In Depth Review: God of War [PS2]
Kratos stands facing the endless fall to the raging waters, from the highest peak in Athens. "The Gods have abandoned me," he says, "now there is no more hope." The narrator tells gives an account of the scene as Kratos' body plummets, and as we see the cold water rush up towards our faces seemingly enveloping us past the screen that divides the space between us and Kratos' Greece, all goes black and the flashback that is Kratos' brutal and grim tale begins. Thus begins our journey as the man who seeks to slay Ares, the God of War.
Developed by Sony Computer Entertainment of America, God of War marries old school, easy to pick up and meaty hack-and-slash gameplay and novel context-sensitive "minigames" with a triumphant, cinematic presentation that for the most part doesn't interfere with the mechanics. Although a couple of small and sometimes obnoxious brain farts here and there keep the game from achieving the "perfect" status that so many are willing to throw at it, God of War ends up delivering a satisfying Playstation 2 action experience that ends up being one of the better games of its type to date.
A Champion of the Gods
The driving force of God of War is almost entirely its main character, Kratos, and his story. It only takes three minutes of combat to see that Kratos is an absolutely brutal, merciless manifestation of primal rage enclosed in human flesh. While not exactly the kind of guy you like to hang out with, it's hard not to get a kick out of Kratos' mean streak persona. After all, he is on a quest to defeat the titular Greek war god, Ares. I mean, just read that again: He's on a mission to KILL A FREAKING GOD, and he thinks he can do it, too.
Though it is a quest handed down to Kratos by the other Gods in an attempt to end Ares' rampant and irrational destructive rampage, Kratos has his own reasons for being audacious enough to want to take down a deity. The game is in essence a flashback from the suicidal event that happens in the opening movie. Kratos' tale is told through cinematics of even further flashbacks that develop how he became who he is and why he wants to take on his quest. In a move that I absolutely appreciate, the cinematics are very well rationed out over the course of the gameplay. After just the right amount of bloody gameplay, the cinematics are presented with just the right amount of length and detail to tell you a bunch of stuff while making you thirst for more. We get to understand Kratos' failings and how they translate into his pain, no thanks to Ares, and it lends great context to why this guy is - well - so goddamned angry.
With a blood red tattoo snaking around the left side of his torso and bald head over his moon-white skin, Kratos displays his anger with a wide variety of flashy, stylish combat moves while using the Blades of Chaos. The weapon consists of two chunky blades attached to his arms by chains. The result is not unlike the weapon used in the Rygar games (arcade, NES, Playstation 2), but these blades pack this massive amount of heft to them that lends them a more versatile, powerful and ultimately enjoyable feel. He can also use four types of magic bestowed upon him by the Gods that push him on his journey, double jump, climb ropes, shimmy across ledges and even rock climb more efficiently than the guy in the US Marines commercial. He is also forced to balance on beams which ends up being one of the few flaws in the otherwise tasty gameplay.
Kratos May Cry: Lament of Kick-4ssedness
The easiest way for me to describe how I felt about the gameplay in God of War is to liken it to Devil May Cry without the guns thanks to some cool aerial combos, or Castlevania: Lament of Innocence without the tedium thanks to the long range of his weapon. Kratos can unleash combos with a simple tapping of the square and triangle buttons (light and heavy attacks, respectively), and it's so friendly that you'd think you could button mash and produce some interesting results. Thankfully, when it counts the game never really descends into skill-less mashing, as combos require just enough timing that going "Eddy Gordo" on the game will get you demolished when you advance further into the quest.
There're just so many ways to slice and dice the baddies - start off by tormenting them on the ground, then bounce them up into the air, for more hits; you could bounce them in the air, hit the "throw" button (circle) to snag 'em while up there, a la Ivy from Soul Calibur and watch as Kratos repeatedly slam his foes into the ground face first with his blades; you can remain entirely ground-bound as you spin around with blades extended, then setting them up for the big kill. Kratos' moves are so cool and effective that he would have made a great Soul Calibur II exclusive character for the Playstation2 version (and not that tool Heihachi).
Admittedly, though it doesn't end up letting you button mash through all nine hours of the game, just using button combinations can still get tedious. But God of War is saved by a quasi-Resident Evil 4 context-sensitive button gameplay mechanic. Weaken some enemies enough, and you'll be able to grab them with the circle button once its icon appears above the enemy's head. Once you've done that, you simply follow the commands that follow (circle, triangle, square; or analog stick sweeps in half and whole circles). It just keeps you on your toes and your eyes on the screen in order to deal maximum punishment, and just feels refreshing after endless button mashing.
Upgradable weapons and magic help spice up things, too. Red orbs scattered throughout vases, crates (is there ever any action game nowadays without a crate?) dead enemies and as reward for multi-hit combos act as "experience points" that go into a point bank. You can use these to upgrade your Blades of Chaos and any of the four magic spells to your liking. Upgrading your weapon results in increased strength, new combinations and single-button attacks.
The magic spells in the game are all useful and present a nice balance. For example, the arguably most deadly spell when faced with multiple peon enemies - the Medusa stare - is also the hardest to land, as it requires you to lock onto an enemy and hold the Medusa gaze on the enemy for a solid few seconds before it can slice you up. The most easy-to-use and powerful spell drains magic at a huge clip. Thus, you won't be able to just abuse your magic when you're tired of melee combat. Even when you upgrade your spells to peak effectiveness, the game's difficulty scales nicely to match Kratos' ever-increasing powers.
There are also some cool segments that break up the plain ground-based combat. Kratos will put the smack-down on enemies while traversing ropes hand-over-hand, by kicking left and right and leg-grappling enemy's heads with enough force to yank them off the rope. He will also get as violent while scaling walls, grabbing enemies by their legs and whamming them into the wall before throwing down to the depths below. There's also this one section where you get to push a prisoner in a cage up a slope on his way to contribute to a sacrifice by cremation. Along the way you'll have to set the cage against piles of rock to keep it from sliding down, while hordes of Ares' undead attempt to keep you away from the sacrificial chamber. Way cool.
"Death Would be his Escape from Madness"
But for all the praise that I can give to God of War's combat, my enthusiasm dwindles when it comes to certain elements. I'll start off with those that resemble those of the platforming genre, which range from annoying to vein-poppingly, maddeningly frustrating. The warrior's double-jump will certainly be put to use in choice areas, moreso in the second half of the game, where sections resemble Rayman 2 and Mario more than they do pure action. Moving platforms obscured by buzz-saw blades surrounding them are tedious, not challenging, to play through. There is this absolutely obnoxious sequence near the end of the game where you must climb a rotating pillar that has razor-sharp blades portruding out. It wouldn't be so bad if the collision detection on those blades wasn't horrid, or if getting hit by a blade didn't knock you ALL the way down the pillar (incredibly tall pillar), but to make me go through two of those abominations was almost enough to make me turn off the Playstation2.
Finally, the beam balancing is perhaps the most obnoxious gripe of them all. The man who double jumps and can force a Hydra's jaws open while standing inside it must balance on 12-inch wide beams as if he were on a tightrope, and again - this would not be so obnoxious if it weren't for the computer-controlled camera that changes without a moment's notice. And remember that late-game pillar I was just complaining about? Similarly mis-programmed blades (in terms of collision) plague the beam-balancing sections. Coupled with that god awful camera, you've got - oh hell, if I continue to think about this I'll get angry.
And would it have hurt for SCEA to include at the very least a controllable first-person camera, so that Kratos could survey his surroundings? The camera is bad enough with those beam traversals, but when you've got a goal that you'd like to seek out or at least just take a look at what's around you, you can't because the camera is just content to shift to present the most "cinematic" angle of the action - even if it could mean you being shoved behind some pillar and a group of enemies and out of sight. Sure, don't let me see where my own protagonist is standing.
Most of these flaws don't end up appearing until later in the game, basically making the game mostly great from hour one to seven and then exasperating for the last two. I say "mostly" because there are the boss encounters, which are WAY too few and far between. For a game named God of War, I was looking forward to epic, meaty boss battles. The first battle against the Hydra is so completely insane and fun that it sets up you for the rest of the game, drawing you in and having you salivate at the prospect of more large enemy encounters. And with Greek mythology? Brilliant ideas abount.
But it is not to be. For better or for worse, God of War's game progression is very contiguous. For the most part you transition smoothly between the different environments of the stage, without big jumps in between any segmented "levels". Is this the reason that wild battles like the Hydra battle don't take place more often? I don't know, but (and I won't reveal how many battles for the sake of avoiding spoilers) ___ number of big battles after the initial one is a disappointment. Granted, at the very least the rest of the boss battles do *look* cool, if not as exciting as the Hydra. But I couldn't help but think of the excellent possibilities of fighting more large, epic monsters with as intuitive gameplay mechanics as the first battle.
"The Glory of Sparta"
Regardless of whether or not you're picky enough to be slightly bothered by God of War's flaws, there is no denying that this game is an unequivocal aesthetic triumph. Rare, random blotchy texture be damned, most of the game's surfaces look so detailed and real that I felt annoyed knowing that it took this long for the graphical potential of the Playstation 2 to be unleashed. God of War is easily one of the best looking games on Sony's console, in terms of technology and of artistic direction. Watching the Making Of video, you can tell that Sony threw ten Federal Reserves worth of cash at this game, and it did the cinematic presentation good. There are awesome scenes such as the one when you first pass the Gates of Athens, where you end up on a balcony set high above the city. In the distance and past the mountains, you see the giant Ares laying waste to Athens while retaliatory flaming arrows fly up at him in a vein attempt to pierce his immortal flesh.
The game only drops from 60 frames a second in a scant few areas where the detail level gets really intense. Otherwise, it handles all the lighting, reflection, high resolution textures, and absolutely massive environments and buildings with ease. The sacrifice? Some very few atrociously modeled enemies/NPCs, with everything else about mid-level. But in action, you barely have time to notice as you rip those polygons to shreds. The variety of locales, each with their own color scheme but never segregated into "themed" worlds in an out-of-place fashion, do much to paint the picture of SCEA's version of ancient Athens.
The times are adequately represented too. If not historically accurate, and who gives a hoot when your main character's skin is pasty white and blood red, the weapons, settings and characters all look like what many associate with ancient Greece. Hell, many of the female characters in the game don't think twice about having their nipples visible. The thing of it is, it really does fit in with the theme. It is a bit unnecessary but it's also not really "gratuitous" either in the sense that the Hot Coffee mod or Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball is (and that doesn't even show any nudity out of the box). Hell, that's the way Greek women dressed.
The music is also nice and Mediterranean sounding, with a fully orchestrated score and choir singing. The composition matches the quality - the soundtrack sports epic themes that sound like they belong in a full length feature film directed by Ridley Scott (and hey, a God of War flick is in the works). The music always matches the scenery and intensity of battles, and work with the visuals to provide a heart-pounding environment for Kratos to rend the rotting flesh from his enemies' bones. Finally, the voice acting is mostly decent. None of it is hammy, though after listening to countless PC games shine with stellar voice acting, I'd expect slightly better from a game where English is the original language.
Finally, the flashback cutscenes of Kratos in military battle have this unique and briliant stylization to them, combining still-shot drawings that animate into short clips of violence with typical computer-rendered graphics and professional cinematic direction. If you consider your cutscenes as a reward for progressing in a videogame, then the cutscenes in this game are the grandest of grand prizes.
"By the Gods..."
The money that probably went into this game went to almost all the right places. There's something here for every gamer (over 17, that is). For the typical current-gen "cinematic experience" whore, the scathingly hot production values make this yet another game that might as well be a "movie you play". For gamers who crave that old-school hack-n-slash action with some small twists thrown into the combat, the fast and fluid gameplay should satisfy. And for extra-content addicts, defeating the game unlocks commentary on deleted levels, monster concepts, and the obligatory insanely hard new difficulty level.
God of War's got enough appeal to be played through more than once, if you can stomach the idea that the last two hours sort of blow. For those looking for some great pick-up-and-play action set amidst an epic background, God of War is your game. SCEA Lead Designer David Jaffe's baby, three years in the making, comes recommended.