An Xbox One exclusive developed by Crytek, Ryse: Son of Rome is described as an immersive action-adventure story of struggle, brutality and heroism.
It follows a fearless Roman soldier named Marius Titus as he joins the army to avenge the slaying of his family and emerges as a hero who must fight to save the Roman Empire.
In addition to the single-player campaign, Ryse: Son of Rome offers a co-operative gladiator mode that puts players into battle in the Coliseum against an ever-changing array of enemies.
Recently I caught up with Crytek producer Michael Read to find out more about the game's brutal kill animations, perceived reliance on quick-time events, multiplayer modes, historical accuracy and absence of female characters.
What were your broad goals when you set out to make Ryse: Son of Rome?
Ryse came from a game that was in development for a very, very long time. It went through a whole series of stages, from being an RPG MMO-type fantasy game back when our eastern European studio was working on it. In 2010 we announced a game called Kingdoms alongside Microsoft at their E3 conference. Then the next year we came back and announced Ryse, which was going to be an Xbox 360 exclusive Kinect-based game. Then after that, Microsoft came to us and said they'd like us to develop the game for their new hardware, which became the Xbox One. We provided them with three different tech demos; third-person perspective melee combat as you see it now, first-person and a Kinect demo. We went back and forth with Microsoft and ended up deciding that what fit best with our vision was the third-person melee combat game.
The game is based on a real time in history on planet Earth, but obviously isn't factually correct. How do you balance historical fact with fiction?
When we started developing the game with the Roman elements, we were going for a historically based game. But as we progressed we found we were being restricted not only in how the game plays out, but also in where we went in the future once we got past that in terms of building out a franchise or a new IP. We wanted to leave ourselves open to options. But we've kept a lot of the Roman elements such as the architecture and weapons, and the combat system. We had historical combat guys come in teaching our animators how they actually used to fight, how their bodies would move. We went to Rome with historians show us places like the Forum and the Coliseum. Developing in Germany, we were very close to Italy so it was quite easy to travel there and have access to top notch people. So we wanted people to see it and really recognise it as Roman times, but at the same time it still has our own fictional take on it. So it's not set in a specific time period, but it has our own elements that we've mashed together.
Ryse has a very tight focus. There's only two or three weapons that can be used and there's not a lot to the game apart from the combat. Were you worried about keeping the focus too tight and limiting what players could do too much?
Some people have come back to us and said they want explosive gel and all sorts of crazy stuff. The Batman Arkham games are great games, they have a really good, fluid combat system. It really felt like you were playing a comic book and we liked a lot of what they did in that. But coming back to wanting to be historically accurate to some degree, Roman soldiers were given a sword and a shield. They had some pilums and things they could throw as well, and some larger weapons like the ballistas and catapults, but the weapons were still very basic. We wanted to keep true to those elements, and to have a really old-school type of melee combat.
How do you think the perception of the game has been since the E3 demonstration earlier this year?
Having big buttons on the screen for the E3 video was probably not the best idea in the world. The combat systems themselves, the depth of it, was not ready. We had to really cut down, work out what was ready, what we could show of the basic combat system and then show that at E3. The videos people saw made some people think "this game plays itself, it's nothing but quick-time events". Since then we've come out with the multiplayer demo and given people hands-on and that perception formed at E3 is changing.
Character movement and facial animation in the game is really awe-inspiring. Are they a good way to show off the new Cry Engine and the power of the Xbox One?
We've been testing out a lot of new development processes internally of how we deliver some of the realistic facial expressions and camera movements and all of these different things that we have. The engine itself, if you look at Crysis 3 and even games before that, we've always been ahead of what the current PC hardware was capable of handling. For years to come, people use our games as a benchmark to test if their system will run it. Coming into this new generation, Microsoft had confidence in us being able to really push this new hardware as far as it could go on the visuals end. So we were able to do that using a lot of new development techniques that changed over the course of many years. Software development has really progressed over the last generation of consoles, over seven years. There's new hardware, new software to go with that hardware, then we have our engine which is constantly evolving.
Ryse specialises in kill animations. Pulling off a cool kill and unlocking new ones is a huge part of the game, and the animations look terrific. Is there a final tally of the kill animations in Ryse?
(laughs) Yeah, I've been trying to nail this down with a bunch of people, but it's difficult and all I want to say is over 100 at this point. I asked a number of people and got a few different answers. It's definitely over 100, but what that final number is, we'll talk more about that in a month or so.
The kills give me a similar thrill to pulling off fatalities in Mortal Kombat, but some critics dismissed them as rudimentary quick-time events.
Yeah, some people get into it. When you start the animation of the actual execution itself, there's no failure condition associated with that. Basically, you've done the work to put them into the execution state. Now it's up to you to get those button presses, to nail the timing of them that's associated with the flow of combat. The closer and more accurately you get those button presses, the bigger the bonus you're going to get back - based on, in single-player, what you selected on the D-pad, or in multiplayer what god you've selected.
Talk me through a couple of your favourite kills.
There's specific ones in multiplayer that are co-op kills. So if you're in a certain proximity and a player begins that kill animation, it'll show on the other player's screen. So then they can join in and there's lots of double animations that can happen there. It's contextual as well so it's hard for me to pin down. Some have one swing associated with them, some have multiple parts associated with it. A lot of the contextual ones specifically are the ones I like. When you're close to a wall, spike trap or fire pit, you'll get different animations that use those environmental elements.
During development, were there any kill animations on the drawing board that were too nasty, that pushed the violence too far, and were hence dropped?
There likely was. There was a lot of back and forth talk about the dismemberment ones, the cutting of arms and legs off. I'm trying to remember if there was any head dismemberment stuff, I don't think there was. There were a variety that were pulled for various reasons, I don't think any were pulled specifically because they were too over-the-top violent, but I'd have to talk to our animation department to confirm that. We pulled some because we couldn't get the animation to look good, or work properly, more technical reasons like that. There's so many moving parts in working out what the best animation is, what is the best camera angle, working around other objects in the game so there's no collision with the camera, there's a lot of logic to be worked out. When you enter into an execution, the camera moves in on it. We wanted it to be fluid from where the camera actually was, moving in to that position and then coming out in one seamless shot. That took a lot of work, or rather is taking a lot of work. It's getting there, we're real close now.
I would say that this is the manliest launch title for either console. There are no female characters, so were you worried about it being too manly?
Given the historical elements, there aren't any female characters. It is our own fictional take on it, but no, there won't be females in the Coliseum.
Were you concerned about comparisons with the God of War franchise?
The guys on the development team are big fans of God of War. I've talked to a lot of the God of War guys too and they love some of the stuff we've created. We definitely love some of the stuff they've created. Their combat system is much different, it's a faster pace than what we have, with a lot of combos and wacky stuff going on. We're a more slowed-down melee combat system. But there's a lot of praise going back and forth and we're very aware of each other's games.
I've played the survival or horde co-op mode of Ryse. In a wave co-op mode, how do you keep it interesting so it's fun to keep coming back to and replaying?
That's the cool thing I think our multiplayer producer and the rest of the team have put together with the tile-sets, or what some people may call maps. All of them are set in the Coliseum, everything from the Courtyard level to barbarian encampments to forest areas. All of them have different lighting settings and different things that'll happen inside those. With Courtyard specifically what we wanted to show off is the tile-sets and how those switch from map to map. So if you were to play it now, then come back and play again, you're going to have a completely different style of what the waves were. You might get archers thrown at you, they might be in different areas of the map, catapults may attack you or may not, it's really a random roll of the dice with the tile-sets. We also have custom challenges, so players can go in and create custom playlists. So you can choose a 30-minute duration, add more catapults to a map if they feel it needs it, alter the waves and objectives. Then they can share it not only with their friends, but with the public as well. So that'll keep the variety up.
There are a lot of games around that are fantastic single-player experiences, with multiplayer functionality added on that isn't nearly as good. There may be a perception with some people of Ryse being a game like that. Was multiplayer always a big part of the game for you?
There's definitely two sides to the game. There's replayability in the single-player as well as the multiplayer. If you watch the design director or the QA guys play and it's just like, their flow in combat is all over the place, they're getting like 50+ modifiers. I can’t do that and don't understand how they can! Then once you're up to those levels, you can remove the prompts that come up for the animations as well, which makes it harder as you have to rely on what you know about the execution. You have to remember the execution and get the timing right with the sound effects and that takes a lot to master. Then with multiplayer, that's taken a lot from the single-player in terms of the combat, but put it into a multiplayer environment in an arena, and changed some of the systems. So you choose gods for instance, and are able to buy potions and customise and so on. So there's two sides to it, I think most people will probably play through one and then jump over and play the other. We have pretty solid replayability with both single-player and the multiplayer.
In multiplayer, there's a meter of how interested the crowd at the Coliseum is in what you're doing. How does that work and how does it affect the player?
By using the left bumper you can showboat between waves of enemies, there's some funny quotes and stuff in there to keep the crowd entertained. And then of course how well your combat is going also keeps them entertained. Are you taking guys out? Are you performing big executions? The better and longer you keep them entertained, the more bonus currency you get out of that, which can be spent on various items for multiplayer.
The multiplayer is only co-op, why did you decide against any competitive multiplayer?
We looked into various multiplayer modes throughout the course of the project and one of them was a PvP mode. It really did not work out very well. It just wasn't very fun. We went back and forth with various systems on how to take the timing-based combat with slow-motion out of it. It's easy in single-player, but bringing in a second player, a second camera, and watching that from a third-party perspective, was just too difficult. The co-op is very fluid now, but that was a challenge and for PvP it just didn't work.
Lastly Mike, tell me what is your favourite thing about Ryse: Son of Rome?
I wish I could narrow it down! I'm having a lot of fun in the multiplayer. Being so involved in the project you see a lot of cool things that just happen in it. The combat in general I really like. The combat is simplistic in some ways, but it's really challenging in others. You get the combat flow right and it just feels good.
Ryse: Son of Rome is released in New Zealand the same day the Xbox One console is launched, November 22.