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Circus Maximus: Chariot Wars
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Circus Maximus
Published by: TheModGod on 2004-05-04
Page Views: 5346
Rating: 6/10

Kodiak Interactive has given the Xbox an interesting blend of racing and vehicular combat. It does many things exceedingly well and you’ll certainly have fun with it, but falls short on depth.

The idea is simple: take control of a chariot team – made up of two steeds, a driver, a warrior, and of course, the chariot itself – and not only be the first to cross the finish line, but bash a few heads in along the way.

At first glance, the control scheme can seem very daunting – using both the analog sticks, both triggers, and a combination of the face buttons to attack and block. Ideally, you’ll control both characters: the driver is controlled via the left analog stick while the warrior riding on back can lean left or right to help balance the chariot around tight turns and attack. You can use a selectable-on-the -fly A.I. via the d-pad to assist you in either driving while you concentrate on offense, or attacking while you steer the ride, but you’re far better off getting the hang of the controls and doing both yourself.

The controls do have a bit of a learning curve, especially the art of pacing – you whip your horses to accelerate, but if you whip them too much, you’ll overstimulate them and cause them to slow down until they regain their stamina – but nothing that will lead to too much frustration, an hour or two and you should be ready to compete with the best of them. The chariot’s handling can be altered manually by different selectable difficulty levels, on the easier settings the chariot is stable and you can concentrate on getting the hang of combat. On advanced setting, you’ll need to constantly shift the warrior left and right manually to keep the chariot from tipping over, while needing to pay attention to steering and fending off attacks from other teams. Each chariot has different handling characteristics and that can be further modified by which driver character you select. You can interchange any of the four elements of your team, resulting in an impressive amount of different combinations.

The core gameplay is a blend of action with a little strategy – but mostly action, don’t be scared away with the prospect of having to use too much brainpower. There are several modes in the game, arcade-style single races and single multiplayer races, but the best by far is the single player Tournament career mode, it’s where you’ll spend most of your time and effort.

In Tournament, the idea is to keep winning denari (cash) in order to proceed to the next racing environment (each environment consists of two tracks, which can also be raced in reverse). There’s two ways to get your hands on denari: cross the finish line first or slaughter the opposition. You’ll need to balance between the two in order to earn enough to keep progressing, or you’ll be stuck racing the same tracks over again until you get a bankroll large enough to earn new levels.

Strategy is simple: use the first couple laps to concentrate on attacking and earning denari by taking your opponent’s health down to zero, causing them to wipe out and fall behind, which adds to your score. Each warrior has a shield to block attacks, and it’s easy to get caught up in trying to bash the other teams’ skulls in and not pay attention to the road ahead. Nothing’s worse than watching a team go down due to your superior offensive skills then finding your own chariot taking a nosedive off a cliff because you were too into the fight to notice the sharp curve dead ahead.

But by the start of the final lap, positioning becomes all-important and keeping clear of enemies is crucial – get wiped out by the enemy during the last lap and you may fall too far behind to catch up. Many races can be decided in the final stretch, won or lost with one blow of a weapon. Power-ups are littered around the course, giving you a temporary boost to your speed, attack power, defense, or refilling your health.

I enjoyed this combination of tactics, a nice change of pace from focusing on simply destroying all your enemies to win – although there is an occasional deathmatch level tossed in where the goal is to be the first to rack up a certain number of kills without worrying about crossing a finish line. You’ll need to watch your position and sometimes even need to back away from a fight if your health is too low, until you find a power-up or some other advantage. Constantly fighting every opponent you come within range of will ultimately lead to defeat. Overall, the enemy A.I. is fair – there’s not many instances of A.I. racers getting that cheap speed boost if they fall too far behind, and they give you a decent amount of challenge, not stupidly focusing too much on either solely racing or combat.

The graphics are solid: nothing too jaw-dropping, but there is some excellent use of texturing and lighting. There’s a really nice mini-replay feature (which can be toggled off if you get tired of it) that pauses the game momentarily when you wipe out to show you a dynamic replay of your crash from different camera angles. Crash animations will have you howling, as your driver gets thrown from the chariot and tangled in the reins, being dragged face down behind the horses. This can lead to some real Looney Tunes-type moments, like when you forget to duck under a low-hanging tree branch and your characters go airborne as a result. There’s a nice variety of characters, you’re sure to find at least a few you ‘ll really like.

Sound is top notch, the orchestrated score is feature-film quality and really adds atmosphere, voice-overs are done well. Level design is impressive, with a variety of terrain, some tricky obstacles, and the occasional shortcut to give you a tactical advantage. The size of the levels is also worth mentioning, you’ll take up to two or three minutes to complete a single lap, ten minutes for an entire race.

While the game is fun, there isn’t a lot of depth. In any game, after you get past the uniqueness of the concept, even with impressive presentation, there has to be a core addictive quality to keep you coming back for more.

Circus Maximus’ career mode doesn’t give quite enough variety or enough innate challenge. You’re given too many options at the beginning of the game, it’s too easy to build a superior team right out of the gate. Once you get over the learning curve of the controls, victory becomes too commonplace. It has an interesting twist in having you earn certain levels of denari to proceed to new environments: what would’ve been even better is if you started out with a mediocre, average team with no real strengths, and had to balance spending money between earning new levels and upgrading your team with new and better characters, chariots, and steeds. While there’s still some hidden items to unlock, too much of it is laid out at the beginning: fine if you’re only renting it for a couple days, but if you’ve purchased it, you’re going to want more replay value.

Multiplayer shines, allowing two players to compete against each other or play cooperatively, with one player controlling the driver and the other the warrior, and on the advanced control setting, this can be a challenge to have the warrior player to remember he or she has to help balance the chariot as well as attack. Three and four players can also be accommodated in co-op via split screen, but multiplayer is limited to single races, which can get old quickly. A multiplayer tournament mode that had placers battling to achieve particular goals would’ve been excellent. Even just being able to play through career in two-player co-op would’ve easily gotten a full star added on to my score.

There’s certainly enough interesting stuff going on here to make Circus Maximus: Chariot Wars worth checking out, but I’d advise a rental before making a long-term commitment. Many casual gamers will get their fill with a week or two rental. If you’ve got gaming buddies and enough controllers to go around, that certainly makes it more attractive as a purchase: pop in Gladiator on DVD to set the mood, break out a six pack of your preferred brand of ale, and you’ve got a fun evening of throwing some Roman-style smack down.

I do give credit to Kodiak and Encore for sticking their necks out and giving us something new with a vehicle combat game, it’s far easier to just slap that genre in a cheesy sci-fi setting and be done with it. I’m hoping Circus Maximus does well enough to warrant a sequel, because with a few tweaks and variety to give the gameplay some longevity, it could end up being a real contender. If you’re looking for something off the beaten path, at least give this one a rental shot.


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Circus Maximus
published by forahobby on 2003-07-26
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Circus Maximus
published by TheModGod on 2004-05-04
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