It's a simplistic hack-and-slash that tends to get painfully repetitive, but 300: March to Glory has its moments.
- Appropriately gruff voice acting
- Great soundtrack
- Genuinely brutal-looking combat.
- Combat system is clumsy and repetitive
- Some needlessly frustrating sequences
- Phalanx sequences feel like an afterthought
- In-game graphics aren't much to look at.
If you buy only one action game starring a Spartan warrior this year, don't make it 300: March to Glory. If you buy two, then maybe pay 300 a bit of consideration. Based on the upcoming Zack Snyder film (which is itself a retelling of Frank Miller's graphic novel), 300 is a pure hack-and-slash action game, filled with violently bloody combat, monstrous enemies, and some stylish artwork. It's also another one of those movie-licensed games that feels like it was cobbled together in a relatively short cycle and rushed onto store shelves just ahead of the film's release, as practically every aspect feels underdeveloped in one way or another. But raw as it may be, 300 still provides some memorable moments and ties itself into the film quite nicely.
300 tells the tale of the Battle of Thermopylae (or, at least, a highly stylized version of it). You're not going to get a particularly accurate history lesson here, but the gist is that a small cadre of 300 Spartan warriors (led by their king, Leonidas) stood their ground against the hundreds of thousands of invading warriors of Xerxes I's Persian army. In the game, you play as Leonidas and fight alongside some of your fellow Spartans as you take on a seemingly endless onslaught of Persians. Fortunately, the heavy stylization of the story in the comic and the movie helps to prevent 300 from being an endless beat-'em-up against generic soldiers. In this story, Xerxes employs a wide variety of horrible grotesqueries, from deformed golems to hideous executioners with blades literally replacing their arms.
Leonidas and his crew are a feisty bunch, screaming taunts at their enemies before every battle and generally going into every fight without so much as a hint of fear. The actors who portray the primary characters--not the actors from the film, save for one (David Wenham, reprising his role as Dilios)--do a fine job conveying the borderline insanity of each warrior. These guys chew the scenery like Bolivians chew coca leaves, and it's really entertaining to listen to.
Too bad it's not as entertaining to play. As fantastic as the idea of a bunch of bloodthirsty Spartans tearing up the Persian army sounds, 300 doesn't deliver on the action. Mainly, the combat is too simplistic. You're handed a shield, a sword, and a spear (and, eventually, dual swords) and can cycle through any of these weapons at the press of a button. There are two main attack buttons and a third attack button that uses your shield as a weapon. Basic attacks consist of short combo strings that are usually enough to fell any of the weaker enemies, though stronger enemies require far more attacks. The problem is that the game never finds a way to make these attacks particularly interesting, beyond the copious amounts of blood and severed limbs that come flying off a downed warrior. You'd think that'd be enough, yet somehow even the abject violence seems a bit dull. Though the game touts a number of equipment and combo upgrades you can earn by killing more and more dudes, there aren't nearly enough of these upgrades to really make a difference, and the ones that are there aren't all that spectacular. So you end up pulling off a lot of short, similar-looking combos that often have to be repeated ad nauseam to bring down some of the bigger enemies.
A few bones of variety are tossed your way with some of Leonidas' special abilities. There's a heightened attack mode called "blood drunk" that turns your whole screen red and doubles your attack damage, as well as a defensive mode that prevents you from taking any damage for a short period and a mode that slows down time, letting you go stab happy on a bunch of enemies that are moving at half your speed. All these abilities are tied into a "wrath" meter that builds up as you murder more foes.
They're cool abilities and can get you out of some tough spots, but unfortunately, the game designers decided to balance these abilities out by putting you into some tough spots. For instance, there are enemies that can only be killed while blood drunk. If you go into one of these battles with a low wrath meter, you have to hope there are some other grunt enemies floating around to kill to build that meter back up, and if there aren't, you're left to stab wildly at the main bad guy until the meter builds up far enough for you to do some damage. There are times when multiple enemies are floating around that functionally require you to be blood drunk to defeat, and having to play a slow-paced game of cat and mouse (or, in this case, block and stab) until you fill up this meter and can get your murder on is painfully frustrating. These blood-drunk-required enemies aren't the only frustrating lot either, as there are some that arbitrarily require ground attacks to kill (and to get them on the ground, you have to either use an attack that drains a bit of your wrath meter, or pull off one of a few specific unlockable combos) and some that seemingly can't be beaten unless you pummel them for long stretches of time with your shield.
What it boils down to is that 300 makes it entirely too difficult to garner any satisfaction from its combat. Slicing off heads and limbs of hapless grunts is definitely amusing, and some of the boss fights are legitimately epic. But too often these moments are broken up by fights against enemies that just aren't all that fun to kill. The game breaks up the pacing even more by inserting a few goofball mechanics into the mix, such as the periodic hail storms of arrows that will randomly come raining down in battle (and require you to stop whatever you're doing and hide behind a shield until it ceases), as well as the phalanx sections. A phalanx, for those without a degree in the history of war, is a formation of soldiers where the warriors join together and move forward as one, singular unit. Here, it's represented by a few soldiers on either side of you forming a line and all walking forward with you as you use your spears to stab random enemies that run at you wildly. It's kind of a neat idea, but these sequences all feel exactly the same, and the periodic boss fights against battle elephants feel horribly undercooked. These gigantic elephants will swipe at you with their trunks or stomp on you with all their weight, yet all you need to do is block with the group's shields and nothing bad will happen to you. Then you just stab at the elephant when it isn't attacking (it actually looks more like you're stabbing at air), and eventually it's dead. To say that it feels like very little thought went into the phalanx sections would probably be an understatement.
Phalanx sections aren't the only times you'll be fighting alongside fellow Spartans. In practically every stage of the game, you've got at least one or two Spartans fighting alongside you, and they actually do a solid job of attacking nearby enemies (though they're utterly useless against anyone that requires a special tactic to kill). The only problem with your computer-controlled cohorts is that having one or two guys with you doesn't exactly lend itself toward feeling like an epic battle. You're rarely against more than a half dozen or so enemies at once during any battle, so you're looking at maybe 10 guys onscreen at any given time. The PSP's hardware capabilities are limited, so it's not necessarily possible to throw huge chunks of soldiers at you. But considering how the story of Thermopylae is all about a few guys soldiering on against a massive opposing force, 300 feels a bit cheap in comparison.
The presentation of the game doesn't lift it out of this cheap feeling, either. It's not a bad-looking game by any means, but the graphics engine isn't terribly impressive. Environments have an ugly, blocky look to them, and most of the generic soldiers don't look much better. Leonidas is the primary exception, as his upgradeable weapons and armor have a really slick look. Some of the more horrific enemies also look pretty cool. However, as simple as the overall graphics are, some technical issues still plague the game. There are sections that start running at literally half speed, and the camera has a tendency to hide enemies that might be attacking offscreen.
On the other side of the presentational coin are the prelevel cutscenes and all of the audio. Cutscenes are handled with some still-frame comic art that looks like it could have come directly from Frank Miller's novel, with stylishly drawn scenes that depict each event beautifully. In addition to the delightfully gruff voice work, the soundtrack is equally excellent. Of course, it's all music that was evidently lifted from the film, but it's edited nicely into the flow of the game and helps ramp up the epic factor significantly. All the slashing and stabbing sound effects are on point, as well, and so are the screams of fallen soldiers. It's just too bad there isn't a bit more in the way of battle chatter.
As a companion piece to the upcoming film, 300: March to Glory is a decent piece of work. It definitely feels rushed and off-kilter in a great number of spots, and there's very little replay value for its several-hour campaign once you've completed it. However, there's just barely enough brutal combat and style to the overall game to likely make it enjoyable for those who latch on to the movie. With a bit more time and forethought, 300 could have been something pretty special. As it is, it's a serviceable hack-and-slash that provides roughly as many moments of frustration and annoyance as it does moments of entertainment.