Review by asherdeus

"Et tu, Capcom..."

I'm having a really hard time with games lately. Three big games in the last, I don't know, maybe six months or so, have disappointed me. FarCry, which I thought was brilliant up until it's last two levels which completely ruined the game, and then Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault, which I dogged because of some terrible dog-fighting portions that had no place in the game and some bad night segments. Now, I can add Shadow of Rome to my list. Here's a game that's wonderfully presented and uses a lot of new and innovative ideas, but once again here's another game that's yet again plagued with a couple of faults that ruin the overall experience.

Shadow of Rome has an awesome, awesome premise. Imagine the turmoil going on in ancient Rome after the assassination of Julius Caesar. The sheer chaos is what starts the events in Shadow of Rome. No one knows who has actually murdered Caesar so finger-pointing is running rampant. Finally, the Senators of Rome point there fingers at a man named Vipsanius. The good citizens of Rome trust their government so much that few even question their judgment, and cries for Vipsanius' execution can be heard all across Rome.

To some though, it seems impossible for Vipsanius to be Caesar's murderer. Vipsanius was always a loyal and devoted friend to Caesar and his family. There would be no logical reason for him to be the assassin. Unfortunately for Vipsanius, the demands for his head overpower the voices questioning his crime. All seems hopeless for Vipsanius, but his luck begins to change when Octavianus, Caesar's nephew, hears about the accusation. Octavianus is in such disbelief that he begins his own private investigation. As I'm sure you've figured, smart reader, you play as Octavianus, and it's your job to find the real killer of Caesar.

Octavianus isn't exactly the strongest guy in the world. In fact, he's the type of guy you'd push into the mud in elementary school: long blonde hair with deep, sunken in blue eyes and almost a complete lack of muscles. Since he can't fight his way through the vast armies of Rome to find the answers he needs to prove that Vipsanius is innocent, he'll have to rely on his intellect, like most nerds do. As Octavianus, you'll have to do lots of sneaking past guards and donning of costumes in order to get the clues to move on in the game. You'll have to pick up apples and throw them at guards to get them to move out from doors. You'll also have to deal with a frustrating amount of trial and error and some really, really dumb AI.

When sneaking around as Octavianus, you'll have to do a lot of avoiding of guards, since like I said; he's a weakling and can't handle combat at all. Thankfully, the guards heads are filled with seemingly the same rocks you can throw to distract them. When seen by a guard, they'll catch you and strike you down in one shot, unless of course you run away or climb on top of something. If you run away, they'll give chase to you, but most of the time won't be able to find you if you duck behind a box or a wall. Unlike in other games like Metal Gear Solid, the guards don't do room clearing or anything like that, instead opting to look around in a stationary position. Sometimes you'll even be able to climb on top of objects and just stand there and they won't be able to see you, even though you could probably spit in their face from where you are.

Most of Octavianus' missions can be solved through looking at the map of the area and memorizing guard patrols, so in the later portions of the game the number of guards per area increases and their patrols tighten, so you'll have to resort to lots of trial and error in order to move on. The extra guards and the shorter patrols make your path even more linear than it is normally, so there's very little room to experiment which ultimately leads to many of these missions being frustrating. The save system incorporated in the game does alleviate some of the frustration by offering unlimited continues and unlimited saves, but sadly you can only save at certain points, which sometimes are spread too far apart to be helpful.

“But dear sir,” you say, “what about the blood that I saw in the trailers? Swords and maces, chariots and arenas!? What of them!?”

Because of Octavianus inability to do much of anything but hide like a girl (actually, in one sequence, you actually do dress up like a girl), he decides that he should alert Vipsanius' son, Agrippa to the events unfolding. Agrippa is the polar opposite of Octavianus. While we're to assume that since he's a great hero and a General in the Roman Army that he has some brains in his head, he's more of a muscle man, with buff arms akin to Vin Diesel. Even his poor voice-over, which is plagued with slowly delivered lines that never really added anything to the storyline or even the progression of sequences, give off the idea that he is in fact mentally deficient.

Nope, Agrippa believes that “actions speaks louder than words,” so every sequence you play involving him will inevitably be combat oriented. Think of the combat in this game as a cross between Onimusha (which the game borrows the engine from) and Devil May Cry, with it being faster than the former and slower than the latter. You'll have lots of access to different weapons, each with their own weaknesses and benefits and the like. Maces are great for destroying statues and enemy heads, but are pretty challenging to use against fast moving enemies because of their lack of speed. Scimitars are great for chopping off limbs (which, I might add, can then be picked up and used against your enemies), but the weapon breaks rather easily.

All the weapons break eventually, so you'll have to cheer to the crowd for a new one to be thrown in. The crowd isn't going to toss in a weapon for nothing though, in return you have to build up their excitement, which is represented through an on-screen applause meter. If it's really low, maybe you'll get a sword, if you're lucky, but if it's full, you'll get access to the best weapons in the game, like giant swords (very reminiscent of Cloud's in Final Fantasy VII) and two-handed maces that crush nearly everything. There are also very few healthpacks in the arenas, so you'll also have to beg the crowd for food which heals you, which is again based on their excitement. If they love what you're doing, they'll want to keep you around longer. If they're bored, consider yourself as good as dead.

Agrippa's events are based largely on actual gladiatorial games from ancient Rome, but a few are entirely fictional. There's an awesome sequence that puts Agrippa into the driver's seat of a chariot over the course of five races that was one of the most entertaining parts of the game. One battle has oil barrels scattered all over the arena as well as torches, so throw the barrel at an enemy and then toss the torch at them and the crowd goes wild.

Ultimately, all of these attacks are added up based on their value (combos earn more points) and the summation forms the “Salvo System.” Salvo points are mainly earned to collect cups in the events (there are four rankings: no rank, bronze, silver, and gold), but sometimes a certain point requirement is necessary to progress. One particular battle required me to get more points than my foe and more kills than the hulking giant as well. This took almost half-a-dozen tries to accomplish. Either I'd get enough points or I'd get enough kills, but it took a while to get them both. These battles are annoying, but they can be accomplished much easier than some of the boss battles.

Of course, no game is perfect. Sometimes, you'll be asked to participate in team battles where you're required to destroy all of the opposing teams statues (“asked” in the sense that you don't have to do it, but you can't progress in the game if you don't), which seem really cool but since the AI sucks these fights can be annoying. The computer controlled players will often stand around and not attack, leaving you to fight against an endless stream of enemies (if you kill one of the three on the board, a new one appears with full health) while you're also expected to destroy the statues all by yourself.

There are also battle royals, which I didn't much like because the enemies usually gang up on you and don't really attack each other. Granted, it could be said that they're all teaming up to take out the toughest opponent, but it could also be said that it's dirty and cheap. I would have rather had lots of separate battles going on and be pitted up against a really strong enemy at the end instead of having to fight swarms of gnats. Couple this with an obnoxious targeting system that enjoys targeting enemies who aren't hitting you over the ones that are destroying you, and you'll be wanting to toss your controller into the floor (I did, and it broke. My bad.).

During combat, you have no ability to control your character after you've started a move (can't duck or dodge once your attack sequence has started), so you'll often get pummeled with cheap shots. There will be times you'll strike an opponent across the face with a blade and he won't even flinch nor have his attack sequence disrupted. This can be an incredible annoyance during battles where you're going against quite a few enemies at once, especially when your backs to the wall.

Bosses will frequently use cheap tactics (like, you can't block their strongest attacks but they can block all of your attacks unless you're incredibly fast) and also have multiple health bars. Instead of making fun, inventive battles, most of them rely on you exploiting the one weakness the boss has over and over again until they die. Of course, since they have so much more health than you they'll kick your ass several times until you finally get lucky enough to kill them, which made me incredibly pissed off to the point where I wanted to snap the disc in half, especially later in the game.

Shadow of Rome uses the Onimusha 3 graphics engine, so if you do decide to pick up this game, be prepared for some nice graphics. All the characters in the game are designed very nicely with detailed clothing and facial features. The environments you fight in feature some solid textures, and there are some awesome flame effects incorporated in the game. It isn't all great though. While the cutscenes are very fluid and well animated, sometimes your character will have a different weapon than the one you selected or will be wearing different clothes than you had on. Also, when large crowds of Romans have gathered together, most of the Romans look incredibly flat and bland. As previously mentioned, most of the voice-overs suck, but the orchestrated score for the game is very pleasant to listen to repeatedly.

The two styles of gameplay found in Shadow of Rome are integrated surprisingly well. Just when you're probably growing weary of the action sequences, the game will leave the arena and you'll have to mess around as Octavianus for a while, and when you get bored with that, it's back to combat. You don't really have a choice in the matter as the game is incredibly linear, but it works well either way. Ultimately though, both of them have their faults, which leads you to wonder what would have happened if Capcom had focused instead on just one of them. Instead, we're just left with one more game that relies on frustrating elements to make a short game seem longer, and one more game that settles at just average.

Reviewer's Rating:   3.0 - Fair

Originally Posted: 03/10/05

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