Review by: Mike Laidlaw
Published: March 12, 2002
As history tells us, the later days of the Roman Empire were notable for extremely bloody sports, and judging by the blockbuster success of Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator,” we’re just as fascinated by this kind of activity as the Romans. Luckily, advances like the microprocessor allow us to discolor our hands without getting them bloody and slake our thirst for violence in the comfort of our own living rooms. Handily preparing us for just such a pastime, Circus Maximus has arrived for the Xbox, looking to put a decidedly Old World spin on the racing genre.
Unlike modern titles, where car models and weight distribution ratios are vital statistics, racing a Roman war chariot requires only a steady sense of balance and a careful command of the two horses pulling you to victory. The thing about horses, as compared to engines, is that they’re living creatures with a will of their own and a disturbing tendency to be fatigued if you run them into the ground. As the driver, you’ll have to keep a careful reign on their enthusiasm through the use of the pace bar. Stretching across the top of the screen, this bar measures your encouragement of the horses with a large green area in which they may run indefinitely and a much smaller and less forgiving yellow and red zone. Obviously, pushing the horses can be necessary, especially in the last stretch of a race where such encouragement can win you the trophy. If you shove too hard, though, the exhausted horses will eventually crawl to a stop and rest themselves while you scream futilely at them to get moving.
Even if you manage to master the fine art of pace control, a chariot driver has other responsibilities to attend to as well. While some rudimentary suspension was in place during chariot races, the relative lightness of these vehicles meant they could tip up on one wheel, or over entirely, with ease. In order to counter this effect, fast corners must be taken with a lean so as to keep the vehicles balance opposed to its inertia, and this task is accomplished by manipulating the right stick for balance while using a combination of the left stick to steer and either of the rear triggers to make your turns particularly tight. Beyond these controls, a charioteer must also have an extremely fine awareness of his surroundings, since there will be moments when your chariot will pass under a low obstacle, requiring the quick reflexes to duck a branch or other obstruction. Similarly, some situations will send your chariot off balance as you crest a stubborn tree root and so forth. These moments are tense and must be handled most carefully if you wish to survive the next few seconds.
Skillful driving will help you place first in the races in Circus Maximus, but in order to make it that far you’ll need to hone your chariot into a fine war machine as well. Each driver is accompanied with an able warrior who both defends the team and does his best to take down the other charioteers and warriors as well. The warrior also plays a role in the chariot’s handling, since they have the freedom to lean much further into the turn. With enough of a lean, the warrior can easily keep chariots that would otherwise fly off the track firmly on the ground.