No matter what changes in gaming, fighting will always be popular. While that tends to mean punch-and-kick martial arts action or shoot-em-up style battles, there’s always been a place for sword slashing as well. The Assassin’s Creed franchise accounts for some of the most successful titles in gaming and relies largely on swordplay and tomahawk attacks for its action; Middle Earth: Shadow Of Mordor won game of the year in 2014, employing the medieval style of warfare we know and love from Lord Of The Rings; and even the Infinity Blade series often cited as the best of the app genre is all about the swordsmanship.
Considering all of this, why have games based on gladiator drama and action struggled so mightily?
The first title that comes to mind in this regard is Ryse: Son Of Rome, a monumentally ambitious project developed by Crytek to be a sort of standard bearer for the early days of Xbox One. Employing the full capabilities of what was then a brand-new console, the game utilised a third-person, hack-and-slash style to bring to life the adventure of a Roman general through a fictionalised Roman empire. Although it’s more of a war game on the surface, the game is all about ancient Rome,and makes use of gladiator arenas, first in its story mode but primarily through multiplayer options.
The game earned mediocre reviews despite is beauty and ambition, with critics citing repetitive and dull combat as the main issue holding the game back from a higher status. Indeed, Ryse: Son Of Rome looked absolutely incredible, and for those who aren’t particularly picky about moment-to-moment combat, it was a thrilling experience. But it’s fair to say the hack-and-slash style was a little unsophisticated by comparison to the scope and look of the game.
Aside from Ryse: Son Of Rome, most gamers may think first of the actual film Gladiator, which is responsible in large part for our perceptions of the Roman Colosseum in ancient days. And when trying to think of gaming adaptations of that film, it’s easy to come up empty despite the fact that the film’s lengthy action sequences of arena combat were tailor-made for video game use. Gladiator was actually brought to life in the midst of a handful of themed, online games that make use of popular fictional titles for background material. The Gladiator game in particular actually even uses film clips to spice up its content, and in that sense it’s a lot of fun. But in a totally different way from how Ryse: Son Of Rome falls short on action, it lacks actual combat simulation for players to jump in on.
Forgetting both Ryse and the film that brought gladiator fiction to the modern era, there are actually extensive example of arena combat games available in app stores. Blood & Glory may be the most well-known such app, and it was generally well received despite its own problems with repetitive action and a lack of plot. There are plenty of other examples out there also—I, Gladiator and Rage Of The Gladiator, to name a few—but they’re all different branches of the same core concept.
Considering all of these examples across different platforms and working with different source material, it looks as if the biggest problem is that no one has quite managed a complete effort yet. One would think that the modern trends toward deep player customisation and online competition, coupled with an ongoing gamer appreciation for combat and gore, would yield a spectacular gladiator game. Players could accumulate fighters, train them up, outfit them, and brawl with them in arenas or outside adventures to their hearts’ content. But so far, every attempt is lacking either in action, variety, or plot. Here’s hoping for a Ryse sequel that can get it right.