Based on the recent TV hit, Spartacus Legends is an interesting experiment for its publisher, Ubisoft. Not only is it a different take on the densely-populated fighting genre, Legends also happens to be a free-to-play title. With this being one of the key buzzwords surrounding next-gen hardware, Ubisoft is no doubt testing the water with this fun yet flawed gladiator sim.
The game, which doesn’t weave a particular narrative thread, has players operating their very own combat academy, referred to by its Roman term, ludus. Here, you will recruit fresh blood, steadily forging your stable of gladiators into tested combatants through a series of battles. Represented as icons on the world map, these events can be chosen at will, though to “beat” the game you’ll need to compete in all major events in each district, leading to a final showdown against Spartacus himself.
Win or lose, these battles will ensure a constant stream of fame and silver which are used between bouts to level up and buy new weapons and armour for your fighters. As part of developing your ludus you’ll also need to hire more slaves, though this is the extent of Legends’ management and simulation mechanics, with the only other aspect you’ll need to keep in mind being perma-death. Whether it be the makeshift arenas or grand Colosseum of Rome, there’s always a chance one of your gladiators will meet their end. However, no matter how badly mutilated they are, a material sacrifice to the Gods will stead their hand, allowing the warrior to survive and fight another day.
The combat should feel familiar to anyone who has experience with the fighting genre, encouraging players to experiment with a wide range of attacks. With that said, Legends also borrows from hack n’ slash action games, adopting an evade button as well as controls for grabbing and breaking an opponent’s block. The resulting gameplay system is one that straddles genres, affording both a tactical approach or an all-out frenzy.
The success rate of these play-styles largely comes down to which weapon you carry into battle. Each gladiator is specialised in one type, ranging from daggers and short swords to two-handed mauls and tridents. Some are quick and have great combo potential, while others ignore armour or have a decent striking range. No doubt players will get cosy with one or two styles, but some of the events in Spartacus will require a specified armament which might push you out of your comfort zone.
Your objective will remain the same in each fight: deplete your opponent’s health bar twice and finish them off. It sounds straightforward enough, though there are two main factors which weigh in on the experience. First off, you’ll need to be constantly aware of your stamina; used to block and evade incoming attacks this meter will gradually regenerate but when drained it will leave you exposed for a few brief moments. Crowd favour is another aspect to watch out for. Deliver a barrage of attacks and onlookers will spur you on; impress them enough and you’ll be invited to execute your unfortunate foe on the spot.
Overall, combat can be great fun. There’s no denying the satisfaction in landing a barrage of quick blow as your opponent is left unable to react. However, as soon as the game’s AI begins to wise-up, Legends can often dish out painful, frustrating backhand blows. For players, evading attacks needs to be perfectly timed, rewarding you with a perfect opening. Needless to say, without bashing the dodge button continuously, they’re hard to pull off, but your AI opponents seem to nail them time and time again.
As touched on before, progress is charted by the amount of fame accrued as well as your equipment. Each weapon and piece of armour has its own stats that combine to produced a Rating (RTG) for your gladiator. It’s an accurate measure though one that takes ages to improve. This is mainly due to how the game restricts what players can purchase. No matter how much silver you have in the bank, you’ll always need to reach a certain level to buy high tier items. This wouldn’t be such a issue if it wasn’t such a grind to level up.
Of course, there’s a way around these restrictions. If you’re willing to barter in gold instead of silver, doors soon start to open and so does your wallet. In truth, Legends’ micro-transactions aren’t offensively over-priced, nor are they constantly shoved in your face. However, unless you fancy dragging your backside through dozens of fights at a time, they’re the only way to ensure a constant boost to your gladiators’ ratings.
When it comes to download-only titles we hardly expect ground-breaking visuals so we can’t really berate Spartacus for its basic graphical style and level of polish. We can, however, dock points for the lack of scope within the game’s presentation. Gladiators all use the same basic character model with just slight variations in skin tone; though the array of custom gear helps to veil this visual sparsity, the repetition can start to grate.
The soundtrack is equally unremarkable but we’d be hard-pressed to say that it detracts from the overall experience. With that said, Legends’ substitute for a ring-side commentator can spew out jarring lines of curse-laden dialogue, breaking the game’s immersion somewhat.
Spartacus Legends isn’t necessarily a bad game, though even its best moments do little to ferry it away from the clutches of mediocrity. The core fighting gameplay is sound enough yet hamstrung by the thought of having to grind through each arena a dozen times, just to scrape together enough fame.
As a free-to-play experiment, it’s fairly successful. When you download Spartacus Legends you get the full package, not just a few morsels of gameplay, with the rest locked behind a pay-wall. In some ways this is one the game’s biggest strengths but it still fails to dispel a number of its other issues.
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