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Ryse: Son of Rome PC Review

Crytek’s Ryse: Son of Rome may not be a particularly strong blip on the radars of many PC players. After making some friends on the platform with the notoriously system-intensive Crysis, the company seemed to become enamored with chasing console money and (more recently) free-to-play ventures attached to homegrown social networks. I’m sure GFACE has its fans, somewhere, but none of those things tend to resonant well with the PC gaming crowd.

As a result, Ryse being Xbox One exclusive in 2013 was met with a collective shrug.

Of course “exclusive” is a word that doesn’t always carry that much weight these days, as PC players of Dead Rising 3 can attest. Ryse has now placed its Roman sandals firmly on our shores, hoping to appease the locals with promises of civilised frame-rates and 4K resolutions.

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Poke.

Last week I wrote an impressions piece focused on the graphics options and performance of the game, so if you’d like a more in-depth view of the PC version’s visual toggles then go and have a read of that. In short, if you have the hardware for it you’ll be able to run this game in absurd, supersampled resolutions at 60fps. The only thing I’ve learned since is that Ryse apparently goes a little easier on AMD cards with Graphics Core Next architecture than equivalent Nvidia ones.

As even my Steam-compressed 1080p screenshots dotted around this review can suggest, Ryse is a fine looking game and benefits from the additional rendering power that even a mid-range gaming PC can bring. You’ll see some lovely armour textures, lighting effects and foliage, even as you messily lop an arm off your fiftieth barbarian of the day. The standard of presentation is high throughout (albeit in service of a pretty conservative art direction,) but there are also odd lapses like the bizarre running animation exhibited by the protagonist’s dad.

In the graphics piece linked above, I mentioned that the mouse and keyboard controls (though only minimally customisable) were working rather well. I ended up using them through the whole game, and aside from some issues with dodge being assigned to the left Shift key, prefer them to the gamepad option. The pad layout has the two main sword and shield bash attacks mapped to X and Y respectively, which never felt comfortable. Ryse’s FOV is also rather narrow (and can’t be changed,) but for once this didn’t make me feel ill.

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I don’t think York ever had an aqueduct but hey, whatever.

It’s fair to say that Ryse has made a decent transition to the PC, perhaps showing that there’s life left in that part of Crytek after all. But it’s still the same game it was on the Xbox One, and that game is firmly on the mediocre side. Not awful. Not even bad for the most part. Just kind of … alright.

As noble and flawless soldier Marius Titus (seriously, if you accept barbarian murder as part of his work routine, this guy has no negative traits whatsoever,) players perform the same three activities throughout the 5-6 hour single player campaign. The aforementioned slashing up of proud British citizens (aka: ‘barbarians’,) walking slowly in formation with other Roman soldiers towards embedded archery positions, and firing spiky pila or mounted ballista at people. It’s predominantly the first thing, which is usually preceeded by Marius hopping down from a handy ledge into an arena-like clearing, paved street, or, well, arena.

Those who remember Ryse being demoed during various E3 events will probably remember discussions and mockery about the quick-time executions where you don’t even need to press the right buttons. That’s not entirely fair, because if you want to get the maximum amount of experience for levelling Marius up you do in fact have to press the correct buttons. Executions (or double executions) are possible once enemy health has fallen low enough and give you bonuses to damage, health, experience or Marius’ ‘focus’ power (slowing time,) depending on which of the four you’ve elected to boost at the time.

Blocks and counters are timing based, and it’s necessary to employ somewhat differing strategies for shielded/larger/more mobile enemies. On harder difficulties (beyond Soldier/Normal) it can actually get quite challenging.

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No wonder the Romans conquered so much of the world when they had rapid-fire, self-reloading war machines.

But it struggles to ever really get interesting. Ryse’s combat forms the majority of the game, but it’s certainly not the kind of in-depth, high skill demand of an early Devil May Cry or Bayonetta. Nor is it the kind of tense, dodge and thrust combat of something like a Souls game. It’s not especially quick paced, but it’s rapid enough to nudge it into the realms of semi-tactical hacking and slashing. Unlike the Batmans and Assassin’s Creeds, there’s no ‘this guy is about to attack you’ alert marker, so it is actually necessary to learn the tells of the various enemy strikes. I appreciated that.

Again, not terrible or anything. It’s competent. It’s fine.

The problem with the game’s near-sole activity just being fine is that it slowly deteriorates into the realms of ‘actually, a bit boring’ once you’re three hours or so deep. Think about the combat in something like Sleeping Dogs, which Ryse’s encounters somewhat resemble in pace and style. It’s solid. Pretty decent. But if that was pretty much all you did in that game, it would get quite dull. Such is the case with Ryse. There’s only so much slow motion dismemberment you can watch and retain interest in, no matter how glorious the resolution.

Minor bugs hampered the experience too. For some reason, Marius occasionally refused to interact with objects like piles of throwable pila. Apparently E is not always the key for picking things up, but sometimes the key for standing around gormlessly doing a nifty sword twirl while archers shoot at you.

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Strike a pose.

In terms of screen-time, the combat is matched only by Ryse’s cut-scenes. These have lavish production values, facial animation that at least tries to steer clear of looking too uncanny, and some decent enough voice acting. Unfortunately, they’re all in support of a story that’s very, very predictable. Can you guess whether Marius’ idealistic senator father and family will die within about 30 seconds of being introduced? Yes. Yes, you can. Because you’ve played videogames and seen rubbish films before.

There’s a place for bombastic, style-over-substance narratives in fiction, but Ryse feels stick between differing tonal intentions. At times it clearly wants to be a Game of Thrones or (perhaps more appropriately) HBO’s Rome, but other aspects and depictions put it closer to the preposterous camp of something like Flash Gordon. One minute a scene is trying to build tension to an (obvious) political betrayal, the next you’ve got Boudicca invading Rome on a war elephant or Marius rapid-firing a magical, auto-reloading scorpio war machine.

I rather wish Crytek’s writing team had gone all out with the overblown alternate-history, because when they do the silliness becomes almost engaging. Like when Marius is forced to go north of Hadrian’s wall into the wretched, perma-dark lands of fog and despair, facing foes who build gigantic wicker-man prisons and are “more beast than man.” It’s like Pict-era Scotland by way of Mordor.

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Welcome to Scotland, please enjoy your stay.

The speaking characters do sometimes have a degree of craft to them, but it tends to be pretty shallow stuff. Nero is greedy and paranoid. Boudicca is vengeful and proud. That sort of thing.

Sometimes Ryse just gets downright sloppy with its writing shortcuts. At one point Marius is basically teleported to a house of debauchery run by Nero’s son Basilius half-way through a mission. Why? Because Basilius hands out the contracts to the gladiator tournament, of course. Which Marius needs, because Nero’s other son will fight whoever wins said tournament. None of this plot strand has had any build-up whatsoever, but hey, it means the game can tick off the Roman brothel and gladiatorial arena scenes by putting them back to back.

Later on, one of the adversaries tells Marius that “we’re not so different, you and I.” One: that cliché is so tired it should just be allowed to rest and never wake up again. Two: the characters in that situation are only similar on the most superficial contextual level, so it doesn’t even make much sense.

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Rather than don the Nanosuit, I’ve elected to wear a nappy.

Having just written about cliché, I feel I’ve fallen into one myself by only covering the multiplayer portion in a couple of paragraphs near the end of the review. That’s a bit unreasonable, because the multiplayer is no more or less important than the single player campaign. It’s effectively very similar, except played with a co-op friend, and with all the story bits replaced with grinding for gold and load-out items.

You’re dropped into various gladiatorial arenas and tasked with things like tipping boiling oil onto bunkers that spawn enemies, tossing some pila at unhelpful archers or, obviously, just defeating waves of barbarians in open combat. It’s the same glossy, blood-splattered combat as the Ryse single player, but this time you get rewarded with coins at the end of each successful round (or upon death.) Coins can be spent on unlocking consumable health potions or better weapons and armour from ‘packs,’ which have mercifully had their real money microtransaction alternative removed by Crytek for the PC release.

Our version also adds all the DLC maps and skins, including the option to play in the Crysis Nanosuit. And by ‘the option’ I mean everybody online does this.

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I love everything about this image, so I’m using it again. He’s so cheerful!

In a way I found the Ryse multiplayer more straightforwardly honest than its single player counterpart. It’s the combat system placed front and center, attached to a standard psychological treadmill of time investment in return for slight character improvements. Single player attempts to drape the gore-splattered, middling battle system with some sort of meaning, but doesn’t quite know whether that meaning should be serious alt-history with military pathos or absurdist mechanised gladiator arenas and hooting emperors. Neither mode makes a strong case to push Ryse out of the mediocre category, but it sure does look pretty on the right kind of PC.