Last month at E3, Microsoft and Wargaming.net announced World of Tanks: Xbox 360 Edition as the next free to play in development for Xbox Live Arcade. Both World of Tanks and Ascend: Hand of Kul (which also has a Windows Phone companion game in the works) are due out later this year. What we didn’t know is that another free to play game would actually be arriving much sooner.
Quietly announced a while back, Ubisoft and Kung Fu Factory's Spartacus Legends became available to download on the 360 last week. Free for all Xbox Gold members, Legends is basically a brutal one-on-one fighting game loosely based on the Starz TV series Spartacus. Usually when a publisher releases a game with so little fanfare, it indicates a lack of faith in the product. But Spartacus is actually fairly entertaining and visceral. Just be prepared for a bit of a grind.
Going in fresh
Playstation 3 version
You don’t need to be a fan of the Spartacus TV series in order to enjoy this game. In fact, fans might be disappointed at how little the two share in common. Players control Spartacus himself during the tutorial battle, but after that you’ll only encounter characters from the show as occasional boss battles. Other than a brief live-action introduction, there’s absolutely no story to speak of either.
The point of Legends is to recruit and manage a group of gladiators, working to keep them alive and profit as much from their victories as possible. Instead of playing as characters from the show or custom characters, you’ll hire and play as random fighters, each with their own fighting style, stats, and perks. You’ll eventually have a full team of fighters based around the seven unique fighting styles (swords, daggers, hammer, spear, etc.), though both the characters and the slots to keep them will cost silver or gold to unlock.
Life or death combat
The reason for that essential namelessness and lack of characterization? When these guys lose a fight, they might just die for good. Each battle has a deadliness rating that you can view before deciding to take it on. The higher the rating, the more likely that a loss will result in your gladiator’s demise. Each character does get one free revival upon dying. But after that, it will cost silver (soft currency) and soon gold (premium currency) in order to keep a downed warrior breathing.
These high stakes make it tough to become too invested in your fighters, but they also lend a sense of import to each battle. Your gladiator can kill his opponent too, as long as you raise your crowd favor rating high enough before the finishing blow. Do that by taunting, landing series of successful blows, or by using boost items.
With full crowd approval and a winning strike, you’ll be able to sever the opponent’s limb or perform a mildly gruesome Mortal Kombat-esque finishing move with the touch of a button. Those fatalities cost silver coins to equip, but you’ll never run short of silver so it hardly interferes with the fun.
Rated M for Mature
The actual Spartacus show features nasty violence and some naughty sexcapades, so you might expect the game to be a bit lewd as well. And you’d be right! Mostly that comes in the form of the announcer (who sounds terrible and repeats himself too much) dropping F-bombs randomly, as well as some rough but eh, kinda funny text in the loading screens. Topless ladies and nude statues appear in some backgrounds, but that’s the extent of the sexual content. The adult rating comes from the potty language and dismemberments more than anything.
The game map consists of several areas, each with its own random and fixed battles to choose from. Some fights require a certain fighting style to participate, locking them away until you buy the right fighter. As you win battles and earn silver coins for buying equipment, you’ll also gain Fame. Collect enough Fame to level up and earn a tiny quantity of premium gold. Leveling up unlocks better equipment for purchase, and certain level milestones will make higher level gladiators available for hire.
Unfortunately, the difficulty ramps up pretty quickly. The first two areas are a snap, but the third area carries a significant risk of death for your fighters. In the areas beyond that, death is guaranteed should you lose. Thus you’ll spend most of your time grinding the first three areas – probably hours – until you gain access to the equipment that your men need in order to survive higher ranked areas. If you’re not hooked, you’ll likely lose patience during that stretch of the game.
Spartacus’ monetization scheme does little to alleviate its difficulty spikes. Sure, the premium gold currency is essential for certain tasks such as unlocking more than five character slots or hiring high-stat warriors. But the equipment you can purchase with gold is only three levels beyond the stuff that sells for silver.
Early access to weapons and armor is helpful, but it’s not THAT much better than the stuff that unlocks at your current level. A weapon that costs the equivalent of almost $5 of gold might only do five points more damage, and you’d be able to buy that same tool for silver by leveling up three more times (a lengthy process) anyway. If I’m going to spend real money on an in-game item, I want it to absolutely dominate the competition, not barely keep up with overpowered opponents.
The In-App Purchase prices are sky high, as well. The minimum purchase amount if 400 Microsoft Points ($5), and then the next highest amount costs $20. It goes all the way up to $100! I know free to play games are relatively new to consoles, but nobody is going to want to pay $20 and above for relatively little benefit. Ubisoft would sell way more gold if the pricing tiers used increments of $2-5 rather than ludicrous amounts. Some players who might have made small IAPs could be driven to gain gold through exploits instead…
Playstation 3 version
Surprisingly, Legends offers just 12 Achievements, but they are at least worth a total of 400 GamerScore. Only two of the Achievements require a truly substantial time investment. One is for winning all of the Primus (boss) fights in the game. You’ll need a good array for warriors to overcome all the bosses, though knowing a handful of simple and effective combos also goes a long way.
The other long term Achievement comes for reaching Level 50. That takes an insane amount of grinding, but at least it’s not hard.
Spartacus Legends is a surprising game: surprising in that it appeared practically out of the blue (not unlike an Xbox Windows Phone game!) and because the core gameplay is pretty good, despite its low budget presentation. I’d rather this had been a regular $10 title with less grinding, but a lot more people will get to try it because it’s free. Even if you’re not the kind of player who sticks around for the long haul, there’s a decent chance that you’ll enjoy it for a couple of hours and be no less rich than when you started.
Spartacus Legends – Xbox 360 – 2 GB – Free (Gold membership required) – Xbox.com Store Link