Ryse: Son of Rome is an excellent showcase for the Xbox One hardware. The visually stunning, fast paced action title delivers intense combat, an intriguing story and a pleasantly surprisingly slice of cooperative multiplayer to introduce this new generation of gaming. It's far from flawless but it's undoubtedly accomplished, and despite heavy repetition through a relatively short tale, it's an adventure well worth experiencing.
Ryse places you in the role of Marius Titus as he climbs the ranks of the Roman army and embarks on a quest for revenge against those responsible for murdering his family. It's a clichéd start for a narrative that becomes far more interesting and involved as you work your way through it. Well-written and spectacularly delivered voice work brings each character to life, and if that wasn't enough, the jaw dropping visuals and powerful score further help to sell Ryse as an epic and thoughtful adventure. Although the spectacle may be what brings you in initially, the story is what keeps you immersed. Over the course of 6 hours you'll fight in a military campaign in Britain, take part in gladiatorial combat in the Coliseum and visit Rome itself, fighting your way through countless enemies on a coastal battlefield, lush forests, dark mountains and architecturally awe inspiring cities.
Unfortunately the varied locations and their eye candy visuals can't make up for the repetitive combat. It's a little more thoughtful than simply hack 'n slash, but only marginally. Two buttons make up your attacks, X for a light strike with your gladius and Y for a light strike with your shield, and holding either of the two results in a heavy attack for sword or shield respectively. B performs a dodge roll whilst A blocks. It's then a matter of stringing these together to beat your foe into submission. Once a skull and crossbones appears over their head you can perform an execution by pulling the right trigger, which instigates a handful of optional quick-time events as you viscerally hack off limbs and plunge your sword through your enemy's frail form. Much like every aspect of Ryse the combat is a visual treat, with detailed and appropriate levels of gore making for a bloody yet realistic maiming that's entertaining each time, which is fortunate as you'll be seeing these executions a lot. Different enemy types force you to mix up your use of attacks and create openings, and blocking at the right time parries and gives you a chance to inflict damage against heavier troops, but beyond your first few encounters the combat loses some of its appeal due to repetition.
In fact, repetition is a concern throughout the adventure. You're kept to a strict critical path that practically eliminates exploration, and whilst this does wonders for maintaining the fast pace it's disappointing there aren't more options for tactics when approaching a group of enemies. You're either up close in the fray with shield and gladius, in turtle shell formation with a group of your men, throwing spears at medium range, or behind a stationary ballista - and these combat scenarios play out over and over again. Occasionally you get to choose where your men setup for defending an area, and through voice commands - which work brilliantly - you can call for archer support, but there's no getting around the lack of variety.
As you progress through Ryse's story you earn experience through combat that you can spend on a shallow upgrade tree, improving your health, strength, experience gains and focus - which is a refillable bar that puts you into Burning Eagle mode where your enemies slow to a crawl for a limited time. You can also purchase upgrades to four modifiers that alter the reward you receive for executions. These can be equipped via the D-pad and come in the form of health regeneration, extra experience points, extra damage, or focus regeneration. It's a clever way to add that extra measure of risk/reward to combat as you switch between them, and you can even switch mid-execution.
Whilst the singleplayer will wrap up in a short 6 hours or so, Ryse: Son of Rome's multiplayer has some potential longevity. Taking place in the Coliseum, you and a coop gladiator must fight your way through waves of enemies whilst completing random objectives. The Coliseum's floor will change, bringing up new parts of the arena and more enemies, making the battlefield dynamic and interesting. The objectives, once again, are fairly repetitive, alongside the combat, but bringing a friend along for the ride helps alleviate it, making it a enjoyable cooperative experience. As you earn gold you can buy random bags of equipment to then equip to your gladiator. Meanwhile, choosing a God to align yourself with, affects the modifiers available to you, and your abilities.
Ryse: Son of Rome feels a lot like a Call of Duty title in Roman clothing. It's bloodthirsty combat and fast pace gets the adrenaline pumping and the set pieces are bombastic and spectacular. Storming the British coast feels and looks like the D-Day landing but in ancient times, and achieving this level of intensity and maintaining it is an impressive feat. The narrative is well put together and expertly delivered and although it's repetitive the brevity of the experience helps to prevent it feeling like a slog. Rome wasn't built in a day but you'll easily complete Ryse inside of one - but you'll also enjoy the adventure whilst it lasts.