The road to Rome is a bit bumpy

The road to Rome is paved with the thunder of horse’s hooves in Race to Rome, a free-to-play chariot racing game from Shockwave and the Article 19 Group about a man seeking revenge against the Roman Emperor Caligula.

The game’s Roman revenge story, which echoes that of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator movie, focuses on a former Centurion named Marcus. The Emperor Caligula is not happy when Marcus decides to leave the army and return to his home on the island of Crete. As punishment, Caligula sends soldiers to invade Marcus’ home, assault his wife, and kidnap his son. Marcus sets off for Rome with vengeance on his mind.

Race to Rome

There’s a lot standing in Marcus’ way before he can reach Rome, however. Races… and lots of them. Some are formal races in stadiums lined with spectators – where the goal is either to finish first or defeat all of your opponents by whacking them enough times with your sword or javelin, while others are races against time on country roads after being ambushed by some of Caligula’s men.

The game is controlled with the keyboard: arrow keys steer the chariot, the spacebar gives the horses a short burst of speed, and the Shift key makes the cart drift around corners. In levels where Marcus has to ward off attackers, you can also use the Z and X keys to attack and defend.

Graphics are the game’s strong point. Although nothing special in the larger context of console and PC gaming, they’re pretty impressive for a Flash game – and 3D no less. At first there’s definitely something exciting about the races, as you weave and dodge around obstacles, fend off enemies by jabbing at them with your sword, and trying to collect sacks of gold that can be spent on upgrades to your equipment and horses. In the end, though, some rather severe control and gameplay issues prove to be the game’s unravelling.

The issue with the racing itself is that the level balancing just doesn’t seem all that sophisticated. There seems to be no consistency with computer-controlled opponents. You’ll pass them, clearly proving that you’re the faster chariot, only to see them pull ahead again with suspiciously artificial bursts of speed. In fact, all you have to do to win a level is stay behind everyone and then make sure to snag that last speed boost power-up to propel yourself into first place and across the finish line.

Race to Rome

The arrow keys used to steer are confusing in that Left and Right work normally when you’re moving forwards, but are reversed when you’re going backwards, which seems counter-intuitive. This even seemed to confuse the computer-controlled horses, since I witnessed them getting stuck between two obstacles, unable to get turned around.

The battle stages – where the goal is to defeat a certain number of opponents – absolutely fall flat. For some reason, these battles take place on the same type of track as the races do: ones configured as long, narrow circles. This makes no sense. Why not widen these levels into flat arenas where the horses have room to maneuver and flank each other? Instead, you inexplicable have to keep moving forward at all times in order to engage the enemies or they’ll simply leave you in the dust. Fighting, by the way, is no more sophisticated than simply button-mashing the attack button.

The game’s longish load times can be distracting as well, especially when combined with the incessant prompts to keep signing up for Shockwave between every level.

Race to Rome boasts better than average graphics, a lot of levels, and some fun equipment upgrades, but in the end the road to Rome proves to be a bumpy one.