Game Review: God of War (PS2)

Authored December 2005, Originally appeared at GameSpot

To start with let’s be abundantly clear: “God of War” is a stunning achievement nearly any way you consider it.  For those of you that for some reason still have an urge to “show what a PS2 can do” this is the game to do it with.

Disclaimer

Let’s also get a few things out of the way:

1) The game is violent; very violent.  Many of the end kills are wretchedly cruel (the snapping of necks, the stabbing out of eyes and tearing off of heads and so forth).  However at the same time the violence is so frenetic, so stylized and so completely over the top that, expect for a very few instances, its not nearly as emotionally engaging as you might think.

A game like “Silent Hill” or “Resident Evil” seems (to me) so much more “truly” violent.  You feel those games on a much deeper level.  In “God of War” the violence is a side-effect of a guy flinging whip-like blades around in a crowd of 10 enemies while pretty special effects draw further from any reality that might accidentally slip through.

Some aspects of the game are clever… but more “ethically challenged”. For example in several areas you’re fighting the monster army of Hades in Athens.  If you should happen to (accidentally, I’m sure!) decapitate a panicked citizen you get a decent health power-up.  So, in short, you’re encouraged to use innocent people like cattle.

I found this a clever, if slightly disturbing, little touch.  I leave it to you to decide how you’d feel about it.

2) The game has boobies.  Several (cartoonish perfectly enormous) boobies (I’m not counting the harpies whose boobies are brown, wrinkled and look more like dog turds than anything remotely sexual (they are harpies). Be warned!  Boobies are very, VERY bad apparently.

In any case for these two reasons alone some people (and you know who are) will choose not to play this game.  They are missing out, but I respect their opinion.

For those of you still interested, read on.

Always Read the Fine Print

The (anti) hero of the game is Kratos, a Spartan warrior who, after making an impulsive deal with Ares (the titled “God of War”) was given tremendous power and the “Blades of Chaos”: two large cleaver-type blades chained permanently to his wrists.

As often happens with impulsive pairings things end up badly.  Ares tricks Kratos into a horrible act in an attempt to manipulate him.  Kratos rebels and vows to kill the god of War.

As it happens Ares, the petulant child he is, is attacking Athens.  Athena is not happy with this.  While the Gods are forbidden from war between each other they are permitted to conscript mortals to their cause and aid them.  This provides Kratos with some powerful allies in his quest.

The story is well told via visually unique, dynamic cut-scenes.  I appreciate an attempt to do something new with cut scenes (the last game to impress me in this area was “The Mark of Kri”).

Actress Linda Hunt provides a perfectly balanced narration to the action.  Her soft, raspy voice contrasts very well with the expansive story.  Overall all of the voice acting is excellent (although very little is provided by “name” actors).  Some of the dialog is stilted (it IS a video game after all) but generally it flows well for the characters provided.

The score for the game is excellent as well and buying the game gives you a free “token” to download the entire soundtrack from Sony’s Online music service.

Wanna Pick a Fight?

Combat is where this game shines, of course.  The Blades of Chaos, once upgraded using the captured energy of your foes, sport several dozen combos across their five upgrade levels.  The blades have a decent range (in the area of 10 or so virtual feet) and are fast and, with the right combo, devastating.

The same combos will have different effects on the ground than they do while jumping which adds significantly to the depth of the blades.  Learning at least some of the more useful combos is absolutely essential.

There are enemies, for example, that can’t be killed until you break their shields.  And their shields can only be broken by a specific combo.  There are other battles which are timed and are simply un-winnable without some room-clearing combos.

Luckily the developers did the right thing: instructions for all combos (once you earn them) are visible on the pause menu.  If you forget how to perform on you have only to look it up.

As the game progresses you’ll also receive the powerful “Sword of Artemis” (which, disappointingly, offers only a small handful of combos even when fully upgraded).  The sword is, nominally, a power weapon.  However it lacks the range and the combos of the Blades of Chaos making it, I thought, rather useless in practice.

As a reward for dealing death (and especially for mastering difficult combos) you gain “the power of Athena”.  Once you’ve filled this gauge you can, on demand, enter a berserker, invulnerable state for several seconds.  (I suggest that you hoard these.  The meter fills slowly and there are some areas and bosses nearly impossible to pass without using Athena’s power.)

Not Like “Harry Potter”

There are also four “Gifts from the Gods” in the form of offensive spells.  These spells are generic in their design but well crafted nonetheless.  “Rage of Poseidon” is an area attack, “Medusa’s Gaze” is a directed attack which can turn enemies to stone, “Zeus’s Fury” is essentially a bow and arrow (the games only real distance attack) and “Army of Hades” summons the spirits of the dead to fight with you.

Just like weapons these spells can be upgraded up to four times each to provide bigger bangs for your magic buck.

Resources in the game are typical: you collect red energy to upgrade your weapons, blue energy to refill your magic meter and green energy to heal. Your magic and health meters can be extended by finding collectables in chests along the way.

One really nice touch here is that the game is lenient in this regard.  If you miss a few chests here or there you can still, eventually, obtain all the upgrades without a replay (latter chests will have them instead).  You may not upgrade as quickly, perhaps, but at least you’re not stuck unable to upgrade (as is the case in several games… I’m looking at you “Prince of Persia”).

One minor annoyance here is that each spell uses up a specific amount of magic power but that power isn’t related to the meter.  So you may cast a powerful spell and use just a tiny bit over half of your available magic. Now, even tho’ it looks you should have enough magic to cast it again, you can’t.  This can become frustrating when you were counting on that spell!

Somebody’s Gonna Get Hurt!

With all of these tools of death at your disposal you must have enemies to deal death to!  “God of War” doesn’t disappoint here.  Although I thought the enemy roster was somewhat small (only about a dozen types of enemies existin total) each is impressive.  Drawn from greek myth you’ll be fighting Gorgons, Cerberi, minotaurs and the like.  Enemies are generally large and impressive and often gang up on you. However you’ll rarely see more than one or two types at the same time.

Each of the large enemy types (Gorgons, Cyclops, Centaurs, etc) has a “last throws” mini-game attached.  When you see a circle above their heads approach them and press circle.  You’ll then have to mimic the button presses and stick movements which appear in a quicktime event.  If done correctly you’ll be rewarded with a gruesome death sequence and more energy pickups than if you had worn them down normally.

Lesser enemies still have (several) custom finishing moves but these are easier to obtain: simply hit circle after you’ve worn away at them a bit.

All enemies are tough.  Except for nuisance enemies like the harpies (which almost always attack in flocks) there are no one-hit kills.  The larger of the regular enemies can take several minutes to kill and you’ll often face several at once.

There is essentially no AI to speak of.  Enemies attack on sight with scripted animations and attacks (impressive animations, but scripted nonetheless).  Since in most cases you must defeat enemies in a small area before being allowed to move on this doesn’t affect game play as much as it would in a more open environment but is noticable.

A bigger problem however is that enemies, in addition to being stupid, are “vertically impaired”.  A Satyr, for example, standing on a ledge five feet above you cannot jump down to your level (although they can jump upwards of thirty feet when in battle with you).  This leads to some ridiculously easy battles where you, taking position on lower ground, simply “hop and smack” the enemies while remaining essentially invulnerable to counter-attack.

One nice aspect is the many unusual environments and scenarios in which you battle.  For example there are several places were you must traverse a rope hand over hand.  While doing this undead soldiers will attack you while the game becomes essentially a side-scrolling adventure in the vein of classic “Castlevania” titles.  There are also several climbing scenarios where you must fend off the undead while clinging to rock faces.

There are many, many, MANY places were you must defeat all the enemies in an area (sometimes several waves) before being allowed to move on.  Unlike other games you only very rarely have the option to skip battles by sneaking around or ignoring enemies.  Punctuating battle are simplistic puzzles of the “find the button” variety.  Although some of these can be frustrating (primarily because in several you must perform a task while being attacked by wave after wave of baddie) they are generally clear and easily understood.

Rounding out the experience is some basic platforming.  Some of this, especially the pure platforming environment of Hades, can become INCREDIBLY FRUSTRATING.  Remember how much you loved “Half Life” springing a whole crapload of platforming on you at the very end?  Well “God of War” does the exact same thing.  Cheap deaths, bad respawn points and poorly positioned save points abound in the, thankfully rare, platforming elements.

A saving grace (that’s become more common in better games) is an offer, after several deaths, to decrease the difficulty of the combat.  However this doesn’t affect the platforming or puzzles in the least and that’s where I had most of my frustration.

End Game Problems

If you’re looking for an easy run through, be warned.  The end-game nearly caused me to stop playing.  After your last save point you’re subjected to three increasingly difficult boss battles in a row.  There are no opportunities to save during this sequence.  The battles (especially the latter two) are intensely difficult and, even if done perfectly, can easily take upwards of 20-30 minutes each.  If done incorrectly – as I did repeatedly – this end sequence can feel like a long march into hell.

The last battle also makes us of one of the worst video-game cliché’s (minor spoiler): you lose all of the weapons that you’ve practiced the whole game with are forced to use a new, vastly less impressive weapon.  So, not only is the battle insanely difficult you’re also learning a new weapon while getting your sweet ass kicked (over and over).  It’s also disappointing that the final boss (Ares, of course, no spoiler there) just isn’t as interesting as the regular game enemies.  His attacks and methods could have pulled directly from “Street Fighter”.

I did beat the game: however I spent nearly four hours on JUST the final three battles.  That may say more about my skills than anything else so take it as you will.  Including this marathon of final boss battles the game (on “normal” difficulty) took me in the range of 16 hours to beat.  The game really isn’t that large however as many areas are reused.  The most significant portion of your time will be fighting large groups of enemies in small areas.

Final Thoughts

Replayability is enhanced in several ways.  Once you beat the game you open up the insanely difficult “God Mode” and a special “Challenge of the Gods” mini-game where you must face 10 combat “puzzles” in a row.

It’s nice that these challenges didn’t fall into the “spank a bunch of enemies in row” mold so prominent in adventure games.  The challenges are actually interesting and difficult.  For example you’re asked in one to knock a bunch of weaker enemies off a platform WITHOUT killing them.  This is much harder than it sounds.  In others you must kill all of a certain kind of enemy but leave others untouched and so forth.

Once you beat the game you also gain access to several short “Making of” documentaries (the largest and best documentary is available from the start).  These are actually quite interesting and cover aspects such as character and creature design, architecture design and production.

One of the more interesting extras was a narrated exploration of some of the early game prototypes and “deleted” levels (levels which had some work done on them but never appeared in the game).

There are also several Easter eggs and hidden bonuses which you may easily miss (I suggest hitting GameFaqs.com or the like to make sure you’ve found everything you can).

When all is said and done “God of War” isn’t for everybody.  The ethical issues (as when you must burn a defenseless man alive in order to proceed) may make some squeamish.  The game is (as you’d expect) incredibly combat heavy as well which may not appeal to some.  There is no stealth, very little ranged weapon usage and very little finesse to the title: it’s firmly and unabashedly about raw power.

However if you have any interest at all in the genre, don’t mind a good old-fashioned bloody mess and have the skills you really can’t go wrong with “God of War”.

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