After the surprising success of Ridley Scott's Gladiator, games set in the coliseum seem to be all the rage. A look back in the past year or so will reveal not only the lame chariot racer Circus Maximus, but also the forthcoming title Gladiator. And while two games with an ancient Roman theme might not seem like a flood, compare it to how many ancient Roman empire games there were last generation--yeah, not too many, eh?
LucasArts has decided to jump on the Julius Caesar bandwagon with its latest release, Gladius. Gladius is an ambitious title that attempts to take the arena-inspired games beyond hack-and-slash or chariot racing—by crafting a title that's a strategy role-playing game (RPG). Interestingly enough, for the most part the approach works. While Gladius doesn't do anything to redefine the strategy RPG subgenre, it does do just enough things well to keep players interested for the duration.
Players tackling this title will be treated to two intertwining story arcs. The beginning arc has gamers taking control of Ursula, the daughter of the king of Nordagh. Ursula and her brother Urlan (think Conan wannabe and you're on the right track) set out to become masters of the arena. They're also attempting to avoid some witches, who prophesized Ursula's birth and the dark things that would come with it.
The more advanced storyline will have players taking control of a young man whose father has been mysteriously murdered. Not only must the player work to solve the mystery, but they'll also have to help bring the dead father's school of warriors back to glory. Of course, the two story arcs eventually cross and there's some stuff about the rift between Nordagh and Imperia, ancient evil, yadda yadda yadda. All in all, it's a serviceable tale, but it isn't exactly breaking new narrative ground.
That's not the only place where the game isn't breaking new ground either. Visually speaking, Gladius is a real hit-or-miss affair. There are moments when the game looks great (the static paintings that are featured in various narrative interludes) and times when it looks horrific (any time you see Ursula up close in a cutscene—who scalped a chick with pigtails and plopped them on this girl's head?). It's really hard to get excited about the game's look, particularly once you see what passes for a world map. Here, players will watch their avatar from an overhead view as he or she runs from one town to the next. To call the world map graphics Dreamcast quality does a grave disservice to the Dreamcast.
However, things do improve in battle—and since most of the game is spent fighting in the arenas, this is a good thing. The character models still aren't as good as they could be, and they could certainly use a few more animations for when they're idle, but at least they look much more natural than they do during the story interludes. Each attack and block animation is nicely done and looks fairly realistic. Granted, it's hard to imagine it taking three blows with a giant axe to kill a man, but this is a game, after all.
The gameplay rarely deviates from the standard strategy RPG formula. Players move their characters around the arena (sans an isometric grid, which is one of the few areas where the title breaks from tradition) hoping to encounter enemies. Attacking from a higher position is good, getting attacked from a higher position is bad; side and back attacks are good, getting attacked from there is bad, and so forth.
Perhaps the most disappointing element about the gameplay is the enemy artificial intelligence (AI). The enemies in Gladius often make the average block of cheese look like Einstein in comparison. In one battle, I placed two of my characters in a bottleneck where they were unable to be flanked and could only be attacked by one enemy at a time from the front. I then stood by and watched as all the enemies on the field marched over in single file and let me slaughter them one at a time. There are numerous battles like this littered throughout the game, and the player who takes a few minutes to think about the situation and study the terrain will find the game terribly easy.
Gamers shouldn't let that put them off, though, because when the enemy AI stops being challenging, they can always call a friend over and play head-to-head.
The one on one mode of the game is nice and certainly adds some depth to the experience. While the AI controlled enemies may be dumber than a box of rocks, playing with a buddy breathes new life into the game. This addition to the core gameplay ensures that even after the single player campaign has been bested, gamers will still pull this out for head-to-head action.
Unfortunately, things once again pendulum to the bad side when one sees just how many loading screens Gladius forces gamers to sit through. Even on the mighty Xbox, this game loads constantly, and for extended periods of time. Just about anything and everything a player does while in the game will lead to a loading screen and a waiting time right up there with some of the PlayStation era games. This is, quite simply, unforgivable.
There are two things that make this different from your father's strategy RPG: the ability to command your characters to move beyond their single-turn range and the inclusion of a Hot Shots Golf-esque swing gauge that determines how effective an attack is.
The ability to give the soldiers detailed marching orders is pretty good. While characters can still only move so far in a single turn, this eliminates the need to constantly come back to them during each turn and give them new commands.
The downside to this is that from time to time the characters will get stuck on things in the environment, thereby not moving during their turn. Because of this, the player would be advised to keep an eye on the troops. It didn't happen with regularity in my game, but it did happen a few times.
The second problem is much less significant. If one of the player's other characters gets into the path of the character who's been assigned to go for several turns, that character generally gets boxed in—meaning the player will have to go back and re-issue new commands. This isn't particularly problematic, but it is worth pointing out.
The swing gauge is a significant innovation to the core gameplay and, like just about everything else with Gladius, the results are mixed.
There's no denying that the gauge gets the player more involved in the action than the traditional menu-driven strategy RPG. Just about every action taken on the battlefield requires using the meter. Hit it early and players will land a regular attack. Hit it in the sweet spot and it's a critical, go past that point and players may miss entirely. This gets even more involved during the game's combo attacks, which can require players to hit pre-marked spots on the gauge in three or more areas—meaning quick reflexes are at a premium.
Gladius throws in lots of other little wrinkles in an attempt to keep things fresh, and they're generally successful. Instead of every battle being a "kill everyone" affair, some have goals like seeing who can be king-of-the-hill the longest, break the most barrels, earn the most crowd approval, or dole out the most damage. These events are interesting the first few times players do them, but since each and every league seems to feature the same games, they do get a bit stale as the game progresses.
This air of repetition also affects the music featured in Gladius. While I enjoyed the score for the game and thought it suited the mood well, there's just not quite enough variety to make the soundtrack truly stand out. Even different tunes tend to sound similar as the game moves along.
The voice acting, on the other hand, is pretty decent—but again, a little more variety would have been nice. In battle, characters have a tendency to say the same things over and over and over, like Urlan screaming "for Nordagh!" ten times in the average battle.
Gladius is an ambitious game that attempts to breathe new life into the genre. It's not entirely successful, but it is the best gladiator game I've played. Sure, it's the only one I've ever played in depth, but I really did have a decent time with it. At any rate, I'd much rather play this than sit through Ridley Scott's film again.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox version of the game.