While boxing, ultimate fighting, and other contemporary contests can get brutal, when it comes to sheer potential for injury and death in mainstream entertainment, the ancient Romans have the modern world beaten. Gladiator Begins is a return to that glorious era of swords and sandals, casting you as a gladiator who must rise through the ranks to earn your freedom. It's a premise rife with promise. Unfortunately, repetitive combat and other frustrating elements prevent Gladiator Begins from being a satisfying re-creation of those bloody battles that once thrilled the people of Rome.
Officially, this is the follow-up to 2005's Colosseum: Road to Freedom for the PlayStation 2, and if you've played that game, the structure and gameplay of Gladiator Begins will immediately feel familiar. The story stands on its own, though, and no experience with the earlier game is necessary. You begin by creating a male or female gladiator, tweaking a decent variety of appearance options, and pouring points into your three attributes: vitality, endurance, and strength. Then you start your arduous climb from the lowest ranks of gladiatorial slavery, fighting for coin and glory in bloody arena combat with the hopes of one day earning your freedom. As you make a name for yourself, various nobles will take notice of you and ask you for help. You might become the personal assassin of a noblewoman who has strayed from her husband with many men and wants you to take care of the problem; you could even end up defending the life of Rome's next emperor. All in all, there are five possible patrons, and while these storylines aren't that fleshed out, they do lend the ancient Roman setting of Gladiator Begins a sense of romantic intrigue and political tumult.
The combat is tumultuous as well. On each typical in-game day, you entertain the bloodthirsty crowd by bringing other gladiators to within an inch of their lives in events that include one-on-one, two-on-two, battle royal, and other formats. You can employ one of four fighting styles to accomplish this. The single hand sword style, in which you typically hold a small shield in your off hand, allows a good balance between attack and defense. The shield style, in which you carry a large shield, offers the best protection but limits your movement. The dual sword and pugilist styles leave you more vulnerable but are also capable of dishing out tremendous damage very quickly. The four face buttons correspond to attacks aimed at your opponent's head, sides, and feet, and if you strike a piece of equipment your opponent is holding or wearing enough times, it goes flying off. You can grab and use this equipment immediately in the heat of battle, or collect it as spoils once you are victorious. You can also parry attacks with a well-timed button press and perform special skill attacks, which are cool and effective moves that you unlock as you progress.
Unfortunately, even though Gladiator Begins goes to all this trouble to establish a foundation for tactical combat, the action typically boils down to repetitive button mashing. Victory can often be a matter of finding one type of attack to which your opponent is particularly vulnerable and repeating it until he dies because he's too stupid to respond appropriately to what you're doing. In battles royal, you can slaughter three opponents too busy fighting each other to recognize that you're the real threat, only to have three more charge into the ring and immediately start fighting each other and ignoring you. What challenge is present often comes more from the controls than from a skilled opponent. With no way to lock on, it can sometimes be difficult to face your target so that your attacks hit home rather than pierce the empty air. There are moments of satisfaction amid all the spurting blood and flying gear, but these moments are the exception to the rule.
And then there's also the fickle crowd to think about. A meter in the upper right corner of the screen reflects their level of entertainment with the current match. It's in your best interests to put on a thrilling show because doing so nets you more points you can then spend to increase your attributes. But the crowd can be pretty tough to please, especially when, as is often the case, you're significantly more powerful than those you're competing against. The crowd is impressed by rapid chains of attacks, stylish finishing moves, and other shows of prowess, but if your opponent falls too quickly to your sword, trident, cestus, or other weapon of choice, it's tough to get the audience worked up. It's always a post-victory letdown to see your gladiator fall to his or her knees and look defeated just because your triumph was too quick and decisive.
At least there's some basic enjoyment in equipping your gladiator, thanks to the huge variety of weapons, shields, and other gear you can collect from your fallen foes. If you're more concerned with effectiveness than appearance, you can end up wearing some pretty hilariously mismatched stuff into the ring. But even here, the game stumbles a bit, as it never calls attention to or explains the refinement system that lets you improve one item with the sacrifice of another item and a lot of coin. In fact, many elements, including pleasing the crowd, leveling up your fighting styles, and refining your equipment, are either brushed over or ignored completely by the meager tutorials. And if you download the game from PSN, you don't even get a digital instruction manual to help you sort these things out. You're on your own. There's quite a bit going on, and the game really needed to do a better job familiarizing you with some of its aspects.
Gladiator Begins looks pretty sharp. The warriors and their varied weapons and equipment are terrifically detailed and have an impressive assortment of attack animations. The arenas in which you do battle, though, look a bit small and spare and don't quite create the sense of large-scale spectacle you'd hope for. The clangs and grunts of battle are fine, but the short music loops you hear on menus quickly become grating, and the vocal noises characters make as you advance from one screen of text to another during story sequences are almost comical.
In addition to the single-player experience, there's a bare-bones ad hoc multiplayer mode that lets you duel against a friend. You can also exchange gladiators via ad hoc, or upload and download characters from the network. The varied fighting styles and huge assortment of equipment Gladiator Begins offers are impressive, but the core fighting sadly doesn't do enough with these elements. As a bargain download, the simple satisfaction of developing your gladiator's skills may have made this game somewhat worthwhile, but for full price, there's just not enough entertainment on offer to please the masses.