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Circus Maximus: Chariot Wars

Review By:  Greg Lynch

Developer:  Kodiak Interactive
Publisher:  Encore Software
# of Players:  1-4
Genre:  Racing
ESRB:  Teen
Online:  No
Accessories:  N/A
Date Posted: 

8-26-03

Iím 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.

Well, almost.

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 face buttons perform different attacks.

Sound daunting? 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.

Visually, 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 the concept 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 place dead 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.

Highs:

  • Elegant, highly functional control scheme
  • Itís fun to race AND battle
  • Multiplayer is a blast
  • Easy to find it dirt cheap

Lows:

  • Poor career mode
  • Rubber banding AI
  • Sub-standard graphics
  • The feeling that it couldíve been so much more

Final Verdict: 

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.

Overall Score: 6.2

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