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....

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