There are so many virtual online worlds out there that choosing which one to inhabit can be daunting. Most massively multiplayer games try to stand out in some manner, perhaps with intriguing lands to explore, exciting player-versus-player matches, or just the promise of ever-more-powerful swords and sickles to wield. Gods & Heroes: Rome Rising's lures are threefold. First is the setting. Roman mythology is an excellent backdrop for a role-playing game and has gone curiously underexplored in the genre. Second is the estate, your personal domain that gradually improves as you fulfill quest objectives. Third is the minion feature. Depending on your level, you can travel with up to four AI-controlled teammates who assist you in battle, so it's like you have your very own personal adventuring party even when you are soloing. These are good ideas that give flavor to an otherwise mundane, dated, and boring online RPG in which the basics are about as basic as can be.
Lure number one: the world. Gods & Heroes takes place on the Italian peninsula of antiquity, mixing historical elements (the Senate and the baths) with mythological ones (fauns, cyclopes, and the favor of the gods). This good-sized world covers a lot of ground, certainly as much as you would expect from a just-released massively multiplayer online game. And because your initial quests span two large regions, you get a good amount of environmental variety from the start. You come across centaurs early on, giving you a taste of the fantastical straight away, and while initial areas are bog-standard forest paths and beaches, later areas, such as the foggy Venatrix Glades, provide a bit more ambience. Such atmospheric locales are welcome, considering how dated Gods & Heroes looks. On the bright side, a modern PC should be able to run the game at its highest settings, and at a high resolution, and still maintain over 100 frames per second. (Except in areas where the game slows to an inexplicable crawl, such as in your personal estate.) The downside is that the game runs so well because it isn't rendering much worth admiring. Textures are plain, geometry is simple, and the lighting is flat. And lots of details simply don't look right, such as how rain might splash on an invisible surface above you rather than on the ground. Luckily, the soundtrack fills in where the visuals struggle. The calls of horns, exotic bassoon melodies, and string glissandos enrich your travels, as if you might stumble upon Bacchus himself, wallowing in drunken revelry.
Lure number two: your estate. The estate is your own instanced home base, where you can find an armor outfitter for your minions, personal storage, and a few other helpful features. When you first begin, your property is relatively bare, but as you complete estate-related quests, the area begins to take shape. Buildings and architectural features like statues appear as you progress, and there's pleasure in seeing this bare valley morph into a visual expression of your great might; it's as if your estate mirrors your own progress from zero to hero. But while the development team plans to give estates more meaning, for now they are just expansive personal spaces. You can't invite other players or members of your tribe (that is, guild) to join you there and admire your spires. You also can't decide where you want buildings or ornaments to go. (How great would an actual city-building mechanic have been?) It's appealing to watch your estate grow, but at this time, this feature has an enormous amount of untapped potential.
Lure number three: minions. These AI-controlled entities come in three flavors: spellcasters, defenders, and skirmishers. Before level 11 (out of a maximum of 30), you have only one such buddy at your side, though you gain an additional slot at specific levels, eventually taking up to four of them along on your travels. Minions are Gods & Heroes' finest asset, making you feel as if you have a full adventuring party with you even if you aren't grouped with others. This is just as well, as it turns out. The game's population is so small, you could explore for hours without encountering another player, and even the global chat channel goes for long stretches without anyone actually chatting. Gods & Heroes' players are the friendly sort, but it takes some extra effort to explore the game's instanced dungeons, given the community's size.
That effort is almost worth it, however, if only because small group battles seem a lot more hectic when each party member also brings two or three minions along. You add new minions to your available roster by hiring them or earning their loyalty as quest rewards, and eventually you can choose from more than a hundred of them. Some minions heal; others zap enemies with spells; while others poke away at attacking harpies with spears. So no matter which of the game's four classes you choose for your own character (gladiator, mystic, soldier, or priest), chances are you will gain plenty of minions that complement your chosen role. Collecting minions is addictive, in part because they are both more substantial and more tangible than typical MMOG rewards: usually, some experience, a bit of coin, and maybe a helmet that you eventually sell to a vendor a few hours later.
However, your minions don't just give you help; they also give you headaches. Minion AI is an ongoing problem that might have you abandoning certain hirelings simply because they don't perform as they should. Some minions might attack your target when you do, just as they are supposed to, but will refuse to attack subsequent targets in the same battle unless you specifically command them to do so. Other minions refuse to perform their feats (that is, special abilities), making them somewhat useless, because standard minion attacks don't do a lot of damage on their own. Furthermore, while the minion interface includes stances (passive, defensive, aggressive), the aggressive stance doesn't work, though developer Heatwave Interactive handily included the words "not working" in the stance description.
There are plenty of other features that could be described as "not working," as it turns out. That doesn't mean that Gods & Heroes is a buggy mess, but it sports a hefty collection of lesser glitches, simple errors, and unfinished features that quickly get under your skin. When you first begin, tutorial icons pop up, but clicking them reveals that there is no actual tutorial text. Certain non-player characters like feat trainers might not be identified onscreen, making it difficult to find them. In one of the most annoying bugs, the game might think you are engaged in combat even when you aren't, prohibiting you from interacting with quest objects and other items, and forcing you to close the game and restart it. And there are tons of issues with geometry and surfaces within the world. You can peek through holes in mountains and even fall through holes in roofs, which causes you to get stuck. (At least you can use the /unstuck command to spawn elsewhere should that happen.) Roaming enemies might clip through bridges rather than walking over them, and your minions might walk on water rather than swim in it. These aren't enormous issues, but there are so many of them that Gods & Heroes feels simultaneously old and unfinished.
Such problems would be more easily forgiven if the game in which they appeared were more ambitious than the average online RPG, but its few original features aside, Gods & Heroes is cut from a familiar cloth. You grab quests from non-player characters and go out collecting flowers, delivering wine shipments, and slaying bears, wolves, harpiyas, and so on. Combat is typical for the genre: target your foe, and click icons or tap keys to issue various attacks. Many a modern online RPG punches combat up in various ways, from combo chains to pseudo-real-time attacks. Gods & Heroes doesn't ornament its cut-and-dry combat in any way, which would be fine if battles were a lot of fun. But they aren't, in part because animations are so broken, and sound effects so wimpy, that it's hard to get involved. Enemies jitter from one pose to another without any animations in between, and teleport back and forth from one position to the next. Some combat animations are almost hysterical in their awkwardness, such as when a particular feat has you wrestling with yourself while the enemy you're supposed to be battling is already lying dead beneath you. Meanwhile, landing blows might not produce any sounds at all, and the thwacks you do hear are rather feeble. The constant, annoying crackle of your spellcaster minion's lightning attacks and creatures that sound more like squealing piglets than horrific beasts are among the audio's less delightful aspects.
You'd think that noncombat activities could at least help soften the blow of such odd battles. But that's the problem: there aren't any noncombat activities. There is no crafting at all, and thus, no auction houses or player economy to speak of. Cities are ghost towns, even Rome itself, and emotes don't work properly, so you don't even get the momentary joy of seeing Roman soldiers performing the Macarena. Nor is their any player-versus-player element, so your in-game aggression can be exercised only against snakes and legionnaires. There aren't even mounts to ride, though traveling is nonetheless a snap: once you activate a region's teleporting statues, you can journey there in a blink of an eye, provided you haven't traveled this way too recently.
Fortunately, there are heaps and heaps of quests to keep you busy, so you're never stuck fighting for fighting's sake: there's always context for your actions. The quest writing isn't particularly notable. Quest givers provide purpose, sometimes with historical and mythological perspective, but there is no overarching narrative to give you a greater sense of direction. The quests themselves are fine, though, if occasionally lacking creativity. You might be excited to arrive in Rome for the first time, only to find a series of fetch quests awaiting you, and no other players in town. And you've likely already killed countless scorpions and snakes in other such games. Nevertheless, the questing is fine, and quest providers send you all over the world, protecting mythic stags from attack, looking for shallow graves, and adding poison to wine flasks. Finding quest items can be somewhat of a pain, however. Items you need to collect aren't visually identified onscreen (such as by a subtle glow, as you might expect), or even on the minimap--only on the main map. This can make locating key objects like moss-covered rocks a real pain, since they blend in with the environment. You end up hovering your mouse over the ground until you discover what you need--the MMOG equivalent of pixel hunting.
Gods & Heroes: Rome Rising deserves credit for what it does differently. Minions are an excellent feature, letting you feel like the leader of a persistent player party, rather than the owner of a disposable summon. The mythological setting, too, might inspire you to hike your way through the forests and vales in spite of the poor quality of the visuals. Otherwise, if all you need is a big world, some monsters to kill, and a gladius to wield, Gods & Heroes ticks off the boxes. But even at this early stage, this sparsely populated online game isn't very "massively multiplayer," and given its rough edges and low ambitions, there's little reason for you to increase the population by one.