Gladiator: Sword of Vengeance is a third-person action game taking place during the twilight of the Roman Empire. Inspired by classic films like Spartacus and the fantasy-oriented Jason and the Argonauts, the storyline focuses on a slave who takes it upon himself to rise up against his supernatural captors. Instead of fighting human Roman soldiers, players will engage in mortal combat against armored skeletons and other monsters in the deadly gladiatorial arenas. A number of characters are available to choose from, possessing distinct fighting styles from their country of origin. Characters are also skilled in various weaponry, including spears, tridents, and swords, among others. The main Campaign mode features a series of missions consisting of multiple objectives. A character's skills will gradually improve over time and additional moves can be acquired once players become more experienced fighters.
Originally presented to us as nothing more than a videogame interpretation of Ridley Scott's award winning motion picture, Vengeance already had plenty of obstacles in front of it. And it wasn't because of Acclaim's storied history of hit and miss software either.
It was instead burdened by the strikingly similar theme and storyline to the aforementioned Russell Crowe vehicle; in addition to the fact that it sees release less than a week after that of LucasArts' own analogous title, Gladius. To say that consumers may find themselves in a state of confusion and weariness is an understatement. Why would they want to go for yet another gladiatorial adventure when they had one already just last week?
The answer, quite simply, is because it's pretty darned good. Similarities aside, Sword of Vengeance is neither a remake of the Oscar-winning motion picture or the brainy strategy RPG that we saw in Gladius. In all truthfulness it's an uncomplicated romp through an alternate Roman history that, while a tad on the flawed side, turns out to be just as much fun as it is familiar. For gamers searching for a quick fix along the lines of something like kill.zone or Time Crisis 3, this could be exactly what they're looking for.
Alright, we told you that Sword of Vengeance wasn't the videogame version of Ridley Scott's Gladiator, and it isn't -- but after reading the plot devices that serve as your character's motivation you may feel that that topic is up for debate. Don't be surprised if you notice some parallels -- because they're definitely in there:
Set in 106 A.D. after the death of the great emperor Trajan, Vengeance begins under the ruthless leadership of Arruntius; a former despotic consular and the man suspected of bringing the previous ruler to his untimely end. Egomaniacal and convinced that he's a god among mortals, Arruntius has banned the worship of other gods besides himself and is in the midst of destroying Rome so that a new city named after him may be built. As a bit of self-congratulations, Arruntius has staged the world's most elaborate gladiatorial contest amidst the city streets hoping that the bloody spectacle will appease his people and gain him favor among the crowds.
But as stories of this sort usually go, there's one man who defies the emperor with everything in his being. A former slave and faithful servant to the dead emperor Trajan, this man is the gladiator known as Invictus Thrax; an undefeated warrior whose power overcomes every opponent that he confronts. That is, until he's slaughtered in front of thousands of people by the evil demon gods Phobos and Deimos-- halting the hero's plans of revolt and securing Arruntius' place on his throne unopposed.
Strangely enough, Thrax awakens in Elysium only to be greeted by the sons of Mars, Remus and Romulus. Chosen by the pair to become their champion, Thrax is recruited and granted the ability to return to the mortal world to stop Arruntius and the demons that aid him before all of Rome is consumed in their darkness. And from there things really start to get interesting...
As a game, Sword of Vengeance couldn't be any simpler, especially when you plug in a dual analog controller of some sort. Based around the hack and slash ideals of old, Gladiator provides a handful of basic commands that include two different types of attack buttons, a magic button, and a context action key. Other than the two different locking target commands, those are the only controls that players will ever need to learn; with the exception of an occasional camera adjustment made with the right analog stick. Because of this easy setup, gamers will be able to delve right in and start slashing from the get-go. With a handy training level that serves as a prologue and shows you how Invictus died in the first place to teach you the basics.
To keep the experience from getting monotonous, players will be able to form combinations by alternating button presses between the two attack keys and can even perform fatalities by pressing the context button when an enemy's health bar turns red. Players can also hit the context key at any time during the course of a battle to perform defensive or escape-related maneuvers such as rolling under the swipe of a sword or bouncing off the front of an opponent into a back flip.
Though it's somewhat simplistic in nature and may put off fans of games that employ more complicated combination systems (like Dynasty Warriors or Return of the King), it never gets too old too quickly. This is mainly because of the differences in combos based on what weapons your character is using.
Speaking of weapons, each one of them has different uses against different types of enemies. Be it with the sword, the gauntlet, or the axe, no two instruments affect an opponent in the same way. When facing a representative of the creepy race known as "The Lost", for instance, an Axe may be too ineffectual because of that particular monster's affinity for speedy moves; while the quickly-employed gauntlets aren't very useful against beasts such as the hulking Cyclops and its ilk. Though you can definitely play through the game without switching weaponry very often, it's a lot harder to wade through the stages without constantly dying by doing so -- making the experimentation of using different offensive tools for different situations more important than it appears.
The use for weaponry doesn't end there, as each available tool can be upgraded into more powerful versions through arena-like challenges scattered in each stage. Breaking a certain amount of ceramic vases or defeating all the enemies in a given area before the time limit runs out successfully completes the challenge (and rewards gamers with something new every time). Whether or not these rewards are more advanced weaponry, an increased health bar, or additional magic skills is determined by the type of challenge that you choose to undertake. By the time Invictus reaches the end of the game, he'll be one bad-ass Roman gladiator. With fiery superhuman strength, electrically-charged thunderbolts, and a horde of undead spirits as just a few of the many skills he can use to overcome an enemy.
Players will have to get a strong grasp on the benefits of magic and combinations pretty quickly too; as there are some truly difficult areas in Sword of Vengeance that will take a couple of tries to surmount. Without earning some of the more powerful combo modifiers by putting together clever attack patterns, Thrax can find himself overwhelmed pretty quickly in the latter stages -- particularly in the home of Deimos: where swarms of bad guys seem to attack your alter ego at every opportunity.
But once you come face to face with one of the boss creatures, it's another story entirely. As it's with those situations where players must learn the patterns of a baddie and exploit one or two super powers at the right moment in order to make any leeway. Filling up your Herculean power and then unleashing it after the third attack by Phobos, for instance, is the only way you're going to hurt the bastard. Otherwise you'll be running around getting beat on for the entire lifespan of your confrontation. The whole setup in this regard is definitely homage to the 16-bit era of gaming, and is one that we certainly approve of.
That said, Gladiator still isn't without a couple of nagging problems. The most obvious of which is the straightforward stage design and slow build-up leading into the latter stages. Almost always moving in a straight line, Sword of Vengeance doesn't exactly typify the feeling of being in an open environment. Though the game is definitely in 3D and moves as such, the limitations of a particular level seem far more restrictive than they should be. Think Pandemonium with swords and add a pinch of extra freedom and you'll get the right idea.
On the flipside, the more action-oriented stages can get repetitive near the end of the game; especially when you're consistently running into the same groups of enemies over and over again between the puzzle segments. Also troublesome is the sometimes-dodgy targeting system -- as there are more than a couple of incidents where players will fail timed challenges or miss an important enemy only because what they aimed to do just didn't happen. Luckily these issues aren't prevalent enough to qualify as nothing more than moderate nuisances at best.
If there's one visual aspect above all others that most players should immediately notice, it would have to be Gladiator's terrific lighting effects. Whether it's the game's use of shadow and darkness in the confines of an underground dungeon or the brilliant display of color shown on an afternoon beachhead, Sword of Vengeance has done a great job of providing its audience with plenty of graphical chutzpah. The stages that feature firebeasts and lakes of lava especially stand out as impressive examples of the design team's efforts.
Another noticeable aspect is the aforementioned fatality scenes. Incredibly gory and undeniably brutal, these final moments of a creature's life can produce amazingly horrific presentations that see limbs fly, blood sprayed, and heads decapitated. But an even more impressive visual feat is the bodies and parts that are left lying on the ground following the carnage. Even after traveling from the site of a battle, players can return to find evidence of a skirmish stained with crimson directly below them. Eventually these pieces disappear yes, but the fact that it stays there for even a little while adds to the game's sense of realism quite a bit.
Despite all of its atmosphere, however, Gladiator's framerate runs into plenty of issues from beginning to end. At its worst when surrounded by a group of attacking enemies, the stuttering screen sometimes skips and jumps far too often for our liking. The character models and obstacle geometry is a little on the basic side as well, and the animations aren't as smooth as we'd hoped. At least the camera does its job, though: performing extremely well and ranking as one of the better smart-cams that we've seen.
Like the Japanese, the British seem to provide for better voice acting in videogames when compared to that of a typical American production. While not as good as Legacy of Kain or Angel of Darkness, the speech in Sword of Vengeance is still rather pleasant with a ton of interaction between main characters and distinct personalities for each. Romulus and Remus both stand out as appropriately creepy well-acted parts whose performances help sell the storyline very well.
Musically, Gladiator is just as powerful and borrows its inspiration from the Hans Zimmer soundtrack that powered Ridley Scott's Gladiator in 2000. Heavy on its Middle-Eastern flavor and sprinkled with plenty of classical zest, it's both moving and dramatic and sounds like it belongs in an RPG not an action title. Either way, its score fits the atmosphere very well and makes us wish that there was an official soundtrack so we could pick it up.
We only wish that Sword of Vengeance offered more variety by way of its audio effects. Somewhat limited to just a few clangs and metal sounds, there's little for players to listen to while slaughtering their opponents besides the music. Enjoyable as the soundtrack may be, it can get a little repetitive to hear the same few effects over and over again.
There are few moments in the videogame world that are as satisfying as finding something that exceeds expectations. And that's exactly what happened when we sat down to give Acclaim's Sword of Vengeance a thorough playthrough. Far from being perfect and definitely open to improvement, Gladiator isn't going to win any awards or change the way we look at videogames. What it will do, however, is help pass the time away for nine to twelve hours with its mindless but ultimately fun approach to the genre.
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