A long-established veteran of the RTS genre, The Creative Assembly has entertained gamers for years with its Total War series, covering diverse historical periods like the age of the Samurai, the Middle Ages, and Romeâ€™s pinnacle of military dominance. And, in a move similar to the latterâ€™s empirical expansion, the minds behind the Total War series have set their sights on a new battlefieldâ€”the land of the consoles. Armed with a new engine, new gameplay and a new design philosophy, does Spartan: Total Warrior successfully take the war-mongering series in a new direction? Surprisingly, it does.
In Total Warrior, players take the role of an un-named warrior simply known as The Spartan to defend Sparta from the onslaught of the Roman Empire. The events of the game are based on historyâ€”sort of; well, for one thing Ares the God of war serves as both narrator and a guide, urging you on to spill more Roman blood as you go. Actually, there are also hydra-like creatures, undead skeletons and zombies, and lighting you can shoot out of your fist. So although the story takes a few liberties with reality and historical accuracy, the narrative remains surprisingly well done and stays relevant to the game, with plenty of story-based mission objectives to keep you engaged between all the killing.
As The Spartan, you may not have a name but you do have some formidable combat chops. Actual melee combat is rather simple, with only the X and O buttons performing one-man attacks and radial hits, respectively. The variety comes into play when the shield (L2) button is used in conjunction with either single or multi-enemy attacks, which knock either one or all surrounding enemies back a few steps. Your â€˜rage meterâ€™ in the upper-left tracks repeated hits, and after getting several slashes in in rapid succession, youâ€™ll have access to the â€˜rage attack,â€™ unleashed via holding down the R1 button and either attack button. Rounding out the combat are the godly power moves, activated when your blue mana-like â€˜powerâ€™ meter fills up. Fill up the meter and hold down R2 while pressing one of the attack buttons to let loose some divine fury onto the battlefield.
Combat, while sounding simplistic, is fitted with just enough wrinkles to make it entertaining without being overwhelming. The most adequate comparison would be with The Mark of Kri, another melee slasher that appeared on the PS2; although Spartan deals with many more foes on the battlefield at one time than Kri, and accordingly, its combat system is more basic. As in Kri, you can also pick up arrows and fire them into enemy crowds using L1, with the flaming-arrow power-up doing the most damage. However, melee sword fighting is the order of the day, and a visceral order it isâ€”enemies will be sliced from behind, decapitated after acrobatic flourishes, and can even be executed fatality-style if knocked down. The camera does a very solid job of tracking the action, but the necessity of having it float over the battlefield prevents the player from seeing the details of the more messy moments. Most tantamount to the gameplay experience is the feeling of battle that Spartan succeeds in creating. Witness the first time you and a line of hardened Spartan warriors charge into battle with the Romansâ€”minor a detail it may be, itâ€™s something special. Pair atmospheric elements like this with a rock-solid framerate and literally hundreds of characters onscreen at once, and youâ€™ve got an above-average game off the bat.
If the free-for-all style of combat draws the player in, the varied mission objectives keep him there. Action-centric titles like this canâ€™t avoid repetition, and the dreaded feeling of sameness does creep in on occasion, but Spartanâ€™s developers have done a great job keeping tasks new and different. One mission might have you defending the walls of Sparta by pouring burning oil on the Roman invaders while launching catapults and fighting man-to-man, while another has you sprinting around a crowded courtyard in search of assassins trying to kill a valuable ally.
For all the straightforward action, thereâ€™s a hint of an RPG element to Spartan. In between levels youâ€™ll have the choice of leveling your warrior up in three different areasâ€”health, damage (of melee weapons), and power (aka spells), and while your choices arenâ€™t that significant, they provide just enough customization to connect you to the nameless warrior.
However, a few elements donâ€™t fit in well with the rest of the game, and instead detract from the immersive experience. First off are the occasional scripting errors. Although certainly rare and not a common problem, every so often an ally will forget to attack the enemy right in front of him, or will get stuck on some level geometry. Itâ€™s not a game-breaker, just a minor bug that didnâ€™t get squashed. The way healing is handled is a little annoying as well. Health shrines are found all over the levels, with healing accomplished by kneeling in prayer while your character is healed slowly in real time. Yet this can be burdensome as arrows will continue to fly and opponentsâ€™ swords will swing, making health recovery a nudge harder than it needs to be.
Lastly, some of the aural elements can undo the spell of immersion. The majority of the music is fine stuff that accompanies the action well, but every so often thereâ€™ll be a jarring piece done with contemporary instruments that breaks the mood. However, the chief offender in the sound department is the electronic beep that sounds whenever a major objective is met. Why the designers couldnâ€™t find a gong or bell that fits the time period better is curious indeed. Aside from the music, the sound is otherwise great. Battle cries, explosions and the sickening sound of blades whipping into unarmored limbs are implemented well, and work to elevate the chaotic action.
Thereâ€™s no multiplayer component to Spartan: Total Warrior, but there is an Arena Challenge mode that sets you against increasingly difficult waves of foes to dispatch. Thereâ€™s also a Single Mission Replay mode for reliving specific encounters, and an Extras mode for unlockable bonuses like concept art. Aside from the odd mood breaker, somewhat sluggish load times between menus, and occasional repetitive gameplay, Spartan: Total Warrior manages to bridge the familiar RTS brand to the console world through its silky-smooth framerate, very respectable visuals, and deviously violent gameplay.