In the world of video games, there are some standard themes that tend to be reused over and over again. Over the years, gamers have bested alien invaders, evil ninja clans, gangs of thugs, and hordes of the undead time and time again. Rather than take one of these usual routes, Kodiak Interactive ventures into fresh territory with Circus Maximus, a game that attempts to fuse the essence of classic gladiator films like Ben Hur with gameplay mechanics reminiscent of vehicular combat games like Road Rash and Twisted Metal. It's a good concept, but the game falls short of reproducing the intensity of its inspirations.
Considering the brutal nature of chariot racing, the vehicular-combat-game influence in Circus Maximus is quite fitting, though the action itself isn't always exciting. The cut-and-dried objective of simply winning a race in Circus Maximus is made more interesting by the presence of two people on each chariot: a driver and a warrior. If you're playing the game by yourself, you can either retain total control over driving the chariot, letting the computer automatically aim your warrior toward the closest competitor while you control his or her attacks, or you can switch your focus on the fly to battling other chariots while the AI handles all the driving duties. Most players will probably choose the first option most of the time, as the AI isn't as good at driving the chariot as it is determining which opponent is closest to you. If you've got company, Circus Maximus offers a few multiplayer options as well. You can play cooperatively with a friend, where one player controls the driver and the other controls the warrior. There is also a two-way split screen mode, supporting up to four players, with two on each chariot. Splitting the control of a single chariot between two players is an interesting idea that works pretty well, and it does a good job of requiring both players to work together as a team.
Since they're just two-wheeled wooden carts being dragged along by a pair of horses, the chariots are naturally a bit tricky to control. Taking a turn too sharply can cause your chariot to tip on to one wheel or flip over entirely. Chariots are also quite susceptible to damage, so if you take too many hits from your opponents, you'll find your chariot dragging along the ground with one of its wheels missing. Even with both wheels intact, you still may find yourself struggling with the controls initially--but as you get acclimated to the nature of the chariots, you'll find that the computer opponents' skills aren't as advanced as yours. This takes away a lot of the challenge of the single-player game and turns it into an endurance race that's limited only by your desire to keep playing. There will be occasional moments where you'll feel like you're in the middle of an action sequence from a gladiator movie, but with only three other chariots in the race on the game's large and sprawling tracks, Circus Maximus generally fails to create the amount of close-quarters chaos one would expect from a chariot race.
The graphics in Circus Maximus aren't great. The environment textures look clean, but they're reused often throughout any one set of courses. The environments themselves lack a sense of depth, as much of the scenery looks very flat. Each track capably captures the feel of its respective locale, from the dusty Roman coliseums to the lush countryside of Britannia, though certain track elements (such as trees falling and boulders rolling onto the track) are found in every location, which takes away from each location's individuality. Animating something as physically complex as a chariot a must be a difficult undertaking, and Circus Maximus doesn't quite succeed at it. The individual animations of the warrior, driver, and horses are fine, but they seem detached from each other. The driver and the horses never react to the attacks of another chariot. The horses seem unaware that they're pulling a chariot at all, constantly galloping at the same predetermined pace. When your chariot inevitably crashes, you'll be treated to an instant replay of your wreck, but the animations cut out before the crash runs its course, negating the effectiveness of the replay. Also, when you defeat one of your opponents, his or her chariot will "blink out" a few beats before the horses do, and the resulting effect is just silly looking.
The game's audio presentation does a fair job of immersing you in the race, though it's not without its rough spots either. The most prominent sound throughout is that of horse hooves clomping against the turf, and it's underscored by a satisfyingly intense orchestral soundtrack. The chariot racers have a couple of canned taunts and exclamations, but some of them are so incredibly anachronistic ("I'm gonna kick your ass!") that they seem like they were ripped from another game entirely. They can really take you out of the experience of the game.
Circus Maximus has some good ideas that just haven't been fully realized. Actually competing in a deadly chariot race is an intriguing concept for a game, but Circus Maximus doesn't manage to make the experience all that exciting. Xbox owners tired of seeing the same old types of settings in games may want to give Circus Maximus a chance, but most will probably want to pass on this half-baked combat racing game.