Nice shorts, Spartacus.
Set during the height of the Roman Empire, Circus Maximus is a unique mixture of combat and chariot racing. You compete against champions spanning the furthest reaches of the Empire to prove that none exceed you at whipping horses into a lather and bludgeoning people who don't signal their turns.
Players race a somewhat piddling three opponents around Britain, Cyprus, Egypt, and other Roman stomping grounds while, poking, prodding, and clobbering their enemies as they plunge along toward power-ups and, eventually, the finish line. That's about it. Simple, straightforward and actually fun at times.
No matter which game mode you play in, you must select your own chariot, horse, fighter and driver. The chariots come in several styles loosely based on the various cultures enmeshed within the Roman Empire. Despite slight variances in handling, they all move rather well. They even take damage, so don't be surprised when you're moving along at a fair clip and a wheel falls off. This actually adds quite a bit of fun to the game and it takes skill and luck to hold on until you reach the next power up.
The selection of horses is nothing to write home about, a mixture of stallions and field plugs with a zebra thrown in for good measure. The driver selection is just gratuitous as there are no noticeable differences in performance - drivers can't even defend themselves, and you're never really looking at your driver anyway.
The real dilemma facing players lies in which fighter they will choose, because the fighters carry unique weapons. They can also taunt their opponents to slow them down and then whoop on them when they draw alongside. Some of the taunts are hilarious and add personality to the game.
It never fails, though. Your fighter will reach an operatic crescendo of smack-talking when your chariot suddenly careens out of control; the next thing you know, you're watching helplessly as your driver, fighter and both horses are flying off in separate directions. This is a frequent occurrence, but instead of being a frustrating nuisance, it really gives the game its character and makes it fun. The other drivers are generally traveling at only a moderate pace and it's no problem to overtake them within a half lap. Besides, it's Circus Maximus. Ancient Romans weren't interested in seeing a bunch of guys riding around in circles without incident, and you'll have to keep that in mind as you're playing the game.
Taking out an opponent chariot either with your fighter or by running them into walls and over the sides of steep mountain roads can be a lot of fun. The game is very reminiscent of Road Rash and other games like it which thrive on the chaos factor.
In single player modes, you control both driver and fighter. You can do this simultaneously (which is just as awkward as it sounds) or you can switch between driver and fighter, in which case the computer controls whichever character you aren't. The problem with this is the A.I. which, as far as Circus Maximus is concerned, might as well stand for "Ain't Intelligent."
I've never seen the computer-controlled fighter do more than turn to face an opponent and stand there mutely while being pummeled through the floor of their chariot. The computer-controlled driver is slow and has apparently never heard the phrase "evasive action." They will drive you into the thick of combat and keep you in it, plodding along at a moderate pace even when having their head tapped by a heavy metal object.
The control is uncomfortable and awkward. Most of this stems from the fact that you must hold down the A button if you want to achieve or maintain any decent speed. Considering that there is already a button for whipping your horse and the fact that you are indeed racing horses and not cars, you might find yourself wondering how and why the ancients outfitted their equine beasts with accelerators. Leaning, which can be a great aid in steering, is achieved via the right analog stick, which can be hard to reach in a time of need, especially since your standard Xbox controller is just slightly smaller than the state of Alaska.
In multiplayer, players can compete head-to-head or team up cooperatively. Unfortunately, you'll only be competing against one other chariot, which is lame as all get out. This sucks because co-op is pretty fun under the right...ahem, conditions. Nectar of the gods, anyone?
Circus Maximus looks okay. The tracks are long and expansive with plenty of multiple routes to keep things interesting. While the textures are smooth and detailed (though a bit fuzzy), there are plenty of moments when the graphics fail. Tricks of light and shadow can make a dead-end or the edge of a cliff appear to be part of the road or at least a viable off-road alternative, which can have some rather disappointing results.
Unfortunately, they have opted for color over realism. This is not a good thing, as it gives the game a cartoony look and can make it difficult to tell the difference between a dirt road and, say, that mud embankment up ahead.
At least sound is used effectively. Horses, for example, sound like horses. You never once get the feeling you're being followed by a guy with a couple of coconut shells. Even the music is good - it's atmospheric and appropriate and never becomes irritating or oppressive.
But in the end, we're talking about a pretty short game. Seven different tracks forwards and backwards just doesn't cut it and leaves little reason to play through the single player beyond unlocking the few hidden chariot teams. What Circus Maximus does offer is silly and fun, but there's not much to it. Still, the game can definitely murder an evening or two and makes a decent rental for those of us who prefer a little carnage over speed.