Ubisoft’s first foray into the free-to-play market on consoles arrives in the form of Spartacus Legends, a one-on-one fighter that pits upgradable gladiators against each other both online and offline. It’s an historical premise that slots wonderfully into the genre, but does its freemium nature take away from the blood-stained experience?
Gladiatorial combat is almost the perfect, ready-made backdrop for a fighter – especially one that sports RPG elements – and it’s surprising that its historical context hasn’t been exploited further within gaming. Growing your warrior from an amateur into a legend through the act of slaughtering likeminded foes in ancient Rome seems like an obvious basis to build a game upon, and the release does its best to stick to a relatively simple flow of gameplay with an emphasis on upgrades.
Your goal is to build a group of unbeatable gladiators, each of them forged through countless battles with increasingly difficult opponents. You start off with a mere single combatant, geared out in little more than a loincloth – but with a few wins under your belt, you’ll soon be equipping him with chunky pieces of armour, deadly new blades, and fearsome-looking facemasks.
Everything from body armour, shoes, and legendary weapons, to temporary stat boosts are on sale, and can be bought with in-game silver and gold coins gained from winning duels. There’s a huge amount of gear on offer, and more is unlocked as you continue to increase your warrior’s fame. Each piece of equipment has different properties, for example, one helmet may decrease your overall movement speed while offering a significant boost to your health, while another does the exact opposite.
It’s a nicely implemented system that isn’t overly complex, and one that goes hand-in-hand with powering up your characters. It also allows you to tailor your fighter’s stats to your playstyle, so if you’re the type who likes to dodge and parry your opponent’s attacks, you can suit up with appropriately light clothing.
Weapons, however, play the most important role when it comes to defining each blood-thirsty barbarian. You’ll always start out with a gladiator that’s proficient with a sword and shield, but if you’re looking to purchase more fighters for your group, you’ll have to choose from a selection of warriors who are schooled in various different disciplines. These styles determine how each character controls within battle, and sadly, there isn’t too much variety. On the bright side, the options that are on offer all feel unique, from the type that quickly wields dual daggers to the brute who happily swings a huge hammer. And although none of them sound very original, their realism fits in well with the gritty, historical feel that the title tries to portray.
Unsurprisingly, buying equipment is where microtransactions come into play, allowing you to pay with real money rather than the currency earned in-game. You can exchange anything from a couple of pounds for a few gold, to a ridiculous £119.99 for a few thousand, which is more than enough to buy almost everything that you could possibly want. However, you actually earn a decent income simply from being victorious against human and computer opponents alike, though at points, you’ll definitely find yourself grinding through the same fights over and over again in order to save up a certain amount. In any case, the release certainly doesn’t force you to pay in order to win – although you’re still bound to find opponents online who have bought their way to being better equipped than you are.
When it comes to actual combat, the game holds up quite well. It’s not as polished or as intricate as the heavy-hitters of the genre, but its basic foundations are undeniably sturdy. You have access to a range of simple attacks, from light, glancing blows intended to catch your foes off guard, to heavy hits and throws that do large chunks of damage. It’s all very standard stuff, but the weighty feel of the controls and the deep defensive mechanics make for a solid, if slightly clunky brawler.
On the topic of defence, you’ll need a good knowledge of attack ranges and a honed sense of timing if you want to see everything that the game has to offer. Under your health bar is a gauge that depletes as you block or roll away from incoming attacks. Once it’s empty, you’ll be unable to shrug off blows for a set amount of time, making it impossible to hold out against relentless opponents. You’re therefore forced to adopt a careful approach to fights, where sidestepping onslaughts and knowing exactly when to counterattack is pivotal to success. As such, matches against more seasoned adversaries become tense games of cat and mouse – and that tension only increases when your life is on the line.
Indeed, your warriors can be killed in battle, given the right circumstances. By performing particularly well in a bout, you’ll begin to earn the crowd’s favour, and when the audience’s lust for blood is at its peak, you’ll be able to execute your foe in brutal fashion. Slaying enemies instead of knocking them out rewards you with bonus fame and money – but getting to such a point in a duel requires a decent amount of practice, which balances out the mechanic somewhat.
When playing alone, there’s a large amount of content to wade through, as long as you have the skill necessary to unlock new arenas and opponents. The game is split up into several different districts placed upon a map, and within each environment there are famous gladiators as well as locations that pit you against random enemies. Unfortunately, when it comes to duking it out with the AI, proceedings can become slightly frustrating due to the uneven difficulty here and there. One minute you’ll be battering your enemies with ease, and the next you’ll find yourself going up against far more advanced warriors with little warning. It somewhat sours the experience knowing that if you were to spend real world money, you may not have this problem.
Playing against human opponents is also a little bit inconsistent, as the netcode doesn’t seem too reliable. There were occasions where we encountered lag that was so bad that we had little choice but to quit, while at other times, the connection was relatively stable. Hopefully this issue is simply due to the title’s recent release, and improves with time. It’s also worth mentioning that the game is only playable while connected to the title’s servers, which were frustratingly unavailable on the day of release.
In terms of visuals, the game’s rather bleak. Almost everything is coloured a muddy brown, beige, or grey, from the arenas themselves to the armour that’s fitted to your character. Even the blood that sprays across the ground with every successful stab or slash is a dark, muted shade of red. It’s a realistic palette that no doubt complements the release’s gritty and violent nature, but when compared to the colourful aesthetics of other popular fighters, it’s a look that could have benefitted greatly from some more artistic flair.
The game’s audio is also equally standard, featuring a lot of orchestral, God of War-like music that sadly doesn’t quite capture the spectacle found in Kratos’ games. Meanwhile, the announcer who presides over battles manages to somehow sound horribly out of place, especially when he blurts out swears with no real context, and his constant prattle will eventually begin to grate, especially during drawn-out matches.
Spartacus Legends lacks the production values required to attain top billing, but its solid fighting mechanics and rewarding RPG elements ensure that it's worth a punt. With no entry price, there are definitely worse ways to spend your time than bathing in the blood of your enemies for the sake of fame and glory – just don't expect a spectacle fit for the emperor himself.