Rant alert. Don't worry. We'll be brief.
Having to wait three months for a game as evidently top class as God Of War is - in this day and age - faintly ridiculous. Yep, while US gamers mop their collective brow over what has been widely heralded as the PS2's best action-adventure, European gamers must press their grubby (and slightly green-tinged) faces up to the glass and peer with characteristic envy and either wait patiently or consider their import gaming options. To be frank, this is not a game you can realistically wait in line for. Ply it from the determined grasp of whoever stands in the way between you and this exceptionally high class game. It is your duty.
But just before we wrap up the rant and move onto introducing Sony Computer Entertainment America's finest ever achievement, we can't quite resist the opportunity to have a little dig into the ribs of Sony for allowing release date delays in this day and age. First of all, it's a fact that almost all the big publishers out there (take a bow EA, Activision, THQ, Take Two, Vivendi, Ubisoft and more) have long since managed to get their collective acts together on nigh on simultaneous releases for big titles for years, and in many cases these are multiformat releases we're talking about. For Sony - the format holder for gawd's sake - to tease and torment gamers in this manner with such an arbitrary delay is hard to stomach. Please sort this out for the next generation, Sony; it really shouldn't be that hard to localise your games for simultaneous release. Wishful thinking, maybe, but it's always worth asking.
The quicker we finish this preview, the quicker we can get back to it
Anyway, so while we have to somewhat tiresomely act as if God Of War hasn't been getting eye-bulgingly high review scores elsewhere, we have at least tried to play SCEA's game as if we knew nothing about it. But have you ever tried downing tools on a game you're really enjoying with the knowledge that it gets even better after the first few hours? Downing tools to write about it just feels like some kind of sick torture. We've had to more or less force ourselves to not play it.
How about some background while we try and calm down? In Sony's well chosen words it's a "combat action-adventure, based on Ancient Greek mythology". But don't let that put you off. You play the "infamous warrior" Kratos, a bald-headed chap with a penchant for ultra violence and a troubled past "caught up in an engrossing narrative of violence, madness and revenge in which brutal combat is combined with fiendish puzzle-solving". Sometimes, just sometimes the press release moguls don't tell awful fibs or make promises they can't keep. When Sony assures us that God Of War "will help drive forward the action-adventure genre, and showcase the power of PlayStation 2," for once it's all true. Talk of "visceral melee combat", "dramatic storyline" and stunning visuals that are "amazingly vivid and artistic" for once are all utterly on the money. Understated even. We'd probably spontaneously combust if tasked with PRing God Of War. Someone sign the film rights.
Far from being the generic hackandslash fodder you might fear it to be, our first three or so hours in the company of God Of War pressed all of the right buttons. Tom's initial off the cuff remark labelled it as "God Of Persia", and it certainly has a similar grandiose visual appeal - one that arguably goes even further than Ubisoft in pushing the PS2 to unforeseen heights. But beyond its stunningly detailed and expertly animated graphics lies a combo-heavy action game that sports more than a few influences from Capcom's finest without ever overwhelming the player with the sort of hardcore difficulty level that leaves most of us breaking out in a sweat and taking up knitting instead. Ninja Gaiden this is not, but neither does it reduce players to the sort of button-mashing, wall-jumping tizz that Sands Of Time inspired in its combat sections. In God Of War you're in control, skill is rewarded, and the balance between offering a challenge and keeping you motivated has so far been perfectly observed.
Even gaming heroes can't take the NTSC-PAL delays anymore
Right at the start we join the muscle bound Kratos complaining that the gods of Olympus have deserted him and thus he takes the rather drastic step of throwing himself off the highest mountain in Greece to his certain doom. How did things get so bad? Using that good old trick of flashback narrative we get to play out the whole sorry tale by rewinding three weeks into the past where we join Kratos fighting for his life on a shipwreck in the midst of a storm in the raging Aegean Sea.
This is perhaps where Tom strode in, because with all the undead melee slicing and dicing on board a ship you'd have to be deaf, dumb, blind and mute not to see the obvious comparisons. But quite quickly it's fairly obvious the overlaps aren't all that significant. Just as well.
Early on, it's all about swinging Kratos' double blades, bound to his body by long chains. Much like Dante's mighty blade in Devil May Cry, this gives the ability to slash like crazy, dicing up everything in the vicinity. Triangle delivers the slower but deadlier attack, square the faster but less damaging blows, while cunning use of the jump attack and well-timed grabs can prove even deadlier; with one hit kills on offer. Pretty soon, though, you'll be mindful to learn the various combos on offer to mix up attacks and take out the packs of deadly enemies that inevitably gang up on you.
For God's sake
Inevitably other buttons come into play as well, with the right stick offering the ability to dodge and the various shoulder buttons used in conjunction with the face buttons giving even greater depth to the initially simplistic attacks. The combat never feels overwhelming, though - certainly not early on, anyway.
What immediately becomes apparent is the number of exceptionally impressive boss attacks that seem to crop up constantly. Cunningly, rather than merely save some ludicrously powerful creature for the end of the level, the two levels we got to grips with intersperse mini-boss encounters between the general melee combat, culminating with a face-off of such ludicrous scale and excitement we can't wait for more.
On the first level alone you face a particularly persistent Hydra that appears to need to die about six times before you finally get to meet the 'real' source of all the pain. Happily, one of the best things about the game is the sense that you're always involved in the heat of the action. Where most games would be content to play out a dramatic scene via a cut-scene, God Of War pulls all sorts of tricks, demanding the gamer to mash the buttons Track and Field-style where required, or maybe follow some rhythm-action button sequencing in order to smash someone's head against the ship's mast. It's not purely about learning the 'right' combo or just powering up your weapons and so on. That comes into play as well but the key thing is there's always more to defeating enemies than meets the eye. You'll bash down their health bar to a certain level, have a small window of opportunity to finish them off, and unless you take it you'll have to suffer a setback. It's a graceful, albeit slightly contrived system of making you play by its rules, but one that on balance we like a lot.
Meet you God
The overall goal, you learn, is to stop the renegade god Ares (the game's very own God Of War) destroying Athens - but to do so requires finding Pandora's Box to get hold of a weapon of such incredible power that even the gods themselves squeal like girls dealing with a spider in the bath. Of course, in doing so you get to meet one god after another, acquire new powers and eventually get to the bottom of your oh-so-troubled past. But to give Sony's Santa Monica team their dues, it's by no means your typical clichéd gaming fare. The game is both exquisite from an aesthetic point of view and in terms of its artistic merit, with a well acted and well scripted tale that is immediately engaging. Layer that with a beautifully understated and dramatic score that ebbs and flows like the best movies and it's literally the kind of game you're left somewhat in awe of.
Attention to detail is seemingly everywhere. The (finished) NTSC build in our possession has both 16:9 widescreen and progressive scan support that will make it look on a par with the best that the Xbox has to offer. If you've got a big screen HDTV, then this is the PS2 game to really show it off; with full surround sounds support just to add the icing on the cake.
Admittedly we're only a few hours in, but it's been pure hackandslash entertainment all the way, with a heady atmosphere to savour. To say we're looking forward to making our way through the 15-hour campaign would be an understatement, and it's no exaggeration to report that we're looking at the PS2's game of the summer already.
God Of War is coming exclusively to the PlayStation 2 in June and will be published by Sony Computer Entertainment Europe. Expect a full review soon.