Ubisoft let the press play with its upcoming gladiator combat game Spartacus Legends, and we got our hands on the Streetfighter-style fighter. It will be one of the first free-to-play third-party titles on Microsoft’s Xbox Live Arcade platform on the Xbox 360.

It’s based on the Spartacus TV show on Starz. You can play as characters from the series, such as the Thracian slave Spartacus or Crixus. But the heart of the game is bringing a gladiator up through the ranks to become a hero in the arena. You give them armor, train them, and send them out to fight. Once you’re there, you have to pound the buttons of your game controller as much as possible. I found that if I mashed them quickly enough, I could keep my opponent on the defensive until his health bar was drained. The difficulty is gated by the upgrades on the characters. Foes with more armor are tougher to beat. The idea is to dismember the enemy and let the blood flow like a fountain. (Yes, it’s going to be mature-rated).

You can fight with hammers, spears, swords, daggers, and shields. Ubisoft isn’t revealing yet how far you can level up or what you can buy for your characters in the free-to-play title. You will be able to invest your experience points into things like quicker reaction times or better stamina, and you can also make decisions about how to level up each gladiator.

The game is coming for Xbox Live Arcade and the PlayStation Network in early 2013, timed for the release of the new season of Spartacus. It has been under development at Kung Fu Factory for less than a year. It uses the studio’s own technology, and the show’s creator, Steven S. DeKnight, is collaborating on the game. Actors Liam McIntyre (who plays Spartacus) and Manu Bennett (Crixus) are providing their likenesses and voices.

I can’t say I was very excited by the PlayStation 3 version of the game. With the Square button, you launch a light attack. Triangle is a heavy attack. Circle is a physical push attack, and you can block with the L1 trigger. The characters look realistic, but the action is choppy and the blood isn’t done so well — at least not in the build that I saw. One of the redeeming features of the game is the ability to freeze the frame at a moment when you’ve executed some awesome move, like chopping a gladiator’s head off. That’s where the game resembles the action of the TV show, which features frequent combat freeze frames. Online, you’ll be able to battle players around the world for the top ranks of the leaderboard. As a “lanista,” you can manage your gladiators and choose from thousands of weapons and fighting styles.

Ubisoft doesn’t have a ton of experience with big hits in this genre. Starz has also commissioned other Spartacus games, including the mobile game Spartacus: Blood and Sand, Spartacus: Gods of the Arena on Facebook, and Spartacus Vengeance: The Game on Facebook.

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