Monday, 1 April 2013

Review: Circus Maximus: Chariot Wars (Sony PlayStation 2)

Game: Circus Maximus: Chariot Wars
Format reviewed: Sony PlayStation 2
Developed by: Kodiak
Year of original release: 2002
Also available on: Xbox
Available now on: Nothing!

Looking back through some of my past gaming purchases, I often find myself thinking one thing - what the hell was going through my head when I bought that? Yes, there are some games that I appear to have actually gone to the trouble of purchasing that simply baffle me. They aren't necessarily bad games, or really that obscure, but they are most certainly a little odd. For some reason, a lot of these games seem to be on the PlayStation 2 but I believe that was more down to my buying habits at the time and not the PlayStation 2 hosting a disproportionate number of questionable games.

One of these such games was Circus Maximus: Chariot Wars, a chariot racing game released for the PlayStation 2 (and also the Xbox) back in 2001/2002. Yes, chariot racing, that most famous of gaming genres. The game was basically what you get when you cross Gran Turismo with Road Rash with Ancient Rome. But, before I get onto looking at the game, I feel that I need to try to figure out exactly what it was that inspired me to pick it up from a shelf, take it to a cashier and hand over money in exchange for it.

When I was younger, I was probably a bit too sensible when deciding what games to own, especially when it came to console games which were even more expensive back then than they are now. This may be because I would only really get games for birthdays and Christmas, and they were being bought for me rather than by me. So, instead of making up my own mind about what games to go for, I was nearly always influenced by reviews in gaming magazines and would usually only choose games that got a rating of over 90%. Sometimes this was combined with a positive portrayal of the game on video games shows such as Gamesmaster, Bad Influence and Games World, or even Movies, Games and Videos. In theory, this would mean that I would never own a dud game. For this reason, most of the games I owned during the 1990s were popular, mainstream games. They're also worth crap all now due to them being so common.

As I got older, something changed. At the beginning of the century, I was in my early twenties. I had a job, my own money, no major financial outgoings, and, more importantly, my own mind - which wasn't necessarily a good thing. I no longer read magazines and took the advice of journalists to tell me what I should play. I think, in a way, some of the "mega games" I played as a youngster actually disappointed me, and I found that some of the lower rated games that I sometimes rented were actually more fun. They probably had some irritating flaws which prevented them from becoming all-time classics, but they still had their own charm and appeal. And so, the older me would buy games and sometimes consoles spontaneously. I would go off my gut instinct rather than off the instruction of the apparent greater knowledge of a gaming journalist. And my gaming collection became a lot more varied and interesting. I will get to my review of Circus Maximus in a bit, but I'll reminisce about something vaguely related to demonstrate what I'm going on about for a bit first.

Back in the summer of 2000, I purchased a Dreamcast after seeing it demonstrated on a shopping channel late at night, not really knowing much about how well regarded it was by the gaming press at the time. The TV channel sold it to me so well that I wanted one straight away. So the following day, I went to Comet and picked one up. I suppose I should have bought it off the TV as a way of repaying their impressive efforts to persuade me to get one, but that would have meant waiting for it to be delivered. It came with Chu Chu Rocket, which I've played once - I never really understood what was going on in that game - and I picked up Crazy Taxi (the game demonstrated by the shopping channel that convinced me that I needed it) and Worms Armageddon to start off my Dreamcast collection. Later games that found a home in my collection were Fur Fighters, Resident Evil: Code Veronica, Virtua Tennis, Jet Set Radio, Rayman 2, Metropolis Street Racer, Who Wants to be a Millionaire? and Chicken Run. All were games which I enjoyed immensely, but they were games which I bought by just picking them off the shelves in shops rather than knowing much about them in advance. Some are nowadays quite rightly regarded as classics, others not quite so (Chicken Run??). Still, I quite like my small but varied Dreamcast collection. And it was my first gaming collection that was put together without much influence from so-called experts; I suppose I picked some games based on their chart positions, explaining why there were some highly acclaimed games in my collection, but that was probably the only factor other than instinct which influenced my purchasing decisions.

A few years later, I saw a bit of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City on TV, and decided there and then that I wanted it. Problem was, I didn't have anything to play it on. The day after a works Christmas party in January 2003 (our Christmas parties was always held after Christmas), a little worse for wear and probably still a bit drunk, I ventured up to Game and bought myself a PlayStation 2 and GTA: Vice City. Once again, this was a spontaneous decision that I made just because I felt like it. Over the years that followed, my PS2 collection gradually grew. But, like my Dreamcast collection, it grew with games that I bought with no prior influence or plan. Quite often, I would just look out for games on offer when I happened to be in a shop selling them. Shopping in Tesco late at night was great. By now it was open 24 hours. I worked in a pub and restaurant, and would stop off at Tesco on my way home looking for something for tea. And to prevent myself from going to bed on a full stomach, I would sometimes pick up a new game to play. Some weren't great, but there were some hidden gems amongst my collection. Giants: Citizens Kabuto was one. They also had a great choice of retro game compilations which is one of the PlayStation 2's strengths (that's one of the downsides of online game stores - retro games have gone up in price! That's another topic for another day though). But, the strangest purchase I made was Circus Maximus: Chariot Wars. See! I knew I'd get back to that game eventually! Rather than buying this in the middle of the night at Tesco, I bought the game from HMV one afternoon where they had an offer of two games for £20 or something like it. The other game I bought was Dynasty Warriors 2, which was another refreshingly good game, but not particularly well known. Neither game initially jumped out at me, nor were they promoted in any special way. I just felt like buying something different to what I would usually play. I don't even think I spent much time making a decision. I suppose I just thought, it's only £20, what have I got to lose? So, I picked up the two games, went to the counter and bought them. And later that day, I experienced my very first virtual chariot race.

So, after that over-long introduction to Circus Maximus: Chariot Wars, my review of the game had better be good.
Rule Britannia!

As you'd expect in any self-respecting chariot racing game, the aim of the game in Circus Maximus: Chariot Wars is to race chariots. Races take place on courses spread across the Roman Empire, from the green and pleasant lands of Britannia, to the dry sandy deserts of Alexandria. The Romans are meant to have built long straight roads, but I don't suppose that would make much of an exciting game, so the roads in this game are more varied with bumps, turns, adverse cambers and changing terrains. Even water. Wow!

Options! Options! Get your options here!
There are a couple of modes available in this game: arcade mode and tournament mode. Arcade mode allows you to have a quick(ish) race on whichever course you choose, whereas in tournament mode, you play them all in order, providing you win your races. Not all courses are initially available in arcade mode, with these needing to be unlocked through tournament play. Whichever mode you choose, you next have to pick your chariot, a rider and a fighter. Who needs Gran Turismo when this level of customisation is available to you? Chariots, riders and fighters are representative of geographical regions, such as Rome, Greece or Africa.

Choosing a vehicle, rider and fighter. It's a bit like picking out an outfit for work.

Once you've chosen your game mode, your vehicle, rider, fighter and somewhere to race, the fun begins. The handling of the chariots is done quite impressively in this game with them controlling quite realistically. Turn too fast or take a bump at an awkward angle, and your chariot topples over. But, it's possible to attempt to prevent a topple by some skilful manoeuvring. Chariots are pulled by horses, so a bit a whipping will get your nag to speed up if you need a boost. Adding more variety is the fact the you sometimes need to duck to avoid low level obstacles - gates, bridges, and so on. There are also short cuts to be found, which can save quite a bit of time on your journey. The game isn't just about racing chariots though. Oh no, you also get to beat up your opposition. Holding on for dear life at the back of your chariot is your fighter. He or she will attack the fighter in competing chariots. This isn't automatic though. You have to do the fighting. Defeat your competitor and this will force their chariot off the road for a moment or two. But the same will happen to you if you get defeated. Scattered around the levels are power ups which offer extra speed, energy replenishments, extra strength and so on.

Beautiful! Absolutely beautiful! A quaint British road of old.

Phwoar! Boobies!
The graphics on offer are fairly good. The detail of the chariots and characters is good, although the scenery isn't fantastic. As each course differs though, there is quite a bit of variety on offer. Sound is not bad either. The clip-clop of hooves and wheels on the gravelly roads dominates, while there is Roman sounding music tinkling away in the background which doesn't always sound too suited to a racing game but obviously suits its historical theme. A nice touch is the ability to taunt other racers. This basically makes your fighter shout abuse at opponents or say something about his or her greatness.

Whoops! This isn't going to end well.
As already pointed out, the game controls well and the novel vehicle choice means it feels substantially different to other arcade-style racers. It is fun to ride the chariots through the various courses, and having to control fighters too doesn't distract too much, although you do have to keep your eyes peeled on the road ahead. Unlike games like Road Rash, where fighting was a selling point of the game, but wasn't actually necessary to do well, you have no choice but to get involved in fights in this game as opponents are eager to attack you. Like many racing games, fall behind and it's fairly easy to catch up, but you don't often get the chance to get too far ahead as your competitors also seem to find it easy to catch up. It's all about rubber band AI or something, but it doesn't feel that well done in this game. It's also all too easy to fall off tracks or collide into walls or obstacles so it sometimes feels a bit stop-start, but that will largely be down to the fact I haven't played the game for years. I'm sure with practice, it's easy to get around the tracks without too many restarts.
A good old Roman age snarl up.

This isn't the sort of game that will keep you enthralled for a while, but it is one that you'll come back to for a fun and unique race numerous times. At least, that's what I found myself doing several years ago. It is one of those games that gets forgotten about though over time, but is a pleasant find to rediscover in your collection. If you're looking for a fun non-pretentious racing game that doesn't take itself too seriously, then look out for this. It's very odd, quite unique, but nowhere near as bad as its poor reception over ten years ago probably suggests it was.

Presentation: 60%
Functional menu screens with pre-game intros but not a lot else.
Graphics: 80%
Good detail on characters and chariots, but bland scenery in places and sometimes a bit dull
Sound: 75%
Music is drowned out by horse and chariot noises, taunts are quite funny but not always audible.
Playability: 80%
Fun to pick up and play but unlikely to hold your attention for long. A good game to come to for a quick time filler.
Overall: 77%
Unique but surprisingly fun

Footage of me playing the game available on our YouTube channel, or below!

Once again, I took too many screenshots. Here are some left overs.

Woah!! Hold your horses! We're going over!

Take that!

Welcome to Cyprus. Please don't empty our banks.

Controls aplenty


1 comment:

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