The first console game from legendary RTS developers The Creative Assembly is bound to cause quite a stir. Famed for their Total War series (most recently Rome) they haven't strayed too far with Spartan: Total Warrior in terms of setting. The game itself, though, couldn't be more different if it tried. Sega and The Creative Assembly can say whatever they like about the game, and what they see it as, but it's a hack 'n' slash - no doubt about it. What you get is a series of battles (of varying sizes) followed by a boss fight, with some simple character customisation along the way. It's a simple game that has one simple premise: kill wave after wave of enemies.
You play as 'The Spartan', a great warrior who must save his beloved city Sparta from Roman attack. Greek god Ares and an army of men are at your side to help save Sparta through relentless battles and some mild puzzle solving. You might be thinking about God of War at this point - you know, the brilliantly savage action adventure game from Sony - and wondering how this differs. It's fair point. Both games feature lots of killing, weapons of the gods and some great visuals, but when playing Spartan, it felt very different. If God of War was a watered down, but well told, Ninja Gaiden, Spartan is another rung lower on the ladder - in terms of gameplay depth at least. However, what it lacks in depth, it makes up for in all out carnage.
The key to Spartan's success as an enjoyable game is its huge battles. While you only control a single man, you often fight alongside an army; sometimes this is in the tens, but battles can be fought between armies in the hundreds. It's a great sight, and something that the developers should be proud of achieving on current-gen consoles. There's just something quite thrilling about powering through a wall of enemies with a mighty powerful lunge attack, sending men flying as the game switches to slow motion for a second. It's not clever, at all, with a couple of basic attacks and block able to get through most of the game, but it works.
Aside from the standard jabs and swipes you can collect blue orbs (green for life energy) to power magic attacks. As you progress through the game and earn new weapons (by defeating bosses) you in turn possess new magic attacks. The opening few levels aren't exactly thrilling, but unlocking new weapons and increasing the power of the Spartan makes things far more exciting. More basic special moves can also be pulled off when your weapon glows orange, and these mildly devastating attacks come in very handy while you're building up your magic in preparation for the next strike. Chests scattered around the levels also hold collectables and arrows, which come in flaming and non-flaming varieties.
Creative Assembly have had years to perfect the art of displaying hundreds of soldiers on screen at once, and it has paid dividends in Spartan. At times hundreds of them will be on the screen, fighting with each other, putting the foggy mess of Dynasty Warriors to shame. The overall polish has obviously suffered a bit as the 'sheen' level isn't nearly as high as the aforementioned God of War, but it's understandable. Character models are a little basic, textures are quite rough and environments are basic, but you're not going to be looking at all that when you're taking part in a ten minute mass battle. Lighting is top notch though, with some beautiful bloom effects that fit well with the style of the game.
Given Creative Assembly's heritage in the Total War series, the use of music in Spartan is a little surprising - most of the time it just doesn't fit. It's not terrible, not by any means, but it doesn't have the epic feel that you'd expect. The voice acting seems at odds with the game you're playing, often feeling rather comical, and the conversations between you and the warriors fighting with you aren't exactly Hollywood movie material. The one highlight is definitely Ares. The god has a voice that sounds remarkably similar to Orson Welles' performance in Transformers the Movie as Unicron. It's a menacing deep voice that talks to the Spartan when he has performed a particularly deadly attack.
Aside from the campaign there's an arena mode that pits you against wave after wave of enemy, with your task simply being to get the highest score. Progressing through the campaign will open up more arenas, and while it's an enjoyable way to spend a few hours, it doesn't really offer anything that you haven't already been doing through the campaign.
Putting the repetitive nature of the combat to one side, there are a few problems that prevent Spartan from being enjoyable from start to finish. The camera can be annoying, often giving you the worst possible view of the action, leading to a few unwanted plummets to death. Battles themselves tend to go on for far too long and failing moments from the end is a tad frustrating, but the sense of satisfaction gained from taking out huge numbers of enemies in one smash of your Beowulf hammer or charging into a wall of enemy soldiers with an army at your side is so great that you can forgive it, just.
Then there's the rather random nature of the missions/objectives. While taking on endless hordes of the undead is a lot of fun, particularly when you've got some of the more powerful weapons, running around a town for ten minutes killing spies, only to let one slip through your fingers, resulting in you having to do it again is infuriating. Boss battles are equally unfair, with cheap tactics often used to make their downfall far harder than it should have been.
Spartan: Total Warrior isn't a classic and many people will bemoan the relentless action and uncomplicated combat, but they're the game's two best features. This isn't a game for elitists who turn their noses up at anyone who can't beat Ninja Gaiden - it's for everyone else. It's a fun, simplistic hack 'n' slash that offers a lot of enjoyment, tarnished by the odd bad design choice.