"God of War is fuckin' rad."
That's a quote from "The Making of God of War," a nicely done documentary included on the God of War disk. Yes, they drop the f-bomb in it. Twice, actually. But this is an M-rated game after all, and I rather enjoyed seeing a video game documentary using swear words.
And the speaker is correct, God of War is fuckin' rad. Although I wouldn't necessarily consider the word "rad" a compliment, since, to me, there's a linger of lameness, a pall of poseur on the word "rad." Guys who say "fuckin' rad" are the guys who sit in the back of the classroom etching middle fingers and swastikas on the desks. As it happens, a goodly portion of God of War is directed squarely at those guys. Fuckin' rad indeed.
God of War is a third person adventure, exclusive to Sony. It's sort of a brand new IP for them, if you can call a game based on public domain Greek mythology "brand new IP." My estimation is that Sony was looking for some new mature exclusives and their tact was to darken both the Ratchet and Jak series... and create God of War. God of War is very much like Devil May Cry, a fast and gory linear killfest through lush environments.
The lead is Kratos, a bloodthirsty Spartan warrior, who is so badass that he doesn't even wear armor. His weapon is a nasty dual-blades-on-chains affair that he whips around like a choreographed fan dancer. To get these "Blades of Chaos," Kratos struck a deal with Ares, the God of War... offering his service in exchange for great power. But as the game begins, Kratos has grown disillusioned with his choice and has set out to kill his former master. The game goes to great pains to portray Kratos as an unsympathetic killing machine, even as he travels to put the knife to the guy who made him an unsympathetic killing machine. During the few early levels that contain "civilian" Greeks, you can slice them up just as easily as the skeleton jerks that pop up everywhere. There's even one bit where a delirious Greek soldier refuses to extend a bridge for you and the only way to proceed is to kill him with your Zeus Lightning distance attack. You're not immediately told the entire story of Kratos's Faustian deal, but he has clearly been through Hades and back and is bone-weary of his cruel fate. In fact, the game's opening movie shows him commiting suicide... which then cuts to "Three Weeks Earlier..."
It's an intriguing way to begin a tale, and the backstory continues in multiple flashbacks as you progress. The FMVs here are among the finest you're likely to see this generation on any system. The fully animated Kratos is wonderful to watch, and the movies eventually adopt an interesting "arty" style that seems to bring epic Greek frescoes to life. It is far from the deepest story ever told - you'll probably see Kratos's big heartbreaking turning point coming from a mile away - but it is very well told, as long as you can stand the blood.
And there is a ton of blood, a ridiculous amount of blood. The art design is "add blood, then more blood." The movies and the in-game animations positively reek with it. Which is probably why I feel the "fuckin' rad" comment is so appropriate. The entire game is decorated in blood and chains, spikey armor and fangs. And, honestly, as soon as a game starts doing that, it's rather difficult to take the subject seriously... because every character looks like it was pulled from a heavy metal album cover circa 1987. When the documentaries start talking about their deep art design and character visuals, I have to laugh. Dude, you took the most common mythological archetypes - gorgons, cyclops, harpies, minotaurs, etc - and just stapled spikey armor to them. Every ninth grade study hall does this all the time.
In addition, every woman Kratos meets exhibits her pendulous assets in a toga that would probably pass for realistic period garb, if only every nubile young female in Ancient Greece was a triple-D and dead sexy. I didn't mind seeing topless gorgons, nyads and sirens - nude beasts like that seems sensible, to my mind, even if some do err towards the "hot" end of the scale. But when the Oracle of Athens came trotting out with massive pornstar breasts and only a see-through veil covering them, I got the distinct feeling that I was being pandered to. Again, fuckin' rad.
But I can dig it. It's M-rated. I just have trouble elevating this game to the levels of the Great Gaming Masters when it's just an overtly dark spin on Greek myths with plenty of gore and tits. It's a pretty game, it's a graphically dense game... it's just not in the same league as the truly great games that deliver great graphics, deep gameplay and an engrossing story, like Metal Gear Solid 2 or Kingdom Hearts or Fatal Frame 2. God of War's eagerness for young male teen street cred sort of eats its own foot, hitting a major artery along the way.
Now, about that gameplay. The carnal, violent fighting is obviously the core of the game. Your blades are upgradable as you go, unlocking more special combo moves. You also gradually earn four different magic spells, similarly upgradeable. The increased firepower keeps the game from getting boring, but only just, since it remains easier to keep hammering the basic attacks rather than going for complicated button sequences. As you slaughter your foes, your Rage meter fills, which can be used to enter a Rage of the Gods mode that briefly powers Kratos up to the Nth degree. The Rage meter fills rather slowly, however, so it's not something you can waste whenever you want.
The enemies are hard. I played through on Normal and many times I felt the odds were completely overwhelming. The baddies are relentless and have a way of getting right up in your face so that you can't pull off the special attacks anyway. Example: There's these advanced grunt types with spectral shields that you can only damage if you do a square-square-triangle combo... and of course the bastards consistently edge themselves inside your combo animation so as to cancel out your triangle every time. The only way to get at them is to outpace them - which is tough because they're almost as fast as you - and go for your special shield-breaker move hoping they're out of range. You'll find instances like that all the time, where the baddies cancel out your bitchin' combos. Combine that problem with big arena rooms that hold an uncertain number of spawns... you'll beat the odds and take down two massive cyclopi only to see another pair crawl up out of the muck. It's disheartening and challenging all at the same time. Happily, the game is generally aware of the difficulty, as there are life refill boxes all over the place.
In basic combat, you definitely have to earn your chops, and learn to take a few unwanted deaths when you hit the rooms that drop a chain of 30 guys on you. As is usual with action games that have a big list of button combo moves, they're there if you want them, but most of your skill comes in timing your basic attacks better and learning how to get out of the way of the high-hurt enemy slices. And to give you a "high score" of a sort to reach for, you can chain your attacks together to make an impressive hit count. I easily cleared 150 hits in one go several times, but, like I said, I never indulged the intricacies of the combat attack skill list.
Every enemy comes with a fun killing move, triggered by a context-sensitive grab attack. In some cases, starting the kill animation is the best - or only - way to bring down a baddie. The bigger monsters require a couple context buttons (vaguely PaRappa-esque in function) and if you screw it up, you get thrown to the ground. There is a certain strategy here, since the killing animation often turns up a different selection of powerups. An outright beheading of a minotaur drops experience orbs, but if you go after the killing move, you initiate a knife-in-the-throat maneuver that spits up life orbs instead.
The first boss fight - the hydra battle seen in the demo - is unfortunately one of the few boss fights. It's like seeing all of a movie's best lines in the trailer. There's really only three boss fights through the entire 8 hour game: the hydra, a giant steampunk mega-minotaur, and Ares himself. It looks like a case of the game simply being forced into release too early, as there are many other sections when the game clumsily tosses in an annoying baddie ambush where there could have been some kind of differentiated boss sequence. Which sucks, because the first two boss fights are really quite good, with plenty of contextual kill scenes and a specific method to killing them. The final boss fight isn't as fun (see sidebar).
The worst part of the gameplay is the sad reliance on trial-and-error during the dungeon bits. Many times you'll find a level degrading into booby traps that kill you instantly if you mis-step. Dying twenty times in a row while you try to poke your way through a death trap is awful. It's a total momentum stopper.
I also find the controls far too floaty. The viewpoint is game-controlled, meaning there's lots of slow dramatic camera movements that create a tendency to complicate Kratos's relative analog stick controls. It makes walking along a slender balance beam, for example, far more difficult than it should be. Whoops, he tripped again!
There is no denying that the camera's cinematic flair makes the game more exciting, however, and there is plenty of gape-worthy scenery. This is a late-life PS2 game and it shows... the levels are striking to look at, bubbling with detail. And all with very little loading! Thanks to plenty of expertly placed long, blank hallways, the loading times are almost completely masked for a seamless experience. The city of Athens, the dungeon on Kronos's back, the Aegean Sea; all amazing to behold and, thankfully, only about half the game is hidden in those dark PS2 graphic-friendly shadows. One solitary level disappoints: the Hades bit that is utterly lacking in design and imagination. It's just bone pillars in a lava bed, less convincing than the final battle in Revenge of the Sith. The game dev's order of priority seems to have been combat first, environments second, and enemies last. The Underworld aside, this is a world you would want to explore... which, of course, you mostly can't since the levels are chiefly linear in design.
Along with the excellent visuals, the voice work is also top-notch. Kratos has a rich, powerful voice; the narrator is suitably foreboding. The soundtrack is perfectly epic, although not truly distinctive or memorable.
God of War was a much-honored game at E3 2004, and a glance at the surface seems to explain why. It looks great, pulls no punches with myth-on-myth violence, and has an asskicking attack style. It is a franchise-making game. However, a deeper examination shows some rushed level design, underbaked controls, and an childish fascination with overdone gore. I can see a lot of casual gamers getting pulled in by the sweet combat graphics but then quitting in frustration (or heading straight to the cheat codes.) I'm sure a sequel is coming, but I hope they hold it for mid-life PS3 and refine "fuckin' rad" down to delivering the total package.