In the olden days, magazines would have excite-o-meters. These scientific devices measured the hype differentials surrounding a game, and calibrated them against a range of anticipation parameters, correcting for PR spin. The strangest thing about Ryse? Microsoft has been pushing it pretty hard, but none of that marketing has ever really translated into a twitch on the needle of the excite-o-meter. Mis-communications and radical changes in direction have left us too confused to be excited.
With that in mind, Ryse is a pleasant surprise. One of its unexpected strengths, especially coming from Crytek, is that the story is genuinely entertaining. The campaign missions are profoundly linear trails through combat setpieces, but they're bookended with a great soap opera story of honour, gods, and vengeance. One thing I never expected from Ryse? To have to worry about spoilers in the review. Movie-grade acting performances make the heroes genuinely likeable, and the villains pantomime-despicable. The animation, too, while not managing to quite escape the uncanny valley, is unusually good - like a shiny-skinned Enslaved.
But, as good as that story is, it's the bread in an eight-tier combat sandwich. The filling is a simple, but genuinely fluid, system of sword attacks, and guard-breaking shield attacks. On the defensive side, block incoming attacks with A, with a dodge roll on B. Weaken a character, and an icon will appear above his head - the sign you can start an execution. It's a pretty simple system, and it doesn't deepen substantially as the game progresses. An uncharitable way to put it - Batman, without the gadgets. A less snarky way to put it - elegant, engrossing, and brutal.
Button mashing is possible, at least in the first few chapters of the game, but the benefits from timing your taps to get the perfect hit ranks are more than just from boosting damage. It puts you in the flow of the game, and ensures that a system that lacks wide variety doesn't wear out its welcome. The dodge roll, by the way, is a something of coward's way out. When you see an enemy preparing a heavy attack, you can still block it - you just have to time it perfectly.
The executions aren't just an excuse to be gruesome, although that's obviously part of it. There's a layer of resource management in there, too. There are four possible bonuses you can glean from an execution, selected any time - even mid-execution - with the D-Pad. They're one-to-four step colour-coded quick-time events, but wait! Come back! You can totally fail them, and you'll still bag the execution.
Your response times however, along with the difficulty level, will determine the bonus you get. Make a single mistake on Legendary difficulty, and you needn't have bothered. This can be frustrating, when the camera or the lighting disguises the blue or yellow glint. You will, however, begin to recognise the range of animations, and anticipate the colour prompts - and that's the only way you'll ever get the top-ranked executions, as the window for that is beyond human reaction times. It's QTEs at their best, then: training tools, rather than battle-resetting mini-games.
You can select your reward for a successful execution to one of four options. You can boost your damage, making chains of kills easier to land. You can heal yourself - extremely useful in a single player campaign without potions or equippable items. You can also use it to boost your focus gauge, giving you a chance to use your enemy-slowing Focus power more frequently. Finally, if you're feeling happy with all your other stats, just set it to boost your XP earned, and spend that on new executions and other boosts.