Gladiator fever might have cooled off in the past year or two, but don't let that keep you from checking out Shadow of Rome. This latest action adventure game from the people who brought you the Onimusha series packs some of the most brutal hand-to-hand combat ever, and there's plenty of story and intrigue to conveniently justify all the gory violence. In fact, Shadow of Rome quite successfully combines two distinctly different types of gameplay, since there are some decent stealth sequences thrown in between the numerous gladiator pit fights. These ultimately help give Shadow of Rome a good sense of variety, though the combat is definitely the main attraction, and it takes center stage more often than not. Feature for feature, there's nothing hugely original about Shadow of Rome, but its combination of different elements is definitely unique, its characters are expressive and fun to watch, and the quality of its presentation is right up there with the best of what the PlayStation 2 has to offer.
Shadow of Rome is the story of two young friends, the muscle-bound centurion Agrippa and the mild-mannered Octavianus, who looks like a younger Owen Wilson. When Julius Caesar is brutally murdered and Agrippa's father is accused of the crime, Agrippa ends up becoming a gladiator in a desperate attempt to stop his father's impending execution at the hands of the champion of the gladiatorial games. Meanwhile, Octavianus suspects foul play and proceeds to investigate what really happened by skulking behind the scenes. Shadow of Rome's story is told through frequent, beautifully produced cutscenes that succeed at enriching the game, meaning they don't overstay their welcome or take the focus off the gameplay itself. Some of the dialogue is awkwardly translated, some of the characters' acting isn't quite convincing, and you'll spot some minor inconsistencies from gameplay to cutscene, but the unusual story is still absolutely one of the highlights. Don't expect a history lesson from Shadow of Rome, but do expect an interesting and surprising sequence of events to unfold. The story does a fine job of tying up all its loose ends and delivering a satisfying sense of closure while still leaving room for the possibility of a next chapter in the saga.
The meat of the game follows Agrippa's rise through the gladiatorial ranks in a series of bloody battles to the death, but the occasional stealth mission, starring Octavianus, is thrown in for good measure. In the game's equivalent of a halftime show, Agrippa will also get to compete in a series of exciting and deadly chariot races. And, without spoiling anything, there's even more to the game than that. All told, Shadow of Rome packs in a good-sized adventure that will take you close to 20 hours from start to finish. There are multiple difficulty settings and plenty of other extras to keep you busy after that, and the core combat system offers enough depth and pure visceral satisfaction that it could keep you entertained for a while longer as you pursue all the bonus content. Of course, getting all that stuff won't be easy. The normal difficulty mode presents a significant challenge all by itself. It actually starts out pretty easy, teaching you the ropes as you go, but then it scales up nicely into tough territory. And, as hard as some of the later encounters can be, Shadow of Rome never sets you back far should you fail.
Limbs fly and blood spatters everywhere in a typical battle, though you can toggle off the graphic violence if you like. Still, this is pure hack-and-slash combat. Agrippa will take on multiple foes of all shapes and sizes, sometimes all at once. The melee's grisly and sometimes shocking, but it's not mindless. Plenty of unique moves and a great variety of gnarly weapons are available, and there are plenty of different match types, each with its own twists, so it's not all about being the last man standing (though that's usually a desirable outcome). Thanks to all the different factors at play, there's a real sense of chaos on the battlefield, which is great. Battles never play out quite the same way twice.
One key aspect of combat is that weapons, shields, and armor are all quite flimsy and will soon shatter from use. It seems that in 44 BC, humankind had already invented tools perfectly suited for butchering itself, but it hadn't yet discovered how to make them last. Sure enough, you can't block weapon attacks while barehanded, so Shadow of Rome often requires you to scavenge the battlefield, snatching up a fresh weapon just as soon as you shatter the last one you were using. It's possible to wrench weapons from your enemies' hands, sever or crush their arms with well-placed power attacks, drag enemies to their feet after knocking them flat, and more. It's also possible to throw virtually any weapon (even the gigantic two-handed ones), and each makes a suitably sickening thud when it hits home. Delightful fun for the whole family.
It's easy enough to pick up on the basic controls, though mastering some of the more advanced moves will take time, which is good. You'll also find decent variety in your opposition. Foes will attempt to gang up on you, and like you, they'll make use of any weapons they can get their hands on...possibly even their own severed limbs. Shadow of Rome's numerous boss opponents are particularly impressive, though most can be beaten after you properly gauge their distances from you, bait them into swinging at you, and then dodge and retaliate. Nevertheless, expect to get hit often, and expect to get hit hard. (Lucky for you, you can't lose any of your extremities, no matter how hard your adversaries chop you.) The way you regain health is in classic beat-'em-up tradition: by shoveling food down your gullet in mid-battle. Spectators will sometimes help you out by tossing you pieces of food, so you'll need to grab these and quickly wolf them down to keep yourself in fighting shape. It's silly in a good way, and it adds plenty of tension to the typical battle.
Appealing to the crowd works similarly. As you fight, you'll get the crowd all riled up, and you can then take your attention away from your foes to briefly salute your bloodthirsty onlookers...who might toss you a nice weapon or some food for your trouble. In short, though Shadow of Rome features plenty of pure nonstop action, there's lots of tactical nuance to keep it interesting.
Those gladiatorial battles may sound like a tough act for Octavianus' stealth sequences to follow, and sure enough, the stealth sequences aren't as fun. But they're certainly not bad, and they offer a suspenseful style of gameplay that fans of the Metal Gear Solid or Hitman series should pick right up. Octavianus can't really fight, though he can knock foes unconscious by creeping up on them and bashing them over the head with vases or even by that age-old tactic of making them trip up on banana peels. Mostly, though, he'll be trying to avoid contact with enemies altogether by creeping silently outside their fields of vision. An incredibly helpful map is always available, revealing exact enemy locations and where you need to go next so you won't waste any time just wandering around. You'll fail certain sequences automatically if your foes so much as spot you, but each sequence is pretty short, so the occasional need for trial and error doesn't get too frustrating. In fact, some of the combat portions are probably more frustrating than the stealth bits, though the piecemeal nature of Shadow of Rome's action sequences means that no single hurdle should take too long to overcome.
Shadow of Rome's few problem areas aren't big deals. For example, the stealth action sequences exhibit the sort of artificial intelligence that's ridiculous on the one hand but is, unfortunately, conventional to this style of gaming on the other hand. It's possible to toss a banana peel in front of a guard and watch as he and his three friends angrily come running at you, tripping over the same peel and getting knocked unconscious one after another. Guards on alert will actively search for you...for a little while, and then they'll simply forget they saw an interloper in the Roman senate building, or wherever it is you're sneaking around. You'll probably start to notice a few limitations in combat, too. You can slice off arms and heads, but not legs. Bow-wielding foes will always aim straight at where you're standing, making them incredibly irritating at times but easy to avoid if you simply keep moving. Most enemies can't actually hurt one another with their attacks, so you can't try to use their greater numbers as an advantage. Some brief portions also seem a bit pointless, such as sequences in which Agrippa can explore the gladiator camp and talk to some of his brothers in arms. Some of their advice may be somewhat helpful, but you'll probably want to cut straight to the next match rather than dillydally at base. But, whatever. None of these issues are significant, and they're easily forgotten about pretty much whenever, say, you bash an opponent's skull in with a two-handed maul.
Gruesome violence is par for the course throughout Shadow of Rome, and if you've got a stomach for this kind of thing, you're going to love it. Of course, the presentation isn't just for cheap shock value. The frame rate remains perfectly smooth almost 100 percent of the time, despite the richness of the visual quality on display. The characters look surprisingly lifelike up close, exhibiting truly believable emotion at times. Animations are terrific, especially when Agrippa is swinging some of the larger weapons available, seemingly with all his immense might. Octavianus, meanwhile, looks like he learned all his moves from Solid Snake himself. Impressive environments and great special effects also abound. For instance, you'll notice how weapons and armor seem to sparkle in the sunlight, as well as how gladiators' bodies seem to glisten with sweat.
The audio is great, too. Generally good voice acting helps give the cutscenes some emotional impact, and plenty of cringe-inducing metal-on-flesh noises make the combat sound as hard-hitting as it looks. And the roaring and chanting of the stadium crowd is possibly the best part of the audio, as it swells to the carnage onscreen. Some of the speech grows to be repetitive after a while, and the suitably bombastic soundtrack repeats maybe a bit too much as well. But, for the most part, Shadow of Rome sounds just as good as it looks. Pro Logic II support also means you can gain a tactical advantage through the use of positional audio. When someone in the grandstands yells, "Use this!", and tosses you a gigantic two-handed sword, you're going to want to make a beeline for that weapon before anyone else can get to it.
Shadow of Rome offers some of the best hack-and-slash combat out there and wraps it up in an interesting story that puts an original spin on the whole Julius Caesar-getting-murdered thing. It's also got plenty of gameplay variety to keep you motivated from start to finish, and it's always pretty to look at. Some say that video game shelves are flooded with sequels that are too short and too easy these days. If that's you, then Shadow of Rome is definitely your game.