Circus Maximus: Chariot Wars
# of Players:
not ashamed to admit that Iím the kind of person who likes to root
for the underdog; those games that get a tiny blurb in the corner of
the preview sections, followed promptly by a five-page shrine
devoted to the next ďbig thingĒ. I really like to see the little
companies succeed in putting out something completely original, and
I do my part by promoting the company like Iím their lone disciple.
So you can imagine the excitement I felt when I saw a tiny blurb
about gladiatorial combat on the back of racing chariots. I mean, it
had gladiators AND chariots, fighting and racing. Two genres all
rolled up into one bloodily delicious package. It had to be great.
Circus Maximus: Chariot Wars
is reminiscent of the old melee/racing genre established by the
Road Rash series. Set in the Roman Empire, you choose from
various groups of drivers and fighters, and race them across seven
different environments. The hook is that a single player, in an
amazingly functional control scheme, handles both the driving and
the fighting. Steering is done with the left thumbstick, while the
two triggers perform sharp turns. The right thumbstick controls the
fighter, who is used to counter-balance the chariot during tight
turns and to duck hazardous objects. A click of the same stick
causes the driver to whip the horse for more speed. Meanwhile, the
perform different attacks.
Itís not in
the least. After a little practice
it soon becomes second nature: you only need to whip the horses
occasionally to maintain
their speed (if you beat them too much theyíll slow from
exhaustion), and you canít attack when you lean into turns, so you
donít have to worry about using the face buttons and both
thumbsticks at the same time. It really is amazing how many things
are going on at the same time, and
performing the actions simultaneously is a cinch.
If thatís a little too complex for you, thereís even more forgiving
control schemes to choose from, and you can relinquish control of
either the driver or the fighter to the AI
on the fly
with the digital pad.
the game never really pushes the Xbox to the limit. The models of
the chariots, horses, and riders are fairly well designed, if not
particularly inspired, but the animation sometimes comes across as
slightly choppy, especially when the horses turn or wipe out and
they quickly hyperspace into a different animation loop. The level
textures are merely adequate: youíll never find your eyes wandering
to admire the scenery. It does the job, but nothing more.
The sound effects are decent. Clashing chariots, galloping horses,
and wheels on the differing surfaces are suitably fitting, but wonít
have you scrambling for a new surround sound system. Of special
note, however, is the soundtrack, which recreates the feeling of
excitement in the same vein as the chariot race featured in Ben Hur.
The fast paced blaring of trumpets compliments the frenzied battles,
and greatly adds to the overall atmosphere of the game.
The gameplay mechanics are sound, controlling
the horses feels right, the battles are simple but effective, and
trying to maneuver between two opposing chariots while avoiding the
environmentís changing obstacles is fun. However, after about half
an hour you realize the game has some serious faults. The first
major problem comes in the form of rubber-banding AI. Even if youíre
miles ahead of the competition, sooner or later the enemy will catch
up with you even if youíre racing at top speed. In the same vein, if
youíre miles behind the competition itís easy enough to catch up.
The designers justify this by saying that the horses ďsenseĒ the
opposition, causing them to slow down, thus creating a more exciting
race. While it does make the racing more exciting,
it also makes
of racing practically useless: you can literally be in front for the
entire game, a chariot can sneak up behind you, knock you from the
horse, and put you in last place. The same is true if you are behind
and the computer has been in front the entire game, and because of
that I actually found staying behind until the last minute typically
wins the race.
This brings up the second major problem, which
comes in the form of the Tournament mode. You donít actually have to
win a race to progress. In fact, you can
last in every race and still move on to the next level, eventually.
Progression comes in the form of collecting enough denarii (Roman
currency) to enter the next competition, and regardless of winning
the race you can still earn money by doing tricks, knocking the
competition over, and running innocent pedestrians over. It may take
longer to complete, but thereís no need to win in order to progress.
Even if you do place first every round, youíll
find that it takes several races to advance. This repetition poses a
real problem, because despite the tracks changing slightly between
races (night, day, and reversed of each), itís still the same
racetrack. Youíll be wishing for a little variety by the sixth trip
through the course.
Regardless of the problems with the Tournament mode,
the game shines in multiplayer mode. Two people can take control of
the same chariot. One person drives while the other fights, and each
person has to work in tandem. This typically involves a lot of
shouting for the fighter to lean into hard turns, or the driver to
get closer to the competition for some action, and makes the
gameplay feel even more fun and chaotic.
A minor but frustrating problem, however, occurs with collision
detection. While collision between players is sound, your chariot
will have occasional problems dealing with the track. For example,
sometimes just coming close to a wall will cause you to be flung
from the chariot. In another instance, turning your horses near any
object will cause them to move sharply to the side of the chariot
completely missing it, but you may still collide with it as if they
were directly in front of you. Itís not game destroying by any
means, but it is frustrating at times.
Despite all the horrible design decisions and
mediocre visuals, I still had an enormous amount of fun with
Circus Maximus. I found myself having a great time slamming
chariots into walls, maneuvering out of perilous situations,
unlocking hidden ďtrialsĒ to test your
skills, and playing something fairly
original. Itís hard to recommend this game to everyone, but if the
source material interests you and you crave something different,
Circus Maximus has something
valuable to offer. As a bargain title
its well worth the investment. Itís
a shame the developers went belly up, as a polished sequel would
have provided one of the best hybrid titles in years.
Elegant, highly functional control scheme
Itís fun to race AND battle
Multiplayer is a blast
Easy to find it dirt cheap
Poor career mode
Rubber banding AI
The feeling that it couldíve been so much more
Regardless of poor design, thereís a good game
here. Itís the kind
of game you might play every now
and then, just because itís fun to
mindlessly beat on some gladiators. Itís even better if you have
friends to play with. Donít expect too much from it, and youíll
likely get your moneyís worth.