God of War (PlayStation 2) review
"When you first meet Ares early in the game, it's pretty daunting. Hundreds of flaming arrows pierce Athen's midnight sky on their hopeless flight to the god's impenetrable skin. Ares' hand-hurled fireballs blast the city walls to bits, sending rubble tumbling recklessly down the Temple's steps. Frightened villagers scurry about in a panic . . . villagers that you can murder."
God of War is Sony's ultimate exercise in self-indulgence. Not only did they throw millions of dollars into making it look and sound as spectacular as Tecmo and Capcom's greatest adventures, but Sony broke their own rules (allowing bare female nipples), they included pretentious "deleted levels video footage" as an unlockable extra, and they hoisted their fabricated character Kratos above legends like Zeus and Ares that have been around for 5,000 years. But that's okay. Kratos is cool.
He's also a bastard. This Spartan warrior is ruthless and the game makes no bones about it -- hell, he's got flaming chain-blades permanently soldered to his arms! In one scene, Kratos makes rough love to two concubines after witnessing the gory murders of a dozen women; later, while fighting rampaging cyclopes in the streets of Athens, Kratos slaughters fleeing civilians to replenish dwindling health. And selling his soul to the god of war at Thermopylae certainly didn't make him any nicer. So consider yourself warned: those likely to be offended by implicit sea nymph sex, explicit Minotaur head-splitting (like a watermelon), or downright horrific human sacrifice should run and hide under their Care Bears bedsheets.
Everyone else, rest easy. Part of the game's refreshing charm is that Kratos, although definitely working towards heroic ends, is not a good man. Like I said before, he's a bastard. But he's an effective hero because his internal monologues and thoughts of repentance are believable. This genuineness works partly because Sony hasn't tried to hide the Spartan's wicked side, partly because the crimes of Kratos's past are so powerful that it's easy to believe he's been driven beyond sanity's edge, and partly because God of War is just that damn good.
Not since Anearth Fantasy Stories have I seen such a well-managed introduction. The title screen -- showing half of the Spartan's face, with flames engulfing the background -- seamlessly melds into the first FMV cinematic. Like Brothers in Arms, this game begins at the end; Kratos has gone mad and, during a brief moment of sanity, leaps to his death. God of War then rewinds time three weeks, back to when Kratos fought skeletal warriors aboard a ship sailing the Aegean Sea. Get ready for a shock, because the champion who issues a booming challenge to throngs of undead legionnaires is very different from the quietly despondent man who committed suicide just moments ago. It's an awesome contrast because it shows that the character actually evolves during the course of the adventure.
That opening boat battle against the undead warriors ROCKS. With rain drenching the ship's deck, waves crashing against the hull, screeching harpies carrying crewmembers off to who-knows-where, and Kratos's fiery chains of chaos lighting up the dark night, it's gorgeous. It's also exciting. Awesome chanting, heavy-beat music keeps pace with the action as multitudes of mindless legionnaires climb up the sides of the ship in hopes of overwhelming the lonely Spartan soldier boy. When the next wave arrives, trumpets furiously blare to make the action even more thrilling than it already was. To keep his abundant enemies down, Kratos uses his Plume of Prometheus technique -- quick alternate left/right slashes, then an explosive double whip attack. The most damaging variant forcefully flings Kratos into the air (in awesome slow-motion) as he hurls two blades downwards, bursting his unfortunate victim's body into a cloud of red essence. Although exercising a lot of creativity, Sony was smart enough to mimic Devil May Cry's familiar "red for experience, blue for magic, green for health" system.
All of this carnage is going on because Kratos betrayed Ares (although in the Spartan's mind, it's the other way around). Ares seeks to destroy his sister Athena's beautiful city of Athens. Since Zeus forbids the gods from directly fighting one another, Athena enlisted the strongest warrior she could find . . . which just so happened to be Ares' disgruntled Spartan avatar, Kratos. Although he once embodied the war god's violent desires, a terrible crime shocked Kratos back to his own will. Ironically, he now fights to forget himself, and you're provided so many techniques that it's easy to get lost in the action. You can hurl a legionnaire into the air, then leap up, snare it with your chain-blades, and sling it forcefully into the deck while still airborne. Once back on solid ground, bash its face in with your fists! Or just grab and swing one skeleton around in a circle, knocking three others to the ground. As you acquire new weapons and gain experience, even more destructive powers become available, such as Poseidon's Rage (which looks more like a lightning storm than water, but it still rules).
It takes a lot of power to bring down a god. When you first meet Ares early in the game, it's pretty daunting. Hundreds of flaming arrows pierce Athens' midnight sky on their hopeless flight to the god's impenetrable skin. When the roar of trumpets dies down, a hundred Athenian battle cries melt together into an indistinguishable roar. Ares' hand-hurled fireballs blast the city walls to bits, sending rubble tumbling recklessly down the Temple's steps. Frightened villagers scurry about in a panic . . . villagers that you can murder. But it'll be a while before you get to murder Ares. You'll return to this scene twice more -- once at the break of dawn as war still rages, and then again for your final confrontation.
Since Kratos can't just fight the god of war with his twin bladed chains (a gift ironically given by Ares himself), there's a lot of exploration involved. Don't fret; God of War's version of ancient Greece has a lot more inhabitants than Rygar's sparsely-populated environments. Along with nipply women in historically accurate states of undress, there are plenty of satyrs, wraiths, sirens, and even some demonic centaurs. To appease the lord of the underworld, Kratos has to impale these half-human, half-horse creatures inside a dark pagan circle; step outside the circle's bounds and the souls won't reach Hades. Some battles are incredibly elaborate, many are straightforward brawling, but they're all definitely challenging and make you think, which is a lot more fun than performing the same combos over and over on different sets of enemies. I died more than a few times, but it was easy to keep trying because I always believed "There MUST be a way to win!"
I believed that because God of War plays so well. Even though the enemies are smarter and more numerous than in something like Death By Degrees, it always felt reasonable because I was always in control. The game's never frustrating -- checkpoints and save spots are so plentiful that death sets you back a minute or two at worst -- and that's something I can't say for any other adventure game in recent memory. This also applies to the platforming segments. Rather than leave players to figure out an obscure route to rescue the Oracle as she helplessly dangles from a chain 100 feet in the air, the camera pans around the room in the direction you probably ought to follow. The challenge of climbing across wall-covering vines and swinging along ropes is still present; God of War just makes sure you don't lose due to not even knowing where to start.
Sony's epic doesn't just follow the standard "fight and explore" trend set by other adventures. Although Kratos sometimes runs and jumps up a set of ledges to get to the top of a mountain (as characters would in any adventure game), he'll at other times climb up the sheer mountain face, kicking anyone foolish enough to follow . . . which you won't see in other adventure games. Kratos can do more than kick people off cliffs; he can also climb alongside an undead legionnaire, then grab the fool by its skeletal head and slam its face into the rock over and over! During some battles, button symbols (circle, square, etc.) appear above enemies' heads; follow these "Simon Says" symbols in sequence to perform awesome fatalities -- such as ripping a wraith's arm off and beating it to death -- or ignore the symbols to kill your enemies more conventionally. How you play is up to you, but it's an awesome feeling to successfully follow the onscreen cues and wrangle a giant minotaur with your two fiery chain blades. GIDDYAP!
Because of its unpredictable nature, God of War just keeps rocking all the way to the end. The first level has that famous Hydra from the demo that keeps poking its hungry reptilian head where it doesn't belong, but the "oh dear sweet Jesus" moment that happens near the game's end (after Kratos finally locates a god-killing weapon) proves that God of War never loses its bite. Sony also included a humorous and surprising nod to the game's beginning, as Kratos encounters the absolute last person he ever expected to see again. It's genius. Almost as genius as when Kratos, following the gods' will, finds a dead man and his suicide note: "What the gods ask of me, no man could do. Not even Pandora's Box is worth such a terrible price." In one hand, he holds a knife; the other hand lies in a pool of blood spilling from his crudely slashed wrist. This shows that Kratos is not the first champion sent to recover Pandora's Box, and it shows that Kratos is expected to do something so inhumane, something so cruel that your eyes will open wide with incredulous awe and you'll say: "No f'n way!"
Yes, f'n way. After all, Kratos is a bastard . . . and the game's designers are brilliant. Whether ripping skulls off corpses to solve puzzles or marvelling at the Temple of Pandora -- which is literally chained to a titan's back, as he crawls across the desert on all fours -- God of War is a creative masterpiece. Call me a trend-follower, doubt my gushing praise, or perhaps even say "nice review" -- do what you like, but what I'd like is for you to buy God of War and give it a shot. Closed-minded skepticism and open-minded sloth aren't good reasons to miss this fantastic adventure.
Staff review by Zigfried (March 27, 2005)
Zigfried likes writing about whales and angry seamen, and often does so at the local pub.
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