Reviewed: January 30, 2004
Released: November 4, 2003
Gladiator: Sword of Vengeance is one of those games that sneaks up behind you and clubs you over the head with a two-handed sword. I had a very in-depth, personal demo of this game at last year’s E3 show and at the time Gladiator just looked like your run of the mill action title. I had already seen LucasArts, Gladius preview, so I was already smelling a conspiracy to flood the market with gladiator games. These things tend to come in waves – just look at the glut of volleyball games last summer.
Imagine my surprise after a few solid weeks of playing Sword of Vengeance to find a very professionally designed action-combat title with intuitive controls and more blood than the last three Mortal Kombat games combined. If you’re like me and found the turn-based gameplay of Gladius just a bit overwhelming then you’ve come to the right place. Gladiator: Sword of Vengeance is here to fulfill all your gladiatorial fantasies.
The date is 106 A.D. and the place is Rome. The evil Arruntius has assassinated the emperor and taken his throne, proclaiming himself as god. To celebrate his ascension to the throne Arruntius organizes the world’s largest gladiator competition. That’s where you come in.
You play as the super-ripped and undefeated gladiator, Invictus Thrax – with a name like that you are pretty much destined to kick ass – and you are introduced just as the games begin. The opening level, which also acts as your tutorial, takes place on the specially prepared city streets that have been sectioned off into enclosed arenas. This is where you get your first taste of blood, and the cheers of the enthusiastic crowd are downright intoxicating.
After learning the controls and killing off a few dozen warriors you make your way to the coliseum for an audience with Arruntius. Your last act of defiance against the throne is enough to have the emperor summon a demonic warrior who promptly sends you to the afterlife. When you “awaken” you are greeted by Remus and Romulus who inform you that you are now their new champion and will get to exact your revenge on Arruntius, all in due time.
The story is very well fleshed out and rooted in established lore and mythology, which only serves to make the gameplay that much more involved. The opening level lasts about ten minutes and during that time you should master the combat controls – yes, I said, “master”. It’s not because the game is easy mind you, but that the controls are just that intuitive.
Invictus has two types of melee attacks and a magical attack. You can use these commands to perform more than 60 combos and some of the bloodiest fatalities since the original Mortal Kombat. Your attacks vary based on the combination of button presses and the weapon currently being wielded. The right trigger locks onto your primary (nearest facing) target and you can beat on them until dead, but more than likely you will find yourself outnumbered and this is where my favorite gameplay device comes into play.
By pressing and holding the left trigger you will lock onto a secondary target. You will stay locked on for as long as you hold the left trigger but as soon as you release you will resume your attack on the primary target. This adds a whole new dimension to the gameplay and combat strategy. If you are beating on your main opponent and he throws up his shield you can squeeze the left trigger and immediately attack the guy behind you until your first opponent drops his guard. It’s a clever mix of timing and intuition and when it all comes together it’s almost as fluid and rhythmic as playing a musical instrument.
Throughout the adventure Invictus will travel to exotic locales and fight an assortment of nasty creatures. You’ll face challenges and be rewarded with the powers of the gods that can be used to defeat the more powerful bosses and gain access to magically sealed boxes. Boss battles are very difficult and rely on the classic formula of analyzing their tactics and finding their weakness. Some of the bosses are immune to conventional attacks and you will be forced to build up your power meter and unleash super Herculean attacks just to hit them. The same goes for specially sealed containers.
Between all the combat there are some rudimentary puzzles, basically fetch quests for keys and the occasional treasure chest. Some of the puzzles force you to do a bit of backtracking through the levels but none of them are terribly difficult. It’s a nice mix of gameplay with a heavy emphasis on combat and plenty of it.
Wow! This game blew me away from the very first level that looked so good I thought I was still watching the opening movie until I accidentally moved the stick and Invictus started across the screen. The camera work is awesome and very cinematic. The game opens in a side-scrolling fashion with silhouettes of the spectators in the foreground creating a great perception of depth. As you arrive at each new arena the camera shifts to one of many 3D perspectives to capture the battle area.
The camera is a floating computer-controlled camera that never failed me during the entire game. The camera will follow Invictus as he cross the screen, panning and zooming in or out as necessary to give you the best view of the area. When you reach the edge of the screen the camera will switch to a new view and it starts all over. When you engage in combat the camera does a good job of keeping all of your attackers in view, or at least the ones within range to do damage. This is probably one of the best and most intelligent camera systems in any Xbox game to date.
Level design is gorgeous and there are plenty of special effects to bring them to life. The lighting and shadow effects will blow you away and the first time you wake up in Elysium and start to move through the waist-high grass swaying in the breeze you will be speechless. The next level takes place on the coast with a sandy beach, nice transparent water and crashing surf and plenty of skeletons that pop out of the sand.
Monsters are extremely well designed not to mention the wonderful animations for Invictus. All of his various combat moves flow together like some choreographed dance routine and when he launches into a fatality they are so brutally violent you will groan with pain. Being a huge fan of the old Ray Harryhausen (Jason and the Argonauts) movies I could really appreciate the care and attention to detail the designers put into animating a lot of these monsters so they didn’t look like modern CG creations. Many of these creatures, especially the skeletons, had that jerky look like gave them that 60’s style of stop-motion animation.
The soundtrack for Gladiator is worthy of a big screen feature. I’d stack this up against the soundtrack to the movie, Gladiator, it’s that good. There is a lot of atmospheric music to enhance the environments and a rich and powerful score to drive the action and combat that blends classical orchestra and some period pieces with appropriate instruments.
Sound effects are understandably simple. You’ll hear a bunch of metal on metal and that’s about it. Some of the monsters make distinct sounds and there are some environmental effects like water, birds, and echoing caverns. Overall the sound presentation is fairly primitive, but only by design. The Dolby Digital mix is outstanding and surrounds you with these sounds so you can place monsters even when they aren’t on the screen.
The voice acting is very well done. Invictus sounds suitably tough and pissed off most of the time. Romulus and Remus are quite creepy, sounding like possessed little boys hiding unbelievable power in their innocent forms.
Diligent gladiators can finish Sword of Vengeance in about 12-15 hours. Plan on spending a bit more time if you want to complete every last challenge and locate all the upgrades available in the game. The best part of Gladiator is that the story is incidental and you can and will probably want to play and replay this game as much as you would any other fighting game just to experience the action.
There is no multiplayer support. I’m not sure how they could have worked it into the single-player game but it would have been cool to have some cooperative arena battles or something where you could tag-team lions, other gladiators, or even each other.
I really like Gladiator: Sword of Vengeance. The stunning graphics, intuitive controls, fluid combat, and challenging gameplay were more than enough to keep me busy for many days of solid gaming and when I finally finished the game I found it to be a most satisfying experience.
If you are a fan of gladiators, gratuitous bloodshed, exotic locales, fantasy monsters, and rich storytelling then you won’t want to miss out on one of the best-kept secrets of 2003. This game didn’t get nearly the publicity it deserved, but that shouldn’t stop you from going right out and buying your copy today.