Crytek's upcoming cinematic Roman adventure has garnered quite a bit of press attention, but not all of it has been positive. Ryse: Son of Rome has been accused of "playing itself" and being too reliant on quick-time events. Kotaku's Mark Serrels called it the most frustrating game of E3 2013, writing "It's bewildering. Bewildering that a game would choose to move down this path; bewildering that Crytek believe completely removing any semblance of fair challenge would make players less frustrated; bewildering that they believe taking control from players would make them feel more engaged."
I admit to being less than impressed by Ryse's E3 demonstration, and after the game's showing at Comic-Con 2013, my impressions haven't shifted much. But I am willing to see what kind of magic the game might eventually work upon me--and the game's producers at Crytek and Microsoft appear to have great passion for the project. They are also eager to dispel the notion that Ryse plays itself, though in answering my questions, Crytek and Microsoft's producers left me with more concerns.
If nothing else, Ryse is technically impressive. When the camera closes in on game hero Marius Titus, you can read his anger in every snarl and grimace. The demo's facial animations are fantastic, and every frame has as much action crammed into it as possible. Sparks fly, smoke rises, and soldiers skewer each other in the background. This is all set dressing, of course, but the audiovisual chaos does a creditable job of communicating the gory horrors of this ancient battlefield.
The demo's gameplay, on the other hand, is pure power fantasy, focused mainly on leading you down a linear path and allowing you to chain together the most disgusting executions possible. The gameplay shown makes it easy to fixate on quick-time events, with button prompts signifying the possibility of an extra-fancy kill. Crytek is quick to note, however, that the prompts will be replaced with visual and audio cues. Their goal is to let players develop a rhythm as they might in Batman: Arkham Asylum, with camera moves highlighting the action without getting too carried away and annoying the player.
You can also exercise agency by choosing what kind of perks you want executions to grant you. There are four such enhancements: health, damage, experience, and focus. If you are low on health, for instance, you can use the D-pad to regain some health during your next execution. (It's unclear exactly what "focus" is in this case, though Crytek promises more information to come at GamesCom.)
And that's where the frustration kicks in. Crytek has called its combat system "mash to mastery," and so I asked about what kind of benefits performing a successful execution might grant me. Of course, you get the perks I noted above, but what do you do with the experience you gain? Well, you can upgrade your skills, but Crytek isn't yet ready to divulge exactly what those skills are, and what upgrades to them might entail. Another press member asked about how the game will evolve so as not to seem so one-note, and the producers pointed out that there will be a lot of opportunities for environmental kills. Yet there's no indication of additional weapons to use or fancy combos to learn. Well, there are the rally points that allow you to pull your troops into formation and move forward as a unit, but these opportunities are fully scripted, so you can only rally your troops at specific moments. Ryse: Son of Rome will be by all indications a highly linear game, but it's hard to know just how engaging it will be without any idea of how varied it is, or how the gameplay might evolve as the hours pass.
Even Ryse's Smartglass application gives me pause, not because it doesn't sound cool on its own, but because it allows you to further diminish your sense of wonder in a game that already leaves so little to the imagination. Every bit of the in-game menu can be accessed separately on your mobile device, so you can read the built-in digital comic, view collectibles, read Ryse-related news stories, and so forth outside of the game. But you can also use a feature called the timeline, which tracks your progress and gives you additional tips and strategies.
A built-in hint system is a great idea for certain games, and I suspect you'll see a lot of Xbox One games offering similar features. We've all been stuck on a tough puzzle or a difficult boss. Many of us rush to GameFAQs to make sense of complex crafting systems in role-playing games, or to learn effective ways of taking down beasts in Monster Hunter. The example shown with Ryse was a video revealing how you can kick an enemy combatant over a structure's edge, thus performing an environmental kill you might otherwise have not performed. (You might even earn an Xbox Live achievement in the process.) I wonder, though: does a game that aspires to be an interactive Roman epic need to peel back every inch of its veil? Are some game developers so eager to make movies that they can't trust players with even a smidgen of discovery? Of course, you could just ignore the option if you prefer, but its inclusion makes me fearful of Ryse spoon-feeding me every drop, rather than allowing me to drink freely from its well.
Well, there's always multiplayer, which remains as much of a tease as anything else with Ryse. I know you can customize your online gladiator, both in the game and via Smartglass, but that's about it. And so there are still some mysteries yet for Crytek to unveil. My biggest worry, however, is that the mysteries remaining may not be that mysterious, and that the shallow interactive experience I fear is what Ryse actually turns out to be. This is a case in which I would take great pleasure in being wrong.'