20 November 2009

Spartan: Total Warrior

He's no partial warrior. He's a total warrior, which is why they made a game all about him.

Spartan is nothing but a killing machine. We can’t say if it’s because he has no real name, if someone said he'd never make it in a third-person hack-and-slash game because he's not as pretty as Russell Crowe, or what. What we can say is this: the only way his countrymen could have designed a more effective tool for relieving Roman soldiers of their limbs would have been to attach giant razor blades to an airplane propeller.

This meaty brand of third-person action slaughter is executed via the trusted medium of button bashing. The developers will hate us for saying this, because they’ve pointed out to us on multiple occasions the non-bashy, all-skillsy nature of Spartan: Total Warrior’s combat. But put the controller in our hands and those buttons are going to take a spanking.

Yes, we know there’s a fairly workable system in which one button is a forward attack, the other an area attack, and the rest of the buttons switch between magic blasts, arrows, rage attacks, a jump, a rolling dodge, and shield bashes. We still button-mashed. You may well be able to intentionally block an enemy’s blow and deliver an immaculately timed counter, as we often unwittingly did.  But, if you reckon you can do it when you can’t even see Spartan amid the 100-strong crowd of furious combatants swarming around him, you’ve probably been working on the game for the last two years.

Anyway, regardless of how it is achieved, the result is much the same: oodles of rapid-fire killing and the satisfaction of hacking up enemies more numerous than in any console action game that has gone before. Everywhere you look, Romans (and later, skeletons, zombies, and ogre-like “gigantes”) pour over castle walls and invade rooms via unseen doorways. Sometimes you’ll have some dim-witted allies to battle alongside you, but most of the Romans nonetheless go straight to you for the fastest possible ticket to the afterlife.

When you’ve sliced and diced enough people in the current area, you’ll be able to move somewhere else for a battle in alternative surroundings. Health and the little used magic power are replenished by praying at altars along the way, although the sneaky Romans tend to use such moments to start hitting Spartan from behind.

Those rear attacks become annoying, but it almost can’t be avoided. Most of the time you’ll have a full 360° panorama of meat mannequins to hack away at, and the unhelpful camera doesn’t always display the best angles for figuring out who’s next for the chop (hence our rather successful tactic of random flailing).

Before you get the wrong idea, let’s make it clear that there are mission objectives: if you want endless random combat, simply head on over to the Arena mode, where you’re more than welcome to chop till you drop. In the main game, you’ll have to protect certain individuals, sabotage various things, pull levers, climb ladders and find secret items. It’s got everything an ordinary adventure game would have. The battlefields are often multi-leveled cityscapes complete with hidden treasures and interactive killing aids like ballista, racks of spears, and cauldrons full of burning oil.

You’ll also experience some memorable boss battles, courtesy of beasts like a hydra, a dragon, a minotaur and at least one giant metal colossus (though, ironically, he’s more of a mini-boss) that you must make ready for smelting by spearing him with giant ballista bolts.

There seems to be a time limit in some areas that’s either unmentioned or was mentioned too quietly to register through our digital bloodlust. Whatever the cause, the action was frequently and prematurely brought to a halt. Sometimes we ended up losing because we failed to kill a certain enemy. That seems unfair, because we would have gotten to him sooner if we hadn’t been surrounded by other enemies with a death wish. Those Romans may have been civilized, but they were crap at waiting their turn to get skewered.

No matter, because we didn’t need to be asked twice on the Continue screen. Spartan: Total Warrior’s satisfying simplicity makes it easy to lose hour after hour to repeated play-throughs of the same levels in an attempt to max out the combo meter or try wasting a boss with a different type of weapon.

In case you’re interested in technical details, the GameCube version has some special lighting effects that are better than you’ll find in other console versions (yes, even the Xbox). The PlayStation 2 version is, predictably, the most homely of the bunch, but even on that console, the sheer volume of characters onscreen is damned impressive. You can literally become disoriented by the sheer number of dead bodies that can pile up onscreen. So it’s a remarkable feat of programming as well as the most deliciously bloodthirsty thing we’ve played in a very long time.

Yes, it would be nice if your fellow soldiers would open a door on their own once in awhile, and we could definitely do without the oddly paced “stealth” sections. We appreciate the developers’ attempt to mix things up a bit, but this game’s strength is its full-scale battles. Besides, it should be enough that Spartan does things right out of the box that the premeire hack-and-slash series Dynasty Warriors, about to release its tenth PS2 entry, has yet to achieve.


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