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The good news is that the set-pieces really are huge. Spartan kicks off in dramatic fashion, with the Romans raining fire down on Sparta and hordes of Roman troops everywhere you look. This not only delivers instant big-budget thrills, it also gives you a pretty rapid introduction to the central game dynamic. Enemies mob you from every side, and it’s your job to disperse them in the most bloody and effective way possible. Your first weapon, a basic sword, gives you a handy range of thrusting and sweeping moves, and by combining these with some great shield-breaking combos, you soon get the hang of sending enemies flying then closing in for the kill.
This charming rhythm of hack and scatter, accompanied by a delightful swish of gore, the odd decapitation, and some lovely sounds of sliced neck and shattered skull, is all very satisfying in a bloodthirsty way. If conventional beat-em-ups are all about stringing combos together, Spartan is concerned with stringing kills together. What’s more, as the game progresses you get new weapons adding a whole new tactical dimension: what enormous hammer or vicious sword is the right tool for destroying the next bunch of opponents?
And here’s something else that stops Spartan from just being Dynasty Warriors in sandals. Each level hits you with objectives that need to be respected, and a wide selection of little tasks to juggle. In the first level alone you’re guarding gates, clearing paths for sappers, setting off ballistae, battling centurions and protecting the king. Later on, you’ll find yourself infiltrating a Roman camp, playing bodyguard to a bunch of escaped slaves, setting fire to a barbarian encampment and protecting a village from a raiding force. In other words, it’s not all mindless hack and slash.
Better still, just when you’re beginning to tire of the run-of-the-mill legionnaires and Barbarian thugs, the game suddenly goes all Ray Harryhausen on you, with skeletal warriors and green-blooded zombies after your skin. The baddies start getting badder, the sheer weight of numbers keeps you busy, and you just haven’t got time to get bored. Where Dynasty Warriors gets monotonous, Spartan always finds something new to keep your interest.
The exotic locations help. Sparta makes for a grand opening scene, but then the game opens out in the hills around Troy, before taking you inside the ruined citadel for a clash with a fiendish new villain and his supernatural allies. With Athens and the Colloseum to look forward to after that, Spartan never gives you the “not more mist and mountains” feeling that Dynasty Warriors hits you with time after time.