Quite simply, a video game based around the idea that you must repeatedly press a button and kill hordes of enemy targets can easily descend into monotony, into gaming travesty. Common practice is to build outwards from this most basic of gaming principles in the form of diversions like mini-games and items hidden throughout vast worlds. Developers can also inject fresh, new elements or perfect old ones. If they do both, then all the better. Spartan: Total Warrior is more concerned with the latter than the former, and in that concern it does bring some freshness to the collective gaming table making it a rather fun romp.
Taking a break from the methodical realm of real-time strategy games for the PC, Creative Assembly, creators of the recent Rome: Total War, has assembled across the three major platforms a bloody, anachronistic, massively populated third-person hack ?n slash adventure through the tumultuous and fictionally-enhanced landscapes of ancient Rome. This is the Gamecube?s account of the events that preceded.
This fictional tale of all-out war between civilized and uncivilized man, monster, and god (of both the full and demi variety) is recalled through voice-over and text by Castor, a Spartan warrior and twin brother of Pollux, friend of your avatar, The Spartan. The levels, or chapters, occur in three acts, though this seems to be a small stylistic choice rather than an attempt at narrative structure. The first few chapters have you as The Spartan, along with the brothers, defending the motherland of Sparta from the enormous siege machines of Roman invaders at the command of Emperor Tiberius. Aiding you are dozens of AI-controlled Spartan warriors, from standard infantry, to high perched bowmen, even to bomb-toting sappers. These last troops have the job in the initial stages of safely reaching?with your aid?the off-boarding ramps of the siege machines and destroy them. Given the dozens of enemy units and the dozens of Spartan units, the sense of battlefield immersion is palpable, reinforced by the myriad sound effects of clanging metals and shouts of intimidation and pain.
This game, as mentioned previously, is mostly furious hack and slash, a curious mix of arcade action and console depth, not meant to be realistic. As the mysterious Spartan, a man with no recollection of his true identity and past, you are effectively a one-man killing machine tasked with the bidding of Ares. You accomplish your tasks with the occasional help of your allies, legendary weapons, and of course the favor of the gods. The core combat system is comprised of rapid centered attacks, a broad sweeping attack (radial), attack blocking, centered defensive disruption, radial defensive disruption, evasive ground roll, centered bow and arrow, and radial bow and arrow. Spartan: Total Warrior utilizes a subtle and simple targeting system for centered melee attacks that allows you to direct the analog stick towards the approximate direction of the target and press the attack button. It connects with the hit so long as you are close enough, simple as that. This allows for stringed, blood-drenched combos in the literal dog piles of enemies, with varied attack animations depending on the equipped weapon at the time. With this system, it allows you to work one opponent then in an instant turn and work another when you see him or her coming in from behind to strike you.
Amidst the slaughtering, a meter builds up with each hit, aptly titled ?rage?. Though the concept is not original, it is a welcome addition because, without it, this game probably wouldn?t be as fun, and much harder. When the rage meter fills up to a specific point, pressing the L trigger and either the centered or radial attack will unleash The Spartan?s primal rage. That it seems oddly appropriate in context of the violent atmosphere of the Roman Empire is all the more reason it belongs in this game. Fueled by blood lust, The Spartan unleashes a devastating attack, denoted by the slowing down of time and sound right before he brings certain demise to his opponents in normal time. Rage attacks differ slightly from weapon to weapon, though I prefer the lightning fast, head-chopping radial rage attack of the Swords of Athena.
While getting in the middle of the action is a brave act worthy of a Spartan warrior, bravery can also get you mangled. The Roman and Praetorian soldiers are no pushovers and will block some of your attacks and generally hit you from all sides, even as their archers rain down on you from above. That?s where blocking, maneuvering, defensive disruption, and basically dirty tactics becomes a viable option. Blocking is key as it will sometimes act as a parrying move, opening up the enemy for attack. The roll maneuver can get you behind the enemy for a quick kill. Defensive disruption is basically using your shield or weapon to ram the enemies, temporarily knocking them off balance and opening them up. This is very key in dealing with groups of enemies to help you get a chain combo going in order to build up the ever-important, group-ravaging rage. You can also indirectly kill targets by pushing them off high places or into pits with this balance-disrupting ability. Likewise, attacking soldiers who are distracted in battle is a conscious design decision employed by the creators and is quite often necessary. Simply put, Spartan: Total Warrior?s emphasis on disposing of targets in a multitude of ways?environmental explosives, fire-spreading braziers, rapid-firing ballistas, indirect kills?helps save this game from sword-slinging monotony. Additionally, the fact that no targets, no sides are safe from most attacks positively adds to the chaotic and unpredictable battle atmosphere.
As you progress through the game, you will acquire more weapons like Beowulf?s Hammer and The Spear of Achilles. Besides each weapon?s unique rage attack, they also each have unique magical properties. Later on, these magical skills become paramount. Using them requires the same button combination as rage, only it?s a difference between pressing the shoulder button with little or a lot of pressure. Quite often you will deplete one of your magic reserves trying to use your built up rage because during the heat of battle, analog sensitivity is the last thing on your mind. This is one of the major design faults of Spartan: Total Warrior, along with problems when moving your character while controlling the camera (leading to accidental deaths), and the fact that you can reach checkpoints with little life, a lot of enemies, and very little hope of surviving.
What this game did get right from a design point of view outside of combat mechanics is the emphasis of multi-task management and mission variety. Often both of these elements are present at once, where you must manage multiple threads of action in each mission. For instance, there?s a sequence near the beginning where you must kill all the Roman invaders and not be killed yourself, make sure King Leonidas?who is fighting alongside The Spartan?stays alive, periodically allow in reinforcement troops by opening a portcullis AND protect another gate that leads into the inner portions of the city from being destroyed. Each battle with a group of Romans is a multi-task in itself because you?re dealing with so many at a time, plus trying to keep an eye on your health which must be recharged at a nearby health altar. Concerning mission variety, tasks range from escort missions, sabotage, time trials, target protection, specific target elimination, stealth, and more, pretty much the entire scope of most established video game mission components. It seems to be the logical extension of the designers? background in real-time strategy games where micro-management is the name of the game, and it works.
On this perilous journey of truth, sacrifice, confusing or otherwise questionable motives, hopefully leading to defeat of the Roman Machine or higher powers that be, you come across a wide variety of supporting characters, some of which are names straight out of history; others out of myth. Being a video game, and given the current state of affairs in video game narrative, the characters are stock video game characters, ones you?ve most definitely seen and heard before in some manner, speaking only to advance plot or progress. Emperor Tiberius is seen onscreen only a couple of times. Sejanus, his right-hand man and Praetorian Prefect, gets most of the screen time. From my understanding of history, the obsequious Sejanus manipulated his way into his position then used the power to run things his way, all the while using Tiberius and covertly eliminating potential successors to the throne. None of this is really alluded to in the game. Sejanus, in the game, possesses dark magic and seems to be at the command of Tiberius. General Crassus, another boss character, died before Tiberius was even born. Taking into account the often light-hearted stance and sentiments, it is not a bad thing that this game borrows the names yet not the stories; however, a little history lesson sure could have livened things up and put weight into an otherwise tacked-on plot. At least we get a Minotaur, Medusa-as-weapon-of-mass-destruction, and a clumsy Archimedes.
The graphics of Spartan: Total Warrior serve the game well. Given the sheer number of AI units on screen and Creative Assembly?s desire to keep a silky frame rate, the graphics will not impress on first glance with minute details like texture resolutions or polygon counts. None of that matters in the context to what the designers want to do, and that is to deliver total war, hence the subtitle. The visuals are average at the cost of bringing the highest functionality to the gameplay. In any case, the game looks good enough. In regards to sound, the design of it is of a higher quality because it can afford to be. The sound effects help bring the chaos of that breed of warfare closer. The music, though, will hardly register to your ears; mostly absent, forgettable, or subjugated due to the intense concentration required to play the game.
Spartan: Total Warrior is a test of most of your gaming assets. This game is hard. Even on normal difficulty, veteran gamers will find themselves dying at a steady clip. It?s quite maddening in a sense because it has a way of coming off as deceptively simple. You know what you must do, so it all lies in the execution. It?s just that things never go the way you envision them. It is only appropriate that the final Boss be one of the hardest in recent memory, forcing you to call upon the ability to micro-manage in real-time with skills you may or may not have. There is also an arena mode that is as equally hard as the single player campaign. You unlock battle arenas and the items that can be used by finding certain treasure chests throughout the single player levels. The objective in arena mode is to last as long as possible with one life against increasing numbers of opponents, broken up in rounds. You get to choose which items you take with you into the fights?from healing shrines, environmental weapons, to Spartan warriors that will fight by your side.
With its confident execution and design, some inspired boss battles, smooth framerate, and decent graphics and sound, Spartan: Total Warrior defines itself as a definite sleeper hit. I had not heard much about the game until I volunteered to review it. I must say that while it doesn?t even approach gaming?s Pantheon of Gods nor does it really aspire to do as much, it does succeed as a pure action gaming experience.