Creative Assembly's "Total War" franchise has, thus far, been a big hit on PCs – their focus on extremely large-scale battles and realistic troop behavior has even been used to recreate famous show-downs on the History Channel. In their new title for consoles, Spartan: Total Warrior, Creative Assembly aims to bottle that lightning and repackage it with arcade-style gameplay. Much like BioWare did with Baldur's Gate and its console equivalent, Dark Alliance, Spartan makes the action more visceral and frantic while hiding a lot of the "rules" that tend to govern data-intensive, realism-oriented computer games. Instead of trying to keep track of multiple regiments, their morale, their formations, and so on, you only play as one warrior hacking his way through hordes of enemies with over-the-top moves and mythical weapons a la Dynasty Warriors. Indeed, the developers have opted to go the mythology route with Spartan, eschewing the "real history" battles present in their PC games. Alongside Roman Legionnaires and Praetorians, your hero will also fight giants, hydras, and the undead.
As the dreadlocked, unnamed Spartan you'll cut a path through roughly 14 levels trying to save your homeland from the wrath of the Roman Empire. Due to the heavy casualties the Greek army has suffered, The Spartan, his buddies Pollux and Castor, and many ordinary citizens are drafted into the ranks of Sparta's military. After single-handedly repelling a raid in the introductory level, King Leonidas recognizes your extraordinary abilities and sends you to retrieve the stolen Blades of Athena (a swifter alternative to the basic sword you start out with) from a Roman encampment. Once you return with the prize, a voice tells The Spartan that the only way to stop the invaders is to leave Sparta and set out for the ruined city of Troy to find the Spear of Achilles. Upon hearing of the quest, Pollux opposes the idea, espousing the idea that Sparta will fall if the leave. Castor, and Electra the Amazon (an ally met while getting the Blades of Athena), however, support the idea and they set off on a journey that will taken them through the Badlands, the ruins of Troy, the city of Athena, and, finally, right into the heart of the Roman Colosseum itself.
The plot, unfortunately, ends up feeling fairly contrived, though and the silly dialogue often doesn't do much to help its cause. The villains are also incredibly campy and it is hard to take them seriously. Compared to the tight, engaging narrative of this year's God of War, Spartan's story is just less than it should be and a little bit of a copy cat in some areas, too. Even if the plot isn't quite epic, it's a good thing that the battles are. Most levels are chopped up into several battlefields with different objectives and literally scores of enemies. Compared to other historical hack-and-slashes, it was refreshing to see so much activity on the screen with rare slowdown and absolutely no fog. Koei should be ashamed for continuing to use these conventions in their Dynasty Warriors series. It's also nice to see other soldiers actually fighting each other instead of standing around like listless zombies waiting for a command. While playing, it's not always certain that the AI soldiers are killing one another, but at least it looks like it.
The sense of scale is enhanced by the top-down view, as well. While the camera can be swung lower to the ground and behind the player, it's an awkward way to play the game and not recommended. Nonetheless, the default camera allows for the player to see a significant portion of the battlefield at any given time and reinforces the scope of the fight by displaying numerous melee units on screen.
The only real drawback to this is that the zoomed-out look doesn't lend much detail to the characters. Until you've gotten used to noticing the differences later on in the game, it is sometimes hard to distinguish between unit types, because they get lost in the shuffle. This is crucial due to the fact that different enemy types have different attack patterns and you can easily get attacked from behind because you couldn't see that Assassin coming. So, the scale of each battle is appropriately chaotic, but at the same time, it hinders game play in certain ways. It was more excusable in Creative Assembly's PC games because entire regiments could be controlled with one button, but when a game is focused exclusively on a single warrior, it becomes necessary to more easily distinguish enemies.
While the battle-focused missions are exciting, some of the others are complete tedium. One task in particular, escorting Archimedes around Athens, was very frustrating. As it was my first time through the level and this objective was one of the later ones, I had unwisely used up all of the health orbs scattered throughout the town. Keeping the weak Archimedes alive while fighting off scores of enemies on just a sliver of life was a near impossible task that. In fact, I never ended up completing it that time. The problem lies in the fact that, while you can restart at the last checkpoint, there is no way to restart the entire level. There was the option of using the stage select, but it only unlocks levels that you have beaten, not ones that you currently have access to. Furthermore, once you complete a level in this mode, it kicks you back to the select screen instead of continuing on as the normal game would progress. In essence, if you find yourself stuck in a situation like that, you either have to use a cheat code to unlock all of the levels or start the whole game over again. An option to restart the current level would've saved a lot of frustration.
Assuming that isn't an issue, though, at the end of each level you receive points to put towards Health, Power, or Strength. Individually, they will increase stats in each of these three areas, but upon filling them up, The Spartan will ascend to the next level, reflected in his new armor and extended power bar (every time one fills up, a special attack can be used). The stat bars will also empty out, allowing you to increase each one further.
You'll need those increased abilities, too, as the enemies do get tougher. In order to defeat them, you will have to master several different weapons and techniques. The battle system is a bit of a mixed bag. The options available seem numerous, but they only feel like varied versions of the two basic techniques: straight and radial. Straight attacks will go forward and generally only affect one enemy, while radial attacks affect enemies in an arc or circle (depending on the weapon). These techniques can be applied to each of the six weapons and your shield. On top of that are Powered attacks and Rage attacks, each of which produces a different effect when used in tandem with each weapon. Powered attacks can be unleashed when your kill meter reaches a certain point (a red, circular gauge in the upper-left corner) and Rages when your power meter is filled (a round, white orb under your health). So, the battle system boils down to various combinations of a weapon, straight/radial, and powered/rage, along with blocking and fatalities (a killing blow to a downed enemy). There is also a jumping attack, but it was rarely effective.
When facing multiple enemy types at the same time, this can be troublesome. It's a good thing that you sometimes have to use several different techniques to bring down a group of bad guys, but inputting these combinations can be cumbersome. They often require holding down multiple buttons at the same time, meaning that a small slip can lead you into a different attack you didn't mean to do. In the heat of battle, that could kill you. Ultimately, though, it isn't so bad. When many action games still only feature a basic punch and kick, a more advanced form of fighting is always welcome. It just needs to be streamlined better in Spartan: Total Warrior.
As mentioned earlier, the graphics engine is commendable. There is often a lot happening on screen at once and it rarely, if ever, slows down. Environments aren't overly complex in nature, but they're appealing and smoothly constructed. The level design is generally good, though the occasional vague objective might get you lost. There's also a slo-mo effect when some Powered or Rage attacks are unleashed, but it gets tiresome after the first few times.
Sound-wise, Spartan: Total Warrior has all of the necessary sound effects – yelling soldiers, cries of pain, clashing swords, etc. The soundtrack, though, is a little off. It is an odd combination of your typical "epic" score with a basic, techno back beat. It isn't grating or anything, but it doesn't seem to fit very well, either.
Spartan isn't an especially long game, but the length is satisfying. It'll probably take 10-12 hours to get through it the first time. You're welcome to wade through it again on different difficulties and unlock all of the bonus items that you didn't find initially. There is an Arena Challenge mode which pits The Spartan against increasing numbers of enemies in one of several different battlefields. Many of the bonus items you find in the main game are used here and can be selected before starting a challenge. There doesn't seem to be any greater goal behind this mode beyond trying to achieve a high score. It would've been nice to have even more bonuses unlocked for playing through them.
Creative Assembly's first console effort is a satisfying, action-filled hack-and-slash. If you feel the urge to slaughter countless waves of enemies, it comes highly recommended, improving upon the formulas of similar games such as Koei's Dynasty Warriors or Capcom's Devil Kings. However, certain things could really be more polished and the exclusion of a few key options is a little sloppy. As a sort of counterpart to the developer's PC game, Rome: Total War, it'd be nice to see other console games from them in the future based upon their other titles, Medieval: Total War and Shogun: Total War.