The Xbox One proudly proclaims that its games “look and feel like real life,” promising players that they can be immersed in cinematic worlds, with characters that feel more human. Two third-person launch games have a massive penchant for violence: zombie-massacre simulator Dead Rising 3 and action adventure hack-and-slash Ryse: Son of Rome. Both are extremely violent, but only one of them is worthwhile.
Ryse is kind of disturbing, which is not inherently bad (in fact, more games should feature disturbing violence), but disturbing violence has to be meaningful. In Ryse, a few button presses will cut off a barbarian’s limbs and then shove a sword through his neck in close-up, but even as it impresses visually, it fails to mean anything. Players aren’t forced to come to grips their decisions of taking a digital life (or a hundred); the game just revels in its technical prowess and gleefully runs ahead, beckoning the player to kill again and again and again. On the other end of the spectrum, in Dead Rising 3, you can combine a motorcycle and a steamroller into a vehicle of mass destruction that also shoots fire. It’s silly, crazy, and fun.
Technically, the two games are radically different. Dead Rising 3 is good looking, but it’s not great; rather than making each zombie look amazing, the developers put effort into showing hundreds of them simultaneously and then letting players have at them. Ryse is more intimate, and more impressive. Especially the facial animations, which are spectacular. Yet the game, developed by Germany’s renowned Crytek, has somewhat unsettling priorities. “See and feel the emotion on your opponent's face!” the official website proudly proclaims—but why?
Why is it that brutality is the way to show technical strength? Why am I watching the close-up fear on a digital barbarian’s face as the protagonist hacks off an arm and then stabs him in the chest? Why did Crytek put all this effort into making over 100 different close-up kill animations and let the rest of the game suffer?
Ryse: Son of Rome’s story is nothing worth thinking about for too long. Marius is a Roman soldier whose father is killed and he goes to avenge the death. In between him and his goal are hundreds of barbarians (of which there are apparently only four or five which have been infinitely cloned), and he is very good at killing things. At times, Ryse feels like a period, less-creative iteration in Rockstar’s ultra-disturbing Manhunt franchise, but without the narrative significance of the first Manhunt (the sequel didn’t make good on any of its promises either). Brutality was a function of a Roman soldier’s duty, but I tend to doubt that soldiers were quite so showy with every single kill.
Dead Rising 3’s biggest failing is an odd attempt at a human story amidst ludicrous gameplay. Nick is a regular guy who happens to also be really good at killing things, and he does so using outlandish weapons—everything from a handbag to electrified sledgehammers—while wearing outlandish costumes. (Current look: suit of armor up top and lingerie down below.) A serious narrative about government abuses and the mistreatment of “illegals” is all well and good, but the writing is shoddy at best and juxtaposed against the gameplay it’s not exactly meaningful. It seems to be attempting satire in the vein of a Grand Theft Auto game, but, like GTA is occasionally, it just seems childish. There are some close-up kills too, which afford more experience points, and slicing multiple enemies into bits using a rake-katana hybrid spills gallons of blood. But here it feels different than Ryse, and less problematic.
It’s not just a matter of human vs. zombie enemies, because there are humans to be slaughtered in Dead Rising 3 as well, and they are harder to kill and award more points. The difference is that the violence in Dead Rising doesn’t look or feel particularly real (so much for the slogan). It sits firmly on the side of the cartoonish—reveling in it is okay. No one could see this as anything other than ridiculous. The brilliant gameplay shines through the bloodshed, making it the most worthwhile title of the Xbox One’s launch.
While Ryse’s visuals aren’t realistic enough to make it look like the player is actually killing real people, it’s a very impressive-looking game. Other than Killzone: Shadow Fall, it is easily the best looking game of either next-gen launch, but after watching the fortieth barbarian clutch his throat and choke after a sword went through it, it becomes unsettling.
The game undoubtedly sets a new bar for visual fidelity, but it is also a cautionary tale. Perhaps Ryse is too pretty for its own good, with effort put into visuals that didn’t go into making the gameplay as fluid as it should be. It’s repetitive, pressing the same buttons over and over again to play through the same set of animations hundreds of times. Also, pressing the A button when there’s nothing to block just makes Marius hit his sword and shield together, creating one of the most grating noises in recent memory. That nobody heard that sound and thought, “Why is this horrible sound mapped to such a frequently pressed button?” is shocking.
Perhaps if Crytek had made Ryse more than a technical showpiece it could have meant something; the violence could have had some weight. The player is supposed to feel the emotion on an opponent’s face as they do horrific things to their body, but instead it just feels empty. This “emotion” has no meaning, and it becomes nothing more than a word to put on the back of a box.