Am I totally desensitized to violence? I wouldn't say that I was, but after reading Tera's reaction to Shadow of Rome, I think I might be. Although the game is as bloody as she says, it never affected me because I couldn't get past its artificiality. The limited scope of the game and the stiff, unbelievable nature of play never let me forget for a moment that I was playing a videogame. I never questioned my role as gladiatorial executioner—why should I? All I was doing was trudging through a very simple construct coated in a thick layer of red paint. Take away the violence, and there'd be little else.
To give credit where credit's due, I will say that the combat engine is entertainingly solid. The mechanics of controlling the fearsome Agrippa work except for the occasional missed input due to the analog stick not being as sharply precise as a crosskey. Otherwise, using weapons and shields is fine and there's good variety in the number of moves available. I'd like to praise the combat more but while the engine itself is good, what I did with it wasn't.
When mauling opponents in large melees, the best side of Shadow of Rome comes forward. The chaotic fights have a visceral quality that serves to keep the level of excitement high. However, the minds at Capcom evidently didn't think that arena fights alone would carry the game, so they stuffed Agrippa's half of the disc with lots of silly, contrived variations. For example, one battle type required destroying stone statues on a team, and one wanted me to kill more enemies than my opponent (much like something I was doing in the last Unreal game.) As a matter of fact, most of these unsatisfying fights reminded me of nothing so much as online CTF-ish modes taken from other games and reworked for the coliseum.
This wouldn't have been all bad except that Shadow of Rome's shortcomings don't make a lot of sense (or fun) during these levels. When on elevated platforms, it's impossible to knock enemies off regardless of what I did to them. In the statue levels, strategy goes out the window since the game throws an infinite number of opponents at me. I haven't even mentioned the totally ridiculous rate of weapon breakage that happens, further destroying any hope of believability or buy-in. Nothing is as annoying as being surrounded by enemies that defy the laws of physics while your swords break with every fifth hit. Instead of being sucked in to the violent realm of swords and sandals, I was constantly irritated by the "fake-factor" during combat.
As bad as those segments were, the "stealth" parts of the game featuring Octavianus were so dumbly insipid that I couldn't believe someone gave them the green light. These don't even have real gameplay at all, they're just filler bits cobbled together to prevent the disc from being nothing but cutscenes and arena fights.
Is walking past a motionless guard staring into a corner supposed to make me feel like an ancient version of Solid Snake? Am I supposed to feel like Sam Fisher minus the goggles for finding my way to the end of an L-shaped hallway? Is there some kind of mongoloid satisfaction to be had from watching six guards slipping on a banana peel and getting knocked unconscious one after another while their bodies stack up? Playing as Octavianus was woefully sad, and felt like some kind of time warp back to the early, untested days of PS1 gaming.
All in all, I'd say that Shadow of Rome wasn't even a complete game, but more like a good combat engine surrounded by a lot of garbage and nonsense. Instead of trying to find a use for it and slapping together this embarrassingly bad product, they should have saved it and used it somewhere else—there just isn't enough quality content in Shadow of Rome as it is to justify its existence, and the level of violence adds nothing but triviality. Caesar is not pleased.