In Ancient Rome, the only Xs should be on the sundials. So goes the thinking behind the revised combat system in gladiatorial action game Ryse, one of Microsoft's four launch exclusives for Xbox One and the one which received the weakest reception at E3 thanks to a demo that looked spectacular but switched to QTEs for close-up combat.
This was a mistake, the game's Creative Director PJ Esteves admits. "We went to all this effort to give every attacker facial reactions when they your attack - but nobody noticed because they were just looking at the button prompt over their head. The artists were pretty unhappy about that."
The build we play now, in Microsoft's Cologne office, contains the full combat system and not a lot else - it's a stone circle on the edge of a cliff in the middle of nowhere. But its endless supply of axe-wielding Picts is enough to show that Ryse's combat is not the simple press-X-to-win affair that some had suspected.
The basics are straightforward, if a little unusual compared to many combat systems. A is block, X is attack, Y pushes enemies back with the shield. Whittle an enemy's health down enough and a skull icon will appear over their head to indicate you can use an execution move, which is mapped to B. But within these basic rules is series of cues and systems that have to be perfected to get the best results and the best rewards.
Enemies attack in groups and aim to surround you, as in Assassin's Creed. Unlike in Assassin's Creed, they won't helpfully wait until you've killed somebody before stepping up to remonstrate with you: you'll be lucky to get a couple of blows on anybody before a friend steps up to bury an axe in your spine. Mapping the block to A quickly starts to make sense.
It's a bad move to stay surrounded and a few hits from enemies will rapidly drain health, and while a swift roll can buy time it's better to reduce the numbers. It's possible to beat somebody down just through sheer persistence, but the executions are the swifter and more rewarding option.
Rather than relying on QTEs over a canned animation routine, the game uses a series of different cues over an attack, most notably spikes in the pounding orchestral soundtrack and coloured outlines around the enemy to show which button to press - yellow for Y and blue for X. Get the timing spot on - which we only managed once - and you'll be rewarded with a spectacular execution move and a hefty boost to your stats.
"The problem with the big X icon was that we spent all this time on facial animation, and you looked above his head," says Senior Producer Brian Chalmers. "With the slight outline above, and us putting the emphasis on the audio and stuff, you're reading all those things, you look at his whole body. And that way it's more of a reward." It may also use Xbox One's new rumble-equipped triggers, he says - the team is experimenting with gradually building up the rumble effect so you can time your blow when it peaks, although it's not sure if that'll make it into the final game.
Munching through a few waves of enemies shows that this does offer a decent range of approaches. Managing basic "recruit"-level executions is straightforward; block the incoming attacks, land a few blows until the skull icon appears, and muddle through the colour prompts and you'll remove them from the fight. The better option, though, is to identify a more effective attack combo for the enemy type which will give a red execution icon. Manage this and you get a better result, and get the audio and colour timing spot-on and you'll manage a top-drawer "legendary" execution.