It's been nearly a year since we got our first look at Capcom's action game set in the days of ancient Rome. We've had the opportunity to check in on the original title, which is currently being overseen by producer Keiji Inafune of Onimusha fame, over the ensuing months and have seen various aspects of the game evolve as its development has taken place. But, while we've seen different pieces of Shadow of Rome, we haven't had the chance to see how it all works together...until now. We recently had the opportunity to spend some quality time with a near-final version of the game, so we can now finally see how unique it is and determine how well it blends traditional action and stealth gameplay elements.
By now, most should be familiar with Shadow of Rome's story, which focuses on two friends, Agrippa and Octavianus, who are working together to solve the murder of Julius Caesar. Agrippa's father has been framed for the heinous act and is slated to be killed. The game follows the pair as they set out to help in their own unique ways. For Agrippa, this means competing in gladiatorial combat to reach the upper echelons of fighters. The winner of the games will be sent to execute Caesar's murderer, who is supposedly Agrippa's dad. Consequently, Agrippa is working to win so he can save his father. Octavianus is working to save Agrippa's father in a more roundabout way by looking for clues as to who framed him and killed Caesar.
The two story threads serve as the perfect setup for the three unique gameplay systems in Shadow of Rome. Agrippa's plot thread revolves around combat in the arena and makes use of two systems. The first is a hack-and-slash system that is very satisfying. The core mechanics revolve around much stabbing, but you'll also be able to block, use arrows, and perform wickedly bloody combos thanks to the assorted weapons you'll find. The development team has also included a crowd mechanic that lets you play to the audience in hopes of riling its members up. If you gain enough audience favor, you'll be showered with useful items, such as weapons or food you can eat to replenish your health. One of the coolest touches to the fights is that later in the game, your opponents won't be confined to just people. In a move that's sure to thrill PETA, Shadow of Rome has included animals in the mix as arena opponents. So in addition to your crazy hacking of people, plan on facing off against a small zoo of critters that's hell-bent on chomping you to pieces.
The second system you'll use as Agrippa revolves around Ben-Hur-style combat in a chariot. You'll face off against enemies in competitive chariot races that are probably not 100 percent historically accurate. You'll be challenged to both race through courses and take out your foes, while also aiming to place at the head of the pack. Agrippa's mighty array of moves is severely limited in these segments due to the inherent problems associated with kicking ass while controlling a moving chariot. However, you'll find you can do alright by using your vehicle to ram into your foes.
The third gameplay system in Shadow of Rome is tied to Octavianus' adventuring, and it borrows liberally from the stealth action genre. While Agrippa is a terminator in the ring, Octavianus is considerably less menacing in most facets of life. As a result, you'll have to use your brain to get what you need by employing a variety of stealth-oriented moves. You'll be able to sneak around, hide, and climb around your environment to avoid detection or to shake off pursuers. Although direct melee combat isn't really an option, most of the time, you can choose to engage foes indirectly by bonking them on the head with pottery or with whatever else is handy. As in most traditional stealth games, though, you'll want to hide the evidence to reduce the risk of being detected. Shadow of Rome's wrinkle on the timeworn system lets you nab your prey's outfit when you need a disguise. Once you don your "donated" disguise, you can snoop around in new areas. The catch to the system is that you'll want to keep your distance from most folks. Clothes might make the man, but only if they fit. Octavianus' muscle-challenged physique makes him easy to pick out if he's scrutinized, so you'll have to be careful when trying to infiltrate heavily trafficked areas. If you're forced to do some heavy-duty sneaking, you'll be able to make use of keyholes to look and overhear other characters.
Stabbing Made Fun
While Shadow of Rome had initially been slated to give you some measure of control over which gameplay systems you'd clock the most time with, this option has changed some in this version of the game. Rather than offer a free-form level layout that lets you pick and choose what you're doing, you'll now alternate between characters in a more traditional structure. You'll now cycle through playing as each character via a conventional mission-based progression that relies on the story.
Shadow of Rome opens up with one of several nicely handled computer-generated sequences that you'll come across in the game. The opening cinematic is somewhat of a history lesson that fills you in on the happenings of ancient Rome and the murder of Caesar. Once that's out of the way, you'll be dropped into Agrippa's sandals and sent on a tutorial run through an arena battle that fills you in on the game's controls. After you've cut folks up real good, you'll switch to Octavianus, following an ingame cinematic that sets up his role in the adventure. From then on you'll switch between the two characters as dictated by the story. While this is a decent enough setup, the game's pacing suffers some because Agrippa's action levels present a sharp contrast to Octavianus' stealth-based levels.
Besides the main game, Capcom has also included extras you'll unlock as you progress. While we can't reveal just what the extras are, suffice it to say that Capcom is a deeply Japanese company, and its developers have quirky senses of humor. So expect a mix of useful extras and other items that rank quite high on the eccentric scale. Does this mean you'll be guiding Agrippa through waves of foes as he wears a schoolgirl costume or sports a massive cat costume à la DOA? You'll just have to play to find out what wackiness lies in store for our pair of heroes.
The graphics are sharp thanks to the tech borrowed from the Onimusha games. While the visuals don't pack quite the same punch they did a year ago, there's still quite a bit to appreciate. The character models are large and feature a high level of detail, in addition to well-done animation. The environments sport detail that's almost as high as the characters. Special effects, such as those involving lighting, water, and fire, give the areas you'll be exploring some character and often help set the tone for the action. You'll notice a few concessions made to ensure the graphical performance is steady (despite the heavy polygon and effects usage), such as boxy level layouts that confine what's displayed onscreen to manageable chunks. However, you'll also get the chance to see some showier moments that let the graphics engine shine when you're fighing in the arena as Agrippa, who combats hordes of enemies and animals. The chariot races represent other showcase moments thanks to their solid senses of speed and assorted filters, which both add to the action. The violence in the game, which includes an over-the-top assortment of decapitations, stabbings, and lost limbs, is suitably over-the-top and should please with its fountains of blood and chunks of viscera. Those with weak constitutions can choose to turn off the violence to convince themselves that slicing off someone's head is a bloodless affair.
The audio is an immersive mix of ambient effects, voice, and a varied collection of music. In many ways, the ambient effects are the most effective element in the audio mix when it comes to sucking you into the experience. The reactions of the crowd are a pleasing collection of dramatic sound bites that certainly suck you in as you fight with Agrippa. Octavianus' stealth levels hinge on sound in a different way, because any errant noise will likely spike your blood pressure as you try to sneak around unnoticed. The voice in the game is workable, although you'll hear some unintentionally hilarious bits of overemoting that have some charm. Finally, the soundtrack is an appropriately dramatic collection of tunes that is a perfect complement to the onscreen actions of both characters.
Based on what we've played, Shadow of Rome is looking good. The gameplay mechanics represent a solid marriage of the disparate action and stealth genres we know so well. Furthermore, the visuals are a nifty showcase for the development team's prowess with the PlayStation 2 hardware. The extras combine to create a wacky and cool mix of content that represents a nice perk. If you're looking for a game that lets you stab, sneak, kill animals, and drive chariots, then you'll surely want to pick up Shadow of Rome when it hits the street this February.