Discussion Review: Rise of the Argonauts

RiseOfTheArgonautsDiscussionReview.jpg

There was a section of an article recently that pretty much said that if you wanted to know if a game was going to be pretty but lousy, check to see if it uses the Unreal engine. If it does, chances are you will end up playing a beautiful game devoid of much substance.

Guess what – Rise of the Argonauts uses the Unreal Engine. And has beautiful visuals. So, is it a foregone conclusion that the game is crap? Read on as Matt and I discuss the various merits and flaws of the PC and console versions of the game!

Mike: Well, before I kick this off, let me take you back to 2001, to a game that I still play annually – Blade of Darkness. Never heard of it? I’m not surprised, as it was lost in a sea of poor marketing. Anyway, Blade of Darkness is an excellent and ultra-gory third-person action combat game with some RPG-lite elements and excellent graphics. There was a story in there that was fairly interesting – certainly enough to keep you engaged as you gained new weapons and skills and combos to work your way through level after level. Oh – and the fact that you could decapitate one enemy and pick up their skull and use it to beat the next enemy to death wasn’t too bad either …

Which brings me to Rise of the Argonauts, a game that despite having well-known names lacks interesting characters; that despite having loads of potential in the setting lacks a stirring motivation; that despite having a skill tree and set of magical powers that looks great on paper never feels like it expands beyond being a button-mashing slash-fest. While I know that the RPG elements have atrophied significantly from the earliest announcements, I can live with that – I am only concerned with the game as released, which is why I keep going back to Blade of Darkness for my point of comparison rather than something like Gothic 2.

Quite frankly, even as a simple action-slasher game, Rise of the Argonauts is lousy. I was never captivated by the setting, never interested in any of the characters, never thrilled by the skills or magic, and constantly frustrated by the on-again off-again camera controls.

At first I thought that the camera and combat issues might be controller related – so I spent a night with my Xbox 360 controller … and found that rather than making things better it actually became a confusing mish-mosh as it felt like the game still wanted me to use the keyboard at times in menus. I’ll be interested in how your console experience with the interface and camera system went, Matt. In fact, I think I have dumped enough on the game for now, so you can either take up the mantle or continue kicking the game while it is down!

Matt: Let me first just start by saying that I was saddened when Codemasters decided to stealth release Rise of the Argonauts right before Christmas. It was a clear indication that the game was being rushed out the door for the sake of meeting the company’s bottom line. As someone who had high hopes for the game throughout its development cycle, this was a killing blow because I just knew the game wasn’t going to live up to its full potential. As it stands, Rise of the Argonauts feels like an incomplete experience. While I certainly realize that some of the flaws were a result of poor design decisions from the outset rather than rushed development, I do think the core story and gameplay elements are solid enough that with a few extra months of balancing and fine-tuning this could’ve been a winning endeavor.

All of that said, I didn’t find Rise of the Argonauts as abysmal as you and many other reviewers did. I’m clearly in the minority here in saying that I quite enjoyed my time with this game despite its many failings. I’m a big Greek mythology buff — it’s my favorite setting right behind high fantasy — so the story and setting pretty much had me at hello. While many of the side characters are rather uninteresting, I found myself captivated by the game’s portrayal of Jason. I really liked him as a character and felt motivated to help him rescue his beloved Alceme. Pan the satyr is another character I liked, so I always took him with me as one of my AI-controlled Argonaut sidekicks (you can have any two in your party at a time) solely for conversational purposes. The game’s portrayals of Hercules and Achilles, however, are pretty laughable.

As for your camera and control woes, I honestly can’t say that I’ve had any major problems with either. Well, the whole weapon swapping mechanic during combat isn’t very responsive, but other than that I got along fine. I do remember one time when the camera got stuck as I passed by a torch post or something and permanently locked the view forcing me to reload my save file, but that’s more of a polish issue and I’m not quite ready to get on that topic yet. The camera isn’t perfect by any means, but except for getting caught in a few blind spots it seemed to function like any standard third-person camera system.

For me, the game’s main drawback is its imbalance of narrative to actual gameplay. For every 15 minutes of combat it seems like there’s two hours of dialogue and aimless wandering. The dialogue part didn’t bother me too much because, as I said above, I immersed myself into the story enough to where I liked chatting about and exploring response choices with the Mass Effect-esque, deity-based dialogue system. But the aimless wandering part really got to me. The environments Liquid Entertainment crafted are visually enticing. The problem is they forgot to fill said environments with worthwhile activities. Much of the game is spent jogging back and forth between NPCs almost like a messenger. I wouldn’t even necessarily call them quests most of the time because you really aren’t doing anything other than talking with different characters.

However, I did thoroughly appreciate how the dialogue choices and completed “quests” tied into the character progression system. Completing certain objectives earn you deeds that can then be pledged to one of the four patron gods — Hermes, Apollo, Ares and Athena — in exchange for aspect points to use in progressing Jason down the respective god’s skill tree. This skill tree system is definitely a stand-out feature, mostly just because it shows that the developers worked really hard to come up with something more dynamic and customizable than the standard level-grinding style of most action-RPGs.

Unfortunately, the skill tree system leaves little impact on the game in the long run because of the gameplay imbalance already discussed. For a game set in the violent times of Greek mythology, I was completely taken aback by how little combat there was to engage in. Now sure, the game’s combat system is exceedingly simplistic hack-n-slash, but I still found chopping enemies in two with a sword, skewering them through the neck with a spear and smashing their heads with a mace like Gallagher smashes watermelons to be fairly satisfying. At least enough to satiate my bloodlust.

Mike: One reason I mentioned Blade of Darkness is that, similar to Rise of the Argonauts, you get a motivation at the beginning, the game is more or less all about the pursuit, and then you come to the ultimate conclusion at the end. And the opening of Rise of the Argonauts seemed very promising – I too love the Mythology, but as with the Loki review I referenced in the comments of the Sacred 2 review, having cool mythology alone isn’t enough for me. Games like Titan Quest or Age of Empires: Mythology that have compelling gameplay while also allowing me to use the name Hatshepsut in everyday conversations are a bonus. But like I said, Rise of the Argonauts started with loads of promise – but for me that was squandered before I ‘set sail’.

As you mention, the primary cause is poor balancing. For me it goes further to sheer boredom. You cared about Jason and Pan, while I tolerated them. You didn’t think much of the other characters … and I agree. You found the story acceptable based on the mythology, and I couldn’t get past it – but that again comes back to something you talked about: balance.

Because the game sets a pace of near-constant story-telling, you are set up to expect a richly layered story. What you get is a story befitting a typical action-RPG – that isn’t a bad thing, as I said in my Sacred 2 review! However, with Sacred 2 you can spend time working out what is happening in the plot or completely ignore it and spend all of your time just hacking and slashing your way through hordes of enemies for hours on end. You don’t get that option here – again your description is perfect: there is loads of non-combat trudging around followed by too many overly-long cutscenes that try too hard to be cinematic. So while there are some cool combat moments they are watered down significantly.

I have to say that the skill tree didn’t thrill me all that much either. First off, to me it seemed that it was simply a matter of replacing the typical trees of a skill system with ones dedicated to the four gods. From there the skills themselves are solid, but nothing out of the ordinary. Where it is interesting is how you get there – you get deeds to complete as you progress from killing a number of enemies to specific tasks, and you dedicate the completion of these deeds to a particular god to curry favor with them. This is given in the form of an aspect point which is then used towards buying new skills. It is a decent system with a twist that really had me excited until I started using them: the problem is that they power-up so slowly that they were pretty useless and hard to use strategically. That is somewhat typical in these games – it is set up so that you are not constantly using over-powered skills, but given that the core combat was pretty much button-mashing, it would have been nice to get a bit more out of the skill system.

I had mentioned that Rise of the Argonauts “has beautiful visuals,” but that doesn’t mean I think it is a great looking game. Apparently they missed the memo on how Oblivion‘s use of a half-dozen basic characters diminished the overall sense of personality of the game (of course, the over-inflated scores probably don’t help there, but that is a matter for another day). Rise of the Argonauts has about a dozen total individuals, replicated endlessly throughout the world. Of particular offense are the women: there are pretty much two and both are impossibly proportioned stereotypes that only serve to remind us that all too often games are by and for young men living out fantasies in digital form. But the men are little better – nor is the world itself. The levels are pretty but devoid of a striking style – it all just says ‘generic Ancient Greece’.

Speaking of levels, the overall level design reeks of choices made to lengthen the game without adding substance. Loads of backtracking, constantly having to traverse areas for no purpose, and on and on. Once you do start to battle you’ll find that the setup is designed for plenty of combat options – but like most things in this game, that is hindered by the balance of combat to ‘filler’.

As for the camera and control issues – the control issues are more specific to the PC version, in that the game seemed in many ways designed to be played with a gamepad but when doing so they were not consistent in the implementation. I went back and messed around some more and found that I could do everything with either control scheme. The camera issues were fairly typical of a third-person action game in terms of having the game grab control inappropriately at times and letting things go when it should have taken control. I found the sensitivity needed tweaking to get the camera movement set up correctly – in general I got it to work but was constantly aware of it.

You mentioned the dialogue choices, and while I also appreciate how the dialogue pairs with the tasks in terms of being focused on one of the gods, I also found that there wasn’t any other impact – aside from working to appease one god or other in the pursuit of new skills (and let’s face it, most of us compromise role-playing in an action-RPG in the hot pursuit of skills!), what dialogue choices you make have no lasting impact on the outcome. That goes along with total lack of role-playing: you are playing as Jason the Warrior, in a story with a fixed beginning, middle and end. It makes sense and isn’t out of whack with loads of other games, but after the near-total freedom of Sacred 2 it felt very confining.

I went on longer than I had planned … and there really isn’t much else for me to add. I’m very interested in hearing how you see these things.

Matt: When starting this discussion I was probably only about halfway through the game, maybe a little more. But in the time since my last reply I have completed Jason’s quest in its entirety and have grown to appreciate the game and its narrative even more. I do have to disagree some with your comment about the dialogue choices not impacting the game. While it’s true that they don’t directly alter how the story ultimate ends, there are quite a few times when the fate of certain characters is determined by your choices and actions. Obviously, you didn’t take much from these moments since you found the character dialogue dull, but as someone who was able to connect with the characters and enjoyed listening to the many conversations, I found these moments quite compelling. I cared enough in a couple situations that I actually had to stop and think about how I wanted to proceed. Also, on the console side of things, some of the achievements/trophies tie into the god paths that you follow, so for completionist type gamers (like me!) there is added replay value.

Last I commented I was in the middle of playing the Mycenae chapter, which as it turns out is by far the most tedious and unbalanced section of the game, hence my complaining about how little gameplay there was to narrative. You spend far too much time backtracking through the city talking to uninteresting side characters, with short interludes of predictable arena combat sprinkled in. After getting off to a strong start, this section totally killed the pacing for me. However, the other islands — Saria and Kythra — were balanced much better and far less tedious to explore, I thought, and the culminating journeys to Tartarus and back to Iolcus were rid of the lame messenger questing and finally provided the chance to get into a groove with the simple-but-fun combat. This gameplay shift in turn also finally allowed choices made developing Jason’s godly abilities to shine a little more. I do agree with your point on the slow charging time of the god powers though. It is ridiculous how little you are able to put them to use, especially since there are so many cool powers to choose from. I actually got so sick of waiting in between uses that I often just gave up on using them entirely.

I’m not nearly as down on the game’s look as you — saying the game’s style is ‘generic Ancient Greece’ is a bit harsh I think. Certain things like the foliage and random characters populating the environments do look lousy, but for the most part I think the graphics are excellent. Jason, his Argonauts and the other lead characters in the storyline were modeled with a lot of attention to detail, and the environments, while cramped by numerous invisible barriers from an exploration standpoint, are impressive to behold in terms of architecture and scale (the water effects are pretty too). I was also a big fan of much of the audio production. The voice acting is sporadic in quality overall, but the performance powering Jason’s character — the one that matters most — is superb. Tyler Bates’ score is exceptional as well. I’d buy the soundtrack if Codemasters or Liquid ever decided to put one together for commercial release.

Unfortunately, though, I can’t talk about the game’s presentational elements without touching on its many technical shortcomings. Rise of the Argonauts was clearly rushed out the door, as the game suffers from frequent bouts of slowdown, occasional crashes (maybe not uncommon on the PC side, but for console games crashes are very rare in my experience), and various other bugs like animation glitches and characters getting stuck on objects in the environment.

For me, this lack of polish is what disappoints the most, even when I knew to expect it with Codemasters launching the game on such short notice right before Christmas. But I really have to commend Liquid Entertainment for the ambitions the studio had for this title. Those ambitions didn’t materialize to their fullest potential in the final game, but even still the strong storyline, interesting deed system, decent combat and generally solid production values were enough to lift the game above its many flaws. If a patch ever comes along cleaning up the rough edges, I would possibly consider Rise of the Argonauts buy-worthy to anyone who enjoys Greek mythology and has the patience to endure occasional tedium — to my tastes it is certainly a more engaging experience than the likes of Fable II and other recent console action-RPGs. But unfortunately, as the game is now I can’t recommend anything more than a rental.

Matt-TryIt.jpg

Pros:
+ Compelling storyline; Jason’s strong performance carries the game
+ Fun, gory hack-n-slash combat
+ Unique dialogue and deed systems add a new twist
+ Solid graphics overall
+ Moving soundtrack

Cons:
– Very unpolished presentation
– Poor balance between narrative and action
– Abundant invisible walls constrict exploration
– God powers are essentially useless

Mike: I think that while there seems to be a chasm between us on some issues, on others we pretty well agree. And overall I don’t think we are that far apart – much of what you said reminds me of my own opinions of Dungeon Lords, where I could see and document the flaws and couldn’t strongly recommend it, yet found plenty of fun there for myself. I consider the ability to find the ‘silver lining’ in a highly criticized game one of the great thrills of gaming!

I never mentioned too much about the music or voice acting. Perhaps that is a good thing – it seems so often the only time I really notice voice acting is when it is incongruously bad (like in Fallout 3 and most Eastern European translated games). Jason is indeed the star of the show, and as you mentioned earlier Pan is a hoot as well. The rest never registered to me very much. And while the soundtrack was never annoying and generally pretty good, I can’t say that after the short game it left much of an impression – I’d certainly not put it up with recent stuff like The Witcher or Gothic 3 in terms of music.

One of the biggest things I struggled with, and a reason I am ultimately so hard on the game, is that it really has no idea what sort of game it is. It is paced like a story and character-driven RPG, but is constructed like a combat-focused action-RPG. As I mentioned, I don’t think it shines in either role … and games that excel in both areas are extremely rare (actually I can think of two – Divine Divinity and Gothic 1/2). And since the game is dominated by unskippable cutscenes and running back and forth, yet is less than a dozen hours long, it feels very much thin in content and padded for time, making it a very poor value in either case. I share your disappointment in how the ambitions of the game seemed to end up in a wood-chipper, but failed to be won over in any real way. For me it is a pretty clear and strong recommendation to skip this one.

Mike-SkipIt.jpg

Pros:
+ Nice graphics
+ Jason is nicely characterized
+ Solid use of mythology
+ Slicing & dicing enemies is FUN

Cons:
– Not enough slicing & dicing
– Too much dull, unskippable dialogue
– Too much backtracking
– Pacing is too slow

Game Info:
Platform: PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 (all versions were played for this review)
Publisher: Codemasters
Developer: Liquid Entertainment
Release Date: 12/16/08
Genre: Action-RPG
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1

About the Author

I have loved technology for as long as I can remember - and have been a computer gamer since the PDP-10! Mobile Technology has played a major role in my life - I have used an electronic companion since the HP95LX more than 20 years ago, and have been a 'Laptop First' person since my Compaq LTE Lite 3/20 and Powerbook 170 back in 1991! As an avid gamer and gadget-junkie I was constantly asked for my opinions on new technology, which led to writing small blurbs ... and eventually becoming a reviewer many years ago. My family is my biggest priority in life, and they alternate between loving and tolerating my gaming and gadget hobbies ... but ultimately benefits from the addition of technology to our lives!