Constantine and Shadow of Rome

It’s no coincidence that the most recent successful video games have been sequels: Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas on PS2, HALO II on XBox, Doom 3 and Half Life 2 on PC. Not only are they building on established audiences and the goodwill generated by the originals, but they signal another chapter in the story. The Sims series involves building an entire life around your character, similar to the video game staple role-playing genre, but without the magic swords and hit points. (Unless you’re playing Playboy: The Mansion.)

Hollywood flicks provide a ready-made platform for video games with plenty of backstory, particularly when based on comic book characters. Constantine, the new movie starring cardboard man Keanu Reeves is also a video game by the same folks that brought you The Punisher — the video game, not the movie. Both, of course, are based on dark, long-running cult comic book heroes.

In it, you play hip action hero and “mystic detective” John Constantine on a journey through hell to discover the source of recent heightened demon activity. Part of your time is spent traversing the hellish alter-dimension of Los Angeles, proving that L.A. is indeed hell on earth. Dispatching grody critters, the Keanu-clone voice-over delivers such deadpan bon mots as “see you in hell” in a style reminiscent of The Governator in his heyday — which shouldn’t be surprising given both have similar problems with diction and emoting.

Constantine is cheesy in an excellent-adventure-in-hell kind of way, but fortunately the D.C. Comics story is fairly rich and interesting. You move between the two planes by stepping into or touching water, and take down the misshapen evil souls with an array of weapons including the Holy Shotgun, Dragon’s Breath flamethrower, and the Crucifier, a sort of machine gun that shoots Martyr Nails (culled from the flesh of dead martyrs, natch!).

One of the game’s great joys, other than dispatching beasts in a hail of nails, or with a series of wicked spells, is the ease of play. No longer do you hit special buttons to jump, crouch, climb or otherwise navigate the screens. Constantine automatically acts appropriate to the obstacle you encounter. Freed of these cumbersome timing and button-tapping exercises, it’s easier to be sucked into the game, as the pace moves quickly between encounters. This kind of seamless involvement is a great new tactic in video games, and makes Constantine an effortlessly enjoyable time. It’s amazing how many Martyr Nails there are lying all over, but, ultimately, there are never enough. Which, surely, some bigoted Roman said at one time.

But, hey, every culture has its moment when it attacks its lowest, most vulnerable citizens and makes them scapegoats. (Hello, liberals.) Let us not look on Rome’s darker moment, but the moment when everything changed. Shadow of Rome is set in, of course, Rome at the time of Julius Caesar’s murder, and you split time between the characters of Agrippa, a Roman military leader, and Octavianus, Caesar’s nancy-boy nephew.

As Agrippa, you use a variety of moves to slay everything from barbarian hordes to oversized man-giants. The combat has an interesting feel abetted by your frequently failing weapons. The slow attack times (due to the weapons) and the ability to grapple or block assaults often turns battles into something akin to boxing, against the tougher foes. It’s a little difficult at first, like taffy, but warms up as you get going. Meanwhile, Octavianus sneaks about spying on the senators who killed Caesar and framed Agrippa’s father.

This separation of stealth and combat works well at first, and, indeed, the twin story lines contribute to the feeling that you’re participating in a movie. But with time, the stealth parts grow more annoying, and don’t feel as organic to the plot, leaving you anxiously craving action. Like Constantine, the story is a little too linear and inflexible, a lot like the environments, which aren’t particularly interactive.

While neither game quite achieves the ideal mixture of cinematic graphics, good game play, lots of action and deep, intriguing story, they do represent the diminishing line between passive movie fiction and movie-quality interactive game play — both move toward more immersive stories and environments (cue HDTV). Is virtual reality far behind?

Chris Parker is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]
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