One of my fondest childhood memories is the Sunday reruns of classic sword and sandal movies like Spartacus and Ben Hur. I am not exactly sure why, but I was somehow ensnared by those ancient times of wonder and mystery. And I carry a little bit of that childhood fascination with me today. Accordingly, I was quite excited upon hearing that Creative Assembly—a developer known for its accurate real-time strategy (RTS) games set in historical contexts—developed Spartan: Total Warrior, a fighting game that lets me take the role of one single footsoldier in the Spartan army. I instantly dreamt up the whole game: how it would require me to stay in close formations with my comrades, how I would experience the tension of a raging ancient battlefield through the eyes of one soldier. How finally one fighting game would put me on the same ground with my allies and enemies.
Well to cut a long story short, none of what I wanted came true. In a number of interviews Creative Assembly stressed that Spartan had little in common with the other entries in the Total War franchise. And they are absolutely right. The game's setting is more of a fantasy remix than an actual depiction of ancient Greece. For example, I wasn't aware that dreadlocks were by any means popular back then. And the fact that the game had me fight Roman flamethrower units, a live minotaur and featured a WMD that involved Medusa's gaze being amplified by a giant mirror in order to turn whole battalions of soldiers to stone certainly didn't exactly help to boost the game's historical accuracy.
But I can't fault a game for failing to deliver what it never promised. Spartan: Total Warrior may not be what I expected, but that doesn't mean it's bad. As far as gameplay is concerned, the game sticks to a rather tried and true formula—that is, pitting my super-überpowered fighting champion against the whole of the Roman Empire. Nevertheless, when I started taking Spartan for what it is—a mass fighter a la Dynasty Warriors—it turned out to be a surprisingly good game.
Spartan's excusably thin story starts with the Romans trying to invade the hero's hometown and then sets him out on a quest for the legendary spear of Achilles, which he hopes will turn the tides in an otherwise hopeless war. His journey sees him traveling across countries, visiting a good half a dozen locations from barbarian wastelands, to the sunken city of Troy, to a grande finale in the lion's den: the Coloseum in Rome. Along his way, the Spartan—as he is referred to throughout the game—is accompanied by various sidekicks and bits of his hometown's army. The tasks that he has to fulfill are diverse and range from sabotaging Roman siege equipment to protecting a peasant village, rescuing prisoners or conquering a stronghold in the Alps. Although the main course of the game consists of defeating incoming hordes of illustrious enemies, it is this variety that keeps Spartan: Total War from getting too repetitive.
Fortunately the fights are a lot of fun, thanks to a solid control scheme. Basically one button is used for attacks on single enemies, one for group attacks and one for jumping. These actions are combined with the shoulder buttons to alter movement while the basic setup remains the same. Thus the controls manage to be intuitive and complex at the same time. While most attacks are more or less standard fighting game stuff with a little magic in the mix, Spartan's main innovation is the active role that the shield plays in this setup. By blocking back opponents, (while causing almost no damage), I was able to keep them at bay and thus was given enough time to prepare my next attack. This feature allowed for a sense of tactical movement through large groups of enemies that I've never before experienced in a game. It was especially amusing in cases where the level design gave me the opportunity to perform some lethal blocking attacks, like pushing legionnaires into campfires or off bridges.
The sheer number of on-screen fighters that Spartan promotes is amazing. And unlike in similar titles, enemies and allies alike act singly, not in units, each driven by a mini AI. This individuality creates the very lively—or rather, deadly—atmosphere of a chaotic, raging battlefield. In general, Spartan's AI is quite smart for a mass fighter. Groups of enemy soldiers blocked, retreated and tried to get into my back while constantly pressuring me with their attacks. Even in earlier missions I hardly ever encountered anybody just standing around and waiting for me to cut him down.
But while the atmosphere is matching that of an epic battle and thus met my expectations a little, the rules of cause-and-effect which the game implements unfortunately did not. The game's premise —to pit me against everyone else —turned out to be a two edged sword, responsible for a lot of fun but also spawning most of its problems. My actions simply did not seem to have consequences, which is even more of a mystery when one considers the work Creative Assembly did on the previous Total War games in this regard. If Koei's Dynasty Warriors series did one thing very well, it was to give me the feeling of being part of a greater whole. My actions did influence the outcome of a battle, and not only directly—. for example, by, say, cutting off enemy reinforcements and thus enabling my allies to successfully defend a critical position. Conversely, the Spartan's allies are mere extras without any real power. It just didn't matter if all of my foot soldiers died early in an attack, because in the end it was me anyway who won the battle.
Pollux, Castor and Electra—the three sidekicks that accompany the Spartan time and again —are even more of a mystery, since they seem immortal by default, while not adding any tactical weight to their army. They just get carried along, for the sake of being there. I so wished for a little call for aide when one of them was in a hopeless situation, giving me the opportunity to dramatically rush to his side. But nothing like that happened. What puzzled me even more about Castor and company was the fact that their presence in the game cried out loud for a co-op mode. To my amazement there was none. Why introduce four different characters with distinct weaponry and fighting styles, when I am only allowed to play one of them on my own?
But don't get me wrong: Spartan is indeed a good game. It's a solid effort with a few innovations that breathes life into a genre which was monopolized by before-mentioned Dynasty Warriors. Once I overcame my initial disappointment I got my share of fun out of it. In the end, I had to realize that sometimes the prize you pay for being a one man army is the feeling of being all alone. And this is not always as heroic as it may sound.