed the storyline, you unlock every last one of the game's gladiator matches to be played independently. This offers a chance for those who loved the combat to try to perfect their technique, and getting high scores in every fight also unlocks a few other bonuses, like extra costumes and a couple mini-games. Other than these, and the game's multiple difficulty settings, there are no other features or modes present.
The inclusion of an option to replay the gladiator combat sections of the game displays foresight on the part of the developers, as these battles are enjoyable enough that players may want to test their skills in them again after completing the main game. This helps to allay the disappointing lack of other extras, although not completely.
Shadow Of Rome has some of the most satisfying combat sequences you can play in a videogame today. The game's exceptional portrayal of the cruel art of gladiatorial competition makes for some tremendously fun and memorable gameplay. That same enjoyable fighting makes the other gameplay segments seem all that much more strenuous, though, and ultimately ruins the balance of the game. Make no mistake about it SOR is a worthy expenditure of your time; you just have to suffer a bit to enjoy it.
If you own a PlayStation 2, and are a fan of mature-themed action games, SOR should be at the least a priority rental. If you loved the movie Gladiator, you should also make an appointment to spend time with this game. If, however, you don't fit either of those descriptions, you should approach this game with caution.
Score: 8/10 (not an average)
Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 02/12/07
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