a review of spartan: total warrior
a videogame developed by creative assembly
and published by sega
for the microsoft xbox (not compatible with xbox 360), the nintendo gamecube and the playstation 2 computer entertainment system
text by tim rogers
We know full well it’s weaselly to immediately start a retrospective review of an immortally great game by asking you to laugh at the people who “didn’t get it”, though if you’ll stick with us to the end of this review (“a challenge as difficult as Spartan: Total Warrior itself!” someone will probably say), you’ll see that there’s kind of a petty little reason.
We here at Action Button Dot Net are Serious Fans of Spartan: Total Warrior, so it causes us actual physical pain to link you to its Metacritic page, where you’ll see it scores a “74”. According to an industry analyst who sometimes comes over to get high (he brings his own drugs, because we’re clean, baby, seriously), a Metacritic score between 70 and 79 is actually worse, sales-wise, than a score between 65 and 69. “65” screams “misunderstood”; “74” screams “pitied” or “boring”.
Spartan is neither pitiful nor boring. In fact, it is awesome and thrilling. So how did it meet this grotesque retail fate?
AceGamez, one of our favorite games websites we’ve never heard of, sums it up like this in their Metacritic blurb:
“The combat is satisfying, the setting is grand and the amount of troops on screen is amazing – this is war on a scale rarely seen in games and it puts the likes of ‘Dynasty Warriors’ to shame for its combination of sheer numbers and exceptional graphics, with an outstanding soundtrack that completes the atmosphere of this historical adventure.”
Obviously, the guys at AceGamez are being very careful in their review. It’d be too obvious to apply the word “grand” to the “scale”. In this, presumably the last paragraph of the review, the Ace Gamers at AceGamez are very careful to mention:
1. The combat (satisfying)
2. The setting (grand)
3. Amount of moving objects on screen (amazing)
4. The graphics (exceptional)
5. The soundtrack (outstanding)
6. The atmosphere (complete)
7. The adventure (historical)
The use of the word “complete” with regard to the “atmosphere” indicates that the rubric at AceGamez stresses that reviews in general not be incomplete. There’s a certain amount of subconscious behavior floating to the surface here.
What we’re going to take issue with, instead, is the habit of AceGamez — and every other professional game-reviewing website — to liken Spartan to Dynasty Warriors. The editors at AceGamez aren’t going to get any belligerent voice-mail messages from us any time soon, thanks to their actual ability to understand that Spartan is better than Dynasty Warriors. However, they — just like every other game-reviewing website on earth — will still never see Heaven, because of their blank-faced assumption that Spartan was ever trying to be like Dynasty Warriors in the first place.
Surpassing Dynasty Warriors was never Spartan‘s goal — no, Spartan‘s goal was only ever to be the best god damned game of all time, and at this goal, it failed most gloriously and spectacularly. We can argue that its failure was an artistic statement: it died, like a true Spartan, and for that, we at Action Button Dot Net award it our highest honors, and a place in our hall of fame.
In Spartan, you are a Spartan. Spartans are pedigreed soldiers. They’re history’s chief badasses. They are tough dudes. In this game, you are in the employ of a legendary general named Leonidas, who would later go on to grow a different beard and star in a movie called “300”. Leonidas wants and needs to kill hundreds of fellow human beings a day or he’ll stop feeling good about himself, and he drags you right in with him. Shoulder-to-shoulder with hundreds of shirtless men — all moving (independently!) in real-time! — you will charge at a line of men wearing shirts and body armor. One fleshy wall collides with another, and the sound of bones being crunched rolls out of your surround system.
The initial impact of battle is as convincing in Spartan as anything ever is in a videogame. It’s an orchestra conductor flicking his baton and a semi truck suddenly flipping over inside a ball of fire. There’s an immediate snap and crunch, and now you’re fighting.
The particulars of Spartan‘s combat are so hilariously simplistic that we’re afraid it’s not going to sound very exciting. Here goes, anyway: in the beginning, you have a sword and a shield. Press one button to slash the sword horizontally; press another one to swing it vertically. Each slash has tactical advantages. Press a shoulder button to raise your shield. The shield can block enemy attacks. Press one attack button while holding up your shield to smack an enemy with the shield. Press another button to kick the enemy. Either attack repels an enemy, though the precise type of knock-back varies depending on the situation (what the enemy was doing when hit, the timing of the hit, et cetera) and the type of parry attack used. You can do a quick evasive roll to get yourself to the other side of an enemy and hit them where they’re more vulnerable, and you can also do a super move by holding one of the shoulder buttons before attacking.
A super move depletes your super move bar, though it quickly regenerates if you keep slashing dudes. In other words: there’s to be no hoarding of super moves. Use them whenever you can. Super moves tend to send your Spartan leaping forward like a gazelle, with a sharp, vintage-Castlevania-like thud. They’re blunt, quick motions based on expertly handling the geometry of the moment. Aim in the right line, and you’re going to cut off arms, legs, heads. It’s a bit of a thrill. You also have a bow and arrow, which can kill enemies in one hit granted they’re not cowering behind a shield. (A super move for the bow results in a spread-gun-like multi-arrow attack, which is seriously bad ass because it can enter behind shields at oblique angles.)
And that’s basically it; there are magic attacks, which are underused (both by the game design and by us True Players, who don’t need them), and there are delicious multiple weapons including the double sword and the truly excellent spear (a game with such a brilliant sense of geometry and momentum can literally do no wrong with a spear). Battles usually involve your general barking orders at you, sending you to one side of a stage and then another. Sometimes there will be innocent civilians to keep alive; sometimes you’ll have to protect a VIP. Sometimes you’ll get on some crossbow turret and fire upon gaggles and rabbles. Whatever the moment-to-moment MacGuffin, the goal of the game design is always the same: keep the titular Spartan warrior moving (or standing still elegantly, defending one tiny spot). At any given time, you usually have one mark in addition to the ever present goal of “kill everyone” — maybe the goal is to protect your general, who is off fighting dudes on his own. You can see his life meter; if he’s getting hurt, find him and give him a bit of relief. Obviously, the rest of the dudes on the battlefield want to kill the general for the same reason you want to kill the bigger Roman soldiers: they’re tougher, they have actual names, they award your Spartan prestige points that might later result in him growing to a height of eight feet tall, sheathed in glistening golden armor.
Or maybe the battle is a standard “kill everyone” with a central, context-sensitive stage gimmick that encourages super-playing. Take, for example, a very early battle where you’ve got a bunch of Roman soldiers climbing up a castle wall, and you’ve got your small group of Spartans fighting them off. There’s a gate — which is closed so that the enemy can’t get into the city. As time progresses, reinforcements will pile up behind the gate. If your men are dying, just go over to the gate and open it to allow the reinforcements onto the battlefield. Do this enough to release pressure, to win the battle faster, or to replenish your dwindling forces. Or, try to be the ultimate bad ass and win the battle without the reinforcements.
Dynasty Warriors games will force you to run back and forth across the battlefield, “defending” your “positions” and “helping” your “generals” when they’re “in trouble”, though the game manages to fail at all attempts on immersion or even player involvement because the orders pop up as on-screen text prompts, and your guy is just some Chinese dude from the second century AD, and therefore not armed with a cellular phone or a GPS. How does he know who’s in “trouble” when? You’ll see a life meter at the top of the screen, with the name of the “troubled” person by it, ticking down slowly. Follow the on-screen arrow to find the troubled warrior. There he is, standing dead still in the middle of nowhere, with maybe one or maybe four enemies standing near him, looking like they’re having a conversation. Marvel at how his life meter continues to tick down. What are they doing, nervousing him to death? You walk up and dispatch them all in one hit; the saved general thanks you, though it might actually just be the game thanking you, and at that point, you might as well just be thanking yourself.
In Dynasty Warriors, you’re the only guy on the battlefield who knows how to press the square button.
In Spartan, none of the enemies want to die. They will rush at you. They will slash. They will block, parry, repel; they will spar and box with you. They will not go down easy. The goal of a “battle” in the context of a “war” is, quite simply, to eradicate all of the enemies, and Spartan may well be the only battlefield brawler common-sensical enough to allow every on-screen character to understand this. Spartan‘s battlegrounds are fascinating bloody fishbowls of animalistic ping-ponging AI, undulating brazen warrior backs gleaming in the yellow sun. If an AI of class “A” sees an AI of class “B”, he will usually attack it until it is dead or he is dead, whichever comes first. If a soldier on one army is outnumbered, he will run to try to regroup with more of his kind; if a soldier of one army sees another soldier of his own army outnumbered, he will try to join with him. And so the congregations of soldiers ebb and flow. Spartan — you — the Big Man on the battlefield — stands in the middle of it all. You choose your own adventure.
It’s kind of vaguely insulting, actually, how simple it is to get war “right” in a videogame. All history tells us is that the enemies shouldn’t want to die and that they should also want to kill all of the good guys. It’s not “artificial intelligence” so much as “artificial common sense”.
When Spartan was initially released, the likes of IGN.com dared to complain that it was “too hard”. It is not. It is just hard enough. The game was shockingly compared to Dynasty Warriors because both games are
1. About a superstar warrior
2. Fighting lots of dudes
3. In the context of a war
though seriously, there should be no question: this game is not “trying” to be “better” than Dynasty Warriors: it’s inspired by the same raw idea, and running in a completely different direction.
Dynasty Warriors has a legion of fans whose number continue to spiral up as Koei continues to make the games, because
1. The higher the number in the title of a game, the more comfortable consumers feel (“well, this game clearly isn’t a financial failure!”)
2. “Critics” are essentially on the same level as “consumers”, equating the presence of a high number in a title with “probably should go easy on this one or risk losing invites to the party at Tokyo Disneyland this year”
Spartan wasn’t marketed at all; had no shirt-wearing tastefully-bald man to sit down in front of a videogame magazine editor and say “this game is fun”. That’s really all it would have taken, and maybe a free bottle of Evian in a little nylon bag with the Spartan: Total Warrior logo on it. It probably would have made game of the year! We’d be looking at a completely different games industry, if that had happened. Instead, left to their own devices, the critics of the world took one crack at Spartan, discenered that it was kind of like Dynasty Warriors, and then immediately recogonized that the enemies were actually attacking. “That shouldn’t be like that”. And thus: doom. It’s like, all their little lives, people had been handing them Zip-Loc bags of wet, bloody, ground beef, flour, milk, and ketchup, and because there were always numbers on the side, they figured it was okay to give a passing grade; someone finally hands them a well-done cheeseburger, and they take one bite and spit it out.
We remember the E3 where Spartan debuted, back in glorious 2004. We impartially played every big title on the show floor, and fell in love with Spartan. One of The Creative Assembly’s producers for the game scratched his head and said “Uh, thanks”. We tried to tell other people to play the game, and they kept going, “Oh, isn’t that just a rip-off of God of War?”
God of War had also debuted at E3 2004.
Apparently, though God of War was just a “rip-off” of Devil May Cry (minus technically interesting / complicated mechanics), it was okay, because it was also about Greek Mythology; Spartan also incorporated Greek myth and a character who slashed a weapon when you pressed the square button, so it was obviously both a rip-off of God of War and Dynasty Warriors at the same time. If the computer-generated imagery in Spartan‘s opening cinematic had been undeniably more expensive than that of God of War, and if it, too, had been revealed in the press conference (impossible, because it was third-party and multi-platform), then the Creative Assembly wouldn’t have felt compelled to sell-out and develop Viking: Battle for Asgard, an “open-world” affair of infinite potential (in that it promises vikings) and bone-dry execution (in that the combat is weightless and the game design mostly revolves around fetching keys to open doors).
As of this writing, The Creative Assembly’s current project in development is a sci-fi real-time-strategy game for next-generation consoles. We can’t remember its name, and frown upon checking Wikipedia while writing articles so as to appear more intelligent. All we remember is that, in the trailer, the captions tell us that the game is developed by The Creative Assembly, the “makers of the Total War series”. And while we here at Action Button Dot Net give the entire Total War series an off-handed, collective (****) right here and right now, we’re speaking from the bottom of our heart when we say that there is an ocean of difference in the respect implied by the (****) received by Total War and the (****) received by Spartan.
Spartan: Total Warrior is simply the sharpest game in the world, bar slitting your wrist with a DVD shard. The ferocious crunch and snap of the combat is something that anyone who truly enjoys videogames should cherish feeling again and again. Each collision of blade against flesh or bone is an entire stage of Pac-Man or Bubble Bobble or Balloon Fight: an entire vintage game genre shrunken down to the palm of a hand. When you win, it’s because you are good; when you lose, it is because you are not.
It’s really something you have to feel for yourself. Hardly any amount of words is enough to do it justice.
Some complain about the distribution of healing shrines; some complain about the length of some objectives. These same people complain about the “repetitive nature” of the game. Once again, it is true that there is no pleasing everyone at once, nor is there any pleasing any one person completely. The “modern games industry” dictates that everyone should be able to see the end of a game because if they can’t complete it easily enough, they’re missing out on all that CG, and it cost a lot of money to make that. Spartan is an old-school trial-and-error ordeal with modern production values and intelligent art design (pseudo-historical Greece, low-key portrayal of myths); it’s perhaps too generous for its own good. Those who prefer games as snappy and crunchy and razor-sharp as this tend to be content to play ancient games by Treasure and/or immediately shun anything that features polygon graphics or computer-animated cut scenes. There’s always been a sneaking suspicion, in this “industry”, that the majority of casual gamers would appreciate something of Treasure quality if it were just graphically and sonically attractive enough; no one, however, has yet proven this suspicion universally valid, as Spartan quite sadly illustrates.
Spartan: Total Warrior: in addition to being probably the most underrated game of all time, you are also one of the best games that has ever existed. Every time we boot the game up (which is quite often), the “TOTAL WARRIOR (TM)” logo splash prior to the title screen stabs an icy knife of sadness into our hearts: here was a brand name that was never meant to be. As we here at Action Button Dot Net are impartial, beautiful human beings, we are capable of saying that you are as good a game as any Treasure or Konami have ever made. (All apologies, Faithful Readers: Spartan is better than Godhand.) There are spots where you doubt yourself by including “puzzle” (making us blow up barrels with flaming arrows, et cetera) or “RPG” elements (increase stats at the end of levels), though we consider you all the more lovable for these fatal flaws. Had you been an unbroken, straightforward, seamless succession of battles in the vein of a classic overhead 2D shooting game, and had you featured an optional multiplayer deathmatch mode — for your combat essentials are certainly solid enough to work (as boss battles prove) even on a micro scale — and, uhh, maybe if there had been no on-screen text (damage being represented graphically, etc) and the characters had all spoken Latin or Greek with no subtitles (seriously; play up the Pac-Man angle: we don’t need to care about this character beyond not wanting to see him die), then you’d stand a chance at the top spot on our list.
As is, we salute you anyway. Any budding young developers out there willing to get rich, take heed: play Spartan and find a way to incorporate combat this amazingly simple and rich into an endless four-player online co-op / deathmatch game with an interesting graphical style and maybe some rock music. Give us a call when you’ve accomplished this, and as long as your game isn’t obnoxious (mucus as projectiles, characters’ chief means of attack is removing their head and throwing it, et cetera), we will send you probably the creepiest email you will ever receive in your life. Seriously, you will print it out and frame it.