Ryse: Son of Rome preview: pretty, boring

Every minute of Ryse: Son of Rome features gratuitous, over-the-top violence. Marcus moves from shoving his sword into a soldier's throat, to cutting off the limbs of another hapless victim. It's so overwhelming, it's difficult not to get numbed to the gore on display.

Perhaps that's why--in spite of the gorgeous visuals and bombastic setpieces--the game ends up feeling boring over an extended amount of play. The combat system appears novel at first, but quickly becomes repetitive. Nearly every encounter goes as such: parry, strike, strike, execute. And every enemy slain demands elaborate execution animations, making their novelty die down rather quickly.

It's not an entirely mindless affair, as Crytek shows some attempt at introducing depth to combat. For example, you have to alternate between heavy and light attacks, otherwise enemies will dodge them. Some enemies have unblockable attacks which require a roll instead of a parry. But for the most part, you'll memorize the button combination that kills nearly every enemy. You'll also start giving up on following the QTE prompts during executions (because they complete themselves anyway). Even the introduction of new enemy types in a later area of the game didn't really demand changing a strategy.

A nice touch is the ability to select what bonus you'll receive from combos. You can select to have your health or mana restored, boost your attack power, or gain additional XP. Once your combo ends, you'll reap the bonus. It's a nice way to encourage high combos. I found myself choosing the XP boost, and made quick work of the game's upgrade tree.

Clearly, if there's one reason to play Ryse, it's not the gameplay. Son of Rome, at the very least, is a spectacle filled with tons of CryEngine-powered eye candy. In fact, it's so pretty that the frequent interruption of pre-rendered cutscenes is baffling. For some reason, the video compression on the cinema sequences is incredibly noticeable, making the pre-rendered stuff look worse than the real-time graphics. The story is also by-the-numbers: a tale of revenge that telegraphs nearly every aspect of the story. You won't be surprised by how Marius ends up being so damn angry--but at least there's some solid performances backing the cinematics.

There's still hope that the latter half of Ryse will offer a bit more depth and variety over the hour-plus slice I played. But my first impression of Crytek's Roman action game has my excitement for the game rather muted. It may be pretty, but I would like to see a bit more substance out of such a combat-heavy action game.