One of the premier Xbox One exclusives showcased at Microsoft's press event, Ryse: Son of Rome (spelled with a 'Y' in typical Crytek fashion) caused some concern in those who watched on. An action-adventure title set in Ancient Rome, Ryse appeared heavy in extravagant cinematic pomp, but also in relatively basic, quick time event gameplay.
In a behind-closed-doors session, we're taken through the same portion of gameplay served up at Monday's press event: the Roman landing at the Cliffs of Dover and the resulting battle against barbarian forces. This time, though, we enjoy the guidance of Crytek design director J Epps and Microsoft art director Peter Gornstein.
This portion of gameplay takes place roughly quarter of the way through Ryse's singleplayer campaign. At this point, protagonist Marius Titus is a low-level junior officer "trying to find his way through the ranks to become a leader of men," according to Epps.
Ryse is loosely based on actual events from Roman history, but if it wasn't obvious from the bombastic theatrics of its reveal trailer, Crytek isn't particularly concerned with historical accuracy. It’s a grounded yet far-fetched summer blockbuster take on the Ancient Roman era; more Gladiator than History Channel. In many ways, this Cliffs of Dover section feels like an Ancient Roman videogame rendition of Saving Private Ryan's opening Normandy invasion scene.
It's hard not to draw parallels to Call of Duty's over-the-top, non-stop action sequences; a Roman ship set aflame runs aground with an almighty boom as Titus' men fall foul of arrow and trebuchet fire all around him. Titus finds himself at a loss for words or action upon seeing one of his men in agony, an arrow gouged firmly in his eye socket. Shortly afterwards, mortar fire sends Titus to the ground, his ears ringing from the blast.
The game’s combat system is described by Epps as "mashing to mastery". It's an approach that is intended to cater to novice players while rewarding skilled players at the same time. He demonstrates by rapidly pressing an attack button and pointing out that there are brief pauses in between each attack. When he makes an effort to time his attacks, however, the gap between strikes is shortened, making for a far more efficient play style. On top of this, a more-skilled application of Ryse's combat system rewards the player with points that they can use to level-up certain attributes, such as health and attack power.
Both Epps and Gornstein were at pains to point out how realistically all characters react to the action that takes place in game, right down to complex facial animations. It's a subtle detail, easy to gloss over if not pointed out. But once it is, it's difficult not to notice. Enemy barbarians wince and grimace as you'd expect in reality with every blow from Titus' shield or gladius sword. Once they are sufficiently weakened, quick time button prompts appear onscreen, enabling gruesome executions. It's a much-maligned gaming device and justifiably sounded some alarm bells when it featured heavily in Ryse's reveal trailer. However, more than 100 different executions may provide enough visual variety to prevent it from getting terribly stale. "Because the nature of the ancient world was brutal, the game is brutal," explains Epps. "We don't revel in the gore; it just happens and then we move on."
Ryse will feature some kind of multiplayer component, but Crytek and Microsoft have chosen not to detail it at this stage, outside of the following rhetorical question posited by Epps: "What great Roman game would not have gladiatorial combat in the Coliseum?"
Epps and Gornstein took a portion of this session to detail its Kinect and SmartGlass support. Smartly, it appears Ryse's Kinect integration is limited to voice commands, which enjoyed some level of praise in the likes of Mass Effect 3 and Skyrim. Occasionally, button prompts appear on-screen, typically to issue commands to Titus' men that the player can choose to speak if they so desire. It might sound pointless, but it can provide something of a multi-tasking benefit to the player, allowing them to focus on combat while simultaneously activating the prompt, for instance.
Ryse's use of SmartGlass is essentially as a companion app that allows comparison with friends, their progress, achievements and gameplay videos captured via Game DVR. Players can also outfit their characters using SmartGlass, ensuring that their desired gear and outfit is equipped next time they play.
Watching Ryse in action in person on a high-definition television is a genuine spectacle, and it serves as a fitting ambassador for the visual capabilities of this new generation of hardware. With its constant and consistent level of detail for minutiae and its undeniably high production values, Crytek is clearly gunning for a spot in the upper echelon of blockbuster cinematic action games. It's hard to shake the feeling, however, that all the grandiose visual flair, impressive as it may be, may mask a relatively shallow gameplay experience.