Gladiator: Sword of Vengeance Review

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Publisher: Acclaim
Developer: Acclaim

Platforms: Xbox and PlayStation 2
Reviewed on Xbox

Emperor Trajan is dead. The usurper Arruntius has allied himself with dark gods, and is determined to transform the city of Rome into an orgy of gladiatorial combat. The citizens of Rome themselves are forced to watch and cheer as former champions face off in battles that destroy Rome's noble monuments. Invictus Thrax was chief among the late Trajan's champions, and is executed by Arruntius as a symbol of the deposed leader. Despite Arruntius's seeming grasp on power, the gods are not pleased. They have brought Thrax to Elysium to test his mettle, and should he prove worthy, to free Rome of the taint that now occupies the seat of Rome's power. Invictus Thrax is "a warrior slave, chosen by the gods to restore the glory of an empire."

Kyle Ackerman

Gladiator begins with the underhanded execution of the lead character as he waves to an adoring crowd. Invictus Thrax is slain as soon as the most basic of tutorials is complete and sent to Elysium. There, he is met by two masked children, Romulus and Remus, who task him with saving Rome. Phobos and Deimos (the children of Mars) have tainted Rome through their tool Arruntius, and Rome can only be restored if Thrax kills pretty much anything that's not sitting in bleachers.

Thrax is a Veritable Cuisinart

Combat in Gladiator crosses back and forth between tactical calculation and button mashing, but it's filled with constant action. Without a target lock (achieved by pulling the right trigger), Thrax just swings his sword, axe or gauntlets (wrist blades). Once target lock is activated, Thrax can perform combinations of up to three attacks using the A and X buttons. Pulling the left trigger will switch his attack to a secondary target for as long as you hold it down. When enemies are close together, switching between primary and secondary targets allows Thrax to perform dramatic combinations that quickly demolish his opponents. The B button makes Thrax jump away or roll to one side, and performing evasive moves at the right moment is critical. Getting caught in a corner, immobile, can be fatal. Once you unlock them, there are also gauges for each of the weapons. Once you have a gauge, rapid and frequent blows are rewarded by powering it up. Defensive and offensive abilities improve as the gauge builds, turning hordes of deaths into a splendid killing frenzy.

Battle is heavily offensive. Thrax has no shield and no blocking moves, so the closest thing Thrax has to defense is a quick, evasive roll. While different combinations of the X and A buttons perform distinct combinations, there isn't much reason to do other than mash those two attack buttons. Frankly, as long as you occasionally pull the left trigger to switch between targets, you'll do just fine against the game's enemies.

Thrax gets more powerful versions of his weapons throughout Gladiator, and can increase his power by building up the fight gauges, but he also has access to powerful Olympian Battle Magic. By attacking foes, Thrax builds up a Blood Meter, and as the Blood Meter fills, he can access powers granted by Hercules, Pluto and Jupiter. These can improve his attacks, increase his speed or grant him health from fallen foes. The weapon gauge can be powerful when combined with Olympian powers. By using the Power of Hercules to quickly fill the fight gauge, Thrax becomes powerful enough to deal with even the toughest of foes. Of course, the gauge quickly runs down, and enemies are spaced far enough apart that most groups of foes require Thrax to build his power anew.

The Arena Isn't The Only Challenge

In addition to levels filled with enemies, there are "challenges" scattered throughout the game. Challenges are specific and isolated tasks, such as killing a large number of foes or breaking a number of vases. These challenges are often made more difficult by a time limit, starting with limited health or restricting Thrax to a specific weapon. Completing challenges will give Thrax access to better weapons, more health or collectible items. Some are required for progress, but many others are optional. Collectibles themselves unlock special challenges, that give access to things such as the highest levels of the fight gauges. Unfortunately, it's not clear (unless you get all of a particular item type) what the collectibles are good for, and the game is easily completed without bothering to search for these items.

Only the beginning and the end of Gladiator take place in Rome proper. Much of the game sends Thrax through mythological lands to prepare him for his final confrontation and to allow him to face the two demi-gods behind Arruntius. The graphics are at their best when presenting sweeping landscapes of Rome, transformed into obstacle courses by Arruntius, and filled with gladiators. The mythological landscapes are sparser, occupied by cyclopean architecture or barren cliffs and filled with creatures such as skeletons or Cyclopes (or skeletal Cyclopes). Bone fragments fly off the skeletons when struck, and anything alive will spray blood everywhere. The many power-ups that Thrax can acquire manifest as sparkling and shimmering effects around Thrax. There is some oddly Mesoamerican-looking decor in the lands of Roman mythology, but there are also some wonderful set pieces, such as the mechanical Cerebus – a three-headed delivery system to throw gladiators into the ring against Thrax. Fortunately, the game culminates in a dramatic scene in the Coliseum (which apparently had a dome) in which Thrax faces Arruntius and his sponsors. That return to Rome is important, as the cheering masses and hordes of mortal gladiators are what complete the Roman gladiatorial theme.

A Game Distinguished by Blood

Gore in Gladiator isn't just a by-product of the gladiatorial blood sport – it's a major selling point. Thrax leaves throngs of crumpled corpses in his wake, and unless his foe is a bloodless corpse, blood splatters the sand and dust with every blow. It may not please The Lion & Lamb Project (who want to rid the world of violent games), but anyone who was a fan of Mortal Kombat's fatality moves will thrill at the gruesome execution moves available in Gladiator. Acclaim advertises more than sixty types of death blows, and there are unique sequences for each of Thrax's three styles of weapons, different for each type of foe. For all but the weakest of enemies, once the foe is near death, its life meter will go from a partial green bar to a red bar, at which point a single button press will start the execution cut-scene. These sequences are rendered using the same engine as the rest of the game and feature grotesque animations. In one sequence against a fellow wielding a gigantic hammer, Thrax kicks him in the groin, and when the fellow falls to his knees, Thrax plunges a sword directly into the top of his skull and stirs the contents about (accompanied by squishing noises). Another has Thrax sink his axe into the side of a Cyclops, and when the creature falls on its belly, Thrax firmly plunges the blade into the creature's spine with an overhand swing.

There are a few problems with Gladiator, the most serious of which are the camera system and the save system. The levels are strictly linear, so it's always clear where Thrax should be. As a result, the camera goes to predetermined positions, and the player has control only over how closely you view Thrax. Often, you are stuck with inconvenient angles that make it difficult to do battle properly, and sometimes the zoom is set so close (regardless of your preference) that it is hard to see what is going on in the fray. Also, even though your objectives should be obvious given the linear design, it can be difficult to see the obvious keyhole or lever that sits just out of view. As for continue points (where you restart when dead), they are usually close together, but there are occasions when they are unbearably far apart. For example, when Thrax is questing for the War Blade of Mars, continue points can be so far apart that you will repeat the same sequence often enough to get irritated. The boss battles are also repetitive. The problem is not that such battles consist of the standard pattern-recognition fare. The problem is that there are five such battles, and only two bosses that get reused. As impressive as it is to face Phobos in armor made of shadow and fear (looking like the pilot of an enormous ‘mech as he dangles in the huge shadow body), if you can beat him once, you can beat him the next three times.

In the end, the save system is probably the biggest disappointment in Gladiator. The game isn't complex, but it does offer entertaining and particularly graphic violence. In small doses, Gladiator would be the perfect game to help you unwind after a tough day at the office. A simple arena mode that just pitted Thrax against waves of foes would serve the same purpose. As it is, it's hard to play for a few minutes at a time without redoing the same section of the game over and over. Even so, Gladiator is good for a violent, button-mashing action fix, and it's certainly worth renting for a weekend's battle.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on November 17, 2003 9:10 PM.

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