Version tested: PlayStation 2
Europe could be just about to let one the greatest PS2 titles ever made pass it by, and not for the first time. Yet again, some inexplicable political skulduggery has ensured that yet another outstanding Sony America-developed title will be released by Sony Europe without the required pre-awareness and sufficiently beefy marketing clout, almost guaranteeing a tragic underperformance of a truly stunning game.
But there remains hope. Having already been released in US to universal critical acclaim back in March, the groundswell of admirers behind God Of War's irresistible action-adventure charms almost guarantees that it'll be one of the few titles to break through over here from word of mouth - providing enough copies make it onto the shelves, of course.
Under the influence
The game succeeds on just about all fronts, managing to tick the right boxes in every category imaginable; a game that borrows the best bits of the most memorable games yet conjures a personality all of its own. Its influences are often all-too-easy to spot, yet far from feeling like a derivative, me-too affair that's in awe of its peers, it's one of the few games to emerge in recent times that feels like it truly builds on its influences, whether it's the relentless combat of Devil May Cry or the mystical, mythical atmosphere of Prince of Persia: The Sands Of Time. Some of the structural brilliance and gameplay mechanics of its peers are borrowed wholesale, yet every time you think you've seen it all before you can't help but acknowledge that in subtle but meaningful ways it's refining so many areas that God Of War feels much more than the sum of its parts.
Even the brutal, bleak yarn of regret becomes something so much more involving than the average throwaway efforts we so often have to put up with in videogames. As far as lead videogame characters go, Kratos is possibly one of the most despicable specimens imaginable. This unfeeling mass murderer is probably the last person you'd want to help out, a man who deserves his demons and deserves to rot in the bowels of hell for all eternity for his sins. Yet, once you gain combat prowess so powerful that even the Gods are impressed, it's hard not to find the whole experience utterly thrilling.
In keeping with the Godlike genius at work, Sony's Santa Monica studio has evidently used some sort of celestial voodoo in order to fool the PS2 into thinking it is, in fact, an Xbox; and an Xbox being pushed hard at that. It's no exaggeration to report that God Of War is easily among the best-looking games we've ever seen on any system, never mind the supposedly humble PS2. Quite how the developers managed to keep up this level of detail with barely a hint of frame rate drop (and in widescreen Progressive Scan, incredibly) is probably a question many rival coders are pondering right now.
God Of War looks impossibly glorious at times. Not only does it have enormously detailed backdrops, wonderfully imaginative character models and some of the slickest animation we've ever seen, the whole effect becomes all the more impressive by virtue of a control and camera system so refined and effective it's easy to forget how well implemented it really is.
When you consider that even the most promising games can find themselves undone in the harsh glare of critical nitpicking, it's all the more remarkable that we're sat here having real trouble finding fault with anything in the entire game. Through even the most jaded eyes this is a barnstorming blockbuster of a game that will live long in the memory.
To begin with, God Of War comes across as little more than a highly impressive-looking Capcom-inspired hackandslash. As a veteran of all three Onimusha and Devil May Cry games it's easy to see where Sony was pitching the game, with a combat and progression system borrowed almost wholesale. Kratos himself isn't anything amazing at the beginning either. Sure he's got dual blades welded to his arms and has a nice line in acrobatics, but beyond that it's easy to wonder what God Of War really has to offer beyond pretty visuals. For the first hour or so, the game really does need to pull every impressive visual trick it can, because you're not even close to becoming the most feared warrior in the history of the universe.
Breaking your resistance
But thanks to the allure of some of the most richly beautiful environments we've ever seen, along with some truly gigantic early bosses and some clever puzzling it's a game that masks its initially derivative nature via some stunning set-pieces. Once you've got a feel for the precision of the combat and how well implemented the automatic camera angles are, the game does a great job of breaking any early resistance you might have at the prospect of another hackandslash button masher.
As you start to harvest souls, build up experience, learn new abilities and power up old ones the game really comes into its own with a combat system that is perfectly tailored to be accessible to complete novice while also proving to be exceptionally satisfying to the kind of manic hardcore nutters that can romp through Ninja Gaiden untroubled. The combat really is one of God Of War's key triumphs, conjuring a combo system that's never stupidly overwhelming or overly simplified. Depending on your choice of skill level (there are four in total, with the awesome 'God' mode unlocked on the first run through) there is a skill level to match anyone's abilities, with even the Easy mode putting up decent resistance without insulting or patronising players.
Exquisitely paced and expertly structured, new abilities appear right the way through the game, positively demanding that you keep on going to find out what lies around the corner. But the game never strays into mindless mashing territory, with a range elegant combos that are easy to learn yet fashioned with a depth that encourages you to try out new moves and different tactics to dispatch the variety of foes that cross your path.
Nobody's fault but my own
Better still, God Of War will appeal to the true adventurer thanks to an array of challenging puzzles that evoke memories of the original Tomb Raider in their levels of logical cunning. Granted, many of them typically involve the kind of lever pulling, block shifting and pressure pad activating that we've seen many times before, but in among the standards are some excellent brain teasers that often involve under-utilised moves from your range of kicks and leaps, or levels of observation that many games shy away from these days. The key thing you'll reflect upon whenever you've cracked a particular puzzle is that it always feels fair and logical. You really only have yourself to blame when things go wrong in God Of War, and that's all you can ask for as a gamer.
Tied into this feeling of satisfaction is the fact that the game is consistently checkpointing your progress so that you rarely find yourself having to endure tedious repetition and backtracking. While this does cut the overall playing time down a notch (to around 12-15 hours), it's one of the few games around that could never be accused of unnecessary padding. It's pure, lean, unrelenting entertainment. A game that constantly keeps things fresh, changes the environment, and ups the ante without ever throwing in a gruelling task or unexpected difficulty spike just to artificially prolong the agony.
That's not to say that you'll just breeze through it. Some of the puzzles - for a start - can be a complete sod unless you've got your lateral brain into gear (but there's always GameFAQs for emergencies, eh?), and on a few notable occasions of minor frustration we found some of the platforming balancing acts a little bothersome. You may even find the weight of enemy numbers incredibly daunting, but somewhere along the line you'll find your rhythm, find the right move-set, get your brain and reactions in gear and move onto the next gripping section and feel hugely satisfied that you did so. No one said it wasn't challenging; in fact it's one of the few games that's about as challenging as you want it to be, rather than how the game wants it to be. In fact, if you repeatedly get your arse kicked, the game even offers to drop the skill level down for you, in another nod to the Capcom ethics of game design. You might well thank them for it, too.
Is there an area where God Of War doesn't excel? Truly, no. Even the game's audio is a stunningly evocative example of a well-judged dramatic soundtrack and thunderous effects, with a continual cinematic ebb and flow mirroring your efforts with aplomb. Even the straight-laced voice work is handled with an expertise so sadly lacking in most other videogames. Narrowed down to its own genre, God Of War kicks many of Capcom's hilariously hammy efforts into orbit, but next to almost any American-produced game it's handled with a cinematic intensity that never resorts to trivialising the task at hand. This is serious business, and it's handled excellently. Admittedly, the way it handles nudity early on in the game is a mite ham-fisted, but on the whole it's one of those rare games where you'll actually want to watch cut-scenes again.
In terms of providing incentives and replayability God Of War delivers, with a huge suite of unlockables that are among some of the best we've encountered - notably the superb 'Deleted Scenes' documentary that reflects on the game's genesis, complete with early prototype levels, as well as ideas that got cut out in order to get the game on the shelves on time. And as if that wasn't quite enough, even more goodies await those determined enough to crack the horrendously tough God mode.
When the dust settles on the PS2 era and it's time to sit back and reflect upon the system's best games, God Of War stands out as an absolute colossus that towers over the competition - on any format. It not only deserves to become part of any gamer's (not just PS2 owners') collection in the immediate future, but will be held aloft as one of the true greats of this generation. It's not often a game just comes along and floors the competition, but that God Of War does so in such breathtaking style is incredible. For the love of God, buy it.
9 / 10