When I saw Crytek's Ryse: Son of Rome demonstrated during Microsoft's E3 press briefing, I was worried. The once Kinect and now controller-driven game, apart from being visually impressive thanks to an Xbox One upgrade, looked pretty generic. When I sat down to play it at an event later that night, I learned something that improved my outlook dramatically: Ryse has no block button.
It's still too early to tell whether or not Ryse's hack-and-shield-bash combat will hold up over the course of an entire game, but this one simple fact is enough to give me hope. Blocking is a passive thing in third-person action games. Whenever you get overwhelmed, you block, then perhaps rolling or jumping to a better position. Really good action games let you be more proactive, give you a counterattack or some other mechanic that tests your reflexes and keeps you on your toes. Ryse's Roman soldier may carry a hefty shield, but he doesn't spend much time hiding behind it in combat.
Instead, Ryse depends on a parry button, which automatically deflects incoming attacks when pressed with the appropriate timing. That gives it a rhythm similar to the Batman Arkham series, allowing you to land a few attacks, parry an incoming strike and then land a few more.
Adding to this is the execution system which, again, initially had me worried. Executions are short quick-time events that let you finish off enemies in bloody, brutal ways. Take, for example, the maneuver that has you ramming a sword through a barbarian's chest and then lifting him over your head and smashing him into the ground – sort of like the world's most disgusting body slam. QTE finishing moves are nothing new for action games, but Crytek is trying to do something a little different by tying them directly into Ryse's progression system.
Players unlock new execution moves throughout the game, and each one provides a different in-game boost or benefit. Successfully completing an execution might restore a few points of health, for example. You aren't always in direct control of which execution will be triggered, though certain tiers of executions are more likely to be triggered in specific situations. Some of these are context sensitive – based on the direction you approach an enemy, or where they are in relation to the environment – while others are based on how high your combo count is.
Each unlocked execution always uses the same button prompts, so players can learn to recognize their animations and anticipate the correct inputs. That's good, because the prompts come and go very quickly, and it's easy to fail an execution (I failed nearly all of mine during my brief session). Even if you do fail, however, your character will still perform an execution. It just won't be as impressive and won't give you the related reward.
The few minutes I played weren't enough to gauge whether or not the progression system will be enough to keep executions from getting stale – these are still QTEs, after all – but it is at least more interesting than scripted, unchanging finishers. The usual reward for QTEs is simply the pleasure of watching them, but tying them to specific rewards makes them more meaningful. Combined with the proactive parry system, Ryse could be more complex than it appears at first blush.