Ryse: Son Of Rome’s creators know history, but don’t really care about it. History is a disposable thing, valuable for setting the scene or establishing villains, but discarded in favour of fantasy the minute it gets in the way of telling a ripping yarn. Similarly, there’s evidence that Ryse’s development team knows about innovation in game design, but doesn’t really care about that, either. After all, all that fighting just gets in the way of showing you fantasy spectacles more beautiful than any yet rendered in a game.
Such is the detail in the game’s architecture and the respect for costume design that it’s impossible to imagine Crytek wasn’t aware that there was never a giant chain boom barring entry to the beaches at Dover, or horn-headed wildmen north of Hadrian’s Wall. Nero’s sons never committed foppish regicide in Britain and Boudica never took her fight to the streets of Rome atop a war elephant, either. History is where Ryse starts before the gods intervene in legionary Marius Titus’s life and he embarks on a ten-year quest for revenge across fantasy versions of Rome, England and Scotland.
Ryse’s locations are a Hollywoodised version of the real thing, and the game proudly wears its influences like a badge of honour. The White Cliffs Of Dover rise hundreds of feet above Titus as he storms England’s beaches in scenes torn from Saving Private Ryan. English forests house treetop villages for a fight that’s as much Prince Of Thieves as it is Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood. An English castle town is the site of Titus’s own Battle Of Helm’s Deep, with armies numbering in the tens of thousands stretching into the distance. Scotland becomes the setting for Ryse’s survival-horror stage: a Sleepy Hollow wilderness where twisted trees mask the movements of blood-drenched savages who sacrifice a Roman general in the head of a giant wicker man. The Colosseum becomes a transforming stage on which Titus battles Emperor Nero’s son, despite being poisoned and surrounded. Are you not entertained?
It’s historical fantasy on a frankly ludicrous scale, and all rendered at a level of detail and intricacy that borders on photorealism. There are rare moments in close-up, when Titus removes his helmet or touches another character, where the action passes for a movie sequence featuring real-life humans. While the most extreme of close-ups occur only in cutscenes, the game chases reality and almost achieves it, even in the thick of action, but only up to the point where it abandons the photoreal in favour of the fantasy-real. Ryse takes the same approach to reality that it does to history.
Reality, says Ryse, is boring; instead, Britain and Rome are exaggerated until ancient Europe is more like Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth. It’s all the better for it, because the worlds Ryse creates are the main event at a show held together by the most rudimentary combat system. This is Batman: Arkham Asylum’s combat stripped of its most arresting embellishments, with a sword slash in place of Batman’s punches and kicks, a shield bash in lieu of a cape, an evasive roll, a counter and a thrown pilum instead of the Batarang. It’s a satisfying but simple toolset that does just barely enough to give players something to do on the way from Point A to Point Spectacular.
Combat is what you do when you’re not being blown away by the next vista or tiny detail. It’s only just complex enough to demand an element of skill, and it remains mechanically flat throughout – the game’s final battles are no trickier than its first – but Ryse is a game of thrust and parry and brutal QTE execution that’s satisfying in its efficiency and brutality. A perfectly timed parry feels right, the execution of a troublesome enemy feels cathartic, and Titus grows so powerful so quickly that any difficulty in pressing on to the next thing Crytek wants to show you is negligible.
To be clear, this isn’t Microsoft’s God Of War. Rather, it’s Call Of Duty with a sword, right down to the set-pieces where Titus mans a rapid-firing scorpio, holds a defensive line against incoming hordes, or pushes forward not to take down an anti-air gun but a siege engine. These moments are littered throughout the campaign, as if Crytek knows it has to do more to keep players interested than parry-thrust-repeat, and the cheap trick works. It’s rare you’re doing the same thing for more than a few minutes in Ryse, always dashing from combat to slow-marching testudo to scorpio to siege to boss fight. These are simple systems laid end to end and linked only by a whisper of a story and hyperbolic art design.
Ryse evinces no care for history, innovation of design, photorealism or a great many other things, but Crytek cares dearly about art and the technology powering it. For all the simplicity of its mechanics, Ryse’s artistry is second to none. Crytek is home not just to Europe’s best technical minds, it seems, but to some of its finest videogame artists, too. Even with its constant cribbing from Hollywood, there has never been a game world of such striking beauty, variety or detail. It’s a monumental piece of world-building that sets the standard for videogame fantasy in much the same way Gears Of War established its own precedents during the previous generation. Like the first Gears, Ryse is a simple game loaded with small-scale encounters and rudimentary set-pieces with the intention of hustling you towards something beautiful. Both have their own ‘horror’ stage, both have sieges, both have stationary guns of sorts, and Ryse, like Gears, has room to grow if given the chance. The game has a decisive ending, but it also opens the window to something even more fantastical, offering greater scope for mechanical depth and further extraordinary visual extremes.