God of War shows not only what can be done with the PS2 now, but what developers should have been doing all along
A battlefield pledge to Ares, the God of War, gives Kratos superhuman abilities at the cost of his own humanity. After years in servitude acting as the sword Ares wields, the enormity of Kratos’ crimes catch up to him in a moment of clarity triggered by a tragic event. Here the Greek legends would end, the protagonist undone by his hubris. Kratos, though, is no mere protagonist. The embodiment of an antihero, Kratos turns his single-minded focus towards a new goal: killing the God of War.
God of War starts aboard an armada heading towards Athens, where Ares lays siege. Suddenly skeletal beings crawl aboard your ship and you must repel them. Hacking away with your twin swords, the Blades of Chaos (complete with chains, so you can chain-sword-whip opponents), you knock enemies aside, cleave them in two, grab them and rip them apart, or stylishly execute them with a quick finishing move. After the deck is cleared a hatch draws your attention. You hammer away at a shoulder button to muscle the hatch open and drop down to the lower levels.
Here you find chests to restore your health, magic, or rage meters. Moving along past flooding bulkheads and tightrope walking across narrow spans, you enter a narrow hallway leaping back just as a giant Hydra head comes crashing through the floorboards. The first miniboss, mere minutes into the game, is completely indicative of what God of War is going to throw at you.
Jumping back a step, most of Kratos’ opponents can be slain with simple sword attacks or combinations. When his rage meter fills, Kratos can unleash the Rage of the Gods on his enemies dispatching them with blinding speed in a bloody flurry. There are some opponents too powerful for such base attacks though. Bosses, like the hydra head require special attacks: quickly following a succession of on-screen button prompts. Balancing timing with finesse, these special attacks are more challenging than just hammering away at an opponent.
As he kills, Kratos earns experience he can spend on upgrading his weapons (more damage and better combos) and upgrading any magic he learns on his journey. Some gods favor Kratos’ side of the struggle and grant him abilities. Early in the game Kratos earns Poseidon’s Rage, an electrical attack which radiates from him. Later Kratos earns more magic letting him strike down enemies from afar or freeze foes in their place.
Although Ares is his main target, Kratos must fight his way through a host of fiends. Drawing from Greek Mythology, Minotaurs, Meduses, and Cyclops are just some of the varied opponents. Often God of War will introduce a new monster as a miniboss requiring special attacks to put them down, but as Kratos levels up, they just become more fodder.
As a third-person action/adventure game with equal emphasis on combat and puzzle-solving. I’ve seen God of War compared to many games: Castlevania
, and Rygar
among others, but I’m going to suggest that God of War is really the greatest Tomb Raider
game ever made. While Kratos must solve manufactured puzzles, a good portion of the game involves exploring the environment, pulling levers, scaling cliffs and jumping to ledges. While all of this sounds like typical platforming, God of War has stunning levels and a strong fundamental design concept: you are living a part of Greek mythology.
Even after fighting your way from ship to ship to take on the Hydra, even after carving your way from the streets to the rooftops of an Athens aflame towards a mountainous Ares, and even after hunting down the last Titan in the siren haunted Desert of Lost Souls, God of War still finds a way to take your breath away. God of War looks real. It looks lived in. It looks right.
It feels right. God of War has tight controls. You use the analog stick to walk across narrow beams adjusting for Kratos’ balance. Kratos leaps when you tell him to leap, fights when you tell him to fight, and (in one brief scene) scores when you tell him to score. I’ve seen a few complaints about the repetitive nature of some of the finishing moves. At first, the only way to kill a Minotaur is by forcing your blade down its throat (rapidly pressing a button). Is this button mashing? Sure, but there’s no disconnect between what you are doing with the controller and what Kratos is doing on-screen.
Beating God of War unlocks a harder difficulty setting, Challenges of the Gods, and a wealth of DVD-like extras. There’s a lengthy “making of” featurette, deleted levels, a character model graveyard, a closer look at the game’s levels and monsters, and more. All that’s missing is the opening level commentary track available on the God of War demo disk. It’s a high quality presentation of a high quality game.
God of War has a fixed camera system which shows Kratos, his opponents and elements of interest, but a freelook option would have been a nice touch. As it stands, the camera is great and often cinematic, but a few levels would be easier if Kratos could look around a bit. One particular area, a maze-like series of beams Kratos must creep across, would be less frustrating if the player could see what Kratos obviously could.
The frustration of this level pales in comparison to a hellish series of spiky, rotating pillars Kratos must climb. Touching a single spike sends Kratos plummeting downward past the three or four sections you managed to ascend. Frustrating, yes, but more annoying since there’s no trick to it. Finally the endgame can be equally frustrating, especially if the spells you’ve leveled up aren’t working for you. Thankfully God of War shows some mercy if you keep dying, giving you the option to continue where you are at an easier setting, with no penalty.
The Bottom Line
Based solely on visuals and gameplay, God of War is a strong candidate for Game of the Year. But its epic story, wonderful acting, and incredible sound push it over the top. You can’t play God of War and think of the PS2 as being an aging platform. God of War shows not only what can be done with the PS2 now, but what developers should have been doing all along: providing seamless levels, cutscene-quality graphics, epic environments, and unnoticeable load times. God of War is a rich, satisfying gaming experience which leaves you waiting for the next installment and apathetic about the glut of toothless games currently out there.