Monday, September 12, 2005

God of War

Sony needed a hit. At least in my house they did, as my early preference towards the PS2 due to its onslaught of exclusive titles was almost completely giving way to the dark will of Microsoft and the Xbox's slow acquisition of said exclusives, paired with its vastly superior hardware. I think it's a somewhat widely-recognized trend that most gamers (if not only those pesky "hardcore" gamers) have been slowly embracing the Xbox over the PS2, thanks in no small part to Sony's ineptitude with peripherals (yeah, thanks for supporting that HDD, guys) and the undeniable superiority of Xbox Live to the PlayStation's weak online offering. So, I guess what I'm trying to say is that Sony needed a big, exclusive hit for the summer of 2005, probably in more locations than my own living room. Their offering was God of War, heavily promoted on the internet and hailed by more than one noteworthy gaming authority as the second coming of Christ after a particularly strong showing at the year's E3 convention. After a few minutes with the game myself, I had a hard time disagreeing. Surprisingly enough, it would appear that Sony's in-house developers can really deliver when the chips are down and they put their hearts into it.

God of War is, at heart, a beat-em-up action game, pulled straight out of the genre's heyday in the early '90s and amped up tenfold. It's set in ancient Greece, a time period that's been surprisingly underexplored by previous titles, and benefits greatly from both the physical setting and the notion that this world, where Gods would toy with men and monsters still roamed the land, operated under a different set of rules. There's a lot of stuff that this game does right, but at the very top of the list is its ability to overwhelm the gamer with jaw-droppingly effective "holy shit" moments, paired with the dramatic camera angles to completely drive the message home. It's something I can only really liken to a great summer Hollywood action movie; the ability to completely and utterly captivate an audience with an astonishing visual, to marry them to the entire package with just a few well-placed, well-executed surprises. I've never, ever played a game that's so effectively drawn me into its world as God of War did, when I stepped through a nondescript doorway in a nearly-obliterated Athens and saw the two hundred foot tall physical manifestation of Ares, the God of War, bearing down on a legion of troops without mercy. Usually these moments are directly related to an upcoming boss battle or the opening of a previously-sealed pathway, but occasionally they'll drop in from out of nowhere, which is when they're really at their most effective.

As Kratos, a former Spartan warrior with a violently checkered past, you're unleashed upon the armies of the undead as they make a move to overthrow the legendary city of Athens. Along the way, you'll run into just about every noteworthy inhabitant of Greek legend and, nine times out of ten, wind up brutally dismembering them in some sort of memorable way. Not much is revealed about Kratos' motivations initially, although you do catch a glimpse of what appears to be his forthcoming demise, and, with just a quick introduction setting the stage, you're thrust into a romanticized view of Greek culture at the height of its influence. Truly, the story itself is merely passable. It serves to carry you from one famous setting to the next, from mythical beast to mythical beast, but it's not something I'm going to go out of my way to commend. Kratos' past especially leaves a lot to be desired, and follows the carefully-established path of cliche from start to finish. Occasionally you'll catch a moment of inspiration, like the time a civilian catches an arrow in the back of the head, right in the middle of a conversation with Kratos, but I was hoping for a bit more depth than what I got. It feels like they finished a rough outline covering all of the game's big moments, and then forgot to fill in the areas in between with substance. On that same hand, the story doesn't get in the way by forcing too much dialog or over-detailed plot development, so I can't say it's totally wretched. I was motivated throughout the game, constantly prodded by the promise of new wonders just around the corner, but found it to be overall a bit shorter than I'd have liked. Start to finish, you'll run through maybe half a dozen different levels. Some are emphasized to the point of redundancy, (I could've done with a little less Athens) some are cut painfully short, (the imaginative level in Hades is just starting to get good when you're pulled away) and others are just long enough (The dungeons and puzzles in Pandora's Temple are very solid). I kept getting the feeling that they were holding some things back for a sequel, and that really started to irritate me by the time I reached the end. Simply enough, the premise of a mythological battle in an ancient setting is enough to carry this game quite a ways, and the story needs almost all the carrying it can get.

The gameplay is a refreshing change of pace from the usual button-mashing fare you'd expect from a third person action title. Sure, there are plenty of moments where you'll find yourself completely surrounded, madly pounding on the square button in the hopes that it will somehow allow you to live through the ordeal. There are also dozens of instances where you'll have no chance in hell if that's the only offensive tactic you've learned. As you progress through the game and slowly build the strength of your weapons, (a pair of short swords, attached to Kratos' arms by chains and swung recklessly in battle) you'll unlock more and more potential attacks, which give you the capability to execute longer and longer combos. What's cool is that none of these attacks are particularly difficult to pull off, and there's a great deal of tact and timing involved in successfully using them. The most difficult combination doesn't require the use of more than three different buttons, and is open-ended to allow you to seamlessly float from one attack to the next. However, try to jump in with a super-powerful assault right off the bat, and your enemies are likely to catch you with a quick jab before you've landed a single blow. There's almost an art to building up a monstrous combination, starting with light shots and slowly, surely increasing in power until you're taking out fresh troops with a single blow and starting to resemble an unstoppable human hurricane of blood, guts and glory. Watching someone who knows what they're doing behind the controller is like watching a great martial arts flick on the screen. The good guy acrobatically takes out three dozen heavily armed baddies, casually sidestepping their attacks and flattening them impressively, never even stopping to take a breath before moving on to the next battle. Watching an inexperienced player, on the other hand, is like watching an early fight on Spike TV's The Ultimate Fighter. Slow, plodding, awkward and wholly unimpressive. The real fun lies in watching the latter slowly transform into the former.

Where God of War really makes its name is in the almost disturbingly violent throws and special maneuvers that are a part of any good combination. Every action / fighter since Double Dragon has had a grappling or throwing system of some sort, however simple and underdeveloped it might be... but in this department, God of War takes all that have come before and literally tears them to shreds in a crimson mist. After sufficiently weakening most enemies, you're given the opportunity to either finish them off traditionally with a few additional shots, or to seal the deal in style by grabbing them and performing some sort of horrific finisher that often leaves them missing limbs, vital organs or entire mid-sections. Naturally, the stronger the enemy, the more impressive the killing blow... but weaker enemies offer a lot more variety than the bosses or their immediate superiors. For example, grab a foot soldier and your options include tearing him in half with your bare hands, driving a gory stampede of steel into his innards, or (my favorite) attaching him to the end of one of your blades, swinging him over your head like a lasso and whipping him into one of his buddies, effectively obliterating the both of them. Some of the things you can do to the bosses almost defy description, and although performing them requires a series of timed button presses, (not unlike the action system of Shenmue) you'll almost always feel like Rambo upon their successful completion thanks to the end result. When you slay a minotaur after a grueling battle, you'll actually feel like you slayed a freaking minotaur. I wanted to call all of my friends and tell them about it, the victory was so satisfying.

As he advances through the game, Kratos also gains access to a few mythical spells to utilize as he pleases. Legendary weapons such as the spear-like lightning bolts traditionally hurled by Zeus and the stone-encasing gaze of Medusa are on the short list of designated magic attacks, but their use is limited by a strict gauge at the top of the screen. Most spells are really just a novelty, rarely coming in handy during a battle and only absolutely necessary on a few specific occasions. As you decimate the enemy hordes, you'll slowly accumulate a collection of red balls of light, which are never actually explained and seem to emanate from the bodies of slain enemies, the occasional treasure chest and the multiple destructible background objects strewn about the game. Once enough of these balls have been saved, you're able to spend them on magic upgrades (which usually just allow you to strike a wider range or to cause more damage) or weapon upgrades (which unlock additional combinations and attacks). I'm fairly sure you can imagine which of these power-ups I concentrated on first.

Physically controlling Kratos, as I alluded to earlier, is just a breeze. The buttons you'll find yourself pounding the most (aside from the analog sticks, of course) are the X and square buttons, which are your jump and basic attack buttons, respectively. The left analog seamlessly controls your movement around the screen, while the right allows you to quickly roll in any direction, avoiding damage and providing an escape from the sticky situations that fill this game. Magic is usually implemented with a combination of the square button and the L2 button, with the triangle button performing a more powerful physical attack and the circle button activating those barbaric grapples and throws. Occasionally you'll run into problems with the grabs, especially when you get further into the game and most enemies aren't susceptible to them until they're extremely worn down. A grab isn't very precise, and routinely targets the wrong enemy when you're facing a crowd. Factor in the speed of these enemies' counter-attacks and the moment's pause a missed grab causes, and I'm sure you can imagine the accumulated hours of cursing I spent on blown attempts at grabbing an enemy. Once you've launched into an attack or leapt into the air, though, these buttons change purpose to allow for a wider variety of attack combinations. For example, rather than causing an abrupt jump into the air and spoiling a combo, the X button usually adds an additional attack when pressed in the middle of a series of other attack-based buttons. Once you're in full-on attack mode, it's all about furthering the punishment you deal, and God of War is very forgiving in that regard.

The cameras control themselves, which is a welcome solution to the camera angles that have plagued so many other third-person games. Although this does cause problems once in a while, giving off-camera enemies the chance to catch you completely by surprise and hiding special items in places that would have otherwise been in plain sight, I think the benefits far outweigh the sacrifices. Without a computer-controlled camera, none of the astonishing visuals I mentioned earlier would have been possible, and the carefully-directed angles throughout the game do an excellent job of highlighting the most visually exciting sections of the screen. It feels like you're controlling a movie from time to time, these angles are so overbearingly cinematic.

The game's visuals are outstanding, especially the high-definition cutscenes that show up once or twice per level, and shows off what are surely the absolute limits of the PS2's graphical potential. I'd put this game in the same class as Final Fantasy X and Gran Turismo 4 visually, at the very top of Sony's heap. The hardware's lack of any anti-aliasing capabilities are occasionally noticeable, which leads me to believe the game would look even better on the Xbox or Gamecube, but on the PS2 it just isn't going to get much better than this. Add a unique visual style that fills every facet of the game, an outstanding set of enemy designs and some top-notch environment detailing and you've got a surefire winner. I really can't commend the cutscenes enough... their ability to transition from faux-historical paintings documenting the events of the game to full-on motion is truly impressive. While the character models aren't as realistic as some of the characters in FFX, they have enough stylization and expression to make up for that difference and then some.

The audio does a fine job of accompanying the visual superiority it's asked to accent, with some very good voice acting stealing the show. A lot of times voice-over work in video games just doesn't feel professional, like the actors are afraid to really let it all hang out and ACT. That's no problem here, as the voices of Kratos, the gods, and even the civilians are strong, well-read and believable. The way some of the dialog was written, many of these lines could have come off as excessively cheesy, (Kratos shouting ARRREEEEES spontaneously on the field of battle immediately springs to mind) but are performed almost spectacularly and add to the game's ability to draw a player in like a great motion picture. The music swells and crescendos as you sail into battle, and calms down as you wander an empty hallway. It rises to meet the arrival of an important cutscene, but never to the point that you notice it building.

Upon completing the game, you unlock a wealth of extras, such as a "making of" documentary, a collection of internet trailers used to promote the game before its release, deleted levels with commentary from the development team, a look at the testing process, an in-game glimpse at the progression of each enemy's look and feel (complete with a penis and pubic hair on a developmental model for the Cyclops monsters) and much, much more. The extra materials do a great job of further establishing this as a cross-breeding of Hollywood and video games, and truly expand your appreciation for the game and the amount of detail that went into it. Also available upon completion is the mind-crushingly difficult "challenge of the gods," which is a series of ten challenges that range from very difficult (defeat about twenty enemies within the time limit without taking a single hit) to completely insane (kill four specific enemies from a crowd of thirty without annihilating any of the others) and really push your abilities to the limit. If you manage to complete "Challenge of the Gods," you'll unlock a series of comical costumes for Kratos to wear throughout the game, as well as the opportunity to enjoy them, as you'll have probably developed the ability to finish the whole thing again without even breaking a sweat.

With an unprecedented amount of gratuitous violence, blood, guts, gore, full-frontal nudity and various sex scenes, I can't over-emphasize God of War's rating as an M title. It's not for kids, and it's probably not for some weak-hearted adults. If you've been to a summer blockbuster over the last few years, however, you've seen it all before. For a tough-to-offend guy in his mid-20s such as myself, this game is a hell of a lot of fun. The battles are deep, but not over-detailed and confusing. The story is exciting, if not totally compelling. The graphics are top-of-the-line, and the audio is very, very good. Despite a few missteps in the battle system and a few weak moments in the story, I haven't played a more enjoyable game on the PS2 all year. The difficulty is set firmly on a slow curve, the fights grow to be very difficult, but never infuriatingly so, and the boss fights are something special. The length from start to finish is bothersome, as things are just starting to get really good when the credits begin to roll, but for the time you'll spend actually playing, this is solid gold.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 9.0

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