SHADOW OF ROME / Capcom / Playstation 2
I'm fairly certain the design team ran to start work on this one shortly after seeing Ridley Scott's Gladiator movie, since the opening cinematic is almost lifted wholesale from it. We've got a long and rich history of games biting off of movies and coming out as even better overall entertainment products, however, so I ain't even mad about that.

What I am mad about is that this concept has so much potential and does so many things right, and in the end it's just another case of clunky, poorly-plotted-out gameplay bringing it all crashing down and just ruining the experience.

Shadow of Rome is a very linear action-adventure with lots of cinematics, and very story-centric. You'll alternate through chapters of the story as two different characters: Agrippa, a Roman general turned gladiator, and Octavianus, nephew of Ceasar and friend of Agrippa who can't fight worth a damn. The game opens with the famous murder of Ceasar, for which Agrippa's father is framed up. Agrippa is away fighting Gauls or something at the time, and while he makes his way back to Rome, Octavianus takes it upon himself to sneak into the Senate to find evidence on what really happened. When Agrippa returns to Rome, through various contrivances he ends up being a gladiator, and somehow this is a good plan that will end well. Also, more sneaking and peeping by Octavianus for various reasons.

You begin the game in media res with Agrippa in a tutorial battle in the arena, but after that the game flashes back a couple hours to have you play the events that led up to this point (you actually play as Agrippa fighting the northern barbarians, then back to Octavianus for his first level infiltrating the Senate, then they team up to try to bust Agrippa's father out of a prison on the outskirts of Rome. Then the gladiator stuff kicks in.)

When you play as Agrippa, the best way I can describe it is like 3D Zelda combat, except if Link were some muscly meathead who has the agility of a log and can't do any of his cool jumping or rolling-around moves. When you play as Octavianus, the best way I can describe it is a watered-down version of Metal Gear Solid 2 without guns, but also with adventure-ish sequences that resemble the old Konami PS2 game Shadow of Destiny. Oh, and the whole game just absolutely revels in gore and violence too, in case that's a thing for you. There's like 100 unlockable attacks and finishing moves for Agrippa that involve stuff like killing an enemy while he's peeing in fear, cutting off limbs then beating people to death with them, etc. So throw a dash of Manhunt into the pot of influences too, I guess.

I gotta say the production values are pretty impressive for a title that was really low-key and not at all well-advertised. It came out in 2005 so it has the benefit of being near the end of the PS2 life cycle and all the tech advantages that come with that. Aside from some bizarro facial expressions and movements in the cutscenes, characters look pretty damn good for a previous-gen game, the backgrounds are also usually fairly well-detailed and well-lit. It has the sort of Hollywood-ish symphonic "epic" soundtrack you'd expect from a game like this, and the interface and controls are simple and sensible. Adding to the MGS2 vibe is that a bunch of series alums make appearances to voice characters here - Cam Clarke, Quinton Flynn and Jennifer Hale among them.

Where the game falls apart is just poor plotting in the design department. Both the main gameplay modes - fighting and stealth - are weighted down with too many problems that repeat far too often. First off, there's only two difficulty options - Normal and Hard. And Normal is balls hard. Agrippa just seems singularly poorly equipped to deal with the challenges facing him. He's this low-mobility tank constantly surrounded by multiple enemies who are faster and more agile than he is, doing all these awesome Link-esque circle-rolls and side-jumps that you don't get to do. And every enemy in the game, down to the most common barbarian or pissant gladiator, seems to share the same badass AI routine that constantly exploits the dodge-and-roll strategy against you. They're not perfect but they're good enough that facing like five to ten in sequence wears the shit out of you. And for Octavianus's part, his sequenes are very linear and laid out in a way that often rely on either blind luck, or getting caught then repeating a long stretch to avoid a mistake you couldn't have possibly foreseen.

The game is actually pretty enjoyable for the first two hours or so, when the difficulty is at its lowest. There's a specific point where it all goes to hell, and that's where Agrippa returns to Rome to become a gladiator after the big prison break-out event. After having played the game for a solid couple of hours already, and already having done and seen all the combat moves (in fact, having the initial tutorial point out nearly all of them to you already), for some reason you get thrown into a second tutorial, but this one is quite possibly the most obnoxious I've ever seen in any game. Not only does it cover stuff you already know how to do, but it divides up into five sections, each with their own finicky completion requirements that the game doesn't make properly clear. Fail one, and you do it over. If you happen to die on, say, the fourth or fifth one, which is quite possible given that you're fighting a bunch of the usual tough and crafty enemies and not training dummies, and you get to START THE WHOLE THING OVER FROM THE BEGINNING. I think someone needs to send the game's designers back to Digipen or whatever to get a refresher course in the finer points of how tutorials work. They aren't supposed to come hours into the game, to cover stuff the player knows already, to make them jump through obnoxious hoops, or to punish the shit out of you by wasting your time when you fail to jump through said hoops properly.

To me that point was the line of demarcation of where the game went from "neat and enjoyable if a bit clunky" to "Jesus, this game is some bullshit." It's not just that one part, it's most of the stuff that comes after it too. Both Agrippa and Octavianus' further segments are assy in their own special way. Agrippa goes through a series of increasingly obnoxious battles. The difficulty is always cranked through the roof, especially against bosses, but to add extra spice to the shit stew there's an obnoxious combo-whoring Devil May Cry element to it. There's a crowd interest meter that waxes and wanes with how stylishly you are killing the enemies. Which involves, you guessed it, button-mashy combos. Audience interest is important because the only way to survive the heavy odds against you is to appeal to them, which can get them to either throw you a weapon that isn't bullshit, or a tasty hunk of meat when your health (inevitably) gets down to the danger zone. So you are forced into combo whoresmanship whether you like it or not. Complicating things even *further* is the goofy structure of many of Agrippa's arena battles. They tried to get creative here, but poor forethought and dumb ally AI ruins these challenges. You'll have a "team battle" where you and a squad of derpy AI allies have to smash a bunch of enemy statues before they smash all of yours. While the enemy rains down on you and your statues with ruthless vigor, your squadmates kinda just stand around and Herp, leaving you to run around like a chicken with your head cut off trying to do everything at once (the enemy squad also infinitely respawns if you kill them off.) Then there's the "Battle Royales" which are actually "Battle Where Every Single Enemy Targets Agrippa."

Octavianus' sequences are only slightly less annoying. They seem to just jag between being piss easy (guards standing literally staring into a corner for no good reason at all) or complete bullshit (dudes spotting you through walls somehow.) It's not like Metal Gear Solid where there's a range of possibilites to sneak by, it's all basically a linear puzzle where you just have to deduce the right sequence of moves, sometimes just by plain trial-and-error since you can't see what's coming.
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