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Shadow of Rome

Developer: Capcom
Publisher: Capcom
Genre: Action / Stealth
Players: 1
Similar To: Die by the Sword
Rating: Mature
Published: 02 :25 : 05
Reviewed By: Euric Fuselier

Overall: 6.5 = Fair

 

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In 44BC, Julius Caesar was murdered by a group of men involved in a clandestine plot that is said to have possibly consisted of up to 60 members. Taking this bit of history and mixing in their own melodramatic flair, Capcom goes about telling the yarn of Caesar's assassination. Players assume the role of the Imperator's nephew Octavianus and his close friend Marcus Agrippa. With players controlling Octavianus (later Augustus), Rome itself will be explored, and historical figures like Cicero (looking very Anthony Hopkins-esque in the digital world) and Marcus Brutus will be met. To hide the truth, the conspirators tap Agrippa's father Vispanius as the sole murderer of Caesar, leading Agrippa to become a gladiator to win the right to kill the true murderer, and, in the process of climbing the ranks of gladiators, being able to find out the full truth and save his father.

In what has to be one of the strangest combinations in a game of late, Capcom decided to mix gladiatorial combat with stealth. Yes, stealth. While Agrippa fights in vicious arena battles against both man and beast, Octavianus is left creeping around Rome, clinging against walls, crawling through bushes, and slapping unsuspecting guards around with vases. To say that it is a disjointed approach is to put it lightly.

As Octavianus trails key figures and eavesdrops on conversations, he will go to the Senate, the Forum, and a handful of other locations, sneaking in to buildings and handling minor puzzles, like figuring out the proper sequence of sentences during a speech to rile the citizenry. He can't act out too much, though. On the city streets, he can go about as he wishes, for the most part, but once inside a structure or on an estate, he needs to assume the role of whatever costume he finds. Since he can't fight, this means that he has to use vases, as well as honey, flour, frogs, jars of wine, and torches to create distractions to knock out, or sneak past, maids and guards so that he can take their uniform. Sure, they never explain why a guard wouldn't immediately run him through when they see a young kid












 

without an armor helmet or shield walking around in a route that isn't the normal patrol, but what is learned early on is that none of the linebacker-built guards are all that bright. Every now and then a helmet will be found, creating a somewhat, albeit very small, appearance of a regular guard, but that rarely matters as long as Octavianus keeps his cool. This means that anything out of the ordinary, like crouching or running, will immediately tip the guards off and they will investigate, which can also happen if they get too close to Octavianus and begin to check him out, which typically involves answering a question or two. If the guards buy the answers, they leave him alone; if not, it might be time to run. Since guards do not follow you through most doors or onto ledges, simply ducking into a room or in a crawl space until their quickly diminishing alert meter runs out will be enough to allow you to immediately go back outside and make another attempt. Ducking behind desks, chairs, or just standing behind an open door will be enough to fool most curious guards.

The stealth portions really are a drag. It isn't that they are bad, because the controls are actually quite good for a company taking a stab at the genre for the first time. It's just that the levels really aren't made for sneaking around. To compensate for having such limited areas to move around in, Capcom made the guards stupid - the only justifiable reason for their absentmindedness, really. There are a few times when it all comes together and their approach of a varied way to tell a complex tale makes sense, but that is not often the case.

Along the way there are also silver fortune coins that can be collected and used to spruce up Octavianus' room with furniture and various gadgets, which will allow for him to select more costumes. I never had to do this. In the beginning, I had him cut his hair, and then I just took whatever costume was needed at the time. Sometimes, costumes aren't really needed, but do help somewhat, which is actually a nice touch. But considering this takes up nearly half the game and since most of these portions are both tedious and boring, it means that the combat really has to be great for the game to be worthwhile. And it is.

The gladiator matches are some of the most raucous fun you'll have on the PlayStation 2. It isn't overly complex, but it has enough moves and weapon variety to keep the fights fun. Whenever Agrippa's initial weapon breaks, he can pick up those of his fallen enemy or one tossed into the arena from the crowd. I wish the bouts were more man vs. beast and free-for-alls, especially since they added a few team bouts and hostage rescues, which aren't that great. The problem with rescuing hostages is that they are slow and stupid, sometimes walking right into other gladiators and obstacles, getting themselves killed. The team-based bouts are absolutely infuriating, with team members who refuse to do anything but stay in one place or lift levers so that gates around statues lower, allowing them to be destroyed - obviously, this is a problem when the goal is that the team who destroys the other team's statues first wins. Someone had to have realized how broken these were, but, alas, they have to be tolerated to enjoy the rest.

As a gladiator, the love of the crowd is crucial. This means that combos, stealing weapons, dodging attacks, and gory moves will get salvo points and fill a gauge. Once a gauge is filled, Agrippa can lift his arms and cheer at the crowd, who will toss him food to help replenish his health or, if he has them riled up appropriately, a giant weapon. The larger weapons are incredibly fun to use, which include giant swords and maces, which will sever arms, legs, and crush heads, with each successful blow getting cheers and rose pedals thrown from the stands. To really get the crowd's juices flowing, beat another gladiator with their own severed arm, insult them by fighting them with a rose, or raise a severed head - the latter is a pretty rare occurrence. The normal weapons include scimitars that can cut off limbs and heads, maces to bash heads in, and morning stars that slap other gladiators around with head blows that send them falling in pain. There are also secondary weapons, like spiked shields and daggers that can be used in tandem with the primary weapon for combo points. With obstacles like spinning blades and triggered stones that fall, the arenas can get hectic and bloody. In a nice move, successful moves are also accompanied with sayings - come out of the gate swinging and get ROMAN BLITZKRIEG - that flash in bold letters on the screen, and some of the more lucky and/or skilled maneuvers, like stealing weapons, are accompanied with a brief cutscene, which doesn't take away from the action. Hand-to-hand combat is done fairly well, with a few basic combos, and a nice suplex move that gets the crowd going wild. This is really high energy, and even when the targeting goes on the fritz, it's still a blast.

There are also a few chariot races. As Agrippa climbs up the ranks, he has to fight the men in a special unit ran by Decius Brutus. These soldiers are special units trained to fight with animals and unique weapons. None of those units are particularly hard to best (which goes for every boss battle), which makes the fights a bit anticlimactic, but the chariot race and its boss battle are great. Racing consists of whipping horses enough to get them motivated but not enough to exhaust them, while dueling with other riders and also keeping damage to the chariot itself under control. Continuing in the area of excessiveness, weapons taken from slaves near the starting lines tends to results with the slaves being ran over and points for a 'Drive By' being awarded. Sure, the pageantry can get gaudy, but it fits right in.

There are also some moments when Agrippa can walk around the gladiator school and either take part in practice matches or talk with fellow fighters. While they rarely give out any useful information, you may be able to get some crucial information, like the time one gentleman informed me that his balls were sweaty - I can only assume someone was giggling when they put that in there. It's hard to get overly upset - a wrinkled eyebrow is, however, fine - at the fighter's dialogue, because it's actually original; the rest of the arena dialogue was shamelessly taken from Gladiator, right down to throwing a sword in the stands and asking if that kind of violence is what the crowd wants.

So, after all this, after all the severed limbs, blood, cheers, narrow escapes, weapon thefts, dead tigers, dead gladiators, your blood is pumped and you are ready to go…but wait. Stop. Take whatever momentum you have going and completely ignore it because now it's time to sneak around. See the problem with that? The developers kill their own creation by making all the high-energy excitement and adrenaline-pumping action for naught, because now you have to pretend to not be a Meg Ryan clone jumping in giant jars and dressing like a maid - suddenly growing breasts when the outfit goes on - and fighting with the camera in tight spots.

Rome itself also lacks the grandeur most would come to expect. The city streets are barely populated and most structures are fairly basic. The intro sequence is fantastic, and the character designs and costumes look great, but everything else is bland. The combat looks good, with blood staying on the ground and sparks flying from locked swords and battered shields, but the gladiators consist of just a handful of designs. And the one thing that really bothered me was how the cutscenes did not represent what was in the game: I had Octavianus cut his hair in the beginning, but he had it in all the cutscenes, and whatever items or costumes I had going into the cutscene vanished, really taking me out of the experience.

The music is nice, but, again, kind of low-key for the subject matter. The music in the arena is appropriately downplayed for the roar of the crowed and weapon effects. Synching is also done well, and the voices are matched well to the characters. The hustle and bustle of a Roman city street would have certainly been nice, even if it was relegated to just one path or so. A simple taste of the hectic life back then would have gone a long way.

Surprisingly, unlike most of Capcom's past titles, the camera and controls are both done well. Save for a few moments when the camera gets stuck at a poor angle, sneaking around Rome is handled better than most games whose sole focus is on stealth. I do have one large problem, and that is how some very basic things were looked over so that the game would function as designed: notably, instead of being able to break a honey pot on the floor for soldiers to run to and slip on, thereby knocking themselves out, the pot has to be hit against a soldier. This unnecessary risk is pointless and serves nothing more than a glaring oversight or laziness on the part of the developers. In the arena, combat is easy to get into and only rarely are there problems, which normally come when a weapon is too close to a ladder. Both use the same buttons, so one action might be done when the other was intended. During combat, targeting can be a bit strange, with less important and farther off foes taken precedence over more immediate threats.

Overall: 6.5/10
Shadow of Rome is a unique title. You have a little over half a game that is great, fast-paced, gory combat, but it is tempered by a half-hearted stealth portion that just isn't all that much fun. Granted, just as there are a few spots in combat that aren't great, there are some portions during Octavianus' portion that can be fun - like when the levels are designed appropriately and you're able to wander around and talk to bystanders - but the fact that the developers kill their own momentum leaves a strange feeling. It's a shame it wasn't a two-player game with the option to choose either Agrippa or Octavianus, because to get to the good stuff, you have to wade through some pretty mediocre trials.

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