One of several original games announced by LucasArts at E3, from RTX Red Rock to the returning classic Full Throttle II, we had the opportunity to play Gladius and speak with one of the game's developers. While playing the game on the show floor was a good chance to get a feel for the game, the real treat came later as a member of Gladius' development team gave us a rundown of the game's highlights.
Following an immensely destructive conflict between the northern barbarian lands of Nordagh and the Rome-like nation of Imperia, gladiatorial combat is the final remaining vestige of warfare left in the shaky peace throughout the realm. Assuming the role of either Ursula, the daughter of a great barbarian king in Nordagh, or Valens, the son of the greatest gladiator in all of Imperia, destined to follow in his father's footsteps, Gladius offers two distinct 36 hour storylines for each main character as they battle from arena to arena increasing the strength of their gladiator schools with each victory.
At a given point in both Ursula's and Valen's stories, they each leave the arena and enter a quest mode as a dark plot with sinister implications for the entire realm is slowly unveiled. A plot to revive the dark god defeated with the help of the powerful Valkyrie in the original war between Nordagh and Imperia is underway, and each gladiator must assume their fated role in the battle to prevent another bloody war and uncover the truth about the dark god. Also, while both Ursula's and Valen's plots are each unique, their paths converge as the story unravels, such that the same grand story arc is seen from different perspectives.
Regardless of which character you choose, Gladius' gameplay remains much the same, as your gladiator school is built up via a series of strategy RPG encounters. Moving from arena to arena, the more enemies you face, the more you can recruit into your school to help in subsequent battles. From fellow gladiators to vicious wolves, any opponent you face is a potential recruit if you can defeat them. In addition to boosting the size of your gladiator school, each member of your school can also gain experience so as to learn new skills and bolster their current abilities. In total, there are 16 distinct classes, including the combat heavy Imperial Legionnaire and the magic wielding Galdr Witch, to battle and recruit into your party, over 100 character types, hundreds of skills and abilities, and an enormous variety of equipment to deck your characters out with, from weapons and armor to miscellaneous accessories.
In combat the action is turn based, but a sense of uninterrupted momentum is maintained by the interesting movement model. Characters have free reign to move and attack within an area of light green, but should they continue moving into the dark green movement area, subsequent characters can begin their own movement and attack cycles, complicating things slightly and adding depth to strategy.
Once movement is complete, there are a few different modes of attack to choose from. The basic attack, while not terribly powerful, is the easiest to pull off. Next come the combo attacks; each character has a number of combos, each of which can hit multiple adjacent opponents. The power of each strike in the combo, as well as the number of successful hits, depends on an action meter that's triggered when you attack. To maximize damage, you need to time your attacks just right, and to maximize the number of hits, you need to hit the correct button combination. Wait too long to initiate a strike or hit the buttons out of sequence and the combo ends prematurely. There's also magical attacks, which tend to have area based damage. While these attacks can be quite powerful, their damage affects both friend and foe, so wiping out a group of enemies can cost you dearly if not planned properly. Finally, each main character has a 'power of the gods' meter that charges during combat. When the meter is full, the character can unleash their ultimate attack, such as an elemental fire based sword thrust for Valens which can slay a number of enemies in a row.
In the story mode, each victorious battle wins you certificates, as well as drawing you into the good graces of the Emperor. After winning enough certificates, new areas and arenas are opened up to you. In addition to the 20 unique arenas you can visit, winning special equipment and abilities at each in addition to certificates, there are also 12 other locations to do battle in. Also, on top of the story mode, there's an exhibition mode allowing you to travel the world map freely and enter combat outside of the main story's progression; you can even continue to advance your gladiator school in exhibition mode after completing the single player mode.
Fans of multiplayer aren't neglected either, as Gladius offers several different multiplayer modes. You can either play cooperatively against computer controlled opponents or face your gladiator school off against those of your friends. With as many as 16 characters in each battle, confrontations can either be fairly matched, with 8 to a side, or one team can be handicapped to offset a higher level of experience. While both the Xbox and GameCube versions of the game will allow four players to enter battle in either of the multiplayer modes, the Playstation 2 version will be limited to two.
Currently scheduled for release Spring 2003, Gladius still has a fair bit of development time ahead of it, as was evident by the 2D placeholder art for the arena spectators, for example. Even so, the game looks to be shaping up splendidly. Look for it to hit the Xbox, GameCube and PlayStation 2 early next year.