Spartacus Legends Hands-On Preview – This! Is! Sparta(cus)!
Written Wednesday, September 12, 2012 By Richard WalkerView author's profile
I'm Spartacus. No, I'm Spartacus. No, I'm Spartacus. Actually, this is Spartacus, or rather an XBLA game based on the popular Starz Spartacus TV series. It's Spartacus Legends, a gladiatorial brawler that drops two fighters slap bang into the middle of a sandy coliseum arena, with nothing but the baying crowd and your weapons for company. Let battle commence!
Amazingly, Spartacus Legends is to be positioned as a free-to-play title, with micro-transactions enabling you to acquire additional in-game currency to spend on weapons, equipment, armour and other accoutrements for your gladiator. Featuring a range of legendary characters from the actual TV series including Spartacus himself, Crixus and others, Spartacus Legends has you training your own pugilist from cutting his teeth within the ludus to unadulterated primeval battling in the arena. You can develop your fighter's skills and customise their gear, taking them from the status of a lowly pit dog to arena legend. Provided you're good enough to beat the opposition and win the approval of the crowd, of course.
Centred around “deadly and final battles”, Spartacus Legends is a 3D hack and slash fighting game in the Soul Calibur mould, with 8-way movement, vertical and horizontal slicing, and fast dodging in four different directions. It's a surprisingly accessible and intuitive brawler, with "thousands of ruthless weapon combinations" making for some fairly interesting back and forth skirmishes. Hitting the d-pad enables you to taunt and win over the rowdy audience, filling your adrenaline meter for brutal and gory finishing moves.
Each character has their own individual statistics and attributes, with a health and armour bar to keep your eye on during battle. As your opponent lands strikes, your orange armour bar is gradually chipped away until the red health bar starts to dwindle. Rinse both bars, and you'll leave your opponent wide open for a bloody execution in front of the crowd, hitting three face buttons as prompted in quick succession to pull off a gratifying and suitably nasty kill. In our demo, we saw severed arms, stabbed heads and even a chopped-off face, indicating that developer Kung Fu Factory isn't pulling any punches when it comes to the violence. This is a good thing.
As you fight, your gladiator accumulates bleeding cuts and wounds to his body, adding to the sense of desperation if you're losing. With each battle you emerge from victorious however, you'll build your gladiator's fame, winning silver and gold – that can also be bought with real money – to exchange for unlocking new items. However, you can't buy the best gear without the requisite fame, whether you're using real or in-game cash. There's no way of gaining an advantage if you've got loads of actual money to spend on better stuff for your character then, which ought to ensure the game remains balanced.
You can unlock additional characters from the TV show or different gladiators to train and lead to glory, as well as equipment for your pugilist. Should your character die, you can spend your accumulated currency on healthcare and doctors to have him revived, preserving your items and progress. Quite how you can reattach a severed head – especially during the times of ancient Rome – is beyond us though. It's probably something to do with the gods, perhaps.
During our hands-on with Spartacus Legends, we were able to get to grips with the different fighting styles, starting with the somewhat sluggish but better protected sword and shield gladiator. Hammering buttons gets us nowhere, meaning judicious use of the block button, well-timed parries and swift dodging is vital unless you want to be carved into twitching lumps of bloody chum. We find that playing as the speedier, dual gladius blade wielding character type like the main man – whose voice and likeness is incidentally provided by current Spartacus, Liam McIntyre – is preferable to the slower shield-carrying heavyweight, although his defence is comparatively weak. What he lacks in protection however, he makes up for in agility and speed, so it's all swings and roundabouts.
The current build of Spartacus Legends plays rather well at this stage, but with only two fighting styles thus far and an apparent lack of depth in the fighting model at present, we're struggling to see how the game's long-term prospects will pan out. Being a free-to-play title will undoubtedly draw an audience, but whether those players will want to stay and experience everything the game has to offer ultimately hinges on the quality of the Roman battling itself. Furthermore, the almost painterly style of the visuals lends the game an oddly murky aesthetic, largely dominated by a palette that seemingly consists solely of various shades of brown. A bit more colour wouldn't go amiss.
Whether Spartacus Legends can deliver consistently exciting arena battles alongside its gladiatorial career trimmings and free-to-play model remains to be seen, but there's certainly potential, and goodness knows there's already a built-in audience for the game made up of the TV series' fans. With online and offline multiplayer battles, leaderboard support, loads of blood and sand, and brutal gladiatorial combat galore, Spartacus Legends could manage to appease the crowd. Or it could get the thumbs down from its bloodthirsty audience, meaning it could end up being fed to the lions.
Spartacus Legends is out on the Xbox Live Arcade in early 2013.