The Gladiators: Galactic Circus Games


Developer:    Eugen Systems

Publisher:    Arxel Tribe

Released:   2003

PC Requirements:    Win 98/2000/ME/XP, Pentium II 300 MHz, 128 MB RAM, 16 MB 3D Graphics card.




by Singer

The black hole… what IS this strange phenomenon that won’t allow even LIGHT to escape its grasp?

If you believe the scientists, you’ll claim it’s concentrated mass from a collapsed star, with a gravitational pull so strong it would rip a person to shreds mere seconds after event horizon.  But the rest of us know the scientists have no proof, and we want to know for SURE!!

Fortunately, a small French team called Eugen Systems have brought us their own unique, daring vision of black holes, and what’s on the “other side”….  it’s a really corny, comic book, sci-fi gladiator deathmatch!!  Woo hoo!!!  Now we’re TALKIN’!!! 

Yes, I’m referring to an unheralded, but extremely quirky little game called The Gladiators: Galactic Circus Games.  Brought to us by Arxel Tribes, a publisher known better for its lineup of successful adventure games, Gladiators is a tactical combat game that’s equal parts RTS (real time strategy) and arcade mayhem.  At no point does the game take itself too seriously, which is always a refreshing change from the sombre offerings in many RTS titles.  Instead, Eugen has single-mindedly opted for intense action and B-movie fun.  It may not be everyone’s cup of Jolt, but it deserves to be taste-tested at the very least.

The game opens with an outrageously campy backstory presented in hand drawn stills that would do Marvel proud.  The dialogue is a patchwork of every genre cliché imaginable, the voice acting is completely over the top, and the story itself is so cheesy it should be served on crackers.  In other words, it’s a hoot!! 

Former Marine Greg Callahan, a loose cannon, is called upon to pilot a shuttle into a black hole on a top secret (even from us) mission.  Predictably, everything goes haywire for Callahan and his crew, and before long he is captured by a hulking robotic General Maximix (no relation to Maximus, presumably), imprisoned, and sentenced to death on planet Myridia.  Purely by fortunate coincidence, Myridia is in need of a new (don’t say Roman) Emperor, and the former Emperor’s daughter (Princess Lydia of Myridia) just happens to be a blue-skinned knockout that enlists Callahan to be her “champion” in a gladiatorial Deathbowl challenge to determine the new ruler.  Yep, I realize the complexities of this drama are little overwhelming, but hopefully you were able to keep up. 

As you first take control, you are thrust in the role of Callahan, and dropped into a giant stadium for a series of  “to the death” scenarios against Maximix and a demonic figure named Fargass.  This is serious business for you, but the source of wild and bloody entertainment for thousands of local citizens in attendance at these “Circus Games”.  Your events are announced by the Deathbowl host and greeted with loud cheers whenever significant deeds are performed. 

These gladiator matches are not one-on-one encounters, but a series of squad battles.  Each side has a limited sized force comprised of a small number of different unit types, so gameplay is all about best utilizing your troops as a team.  Although called an RTS game, there is very little of Gladiators that resembles a conventional RTS, so it’s misleading to call it one.  There is no base building, no tech tree, no standard resource-gathering, and a largely linear path to success.  Really this is a game about tactics over strategy; closer in design to Commandos than Command and Conquer. 

The mission objectives can vary, although really all of them come down to one thing – survival.  Some goals will include defending a position for a defined period, while others require you to advance and capture defended outposts.  Many missions will expect you to do some of both, as objectives change periodically. 

The feature that sets Gladiators apart from other games of this type (not that there are many), is the use of power-ups scattered throughout the maps (at pre-determined points, not randomly).  Power-up bonuses consist of such things as health, speed, or attack boosts, or can even provide instant “reinforcements”.  In addition to the bonuses, however, are Joker Cards that can either be spent on creating new troops at centralized spawn points (once captured), or be allotted to any power-ups you’ve accumulated during the mission.  This element doesn’t add a heavy layer of strategic complexity to the game, but it does require some decision making, which is always welcome.  For the most part, the periodic spawn points work well, because it keeps the troop sizes manageable.  Weighing acceptable losses when you’re nowhere near a spawn point is one of the factors any player must take into consideration. 

The maps are quite large, and each mission takes a great while to complete, even without replaying sections, which will occur a LOT.  There are no difficulty options, and let the record show – this game can be HARD!  On more than one occasion, even I felt ready to throw in the towel.  To the game’s credit, however, despite the difficulty, each battle felt possible, so even after quitting in disgust, I felt that intangible desire to try it “one more time!!”  And in fact, with a little perseverance and experimenting, I was eventually able to overcome.   

There are three separate campaigns in Gladiators.  You must begin with Callahan’s campaign, but in time you will unlock campaigns for Maximix and Fargass as well, so there is equal opportunity to play each.  It’s not required to FINISH each campaign before proceeding to the next, but you must complete the first several missions before unlocking the next.  I’ve never been a fan of “locked” features in games, but it’s so common it’s almost not worth complaining about it anymore.  Still, I’d have preferred the complete option from the beginning, or at least have the choice to play Maximix or Fargass after Callahan’s early missions.

Troop types are limited, but well balanced.  The human army contains rifle troops, artillery, stealth scouts, tanks, and attack helicopters, which match nicely against Maximix’s laser-firing robots and the magic-wielding melee creatures belonging to Fargass. 

Several important keys to success in Gladiators are line-of-sight and elevation.  Unlike most strategy games, there is no fog of war covering the unexplored map.  In Gladiators, you can scroll the entire map to see layout, and even the available power-ups.  The only thing you can’t see is the enemy, and that is where line-of-sight factors in.  As the player, you won’t be able to see enemy units until your troops do.  Unfortunately, not only did it seem unnatural to have enemy troops suddenly appear out of nowhere, but some of my guys must have been darn near blind, so this didn’t always work as it should.  On many occasions, I found myself getting pelted by “hidden” enemy fire, even though my troops were standing WELL within what should have been an appropriate distance.   The game’s flora also factors into line-of-sight, as it’s possible to hide in ambush until the enemy is practically upon you.  Once again, though, not only were my troops pathetic at “seeing” concealed units no matter how close, it was hard even for ME to see them, and therefore target them for attack.  I learned to really HATE long grass.

Something that improves both line-of-sight and fighting ability is having an elevation advantage.  Whether from natural sources like hills, to the many towers, buildings and bunkers, troops gain a significant boost from higher ground, so it’s important to use this to your advantage.  Needless to say, the opposing sides are familiar with this, as well, so you’re guaranteed to find any structures you encounter already occupied and shooting first.

Regrettably, many times my troops would inexplicably LEAVE an elevated area, presumably to chase an enemy who had left its range.  As this often required descending long staircases, the pursuit made for a fun little duck shoot for the enemies.  Although overall the game’s AI was solid, it really failed in these instances, and made me prefer to defend from the ground whenever possible to avoid this frustration.  Occasionally, however, even on the ground, some of my troops with distance weapons would prefer to walk right up to the enemy before engaging. Since there really is little else to Gladiators besides these skirmishes, these failings should have been addressed before release. 

The graphics in Gladiators are excellent.  The terrain ranges from desert to ice to tropical, and everything is colourful and vivid, of which we don’t see nearly enough in games.  Units and buildings were modeled nicely, animations were smooth, battle effects were impressive, and everything maintained its “comic book” feel throughout, which helped counter the intense action with a certain playfulness.   I appreciated the contrast.

Unfortunately, the cutscenes between each mission are fairly poor.  They frequently stuttered although my system easily exceeded even the recommended specs.  Unlike the opening, which used still drawings, the cutscenes are animated, but the characters’ mouths don’t move, which I found distracting.  I’d have preferred one artistic style or the other, rather than an awkward mishmash of both. 

Sounds in the game are well done, again from the perspective of B-movie quality, of course.  In a serious game, I’d be criticizing the voice acting for being completely unconvincing.  In Gladiators, that’s the point.  During gameplay, units provide different vocal acknowledgements that are quite humourous – from the dorky “Yippeekayay” of the human infantry to the gloating “Too easy” of Maximix himself, you can’t help but get a kick out of hearing from your troops.  I only wish there were more selection, since they did get repetitive after a while, but I’ve yet to play an RTS with enough variety of unit response.

Music in the game is a nicely varied soundtrack, from subtle tunes during periods of exploration to a harder driving upbeat score in the heat of battle.  It added to the overall game atmosphere without being intrusive, which I appreciated.  Other sound effects were solid, though unspectacular.

Perhaps my biggest complaints about Gladiators relate to the interface, and the camera angle in particular.  As a 3D game, the camera can be scrolled all over the map, rotated, and zoomed in and out.  The camera movement was silky smooth, and everything looked terrific.  However the zoom in feature, while nice on the rare occasion, was next to useless on a practical level, and even worse, the camera never zoomed OUT far enough to be comfortable.  There simply was never enough of the map showing for adequate strategic maneuvering, particularly when trying to control airborne units.  This was an endless source of annoyance, as it was constantly necessary to scroll around the map.   The game’s mini-map was functional, but given the linear nature of the game and line-of-sight limitations, it served little purpose.

A further complication was unit selection.  Although friendly units are selected and grouped by traditional RTS methods, it is difficult to focus on smaller groups or individuals, as units tend to bunch together.  It is also impossible to select enemy units to check on health status.  Instead, hovering the cursor over an enemy unit momentarily will bring up the unit stats, but in frenetic battles, this simply couldn’t be done.  The biggest drawback, however, is that although units do a good job of engaging the enemy without being micro-managed (outside of the failures mentioned previously), they showed no ability to target common enemies, so you’ll want to quickly jump in and cause your troops to collectively focus on one unit at a time, and be unable to do so effectively.  Indeed, once battles begin, there is really very little to do but sit and watch (they’re over quickly),  and hope for a favourable outcome.  I realize this is an inevitable tradeoff for the faster paced action sequences, but the fact that it was necessary doesn’t make it enjoyable.

For some reason, the game keeps “score” for you with a running tally onscreen, and at the end of each mission, you’re provided with an overall grade.  Obviously this was an attempt to encourage replay, but to me it seemed silly.  The goal of gladiatorial combat is to be the last one standing, plain and simple, and players should feel rewarded for particularly hard-fought wins, not criticized with a (potentially) poor “mark”. 

One of the factors that affects the grade is the elapsed time of each mission.  Yes, there is a continually running clock visible, as well.  As units all heal themselves gradually over time, it’s occasionally prudent to take time before initiating the next battle.  Of course, this will lower your score, and could ultimately cost you the mission, since apparently each scenario has an overall time limit (not being the patient sort, I didn’t encounter this feature, myself). 

Thankfully, Gladiators allows for saving anywhere, and a quicksave feature makes things even easier.  A word of caution, however, is to NOT rely solely on the quicksave, as you could inadvertently do so just prior to an overwhelming attack.  The load and save times are a little longer than I’d prefer, but nothing that had me howling in protest.

I experienced only (only??) two crashes with Gladiators, both of which came as I attempted to save.  While annoying, I was pleased to find out that my data HAD been captured in a “panic” save slot.  I’m not sure why or how that feature was implemented, but it sure came in handy on those occasions.  During gameplay, the only other problem I encountered besides the AI inconsistencies was the occasional scripted event which did not trigger properly.  In one instance, I was to defend my position against an onslaught that never came.  Only when I ventured out to initiate contact did the enemy engage me.  It’s no problem in the long run, but it was a short-term waste of time for me (never a good thing). 

Gladiators’ multiplayer component include eight maps available for Assault, Capture the Flag, Deathbowl and Gladiator modes, by LAN or internet.  It is also possible for up to four players to cooperatively play the single player missions.  While these might be fun, it once again seems like too little to entice players to stick to it for long.

There’s no denying that The Gladiators: Galactic Circus Games is a worthy addition to the sub-genre I would call RTT (real time tactical) games.  Its fast action, arcade influence, and campy fun make for a nice change of pace from other offerings, and that alone makes it deserving of attention, so I commend Arxel and Eugen for their innovative approach.  Ultimately, however, I found the game couldn’t sustain its own pace.  There simply was not enough variety in map design, objectives, combat strategy, or even unit types to hold the early momentum.  The more the game wore on, the more repetitive it became, which is really a shame because it originally promised so much.

I’m afraid I can’t recommend this game for newbies to the genre because of its uncompromising difficulty at times.  However, if you are (or know) someone who thinks the tried, true, and overdone RTS formula is too complicated and slow, and wished that strategy games had more of a shooter mentality, you’ll find Gladiators to be just the ticket.  If you’re a strategy fan open to trying something new just for a breath of fresh air, by all means give this game a look – just expect it to reinforce your love of the deeper RTS games before all is said and done.  I suspect that Gladiators would have fared better as a budget title than a full-priced offering, but if you can find it for a reasonable price, you just might want to take the chance.

Final score: 71%

Played on:


Win XP

P4, 2 Ghz

512 MB RAM

GeForce 4


This document may not be distributed without express written permission of the author and the content may not be altered in any way.

For questions or comments on this review,
Please write to: Singer

design copyright © 2003 GameBoomers Group

 GB Staff Reviews Index