Spartan: Total Warrior is a straightforward action game from Sega and developer Creative Assembly. As you might guess from the title, the game is set during the conflict between the Spartans and the massive Roman Empire. This is pretty familiar territory for Creative Assembly, the team behind last year's PC strategy game Rome: Total War. However, the game itself is a massive departure for a studio best known for its historically authentic and complex strategy games. For the most part, Spartan: Total Warrior is a pretty good action effort. Unfortunately, the high production values and engaging gameplay of the Total War games are nowhere to be found here.
To be fair, Spartan: Total Warrior isn't intended to emulate the complex and in-depth gameplay of a PC strategy game. Spartan isn't a strategy game at all; it's a basic action game with a heavy dose of button mashing and a little bit of task management. You play as a nameless, emotionless, lifeless hero known only as "Spartan." The game takes place during a bitter struggle between the Greek city of Sparta and the ruthless Roman Empire. It's up to you and a few artificial-intelligence-controlled comrades to both claim victory for Sparta and put an end to the spread of the Roman Empire. It isn't quite that simple, though. At the beginning of the game, the God of War, Ares, cuts a deal with you to have you carry out his vengeance while he helps you fulfill your destiny as the savior of Sparta. Basically that just means you have to kill a ton of people. And in doing so you'll receive the favor of the gods, which will make you more powerful. This isn't a historically accurate game by any stretch of the truth, so you can expect to see plenty of skeleton and zombie soldiers, as well as mythical creatures and a bit of sorcery.
The story is divided into three acts, which are then divided further into various multitiered missions. The backdrops for the stages range from the besieged city of Sparta to the ruins of Troy--and the badlands in between. As you'd expect, there are different types of enemies in each stage. You'll fight Roman soldiers, barbarians, and undead armies. Luckily, you're well equipped to take all those foes down. At the start of the game you just have a few attacks at your disposal. You can execute a sweeping attack and a centered attack, and as you land blows, you'll fill up your rage meter in the top left corner of the screen. Once this is full, your weapon will glow red, which means you can unleash a rage attack. As with regular attacks, each weapon has two rage attacks: one that will kill a single enemy and one that hits several enemies for significant--but not necessarily fatal--damage.
Later in the game, as you level up, you'll earn power moves. As you kill enemies, you can collect power. And once you have a full power gauge, you can unleash one of these deadly attacks. Again, these power moves are unique to each weapon in the game, and there are two different power moves for each weapon. So if you're using the Medusa shield, you can temporarily turn all your enemies to stone. Or if you're using the Athena blades, you can radiate electricity to inflict damage and knock back any enemies in your immediate area. By the end of the game, when the enemies become stronger and more numerous, you'll need to make good use of these moves to survive. Plus, they look pretty cool, so you'll want to use them just to jazz up the hack-and-slash routine every once in a while. For the most part, the controls are fairly intuitive. But we did find that the PlayStation 2 version offers the best controls for quickly switching between normal, rage, and power attacks (thanks to the extra shoulder buttons).
Essentially, you'll be running into groups of enemies and mashing the sweep attack button to try to clear out as many of them as possible. Even with the rage moves the combat can get pretty dull after a while. You can switch things up by using different weapons. As you progress through the game, you'll get new weapons, like dual swords, a magical shield, a spear, and a hammer. All the weapons have different reach, speed, and damage characteristics, but you'll still be hitting the same button over and over again regardless of what weapon you use. You can also pick up arrows throughout the game, which you can fire at enemies from a distance. Given the limited supply of arrows, though, you'll usually just end up using them to hit distant triggers or to access unreachable objects. For all the hacking and slashing you do, you're rewarded with a few pretty cool boss fights. Some of the bosses are pulled straight out of other games, like the cliché mirror match between you and an evil version of you and the hydra battle that's taken straight from God of War. Despite the lack of originality, the boss fights are generally fun and challenging, and they provide fitting and satisfying ends to the levels.
There are plenty of challenges beyond simply slaughtering hordes of enemies, though. Most missions will have you completing specific objectives, like gaining entry to a certain area, protecting an ally, or defending your position. Some of these missions are pretty fun and help make combat slightly more cerebral, requiring you to balance multiple objectives at the same time. For example, in one mission you have to take out assassins and archers who are trying to kill Archimedes, leader of the Spartan rebellion, as he gives a speech. After you save him, you have to kill all the Roman spies in town before they reach their safe houses. Once you finish that, you have to escort the helpless Archimedes to his own safe house. The varied objectives make the game a bit more interesting than it otherwise might be, but you'll mainly be spending your time mashing buttons as you fight lots and lots of bad guys.
The missions are divided up into smaller segments, which is nice. Because if you fail to complete an objective, you can start over from a relatively recent save point rather than starting the entire level over again. The caveat here is that if you pass a checkpoint with little health, your game will be saved that way. As a result, you may find yourself up against a boss or a particularly tough bunch of enemies while you only have a sliver of health, an empty power gauge, and no way to retreat or replenish your health. Luckily, there are shrines located throughout each level where you can pray to regain your health. However, you can't count on them being there whenever you need them. What's more, after you use a shrine once, it breaks, which means you can't use it again.
In addition to story mode, there's an arena mode in Spartan: Total Warrior that works like a survival game. You're placed in an arena, and you have to kill off as many waves of enemies as possible. By playing through the single-player story you can unlock new arenas or arena items, such as support troops, fire arrows, explosives, and health shrines. When setting up your match you can choose what types of extra items you want in it. This create-your-own battle system is great if you happen to really like the combat in the single-player game, but otherwise the arena mode is really only good as a brief diversion.
The graphics in Spartan: Total Warrior are about average, but you probably won't mind the fact that some detail has been sacrificed in exchange for the game's ability to smoothly render scores of enemies onscreen at the same time, which is done quite well. The battles can get so dense and chaotic that you can easily lose yourself among the swarms of enemies and allies. There are a couple of great in-game cutscenes that make points of showing off this rendering technology. In one such scene, the camera pulls back along a long, narrow room to show dozens upon dozens of undead soldiers popping up from out of the ground. In a couple of earlier levels in the game, we did notice the frame rate dropped occasionally, but it mostly runs nice and fast.
As mentioned, detail is sometimes sacrificed to achieve that nice frame rate. The character models are blocky, and they don't animate particularly well. Additionally, all the textures are fuzzy and bland. The environments tend to look quite similar throughout the game, with lots of unnaturally sharp edges and reused textures. The in-game cutscenes just call attention to the dull graphics by showing ugly characters gesturing like robots while delivering some terrible dialogue.
The melodramatic dialogue is bad enough that it actually detracts from the story. Most of the voice actors do a passable job of delivering their lines, but the speech is so forced that you'll probably want to skip it, which you can do without missing much. The sound here is about what you'd expect. There are all the right clanks and clashes of swords and shields in battle, but there are a lot of sound components that just seem out of place. The game is unnecessarily injected with some fake attitude thanks to the music and a couple of the voices. For instance, when you go on a killing spree, thus making Ares happy, he'll chime in with his deep, almost-belching voice to offer such snappy phrases as, "What a rush!" The music often feels inappropriate, too, which is not at all like the grand orchestral score you might expect for a game of this type. When one boss battle starts, you'll hear a quick scratch pad before a Mission Impossible-like bass beat comes in to make you start either bobbing your head or banging it against a wall (because the music sounds so ridiculous). Usually, though, the music just kind of fades in to the background, where it doesn't do too much harm.
Overall, Spartan: Total Warrior is a pretty fun, though derivative, action game that should keep you entertained for at least the six or seven hours it takes you to get through the story. With just a bit more effort, Spartan could have been great. But it's still worth playing if you're especially interested in the subject matter or in hack-and-slash action games in general.