Version tested: PlayStation 3
Does context matter? This is the question that's been whirling around in my head, like the Blades of Chaos, as I battled through the two PSP titles in this collection, now reborn in HD for the PlayStation 3.
A good game should remain a good game wherever it lands, surely? And both Chains of Olympus and Ghost of Sparta are assuredly good games, at least within their own narrow niche of blood-spattered melee combat. But they are unmistakably handheld games reworked for a different format. Does that lessen their appeal, or simply remind us of their more humble origin?
Let's not get ahead of ourselves. Following the success of the first God of War Collection, which transferred the first two games into HD so that fans could enjoy the whole trilogy without having to sully their eyes with olden days pixels, it was somewhat inevitable that their handheld cousins would also get the PS3 treatment, enabling the Kratos completists to have all his brutal escapades in one place.
In Chains of Olympus, released in 2008, Kratos is angry that the goddess Persephone is trying to destroy the world, and so sets off to kill the s*** out of a bunch of dudes. In Ghost of Sparta, released in 2010, Kratos is furious that his brother is being held in the underworld, and sets off to kill the s*** out of even more dudes. Also, monsters.
That, in a nutshell, is both the strength and weakness of the God of War series. Kratos, our nominal hero, is a walking tantrum who stomps around Greek mythology murdering pretty much everyone he meets, having QTE sex with anyone left and then shouting about how angry he is. Subtle he ain't, but he is pretty much perfect for a game where extreme violence is the driving motivator.
And here's where the restrictions of the PSP make themselves known. Yes, there's violence here, but it's timid in comparison to the ludicrous over-the-top slaughter of the main series. You'll rarely see more than four enemies on screen at once, the methods available to you for killing the s*** out of them are limited and those epic boss battles are considerably less jaw-dropping.
Puzzles, never a particularly pivotal part of the series, get short shrift with basic block-shoving and pressure pad combinations seeing you through most encounters when they arise. Even the Quick Time Events that are used to take down the boss monsters feel rudimentary when played alongside the flesh-rending button-matches from the other games.
Perhaps most obvious is the loss of agility. Where Kratos once sprang and slashed with balletic ease, here he feels heavier and lumbering, his movements programmed for the limited travel of the PSP's slippery control nipple. With a full analogue stick to play with, there's a heaviness that takes some getting used to. It's not terrible, but it's definitely noticeable.
Even so, when crammed into a PSP this solid but diminished approach was enough to impress. Blown up to TV size, even with 1080p HD smoothing out the edges, it can't help feeling slightly spartan (oh ho!) compared to the rest of the series. As Simon Parkin said in his review of Ghost of Sparta's original PSP release: "When you take away the sense of wonder in a God of War game, the remaining components struggle to carry the experience." That's certainly true of this PS3 version.
There are, however, areas where the PSP conversion almost proves beneficial. The game has always used a fixed camera, so the lack of a second stick on the PSP was never a problem. Now with two sticks to play with, the rather clunky evade move is much more useful, mapped to the right stick with no faffing around required (though if you instinctively go to pull the shoulder buttons, that will work as well).
Beneficial technical additions have been made elsewhere too. The soundtrack has been beefed up to make use of 5.1 channels, liberating the bombastic soundtrack from the PSP's tiny speaker, while DualShock support adds the sort of rumbling palms that you expect from a game about an enraged pitbull of a man slaughtering monsters. The game is also playable in stereoscopic 3D, for those of you posh enough to enjoy such things. There's been care and attention behind the scenes, more than you might imagine given the rather bland intro screen which simply shoves you off to one game or the other with no frills.
As with similar compilations for Splinter Cell, Tomb Raider and Silent Hill, this collection is being sold on the HD angle, and the visual overhaul is no slouch. Ghost of Sparta in particular looks really slick, although that's not surprising given that it's less than a year old and was already pushing the boundaries of what the PSP - and probably the PS2 - are capable of. Chains of Olympus fares less well, with HD smoothing the lines but failing to disguise the crude geometries of the characters and locations. Still, if you haven't played these games before, this is as good as they'll ever look.
So, yes, you can tell that these are handheld games blown up to console status. Their horizons are a touch narrower, their action never quite as relentless as the games they followed. If the main God of War games were blockbuster movies, these would be their direct-to-DVD counterparts. For any other series that would be insulting, but for something that so shamelessly appeals to our base instincts it's almost a compliment of sorts.
These are two unabashed button-mashers, high on visceral action and light on almost everything else. Assuming such a package is aimed squarely at fans of Kratos who know exactly what they're getting, any technical quibbles soon get sliced away by those whiplash blades and the showers of crimson grue that spill out from them. This is commercial fan service, offering the PSP-less Kratos acolyte the chance to experience the entire series, and by applying polish to more than just the graphics Sony has shown that it takes such endeavours seriously.
Take it on its merits, enjoy it for what it offers and make allowances for its humble origins and this second salvo in the God of War Collection is a worthwhile, if never quite spectacular, update to the Kratos canon.
8 / 10