Monday, April 29, 2013

Bad Dudes Vs. DragonNinja (Data East, 1988)

Remember arcades? Sure, they're still around in one form or another, but not the way they used to be. For decades, arcades were magical worlds that offered brief glimpses into the future. Imagine being able to go to your local mall and pay a quarter to play on a PS5 for a few minutes. Back when home gaming consoles were still that new thing the kids were into, arcade machines could offer technological feats that the home market usually wouldn't be able to match for a generation or two.

During the late 80s and early 90s, one of the largest genres was the side scrolling beat 'em up. Most of them closely followed the formula established by Double Dragon in 1987. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Golden Axe, several Marvel super hero franchises, and even The Simpsons had games of the style. However, a few tried to go in their own directions. One of those games was Bad Dudes Vs. DragonNinja.

When Bad Dudes first came out, I mostly remember it as being "that fighting game that's not Double Dragon". While it never really got out of Double Dragon's shadow in terms of success or popularity, it still managed to offer a fun arcade experience that was all its own. Sure, it was obviously influenced by Double Dragon which came out a year before it, but also by the co-op shooter platformers of the time such as Konami's Contra and Rush 'n Attack before it. While Double Dragon and most of the arcade beat 'em ups that came after were played in a pseudo 3D perspective, Bad Dudes had a more traditional strict side view. What it lost in ground maneuverability, it made up for with multi-level platforming action.

The levels generally offer two platforms to play on which can be jumped between at any point, similar to Sega's classic Shinobi. These platforms are often blocked or broken, forcing the player to utilize both in order to effectively navigate through the areas. Breaking up the constant scrolling to the right, the screen sometimes shifts up or down causing the upper or lower platform to become the other. This allows levels to travel up and down hills, follow elevators between floors of buildings, and other tricks that while mundane by today's standards, were genre innovations at the time.

For added variety, Bad Dudes also has two vehicle levels. The first has you fighting on top of semi trailers as they speed down the highway, which playing it again after so many years reminded me a lot of the freeway scene it the second Matrix movie. I don't have any reason to think that the Wachowski brothers were directly inspired by Bad Dudes, but who knows? The second has you fighting on top of a moving train, paying tribute to the classic scenes in so many westerns and spy movies. Vehicle levels would later become a standard element of games in the beat 'em up genre, inspiring several memorable moments, such as the rocket skateboard level in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade game.

You can't review a beat 'em up game without going into detail about the combat. Bad Dudes actually has a much different combat system than most other games of the genre. Most of the enemies you'll come across can be defeated with a single hit, which is fortunate because you'll be fighting off a lot of them! It might not be the most realistic depiction of hand to hand combat in gaming, even for its time, but fending off dozens of foes at a time makes for a great fast paced arcade experience and certainly conveys a sense of power onto the player. You feel like these really are bad dudes. The controls are also less typical for the genre, with only two buttons, jump and attack, instead of the more common three button configuration with separate punch and kick buttons. Even with the somewhat limited input, the game is very context sensitive and manages to pick the most appropriate attack for the situation. There is actually an impressive number of attack moves hiding beneath the surface of the game. One thing it does lack however is any sort of block or dodge ability, but this can mostly be overcome by jumping to the other platform to avoid an enemy's attack. This move becomes increasingly useful in the many boss battles.

As powerful as the standard enemies make you feel as you punch and kick your way through the mobs of fodder, the boss fights manage to keep you humble as they keep you reaching for the next quarter. The bosses have some pretty clever designs, each one requiring a different technique to defeat. Trying to simply hack your way through them will cost you several lives and continues. My favorite was the green ninja who duplicated himself. You have to take down each of his clones before you are able to land a few punches and kicks on him, only to have him start the multiplying process all over again. Karnov, the fire breathing russian star of his own arcade classic, makes a cameo as the boss of level 1. On the NES port, one of the later bosses strongly resembles the lead character from Bionic Commando, leading me to think for years that this was another cameo. However, in the arcade version it is clear that it's just a guy swinging a long chain above his head.

I'll admit that growing up I played the NES port much more often than the actual arcade machine. Because of that, I always think of the NES sprites when remembering this game. Playing the arcade version again, I was surprised by the quality of the graphics. It's not the best looking game, but for the era it looks good. The characters are large and detailed, and the environments, while not the most inspired ever, always look like they fit the style well. The UI graphics are a letdown though. The health meter bars are blocky and look like something from an 8-bit console, and the extra lives icons could pass for Atari 2600 characters. Luckily, the constant onslaught of action keeps your eyes from wandering down to the UI for more than quick glances.

Like many action games of the late 80's, the story doesn't make much sense. The United States is in the middle of a ninja attack epidemic, culminating in the kidnapping of president Ronnie, who looks like a blond Ronald Reagan. How does the government respond to this crisis? Do they send in the Secret Service? The Marines? The FBI? The Boy Scouts? Nope, taking a page from Escape from New York, they send a pair of unarmed street fighters to punch and kick their way through the ninja forces and rescue the commander and chief of the nation with the world's largest military. What is your reward for pulling off this historical and monumental achievement? You get to go for burgers with the president while hundreds of Secret Service agents cheer. Where were these guys earlier?

The sound in Bad Dudes is a real treat. The music is on par with some of the best of the FM synth era, providing energetic tunes that keep your adrenalin up without distracting from the gameplay. But, the big winning feature has to be the digital audio sound effects. It's hard now to remember a time when sound effects in games were programmed instead of recorded, but before the SNES, that was the standard. This game uses digital recordings for the various sounds, and even a few short lines of dialog, including the "I'm bad!" sample that plays at the end of each stage to celebrate your victory over the level's boss.

Is Bad Dudes Vs. DragonNinja the greatest arcade game ever? No. Was it the best arcade game of its time? I'll have to say no again. But, it's hard to deny that it's an extremely entertaining game that will test your reflexes for a good half hour or so, and as a two player co-op title, it's a great game to load up while hanging out with a friend. The real question is, "Are you a bad enough dude?"

Friday, April 26, 2013

Freecell Solitaire (Softick, 2009)

Pop quiz! What is the most popular video game of all time? It's not Call of Duty, or World of Warcraft, or anything with Mario in it. The most popular video game in the world is Solitaire. Almost everybody plays it. It's simple, it's addicting, and it comes pre-installed on most computers. For millions, it's the first thing to click on when waiting for a large download, or just when the boss isn't looking at work.

When I first got my Gateway 486 running Windows 3.1 back in the early 90s, Microsoft's version of Klondike Solitaire was waiting for me and sucked away many hours of my time. When I got my Windows 95 system, it had a new Solitaire game to offer, a game called FreeCell. I quickly became a convert from Klondike to FreeCell and never looked back. Almost a decade ago when I had an early Sidekick II smartphone, I downloaded my first mobile FreeCell game from its app store. When I made the switch to Windows Mobile, the first thing I downloaded was a FreeCell game, and again when I jumped on the Android bandwagon. I've spent a lot of time playing a lot of video games over the years, but I believe I've spent more hours playing that Android FreeCell game than I have any other.

Before getting into my review of this particular App, I should start out by giving an overview of the game itself for those of you less familiar with it.

Unlike most forms of Solitaire, a game of FreeCell begins with every card on the table face up. The initial shuffle and deal to start the hand is the only random element to the game. There is no guessing what might come next, no hoping for the card you need, only thinking and strategizing. FreeCell is a puzzle. If you have the time, it is entirely possible to deal a game, and then just stare at it until you've figured out the entire solution. I've never done that myself, but I often think through several moves before touching the first card.

What gives FreeCell its name is that rather than moving entire stacks of cards at a time as in most Solitaire variations, you can only move a single card per turn. Four free cells are available to hold any card you'd like to put there, but can hold only one card each. Keeping these cells from filling up is the key to success. Moving one card at a time is a tedious process, so most electronic releases allow you to move multiple cards at once, provided that you have enough free places to accommodate the move if you were to do it one at a time. Some games have you click on the highest card in the stack that you want to move, some have you click the stack multiple times to select multiple cards to move.

In order to be user friendly on a small phone screen, Softick's Freecell has an intuitive system to just know what it is you want to do. You drag the top card off of a stack, and the maximum amount of cards that can be moved will highlight, along with any stacks that any of them can be placed on. After dragging to one of these other stacks, the game works out how to make it work and you don't have to think about it. The dragging is fast and responsive and feels incredibly fluid as you drag the virtual cards around the screen, even on older devices such as the first generation Motorola Droid that I used to own.

Winning a hand presents the expected animation flourishes which can be skipped simply by tapping the screen if you'd rather just get on to the next deal. Several gameplay options are available including keeping score and timing your game. I usually leave these disabled, as I play for the puzzle, not the score. There are also several aesthetic options controlling the style of the cards, the background, and what animations the cards perform. It even allows custom backgrounds based on images on your phone, or even can use your phone's camera to make new backgrounds.

The best part about this app is that it saves the card layout as you go. Even if your phone locks up and you have to take the battery out to reset it, the next time you launch the game you'll find the cards sitting exactly where you left them. There's no need to go into a save menu or an options screen, like so much else in the game, Softick made it thoughtlessly simple and intuitive.

Overall, there's not much to this game, but it's not a game that needs a lot. As I mentioned earlier, out of all of the games I've ever played, this is the game I've spent the most time playing. It's been my first choice for years for when I've got a minute or two to spare, and out of all of the FreeCell games I've tried, this one just feels the best. It's a free game too, so if you've got an android device and like solitaire, it's worth looking up.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Beyond Good & Evil (Ubisoft, 2003)

After playing through Ico, I was curious about other games that might have slipped under my radar. I remember a year or so ago when I was eagerly awaiting the release of Darksiders II, I went online looking for games that were also heavily influenced by The Legend of Zelda. Most of them were games I already knew about: Okami, Landstalker, Darksiders, Neutopia, StarTropics, great original games often brushed aside as "Zelda Clones". But then there was Beyond Good & Evil. Somehow I had never heard of this one. I added it to my wishlists on both Steam and GoG, and patiently waited for it to go on sale. At some point it finally did, and I happily purchased it, yet it sat in my ever growing list of games to play for a while. After finishing Ico, it was finally time to give it a spin.

I should start out by clarifying that even though Beyond Good & Evil is clearly influenced by Ocarina of Time and Wind Waker, it is far from a standard Zelda clone. For the most part it plays more like a traditional RPG than any of the Zelda games, with a strong focus on speaking to various NPCs and following clues rather than the standard "go to X dungeons and collect all of the magic foo!" quests. On the other hand, the game is much more linear than most RPGs, and the gameplay is more action oriented, so it exists in its own space somewhere in the middle. This somewhere in the middle style might have been what led to disappointing sales when Beyond Good & Evil first launched. It never really found its audience until years later when people started to regard it as a classic. Recently it has been re-released in an enhanced HD version. I didn't have that one, so instead I played through the original 2003 version.

The gameplay overall incorporates many different elements from a variety of genres. You get stealth missions, vehicle races, puzzle solving, aerial combat, and even some platforming. The game is a jack of all trades, and while it doesn't quite master any of them, it manages to pull most of them off surprisingly well. The mechanics do feel a little awkward at times, and there are several signs of lack of polish. The camera sometimes clips through objects. Transitions between regions often show your hovercraft crashing into walls. NPC companions tend to get in your way more than they should. Saving your progress involves sitting through slightly excessive animation sequences. This game came out a decade ago, and really tried to reach beyond what games were doing at the time. Somebody at Ubisoft must have been feeling extremely ambitious when this game was designed. Luckily, what the game got right more than makes up for what the game got wrong.

Similar to Zelda/Metroid style games, Beyond Good & Evil is set in a somewhat open world, with most sections blocked off until certain keys, items, or vehicle upgrades are acquired. The game is set on a mostly water based sci-fi world, and an upgradable hovercraft is used to travel between the various islands. These upgrades are all purchased at the same shop using pearls that you collect throughout the game. This makes it feel a bit more arbitrary and less like a natural progression than what you get in most of these types of games where you find the objects along the way, but it serves its purpose well enough, and actually makes a lot more sense from a story perspective.

The game is broken down into a handful of large dungeon-like areas, with side quests and RPG style gameplay in between. It's not uncommon to have an action or combat sequence in the middle of an otherwise peaceful and safe area. Sometimes, progression on the main quest is only possible by purposely failing a side quest in interesting ways. An element that I found refreshingly original about the game is that even though there is plenty of combat and item collecting throughout the game, the main point of each mission isn't to collect ancient relics or destroy the bad guys. You're main mission is to photograph important evidence. You play as a photo journalist turned resistance fighter trying to expose a conspiracy. This doesn't mean that there aren't boss fights however, but your mission is completed when you get the right photos, and the boss fights are simply story elements that stand between you and your destinations.

The side quests in the game are varied and plentiful. There are heavily fortified bases to sneak through to collect better equipment or other items, hovercraft races to earn extra pearls, caves to explore, even an air hockey style game you can play in the bar. One of the more interesting side quests, and your primary source of income early in the game, is photographing the planet's wildlife. At the beginning of the game you are tasked with photographing every species of creature in the game, NPCs, enemies, bosses, or even just random aesthetic flavor animals. Each one you get a picture of rewards you with cash, and finishing an entire roll rewards you with a pearl or an equipment upgrade.

I've mentioned taking pictures as part of missions, but the in game camera has other uses too. Equipping it puts you into a first person view allowing you to get a better view of your surroundings. It can also identify certain objects which helps you make sense of some of the futuristic areas you'll venture into throughout your journey. In combat it's used as a way to aim projectile weapons. On top of all that, you have a number of slots for personal photos, so you can take a picture at any time of anything in the game and it will save it to one of these personal photo slots that you can look at later.

The combat in the game is fun and straight forward, and reminded me of a simplified version of the Ocarina of Time combat system. For the most part, there's a single attack button to swing a baton-like weapon at enemies. Later in the game you gain the ability to fire projectiles, and you're generously given unlimited ammunition. As simple as the combat controls are, some of the enemies require special strategies. Some of them must be hit in the back, others can only be defeated by knocking them into environmental hazards. You also are always accompanied by at least one NPC companion who will assist you in battle. Some special attacks require teamwork between the two of you.

Because I've so recently raved about the great automatic camera in God of War and ranted about my annoyances with the automatic camera in Ico, I should mention my thoughts on the Beyond Good & Evil camera system. Back in 2003, the industry norm was still transitioning from the automatic camera to the manual camera control. As Beyond Good & Evil strives to be all things, it attempts to combine both methods. And, as with the rest of the game, it works great most of the time, but at times it falls short. As with most modern games, you can directly control the camera to orbit around you and let you see in the direction you choose. This lets you examine your surroundings and figure out the best path toward your goal. If you run along through the world, the camera will find its way behind you to give an over the shoulder view. While sneaking through tight corridors, the camera will snap to interesting angles giving you an appropriate view of important elements. The problem arises at points when you are controlling the camera manually, yet it still snaps to a new angle on its own. There were times during some of the stealth missions where I would sneak quickly into a room trying to get past a guard before he turned around. As soon as I would enter the room, the camera would snap to a new angle, also orienting my controls to the new angle. This could cause me to accidentally run back the way I entered, run into a corner, or run directly into the guard. It doesn't happen often enough to ruin the experience, but it does happen often enough to be noticeable.

The tone of the story is much deeper and darker than the cartoony art style would suggest. Everything has a very Pixar style look to it, and the majority of the cast consists of anthropomorphized animal people. It's a story of government conspiracies, child abductions, competing propaganda, alien invasion, and hidden agendas. The story holds together well despite being told through rastafarian rhinoceroses and a grizzled old pig man. There are funny moments, there are sad moments, there are exciting moments. It attempts to pull you through a roller coaster of emotions, and while it generally fails at that, it does at least maintain a consistent level of charm. By the end of the story you really care about the characters, and although it wraps up with a satisfying conclusion, you are still left wishing to know what happens next in the story.

If you're planning on playing Beyond Good & Evil, I need to give a warning. If you've read my Space Quest review, you'll remember how I mentioned older adventure games sometimes containing dead ends. These were situations you could get into where you can't progress further in the game because you didn't do something earlier that you're no longer able to go back and do. Beyond Good & Evil has one of these situations, and it's a bad one because several hours of gameplay separate the point when you need to do something and the point when you get stuck if you didn't. I don't want to give any plot spoilers, but there is an item that you have to pick up in one of the dungeons. It's an item that is introduced earlier in the game, and it's personal to one of the NPCs that is close with your character. Be on the lookout for items throughout this game.

My overall impression is that even though this is a game with many faults, it's much greater than the sum of its parts. There have been rumors for years about a possible sequel, and even a few leaked images. I really hope this gets made at some point because this is a game that while obviously influenced by others, is bubbling over with originality of its own, and with a modern release it could really push gaming in refreshing new directions.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Ico (Team Ico, 2001)

Months ago, when I was playing through Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, I heard that it was greatly influenced by a game called Ico. At the time I'd never heard of Ico, so I looked up a couple youtube videos of it, thought it looked pretty cool, and then completely forgot about it. More recently while playing through God of War, I heard that it too was influenced by Ico. This time it really got my attention, so I started looking for more information about it. It turns out that this little game that I'd never heard of had directly influenced a lot of games including one of my all time favorites, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. At this point, I just had to play through it. I started looking online for a copy for PS2 when I found that it was included in a PS3 HD bundle. I had some gift cards left over from the holidays, so I picked up a copy that weekend from a local shop, and as soon as I'd finished God of War, it was time to finally see what all of the fuss was about.

Needless to say, I went into this game with my expectations high. In hindsight, that was probably a bad move, but more on that later. The first thing I have to say is that the PS3 HD release looks great! After just playing through one of the best looking PS2 games ever released, I had the perfect perspective on just how much the additional HD detail added to the look of the game. The game's atmosphere is dark and lonely and goes great with the minimalist story. As soon as I started playing it I could see how it must have influenced so many games that came after it.

After I got used to the atmosphere, the game's puzzles really started to make an impact on me. They were mostly platforming based puzzles, and I can see how they influenced the Prince of Persia games that came after, but there was something off about it. The platforming didn't feel right. I'm not just saying that it wasn't up to Prince of Persia standards because not much is, but something just felt off about it. After just playing through God of War, I was able to overlook the not quite right platforming mechanics because it didn't have the best feeling platforming either. But still, the puzzles in Ico seemed to rely on the platforming a lot more than the puzzles in God of War did. Something just felt a bit off.

The puzzles in this game are devious. They really force you to think, but they also rely on having knowledge that is never presented. In fact, very little knowledge is ever presented in this game. I'd say that this game doesn't involve hand holding except for the fact that the majority of this game is based around hand holding. (more on that later) I'll give an example. There's a section fairly early in the game where it's obvious that you need to get a stone structure to fall, but your only clue on how to do it is that there are candles nearby. The solution is that you need to go into a different room, find a large bomb. The problem is that the rooms all have a lot of vases in them, and the bombs that are in a completely different room all look a lot like vases, and the game has not in any way implied that there are bombs anywhere by this point. This pretty much sets the tone for how a lot of the game felt. It's not that the puzzles are insanely hard, it's just that I felt the game wasn't establishing the rules I was expected to follow.

I mentioned the hand holding earlier. That's because you spend the game dragging a girl named Yorda around a castle while holding her hand. Yes, the entire game is one long escort mission. Yorda doesn't generally follow around you either, you have to take her hand and lead her around behind you while sometimes looking like you're yanking her arm out of her socket. When she's across the room you can call her to come to you, and when she's farther away you can yell for her and she may or may not make her way slowly towards you. If you leave Yorda alone for too long, bad things happen. So, you spend most the game dragging her around behind you.

It's not all puzzle solving and platforming though. What kind of escort mission would it be without something to protect Yorda from? To fill that need, this game has blob monsters. Lots of games have had some form of blob monster. Kingdom Hearts and Metroid Prime 2: Echoes come to mind, possibly also influenced by Ico. The blob monsters here are solid black creatures covered in solid black particle effects. Every so often I could catch glimpses of shape that implied that some artist probably spent a lot of time sculpting these creatures only to have all of that work nullified by the unshaded rendering and over use of particles. What you see on the screen for the most part is a wiggly black blob. They actually look pretty impressive the first time you see them, but since all of the enemies have the same blobby effect on them, they all tend to look alike and the enemy encounters start to get redundant feeling.

But who cares what it looks like, how does it play? To describe Ico's combat in one word, squishy. Every time I fought an enemy, it just felt squishy. Early in the game you use a wooden stick to fight, which later gets replaced by better weapons. No matter what weapon you have, it just doesn't feel right. You have one attack to use against enemies. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it just goes right through them. Sometimes they wait on the ground where you can't hit them for no good reason until they finally just decide to pop up. Sometimes they just fly away as soon as you get close enough to hit them and you have to chase them around the room. If you ever get hit, you get knocked to the ground, and it takes way too long before you're able to stand up again. Meanwhile, the blob monsters are constantly trying to grab Yorda and pull her down into the nearest blob hole. If they do, it's game over, so you need to go and pull her back out of the hole so you can drag her around more while trying to swing at the blobs.

The average combat sequence goes something like this. You drag Yorda into a new area. The way is blocked, so you have to climb up some elaborate platforming course to get to a switch or something. Yorda can't climb, so you have to leave her there. You get a little over half way to the switch and the blob monsters show up. You quickly try to make you way back down the elaborate platforming course in order to just barely have time to pull her out of the nearest blob hole and then engage in an extended session of squishy blob monster combat. Once they're all gone, you start over on the elaborate platforming course. The elaborate platforming courses are actually pretty fun to figure out the first time through them, but they are made considerably less fun by having to run through them three times in a row like this.

Making matters worse is the camera system that never quite lets you get a good look at whatever it is you're supposed to see. After how much I enjoyed the automated camera system in God of War, I was surprised by how irritated this one made me. A lot of the puzzles spanned large areas, and it was never possible to get a good look at everything at once to try to figure out a solution without some degree of blind trial and error. The right analog stick lets you see a little more of what's around you, but not how you would expect. How far the stick is pulled from center directly effects how far from its default angle the camera wants to turn, but then it travels to that new position at its own slow pace making it extremely difficult to ever point it where you want. Plus, the camera pivots in place rather than orbiting the player like in most games, so the perspective never changes, making simple tasks like standing in the right spot to jump up and grab a hanging chain into a guessing game.

Then there are the save game couches. There's no other furniture in the entire castle, but whoever built it must have had a thing for couches. In order to save your game, you first have to find a couch, then sit on it, then convince Yorda to eventually also wander over to the couch and sit down next to you. The placement of these couches throughout the game is pretty inconsistent. Sometimes they're at the beginning of a new area, sometimes at the end, and sometimes just randomly in the middle. Sometimes you finish a difficult section, and then don't see another one for half an hour. Sometimes they're in two rooms in a row. The last couch you ever see in the game (and I verified this on a walkthrough) is over two hours from the end of the game. That means if you're the type of gamer who generally only has an hour at a time to play, you will probably never finish this game.

The graphics look sharp and detailed throughout the game, and at any point it generally looks good, but after a while all of the grayish brownish brick textures start to look very similar. There's not a lot of visual variety in this game. I understand that it all takes place in the same castle, but so do most Castlevania games and they still manage to make new areas feel new, even in their 8-bit versions.

I know I've been complaining a lot so far in this review, but I don't want to make it sound like this was a bad game. If I'd played this game before playing all of the games that it influenced I'm sure it would have had a much stronger impression on me. If I hadn't played it right after playing through God of War I might have overlooked a lot of what bugged me about this game. There really was a lot about this game that I enjoyed. The final areas of the game in particular had a much different pace to them as you ventured into new areas. The final boss battle was creatively presented. The overall minimalistic story was well done and kept my interest. In fact, I'd say that Ico's biggest fault was simply in not living up to my expectations. It wasn't my favorite gaming experience, but it's one that I'm glad I had none the less.

Monday, April 1, 2013

God of War (Santa Monica/Sony, 2005)

As I mentioned in my BrĂ¼tal Legend and Uncharted reviews, I recently got a new PS3 (just in time for the PS4 announcement!) and I've been looking for games to stock up on for it. Shortly after I got it, a friend of mine started suggesting the God of War series. I'd played several games that were directly inspired by the franchise, especially in the combat mechanics, and I'd had the first two games of the series sitting on the shelf for a couple years now. After huddling up with the space heater in the basement through Mass Effect, I decided playing a game upstairs where it's warm wouldn't be such a bad idea, so I fired up my PS2 for the first time since playing through Okami a year and a half earlier.

Whenever anybody mentions God of War, or any of the sequels, it's almost always to talk about the combat. Either it's being praised for its influence and originality, or it's being mocked for ripping off earlier games such as Devil May Cry. Either way, somebody is always talking about the combat system. So, going into the game I was expecting it to mostly be based around that. I've played plenty of hack n' slash and beat 'm up style games over the years, going all the way back to Double Dragon at the arcade. I'd say I'm a fan of the genre, even though I haven't really played many of the newer titles. I have to say that the combat in God of War lived up to every expectation that I'd built up over the years, but what surprised me was that the game was so much more than just mindless button mashing battles.

There is a huge important detail about God of War that for whatever reason nobody ever thought to mention to me. It's a simple fact about the game that if I'd known earlier, I probably would have played through the series long ago. This vital piece of information that I was kept in the dark about for the past 7+ years is this: God of War is a puzzle game. Not a puzzle game in the sense of Peggle or Cut the Rope, but more in the Legend of Zelda or Prince of Persia style. The game constantly throws clever challenges at the player that require creative thinking more than twitch reflexes to solve them. Unlike the aforementioned games however, every single puzzle is different. Generally puzzle games will establish a few types of puzzle mechanics and then expand on them throughout the game. In God of War, every puzzle you face is completely different than any other puzzle you have previously faced in the game.

The another thing that surprised me about the game was the platforming aspect of it. Going in, I wasn't even sure if the game would have a jump button. Not only does Kratos jump, he also climbs up ledges, scales the sides of mountains, swings from ropes, and prances across rolling tubes of death throughout ancient Greece. The problem is that the actual platforming mechanics aren't very good. The jumping and general platforming in the game just doesn't quite feel right, especially when compared to how incredibly polished the combat and puzzle elements are. In early levels, there is very little jumping required, and when there is, it's a simple part of solving a puzzle. Later on, there is more wall climbing and rope swinging, and these are at least up to Zelda standards, and used in ways that don't get in the way of gameplay. Towards the end though, there is an entire section of the game focused on "showcasing" the platforming, and that is were the game slides from great to just ok. It's still not a bad game at this point, but since this area abandons all of what makes it magical to focus on what it does poorly, it just feels like a generic mediocre platform adventure throughout the entire region. I was frustrated several times throughout that section of the game, and felt a great sense of relief when I finally climbed the rope out of the end of it and back into the game I actually wanted to play.

The third surprise was the camera system. Back in the 2D days, cameras weren't something that gamers ever thought about. You saw the game world from the side, or from the top, or maybe from an isometric view, and things just scrolled around. Otherwise you had fixed views that you would switch between as you walked your character into a new area. When 3rd person 3D games started to appear, things got more complicated because the camera has to go somewhere, but where? Early Mario and Zelda games would have the camera simply follow behind you, with crude options to recenter it if you needed to see a different direction. Metal Gear Solid had a fixed height and angle and built its world in much the same way a 2D game would. Resident Evil and Final Fantasy used fixed camera angles, allowing a mix of 3D and pre-rendered 2D elements to make the environments much more detailed than technology of the time would allow in pure 3D. Most games would generally have some system of the camera looking over your shoulder, and if it got too close to a wall, bad things would usually happen. Eventually, game designers just gave up on it and designated the right analog stick as the camera stick (or the mouse on PC games). The first time I saw my roommate playing Splinter Cell it seemed ridiculous that he had to control the camera manually the whole game. These days it's just an expected part of the game.

God of War rejected that trend and instead managed to pull off an automated camera system that always finds the correct angle to be. You never have to control the camera directly, which frees up your right analog stick to be your dodge control. It also allows the game to always show me a well framed view with dramatic angles and framing that lend the game a more cinematic quality without ever falling into the awkward angle pit that plagued early fixed angle camera systems. There were times when I wanted to see what was over to the side or get a closer look at something and couldn't, but for most of the game it was always showing me exactly what I needed to see.

Let's get back to the combat now, since that is one of the game's greatest strengths. As you can see on the cover of the game, Kratos has swords attached to his wrist by chains. This is your primary weapon that you use throughout most of the game. The chains allow you to toss the swords and swing them around like whips giving you a larger attack range and a smooth flowing dance-like style that is just a blast to watch. Your primary controls are a regular fast attack, a slower stronger attack, and the ability to grab hold of a nearby enemy. From there the game offers a variety of combo attacks that you earn or upgrade to throughout your adventure. It's a well balanced system that feels equally at home battling hordes of enemies or a single large one.

The big love/hate features of the game are of course the quick-time events. Quick-time events are parts of the game where rather than directly controlling the action, the user is instead prompted to quickly press specific buttons and perform specific joystick moves. Successfully completing these causes your character to perform more powerful and more stylish attacks than normal, usually dealing death blows to whatever enemy you are facing. Some players love them because they add another level of interactivity to the gameplay and innovate what is possible. Other players hate them because they just get in the way of playing the game and break up the natural flow of the combat. If you are the type that just can't get enough of quick-time events, then you'll be happy to know that God of War has more of them than any other game I've seen this side of the Dragon's Lair/Space Ace laser disc games of old. On the other hand, if you're the type that can't stand quick-time events, then you'll be happy to know that the vast majority of these are entirely optional. When an enemy is low on health and the prompt displays over its head, you can just ignore it and keep on hacking away at it. After the first couple of levels I personally started to get tired of the quick-time events, and just used the prompts as an enemy health indicator to know who was low on health. In fact, I only noticed three boss fights that specifically required completion of quick-time events, the rest of the game could be completed without them.

The rest of the presentation is all high quality. The graphics push the PS2 hardware about as far as it can go. The character models look less detailed close up than modern games obviously, but the pre-rendered cutscenes hide that fact for the most part. During gameplay I often forgot I was playing a PS2 game, and wondered why my PS3 was looking blurry. It's not HD, but it does support wide screen so it still looks good on modern TVs. The voice acting makes every character sound larger than life, and the epic music score always encourages you to continue hacking away on your deicidal quest, and rewards each solved puzzle with a satisfying fanfare.

The story is based around a surprisingly under used subject that lends itself perfectly to a videogame plot, revenge. It's a tale of betrayal, deception, and anger set in the world of ancient Greek mythology. It's made clear from the start that you're not playing a hero. You're playing a man turned monster who wants only to destroy the god who made him this way. I have to throw out a warning to some of the more conservative parents out there that this game wasn't made for children. In addition to the obvious gratuitous violence there is also a small amount of sex and nudity in the game. Considering that the average age of gamers is now in the mid 30's, it's nice to see developers targeting a more mature audience and not candy coating everything.

I'm looking forward to playing through the rest of the series now. In addition to the 2nd PS2 title there are a couple PS3 releases now and couple more for PSP. By the time I catch up with all of those I'm sure there will be a PS4 title or two. But first I've got some other games to get to....