God of War (PS2)
True first party PS2 games seem to be few and far between for Sony. That said, when we do finally see one it tends to be worth watching thanks for luxuriously long development cycles and very talented teams working on them. God of War seems to be no exception and 4tomsm4sher is here to tell us about it today.
In a refreshing departure from the current glut of sci-fi, World War II, and fantasy-themed games, God of War is set in ancient Greece, and draws upon Greek mythology for most of its settings and characters. Equally welcome is the fact that it's a brand-spanking new franchise that, from the looks of things, is likely to have some staying power.
As the game begins, we're introduced to Kratos, a musclebound, goatee-sporting, tattooed Spartan warrior. He's a fairly enigmatic character, initially. With his greyish skin, unique weapons, and almost supernatural combat abilities, it's not entirely clear that he's even completely human. What is clear is that he's got some serious unresolved issues.
Early on, we learn that Kratos been driven, for reasons unknown, to the brink of madness. Tormented by nightmares, he pleads with the Gods to end his emotional suffering. Zeus responds by promising Kratos relief, but only after Kratos kills Ares, the God of War. Ares, as it happens, is on a rampage in ancient Athens, and is hell-bent on destroying the city. Zeus and a handful of other Olympians are none too pleased with Ares' antics, and agree to assist Kratos in accomplishing his seemingly impossible task.
Kratos is one of the most memorable gaming characters in recent years. His unique appearance and stylish, brutal combat abilities set him apart from most games' protagonists, but it's the depth of his character that makes him truly exceptional. Kratos simmers with rage and desperation, but he's completely without the arrogance or taunting sarcasm we've come to expect from most action heroes. Initially, he appears callous, and even cruel. Yet as his background is slowly revealed, he emerges as a complex, compelling individual, desperate to come to terms with a troubled past.
Compared to Kratos' colossal presence, most of God of War's remaining characters are barely more than filler. The enemies, which consist mainly of grotesque soldier types and creatures from Greek mythology, serve primarily as fodder for Kratos' swinging blades. They're all nicely animated and visually impressive, with acceptable AI and a diverse set of attacks and abilities.
Kratos plays the role of troubled, solitary outcast, but throughout the story he's assisted by the Gods and a handful of other helpful figures. The Gods' faces (usually the only part of them that Kratos sees) are oddly animated, though, and Hades in particular looks a little silly. A few scenes feature bare-chested females, with unintentionally wierd-looking, polygonal breasts. There's also a sequence where it's implied that Kratos has off-screen sex with two women at once. Though these "mature" scenes come off as gratuitous and out of place, they're few and far between, and do little to distract from the game's more serious tone.
God of War's 17 levels, which take Kratos through a variety of indoor and outdoor settings, combine well-paced battles, intermittent platforming, and the occasional puzzle or boss fight. The gameplay is highly polished and consistently entertaining, though fairly conventional in many respects. The entire game is played from a fixed-camera, third-person perspective. While the epic environments at times left me wanting some camera controls - purely for the sake of better appreciating my surroundings - the game's camera placement is typically flawless.
Brief in-game cutscenes advance the plot and introduce new enemies or characters, while Kratos's past is revealed through a series of high-quality, lengthier cinematics. These flashbacks, which merge black and white images with vivid, bloody, full-color scenes, are shocking and amazing. I'm not a fan of lengthy cutscenes, but here Kratos' story is told with such undeniable style and power that I looked forward to them with enthusiasm.
The most notable aspect of God of War is its relentlessly violent, addictively enjoyable combat system. Kratos is equipped with a pair of huge, flaming blades, wrapped to his arms by retractable chains. They can be wielded like knives, or, more impressively, swung through the air in graceful, burning arcs. Kratos is capable of a wide variety of acrobatic, devastating combo attacks, which send the blades swinging, slamming, hooking, and slicing into enemies in smooth, powerful motions. Although they're not the only weapon at Kratos's disposal, they're arguably the game's defining feature, and - no exaggeration - they just might be the coolest, most satisfying weapons to appear in any game, ever.
Throughout the story, the Gods reward Kratos' progress by granting him magical abilities. These include a variety of ranged and other attacks, each of which is equally useful and spectacular. Kratos obtains power-ups, in the form of red orbs, from fallen enemies, chests, and (of course) breakable crates, barrels, and other containers. Red orbs can be applied toward both magic and weapons upgrades. Additional power-ups, including blue and green orbs, replenish and increase Kratos's health and magic meters.
The relative simplicity of the controls, and the sheer variety of Kratos' capabilities, mean that God of War isn't one of those games where you'll find yourself relying on just a few combos that you can remember and pull of reliably. Instead, as you upgrade Kratos's abilities, you'll have an increasingly varied set of attacks at your fingertips. In addition, Kratos has separate, unique sets of attacks specifically for wall climbing and rope hanging sequences that you'll find throughout the game.
God of War features context and enemy-specific combat moves, like those recently introduced by Shenmue and Resident Evil 4. When an enemy is weakened, an icon displaying a controller button will appear over its head. Press the button, and you'll perform a bloody, over-the-top finishing move. Tougher foes require a series of button presses or analog-stick movements. Each enemy can be brought to a uniquely satisfying, gruesome end. While you can generally opt kill your enemies with regular attacks instead, the finishing moves are especially entertaining, and often yield additional magic or health power-ups.
God of War's boss battles are fairly infrequent, which is unfortunate, because they're terrific. For the most part, they involve figuring out and avoiding each boss's special attacks, while weakening them with melee and magic assaults - pretty standard stuff. Do enough damage, though, and you'll initiate a sort of mini-game that, like the finishing moves for lower-level characters, involves a series of carefully timed button presses and stick movements. Follow along, and Kratos will pull off a string of epic, cinematic attacks.
Kratos hacks and slashes his way through some impressive environments, including war-torn Athens, sandstorm-covered deserts, treacherous mazes, and even underwater caverns. Graphically, the game looks remarkable, and boasts a silky-smooth framerate throughout. The ambient sounds and combat effects are also excellent - even the sound of a stone pushed across the floor sounds convincingly real. The classical score is a nice switch from the generic, repetitive heavy-metal guitar riffing that plagues similar action games, and the voice acting, while not stellar, is generally quite good.
God if War's combat is relatively forgiving, and health and magic power-ups are generously scattered throughout the game. There are a few head-scratching puzzles, but most are fairly simple. A handful of balancing and jumping scenarios are frustratingly difficult, especially near the end of the game, but overall, the platforming challenges are pretty lightweight. Frequent save options and well-placed checkpoints ensure that you'll rarely have to cover familiar ground after dying, and the three difficulty levels - easy, medium, and hard - are about what you'd expect. At normal difficulty, the game will probably take most gamers around 12-14 hours to complete. And once you're done, there's a decent batch of unlockable content to enjoy.
God of War borrows heavily from other action-adventure games, most notably Devil May Cry and the Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. Despite these obvious influences, however, it manages to deliver an incredible, unique experience in its own right. This is largely due to Kratos' compelling persona, an engaging storyline, and the visceral, satisfying combat - it's hard to overstate the thrill involved in unleashing Kratos' spectacular attacks. It's too bad the game isn't longer, though the unlockables hint that there's a sequel in the works - definitely something to look forward to.