Colosseum: Road to Freedom Feature Preview

We fight for our freedom in Koei's upcoming gladiatorial action role-playing game.

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Currently scheduled for release in July, Colosseum: Road to Freedom is an action role-playing game in which you assume the role of a gladiator in ancient Rome. Colosseum: Road to Freedom will feature both cooperative and competitive play for two players when it ships in July, but for the purpose of this preview we've been exploring the single-player mode exclusively. Shortly after you start playing the game's story-driven single-player mode, you'll be sold as a slave and told that the only way you can win back your freedom is to repay your new owner the 1 million silver that you cost him. Your only income, predictably, will be the winnings that you earn in gladiatorial arenas, the vast majority of which goes straight into his pocket before you get a chance to spend it.

The tutorials do a good job of familiarizing you with the game's unconventional controls.
The tutorials do a good job of familiarizing you with the game's unconventional controls.

Colosseum: Road to Freedom does a good job of easing you into your new life via a series of quick and easy tutorials at the same training camp where you'll be working out via a series of simple minigames in between arena days. The tutorials cover just about everything you'll need to know to survive as a gladiator, including multiple attack styles, dodging and parrying enemy attacks, sliding and rolling, crouching and jumping, picking up and throwing equipment, and managing your adrenaline meter. The controls are unconventional for a fighting game, but they're pretty intuitive, and it won't be long before you've decided on your favorite weapon combination and start to build an entire fighting style around it.

In addition to all of your basic moves, you'll be able to assign four special moves to your face buttons that can be performed when your adrenaline is high enough. You'll learn special moves by picking up tablets dropped by your opponents in the arena, and while there's no restriction on the number of special moves you can learn, choosing just four to equip for an upcoming event can be a really difficult decision. If you plan to go into a battle armed with a sword and a small shield, for example, then you might choose to equip four special moves specific to that setup. If you drop your shield during the battle and aren't able to retrieve it, though, then all of your special moves will become useless. A better approach, then, might be to equip two special moves for your current setup, a third that you can use if you lose your shield, and a fourth that lets you attack with two weapons simultaneously if you lose your shield but have an opportunity to replace it with something sharp and pointy taken from a fallen opponent.

The fact that you can pick up different weapons and armor during fights in Colosseum: Road to Freedom can actually make for some quite tactical encounters, particularly since you get to keep any equipment that you leave the arena with. You'll have plenty of opportunities to purchase decent equipment as well, of course, but since money is tight (you'll also have to pay your own medical expenses in between events when necessary), your best bet will often be to grab what you can in the arena. Any equipment you decide not to use can be sold to arms dealers, though they'll invariably give you only about a tenth of what it's worth.

You'll be visiting the same small environments over and over again as your career progresses.
You'll be visiting the same small environments over and over again as your career progresses.

If the fact that you'll be responsible for paying your own medical expenses and acquiring equipment sounds strange, that's because it is. Despite the fact that you're a slave, you won't be forced to fight in any events that you don't want to, and you'll be able to retire for the day whenever you like. To be perfectly honest, the role-playing element of Colosseum: Road to Freedom is looking extremely shallow at this point, since about the only thing that this game has in common with an RPG is that you can improve your character and his equipment as you progress. You'll have an opportunity to explore most of the environments that you find yourself in as well, but we've yet to find anything of interest in any of them, and since many of them employ badly positioned fixed cameras, just getting where you need to be can often be chore enough. You'll visit the same few environments (and watch the same few cutscenes) over and over again as you progress through the game, including your owner's training ground, your bedroom, equipment areas at arenas, and not much else. We're only about 10 hours into the game at this point, so it's conceivable that things will get more varied later on, but right now it seems that we're destined to play through the same stuff repeatedly until we've repaid our debt in full. That might be realistic up to a point, but we'll take gameplay over realism every time if we're forced to choose between the two.

Fight Club

Fortunately, the combat in Colosseum: Road to Freedom, which is what you'll spend most of your time doing, is significantly more varied. When you arrive at an arena you'll be able to look at a schedule detailing all of the events planned for that day. Your ranking will determine which of the bronze, silver, or gold events you actually qualify for, and then it's up to you to decide which you'd like to have a go at. Typical event options include team battles, which require you and your mates to wipe out either an opposing team or their general; battle royal fights, in which you'll have to single-handedly kill a number of opponents; survival matches, in which you simply have to survive the attacks of multiple enemies for a certain amount of time; hunting games, in which you'll be pitted against bulls or tigers; and duels, which see you going toe-to-toe with well-known and well-equipped gladiators. Mock battles, like those seen in the Gladiator movie's arena sequences will also be included, but we've yet to qualify for entry into one of those.

Arena hazards such as these spikes can make things interesting, but they also highlight some of the flaws in your opponents' AI.
Arena hazards such as these spikes can make things interesting, but they also highlight some of the flaws in your opponents' AI.

Arena hazards such as spinning blades and spike-covered poles are used to spice things up a bit in certain events, and causing an opponent to fall foul of them would actually be incredibly satisfying if it weren't for the fact that your opponents are clearly lacking in the artificial-intelligence department. The aforementioned vertical poles covered in spikes, for example, have often proved lethal to other gladiators when we've managed to put them between us, simply because the opponents have a habit of repeatedly running into them as they attempt to take the shortest route to get to us. The spinning blades, on the other hand, represent an obstacle that many of our CPU opponents have been smart enough to not walk into (though not all of them), but have been unable to find a way around, so they end up just standing still and forcing us to make the first move.

Many of the events that we've competed in have proved far less challenging and far less spectacular than we were hoping they would be: less challenging because the AI is easy to exploit and because acquiring a decent weapon and some decent armor really is half the battle, and less spectacular because although you'll regularly be promised team battles featuring around 20 gladiators, we've never seen more than six combatants in the arena at one time. When one of those six dies, his body will be dragged out of the arena, and one of his teammates will enter the fray in his place.

Winning over the crowd is invariably a lot harder than being declared the winner of an event.
Winning over the crowd is invariably a lot harder than being declared the winner of an event.

The occasionally button-mashing-friendly combat in Colosseum: Road to Freedom is granted something of a reprieve by the fact that to win your freedom you need to win over the crowd as you win events. What this means in the game is that although running around in circles and stabbing your opponents in the back is the easiest way to win many fights, you'll have to stand toe-to-toe with your foes if you want to win over your audience and benefit from the extra silver that their admiration affords you. If you really want to excite the crowd, you'll need to string together lengthy combos of moves and kills and make a point of using your special moves whenever your adrenaline meter allows it. You can even employ something resembling bullet time for a short period of time if your adrenaline meter fills up--the screen turns red, and all of your opponents start to move in slow motion while you continue to attack them at your regular speed. The accompanying visual effect, like many of the visuals in Colosseum: Road to Freedom, is adequate rather than impressive and would certainly benefit from a polish before the game ships.

We've enjoyed our time with the work-in-progress version of Colosseum: Road to Freedom for the most part, and our main concern is simply that the whole experience feels shallow and repetitive. We look forward to bringing you more information just as soon as we get our hands on a more complete version of the game.

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