Spartan: Total Warrior speaks to the inner badass lurking in all of us; that hardcore, relentless killing machine pining to rip through wave after wave of Nazis, alien invaders or whatever the case may be. Total Warrior makes a valiant effort to give us the tools and abilities to live that fantasy, if only for a while and if only while sitting in our living. It recognizes we, as gamers, just need to kill things sometimes. And if we can kill things and look cool while doing it, that's even better. On top of that, if we can butcher people while looking cool and even feel noble about it, well, that's just divine.
And for a while it seems like Total Warrior, developed by Creative Assembly (Rome: Total War) seems to get it just right. We play the role of the Spartan, a brooding hero so lethal, so awesome, that he charges into battle shirtless while his comrades wear full suits of armor. We can impale, behead, crush, dismember and burn our enemies. We're given the opportunity to soak half the ancient world in the blood of our enemies. Where a normal soldier of the Spartan army can tackle one or two foes at once, we slay a dozen armed opponents in a single blow. A singular thrust or swing of our sword results in the simultaneous decapitation of half a dozen enemy troops.
If the above sounds awesome, it's because it truly is. When Total Warrior gets things right, it offers a genuinely satisfying, blood-soaked action extravaganza. And for a good chunk of the game, it does get it all right. Control feels precise and AI-controlled allied troops do a fine job of lending a helping hand in battle. Plus, the assortment of moves at our disposal, including blocks, attacks and evasive maneuvers makes killing people fun and more involved than an average hack 'n' slash. Blocking and timing attacks are such integral parts of the game that anyone thinking they can muscle their way through without strategizing will quit in frustration. Enemy AI, too, appears balanced -- brutal and relentless -- yet balanced and totally fair. Stages boast varied objectives and interesting narrative twists. One of the cooler aspects of the game is the chance to customize the Spartan in three distinct areas, including strength, health and magic power by using tokens earned through each chapter of the game.
But we'll get into that a little later. For now, here's a recap for those new to the game: Total Warrior splits between three main acts (Warrior, Hero and Legend) each of which contain four chapters. The story mixes pieces of history, ancient lore and science-fiction to weave an altogether unique take on epic warfare. Spoken narrative precedes each chapter, with a series of cutscenes furthering the story mid-mission. The story centers on the Roman Empire as it works to conquer one of the greatest civilizations of the ancient world, Sparta. The Empire launches a series of basic assaults against Sparta toward the beginning of the game, but later switches tactics to include armies of the undead, high-tech weaponry (such as flamethrowers) and even full-fledged monsters. Helping us in our fight against the Romans is a core group of allies who fight alongside us and also chime in to fill in story details.
But it's not really the story I found appealing in Total Warrior, although it's pretty decent, if a little straightforward and basic. It's the action that really hooked us. The amount of units on screen at any given time is downright incredible, especially given the fact the game never really slows down. Sure, there are few instances where the action stutters, but we're only talking a matter of seconds in a 12 hour game. The action in Total Warrior felt best in specific parts, such as the invasion of a savage village in the second act. This sequence mixed a bunch of different scenarios and really helped keep the entire level fresh. We had to protect a village, sabotage enemy structures, fight in an arena and rescue a bunch of helpless villagers. All of this was in addition to slaying the usual horde of barbarians, too. Still, the game's designers crafted the level in such a way as to never overwhelm.
As most gamers know, there's little more satisfying than slaying hundreds of opponents. This fact grows exponentially cooler when given the right set of tools. Fortunately for all aspiring Spartans, Total Warrior offers a delicious set of cutlery to exterminate the Roman hordes. The game started us off with a simple sword and shield, but later bestowed us with a number of weapons ripped straight out mythology. Take the Shield of Medusa for instance; it let you petrify scores of our opponents with a single beam that descended from the heavens. The Hammer of Beowulf crushes scores of opponents when swung around normally and launches dozens of enemies into the air when pounded on the ground. And the Blades of Athena, perhaps the coolest weapons in the game, let us decapitate entire groups of enemies with a single blow. It also shoots a radial blast of lightning that cooked anything stupid enough to get close.
Each weapon features three sets of attacks. The first and most commonly used set includes a basic centered blow and a sweeping attack. The second set, which is only available during "rage" mode, modifies the basic attacks and virtually triples their effectiveness. These "rage" techniques work amazing well and add an awesome level of visual flair to battles. The third set consumes a ton of magic power and eclipses both the basic set and the "rage" set in terms of power and visual panache. Of course, using them at the proper time is of paramount importance since magic power is a very limited commodity. Total Warrior offers only a handful of magic shrines per level, each of which equals only one magic attack. So if there are only four magic shrines in a level that means there's only four chances to unleash hell, as it were.
As for Total Warrior's boss fights, they're a mixed bag of decent encounters and devilish tests of patience. The first real boss encounter, against a Roman General, is one of the most frustrating portions of the game. And it's not because the Roman General uses intricate patterns or devastating attacks, but because he runs away constantly. Plus, there were 100 other Roman soldiers we had to deal with while chasing the General around the entire stage. Add to this the fact our allied soldiers did nothing but half-heartedly attack the lowly Roman soldiers while totally ignoring the boss character. I even saw the General standing in a crowd of our fellow soldiers without being attacked once. In addition to this, the General turned me into stone with one of his main attacks, leaving dozens of soldiers to swarm and hack us. It's possible to block the attack, but it still feels mighty cheap.
Unfortunately, that's not the only area that Total Warrior didn't get exactly right. As exhilarating and action-packed as the game gets, it also gets mind-devastatingly annoying due to a number of hiccups that proper testing could have eliminated. For starters, there's nothing we hate more than being attacked while trying to heal or perform an act when blocking is prohibited. And that happens almost constantly in Total Warrior. We're forced to heal ourselves (and regain magic power) at shrines spread across every stage. But instead of these shrines healing us instantly, as in most games, we actually have to kneel and pray (for several seconds) for the process to complete while enemies slashed at our backs and shot our faces with arrows. It doesn't make things challenging in that "good" kind of way. It's annoying and ill conceived, plain and simple.
Another area in desperate need of tweaking is the targeting camera when using the bow and arrow. Here's a note to developers: when requiring players to exercise precision aiming during hectic live-or-die type situations, make damn sure the camera works right. Every. Single. Time. There's nothing worse than busting out the old bow and arrow to shoot a mission critical target only to have the camera lock on to a lowly enemy to the left, or right or whatever the case may be. Plus, when trying to shoot explosive barrels (to eliminate groups of enemies at once) the problem grows worse because the barrels usually sit on the same plane as the enemies themselves, causing the camera to target everything but what we needed to shoot. This is, in a word, infuriating.
That aside, Total Warrior is a technically great game. The engine pushes hundreds of units at once while offering a good deal of visual panache. There's little to no slowdown throughout the entire experience, even with explosions rocking the screen and body parts flying every which way. About the only complaint we can come up with is unit animation. While smooth, it's not very lifelike as every unit shares identical animation, making it look as though we were battling with armies of allied (and enemy) clones. The environments look quite impressive though and benefited from nice variety. You fight in the crumbling cities of Sparta and Troy, as well as in underground caves and barbaric wastelands. Music and sound was cool all around and made as big an impact as the visuals during gameplay. There were a few instances where the game rocked out. For instance, during certain tense moments the soundtrack switched from ambient tracks to full-blown rock tunes, which made killing things that much cooler. The sound effects for the weapons, as well as the sound of dying enemy soldiers, also lent the game a nice dash of realism. Oh, and the fact that Ares, the God of War, cheers us on with comments such as "Kill and kill again!" and "I will drown the world in chaos!" and "I will let you kill forevah!" is devestatingly cool and lends the game a distinctive flair.
Spartan: Total Warrior does so many things right that it genuinely pains me to see the experience get bogged down by a handful of major annoyances. Creative Assembly crafted a marvelous game engine, too, one that affords spectacular encounters filled with more action, blood and “Holy crap did you see that!?” moments than I’d care to mention. It’s therefore unfortunate that the unrefined targeting system, cheap boss battles and generally unhelpful friendly AI make the experience a mixed bag of exhilarating and exasperating moments. Still, Total Warrior is a good (almost great) action game that fans of the genre should definitely considering purchasing. Action Hackn'slash Fighting