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And finally, remember that Koei’s oriental epics have never really filled the screen with convincing extras. If you looked around on the battlefield all you could see were soldiers giving each other timid pokes with the point of a spear – like schoolboys spoiling for a fight but half hoping that teacher will come out and put a stop to it all beforehand. Not so in Spartan. There’s carnage everywhere you look; your fellow Spartans giving as good as they get against the Roman hordes; leering legionnaires trying to slice up escaped prisoners; lumbering giants piling into your armoured comrades. Spartan does two things brilliantly: make you feel part of a vicious, desperate battle, but also make you feel like you’re the most terrifying thing out there on the field. What more could you ask for?
Well, there are a couple of things. First, the game falls down occasionally when it comes to boss battles, making them either ridiculously easy or stupidly hard. One scrap had me creamed in seconds every time until I realised that the best strategy was a ludicrous mix of comic running away and sneaky power-up kills. Secondly, some objectives are a major source of frustration. The full-on combat makes Spartan challenging enough, in a “think seriously about turning the difficulty level down” sort of way. When your escaped prisoners seem hell-bent on running panicked towards the nearest murderous Roman, it only makes it that much harder. Falling victim to a lucky swipe that sends you tumbling off a nearby precipice is no picnic, either. For the most part, Spartan has sensible checkpoints and a tough but fair difficulty curve, but when it does misjudge things, it misjudges them badly.
However, the game’s saving grace is always what saved those Hollywood epics: sheer, gobsmacking spectacle. This isn’t a game of intricate detail and masterful art direction, but you can’t help but be amazed by the numbers of troops on screen at any one time – one thing it has in common with the Total War series that sired it. And from the lovely faux HDRI effect used on sun-drenched battlefields to the great slow-mo effect when you execute a killer combo, it gives you plenty of eye candy to marvel at. With its violent sound effects, pounding score and awesome scale, Spartan comes close to God of War for cinematic effect, and while Sony’s effort is probably the more versatile and entertaining game, you can’t really fault The Creative Assembly for not quite equalling a masterpiece. It’s a great, bloody slab of solid action, and one you really shouldn’t miss out on.
If you want to hew your way through packed battlefields, this is the best swords and sandals epic since Gladiator.