Spartacus Legends was unveiled earlier this year to a rather muted response. It’s a digital release aimed at the console audience, but as a one-on-one beat-‘em-up it would seem that many have already dismissed the project without a second thought. However, to do so is nothing short of criminal as Spartacus Legends is not only an enjoyable fighting experience, but also an intriguing experiment that could pave the way for future consoles releases.
As a free-to-play videogame, Spartacus Legends is one of the first of its kind. You could argue that the likes of DUST 514 and 1 vs. 100 has already pipped it to the post, but Spartacus Legends will launch as the first third-party multi-format title which is effectively a base client for which the videogame experience can be built upon. With the doomsayers predicting the death of retail and the future lying in free-to-play products it was only ever a matter of time until someone broke the mould and pushed for the opportunity to pave the way forward, and given Ubisoft’s free-to-play agenda on PC few would argue that the publisher is the best positioned to do so.
Working in two parts, Spartacus Legends appears to be a product designed by Facebook engineers and created by console gamers. Despite being a one-on-one beat-‘em-up player do not simply choose their hero from a pre-constructed roster, nor do they create a custom character to take into the deadly gladiatorial arena. Instead they act as a manager, hiring and firing (or rather, sending to their death) fighters throughout their career. Fighters can be trained between bouts and equipped with weaponry and armour unlocked through progression, subsequently bought with gold won during fights, or alternatively purchased with real money. Ubisoft are keen to stress that players are not forced to invest significant amounts of real world funds into Spartacus Legends in order to have an enjoyable gameplay experience, but that doing so will speed-up their progress and help them to acquire superior equipment sooner. That being said, this aspect of the videogame wasn’t actually available at any point during Electronic Theatre’s preview. What was available however, was the incredibly visceral combat.
Spartacus Legends lifts it’s fighting system template almost directly from Soul Calibur, and while there’s still some obvious room for improvement it’s already shaping-up to be an exhilarating experience. The fighter a player chooses for each battle may have different strengths and weaknesses in terms of health or stamina, but the fighting style is dependant on the weaponry equipped. In the preview build only two were available, sword and shield or twin swords, with the latter clearly being the more aggressive stance. Players have horizontal and vertical attacks available on the face buttons accompanied by throw and push commands (the latter of which seemed to offer very little, but was suggested as a counter-attack for poorly initiated throw manoeuvres). Even at this stage in development it was easy to pull of a variety of three-to-six hit combos, while block, throw and dodge manoeuvres where all implemented in a commendable fashion. Much of Spartacus Legends’ combat system is currently reliant on some basic rock-paper-scissors style attacks and counter-attacks that would easily get tired after just a handful of matches, but it’s a solid basis upon which the development team can build. Should they choose to do so, the fighting system could very well become as impressive as that of any full priced retail product.
Spartacus Legends breaks the trend of what is normally considered the foundation of free-to-play visual design, presenting a remarkably bloody affair. A frequently shocking level of gore more closely resembling Mortal Kombat than Pockie Ninja is the norm here, and most certainly feels at odds with Spartacus Legends’ intentions to assess just how well free-to-play videogames can perform amongst a console audience. This is unquestionably a videogame designed for a mature audience and is in no way your typically light-hearted cartoonish affair designed to be accessible to all ages.
During Electronic Theatre’s time with Spartacus Legends we were repeatedly assured that the videogame was a work in progress that still had plenty of room to grow. The development team already have plans to continually update Spartacus Legends after the initial launch, though the plans for what content to include on day one and what can be delivered in later instalments remains to be seen. Indeed, there were many ideas thrown around in just the short time the videogame was playable; damageable equipment, betting on fights, permanent fighter injuries or even death, adding an additional role-playing game (RPG) style element that many videogames ignore and yet tabletop games have rejoiced in for decades. To suggest that Spartacus Legends is an interesting prospect is understating the fact by a significant margin, and if anyone can pull it off as a free-to-play digital release on consoles, Ubisoft is the publisher to put your faith in.