God of War Reader Review
Everybody loves an anti-hero, don't they? Whether you're talking about Bobba Fett, Tommy Vercetti or Michael Corleone, anti-heroes have proved to be some of the most timeless and popular characters ever, across all forms of entertainment.
So, it may please you to know that in Sony's God of War, you play fallen Spartan warrior Kratos, who is the darkest and most brutal anti-hero I've come across in some time. In the setting of ancient Greece, Kratos is on a mission from the Gods (for the record, nothing at all like The Blues Brothers) and a personal revenge crusade, and people will die. Lots and lots of people.
The most immediately noticeable and empowering thing about this game is Kratos' extensive fighting repertoire. More than capable of dealing with legions of undead warriors and mythical beasts, he has an impressive move list from the outset, which grows as you get further into the game and gain new weapons, abilities and experience. His default weapons are also some of the best in a long while - the Blades of Chaos. A cursed gift from the titular God of War, the Blades of Chaos are two short, chunky swords, each attached to a forearm by a chain embedded in his flesh. Kratos also gains more weapons courteousy of other Gods throughout the game, including the huge Artemis Sword, the Army of Hades and Poseidon's Rage.
Graphically and aurally, God of War is exceptional. It is possibly the most attractive PS2 game, with stunning vistas throughout (Athens is a particular favourite of mine), detailed character models, exceptional animations and intricate levels, all wrapped up with a [near] flawless frame rate, gorgeous presentation and a very crisp look overall. Clearly Sony Santa Monica have got to grips with the PS2's internals, and they've managed to get a performance out of the system that some of us would've never thought possible a few year ago. The score and sound effects are as superb as the visuals. The soundtrack is an epic ochestral score, which goes from serene calm through voracious agression to perfectly fit the mood, and does a wonderful job of heightening the involvement - which surely is as much as you can ask from any score. The sound effects are also all very good - everything feels agreeable, from the 'glowing' noise of the save points, to the slicing sound of the Blades of Chaos and the massive sounds like moving gates and thunderous foes. The character voices are brilliant too, with no real weakness in the line-up. Absolutely top marks overall in this department.
Whilst the plot is not overly long or complicated, it is very competently revealed and explored. Starting off with a grim premise - Kratos throwing himself to his death from the peak of Athens' highest mountain - the game is essentially a flashback, showing the events in the three weeks leading up to his suicide. I won't give away any of the plot, but what we see is Kratos' atonement for his sins, and the ghosts of his former life come back to haunt him.
For me, the game's real strength is with it's superb balance between combat, platforming and puzzles. Although at heart it is all about the furious and amazingly fluent combat, there are several occasions where you have to engage the grey matter to solve problems barring your way. For the most part they are relatively simple, such as destroying huge wooden doors with war-sized crossbows, or 'persuading' someone to let down a drawbridge for you, but later in the game you come across Pandora's Temple, which is essentially a collection of smaller puzzles which form part of a huge interlocking puzzle, and will likely take you hours to solve the whole thing, but the sense of achievement when you finally do is pretty outstanding. The platforming elements are present in small doses throughout the whole game, and they're nothing especially original or inspired, and yet are as solid as they come. Although you are for the most part herded down linear routes, there is almost always room for a little exploration, and often you will find rewards for going off the beaten path (such as Gorgon Eyes, six of which extend your life bar).
God of War is also home to some of the most amazing set-pieces ever seen in any game. The first time you see the battle outside Athens or the Temple of Pandora will likely stay with you for a long time as one of the most impressive gaming sights. There are also some of the greatest boss battles ever, even managing to usurp established favourites such as the likes of Zelda or Devil May Cry. There are only three boss battles in the game, but their high quality more than makes up for the relative infrequency of them. Character design is of amazingly high quality all around, and given that the game is chock-full of mythical beasts you will likely be familiar with, they've managed to get the look and animations of these creatures exactly right, from the snakelike movement of Medusa, to the lumbering power of the cyclops and the airborne agility of the harpies.
A game's camera is often the bane of a fast-paced action adventure such as this, but God of War manages to nail this on the head, too. It is a completely on-rails camera, but unlike some of it's contemporaries, it almost always manages to show the best viewpoint, and I don't think there was one point where I struggled in combat due to an ill-placed view. The controls are also as good as you could hope for. They are very responsive and comfortably mapped-out, including an essential roll/dodge move via the right analogue stick, which comes in incredibly useful. In certain instances you engage in a Bemani-style mini-game, where you press the buttons to match the instructions on screen and you can deal either tremendous damage or instant death to your foes. Get this right and you're treated to a short - often very gory - animation.
I'd also like to mention the presentation, which is as good as any game I've ever seen. Menus are easy to follow and quick to navigate. The inventory screen is similarly clutter-free and simple to follow. Loading is all but completely eradicated, following the initial loading screens at the start of the game, which lends a very natural, constant feel to the adventure. Occasionally it pauses to load for a few seconds when you enter a new area, but on the whole the world is constant and uninterrupted. I think this works much better than mission-based alternatives, such as Devil May Cry or Ninja Gaiden. Cutscenes are a mixture of in-game FMA sequences and pre-rendered FMV sequences. Both are of high quality, and are directed with competency and brutality. Another superb aspect of this game is the special features which are unlocked once you have completed it. There is a compilation of featurettes, narrated animation sequences, extra levels and interactive galleries. I don't think I've ever played game which was so full of interesting bonus features. This is one thing I really hope more developers start doing.
I suppose I should give a balanced review and mention some faults. My main problem is that despite the fact it is a very dark and mature game, it features a lot of semi-naked women which to me seems puerile and childish by comparison. It's not a frequent occurence, but seems out of place in this brutal and dark story, particularly at one point when one of the major characters is trying to guide Kratos on his journey, and she's walking around wearing a see-through top. It's hard to take seriously. Another point to make is that it is a very violent game. Now, this isn't a fault especially, and given the fantasy setting of the game it's a little easier to stomach, but Kratos will still be spending his time ripping apart, impaling and bludgeoning foes. The BBFC rating of 18 is very appropriate. Other than those relatively minor observations, there's not much I'd complain about with this game.
I can't even pick any flaws with the difficulty. The Normal mode is challenging enough for us average Joes, yet rarely gets too hard or frustrating. Infact, if you are struggling and die several times the game conveniently gives you the option of toning down the difficulty - a feature shamelessly plundered from Capcom titles, but nonetheless a very welcome addition. Clearly a lot of playtesting went into it, as it never stacks the odds unmanageably high against you, yet still remains consistently challenging. For the masochists out there, it also features the option to play on the ultra-hard God mode upon completion. There is also intelligent checkpointing, whereby upon death you will rarely have to re-play more than a couple of minutes. It has inifinite 'lives' in a Halo-esque fashion, where you can continue as often as you wish. I think this was the best approach for this game, as it's firmly geared toward the mass-market, and letting as many people see the story through to it's epic conclusion. On the whole, it's a lot more user-friendly than the likes of Devil May Cry or Ninja Gaiden.
So, to summarise, I think God of War is one of the best action-adventures ever, and without doubt one of the best PS2 games. It is packed full of some of the most amazing set-pieces ever, it has wonderful controls and combat, superb pacing and a fantastic array of legendary enemies and bosses. There's also a movie-worthy soundtrack, an interesting and dark story, plus great characters and scenarios picked from Greek mythology. It's almost like playing a videogame version of cheesy 60's - 80's classic movies like Clash of the Titans or Jason and the Argonauts. What more could you possibly want?!