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Crytek aims for flow, not just flash with Ryse: Son of Rome

Ryse: Son of Rome isn't the all flash, no substance game that people saw during the title's reveal at E3.

Or at least that's what developer Crytek is in Cologne, Germany this week to try and prove.

"Coming out of E3, people thought it was all flash and no substance," said Patrick Esteves, design director on Ryse, "but I think when people get their hands on it they will think differently because they will realize there is a deep combat system that requires a lot of mastery and then on top of that, it looks beautiful."

Two days before the official kick-off of Gamescom in Cologne, Crytek developers met with journalists to dig deeper into the Xbox One exclusive's combat. Specifically, Esteves and senior producer Brian Chambers wanted to show the nuance of the game's combat, something they feel was missed during the E3 unveiling.

The hands-on demo dropped Roman Marius Titus into a grassy arena framed by a circle of massive rocks to face off against waves of barbarian enemies.

Chambers called the battle arena an internal testbed for the game's combat system, but it felt polished enough to be an official mode in the game.

The point of the demo is survive increasingly difficult waves of enemy barbarians. Players can deflect attacks with Titus' shield or do two different types of attacks with sword or shield. Holding the button on an attack gets Titus to launch a "heavy attack." Titus can also throw a spear at enemies either with a quick combo of button presses or by carefully aiming and pulling a trigger.

As enemies circled Titus, Esteves had the Roman warrior quickly stab at one, spin around slash at a second and then quickly deflect an attack by a third with his shield. Esteves continued to work his way around the trio of enemies, wearing each down with attacks or deflecting their axe swings. Finally, skull icons began to show up above the enemies.

Executions are also a vital part of one of the Ryse's core tenets: flow.

The skull icon means an enemy can be dispatched with a gory, lightly interactive quick time event. It was these executions that the developers believe undermined the game's initial appearance at E3. But Chambers and Esteves both say that those executions aren't the bulk of combat, but rather the flashy finish to a fight done right.

Players are rewarded for completing executions based on how well they match the timing of the required button pushes. They payout can grant temporary experience or damage buffs, heal some of Titus' injuries or refill his focus, which can be used to slow combat. The perk rewarded for executions can be changed on the fly with the directional pad.

While executions aren't necessary, an enemy can be dispatched with regular combat, the game seems designed with the expectation that players will lean heavily on those bloody finishing moves.

It's impossible to fail an execution. Even if a player misses all of the require button pushes, the enemy will be killed. That's because by the time an enemy is ready to be executed, they're essentially the walking dead. Instead of allowing players to fail at an execution, the developers decided to include four levels of success. The better a player times the required button pushes of an execution, the greater their chosen reward. Health, for instance, can heal anywhere from five to ten percent, to a full refill of the health bar.

Executions are also a vital part of one of the Ryse's core tenets: flow.

As the number of enemies a player faces increases, and the complexity of their strategy becomes more difficult, executions will become the only way a player can survive. Esteves says that the game even allows players to line up multiple executions. A player can wear down several enemies to the point of execution and then transition through one execution directly into another.

In action, the combat can feel satisfying, especially as the enemies start to fill the screen. But it also can still feel a bit rough at times. I noticed an occasional extra animation, for instance, that didn't seem to match with my button push and throw the flow of combat off.

The team said they were aware that the game still had some animation and movement bugs and that they were hard at working fixing them.

The goal is to give the game's crowd combat the feel of something akin to Batman: Arkham Asylum, Esteves said. That flow is an integral part of the game's fighting. They then set out to create enemies who would actively work to break you out of that flow, he said.

"What ended up happening was that it seemed too hardcore."

The executions are designed into the game to both augment that flow and to help out with a game that they felt was getting too difficult when the enemy count increased.

"What ended up happening was that it seemed too hardcore," he said. "It's not easy fighting six enemies. Executions are a quick way to take someone out of combat. Getting to that point [of being able to do an execution] is already quite a bit of a challenge."

While Ryse strives to deliver a substantive combat game, it very obviously strips away the intricacies of swordplay. There is no parry, for instance. Titus instead relies on his shield to deflect attacks. And while players can maneuver Titus on the battlefield and direct who he attacks or defends against, most of the footwork in combat feels almost automated.

Esteves says that wasn't always the case.

"We had a parrying maneuver where you could only land an attack if you got the timing of the deflect perfect," he said. "But we found that when you do something that's super sword-fighting simulation you are kind of focusing the game to be about single enemies rather than multiple enemies.

"We wanted to get away from this conga line of, ‘Oh, I'm fighting this one enemy and then this one enemy.'"

Ultimately, Crytek wants to deliver a game that the developers acknowledge is fraught with technical challenges, but that they believe they've overcome.

"How do you do a cinematic camera in a free flow combat system without breaking a player out of that flow?" Esteves said. "We put a lot of effort into that and we think it stands out."

Ryse: Son of Rome isn't, he reiterated, a game about quick time events; rather it's a game about maintaining flow in combat, about being a "virtuoso on the battlefield," about bloody crowd control.

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