Playing out better than any modern day adaptation of Greek mythology possibly could, God of War puts players in the shoes of the god-killing anti-hero Kratos (Cratos with a C is a mythological character representing strength). After seeking Ares, the titular god of war in a time of need, Kratos decides to make the god pay for his treachery. To win the favor of the other gods (and thus the power to escape his servitude to Ares), Kratos must save Athens from the minions of his former master. This ancient mythical setting serves as the backdrop for one of the finest action platformers to date.
Kratos is a rising star in the Spartan military machine, but in one fateful battle he finds himself outmanned and on the brink of defeat. At death’s door, he cries out to Ares, promising his services in return for his and his army's salvation. Granting his wish, Ares bestows upon him the Blades of Chaos, swords that are forever attached to the warrior by heavy chains burned into his flesh and wrapped around his arms. With his newfound power Kratos annihilates his foes and all of those who favor gods other than his master. Killing mercilessly for Ares, Kratos soon learns the price of his bargain and becomes set on vengeance.
Kratos is actually as selfish as he is deadly; in life he gave his soul for glory, and in death he gives his afterlife for forgiveness. Serving Athena, he hopes to get both his revenge and his redemption. There is something to be said about a character who finds a way to remain unsavory throughout a perilous journey At times of desperation, many seem to learn life lessons or realize the errors of their ways. While Kratos certainly mulls over his time spent serving Ares, he stays true to his rigid demeanor by never letting go of his murderous tendencies while doing heroic deeds.
The game itself is a reliving of the past few days of the Kratos's life with glimpses of his past shown through cutscenes – which are well done, building gradually as more and more of the story is added with each showing - and absolutely fantastic narration. Battling his way past hydras and harpies, Kratos makes his way to Athens and beyond. All the while we see a hero who isn’t really a hero. Who we control is a man who has lived for revenge for so long that he can see nothing more than the goal of his journey. This is actually quite refreshing: Kratos isn’t a ‘badass’ because of facial hair, a gritty voice, or a cut physique - though he has all of those - it’s the character himself, his mannerisms and the small touches the developers and artists included. In controlling him, we the players take part in some pretty nefarious deeds – though, admittedly, killing an innocent man begging to live is somewhat muted, thanks to Rockstar. Then again, I suppose there is no time for mercy when you’re hunting down a god.
As a hulking warrior Kratos wields his mighty blades with a finesse that is accentuated by slow-motion blocking and ending sequences, which adds both an artistic flair to the action and a way to keep the combo system from becoming too unwieldy. Kratos grunts, kicks, punches, rips apart, and breaks all that gets in his path. Utilizing a fantastic combat system that can be as simple as a few button presses to create a move as elaborate as whipping enemies from one side of the screen to the other, the action is enhanced further with context-sensitive controls. At certain points Kratos will get the upper hand over his opponent, and then an icon will alert you to know that you can now grab the enemy and perform a special move. For some enemies the analog sticks will be used to rotate in the indicated directions, which can be anything from Kratos dodging an attack to him yanking a head off a neck; some enemies require the constant mashing of a button, which represents the struggle between them and the force bringing a blade down on them; and for others buttons will flash on the screen to indicate what to press, which usually results in some fancy acrobatics and a few pints of blood being spilt. All of this is done with a machismo that comes across as natural, and the animation is so fluid that it allows for a swagger to be seen as Kratos executes moves that look both effortless and extremely painful.
Throughout his journey Kratos will meet other gods and receive powers to use on their behalf. Zeus bestows upon him his throw-able lighting bolts; Hades gives him souls to use; Poseidon’s rage lets him shock his foes; and Medusa’s head allows him to freeze enemies. With the death of an enemy, or through opening treasure chests, orbs can be collected that are stored and transferred to one of these powers. For some, like Zeus’s lighting bolts, it means faster and more powerful projectiles; but powering up Poseidon’s rage requires more work, since the damage radius and strength of the lightening dependson how quickly you can press a button. It’s an extremely simple system that offers much more than I was expecting.
Surprisingly, the developers were able to include puzzles that kept progress swift, but fit well within the confines of the setting. The levels aren’t levels as much as they are setpieces that need to be worked through. From having to navigate through blinding storms in the deserts to the maze of Pandora, the environments are never clung to for so long that they get old, which keeps the game moving at a brisk pace. In a nod to Prince of Persia, when rooms are first entered there are brief intro sequences with the camera panning around to highlight particular spots of interest, aiding the ‘in-and-out’ style. The levels, despite being relatively concentrated and geared toward one-way progress, do an excellent job of always looking complex and epic. Getting lost or not knowing what to do is rare, which is itself a rarity in platformers.
To top it all off, the game looks and sounds great. With very little loading, levels are entered into almost instantly. Clever use of the camera and judicious control restriction give levels a sense of grandeur that can literally be breathtaking – climbing along an edge and noticing that not only is there a giant temple below you but also a wondering Titan that the temple sits on top of is an awesome site – while not sacrificing fun for the cinematic feel. In regard to restricting the player, that means that players either can’t or will have to purposely try to fall off ledges when the camera doesn’t follow closely, among other things. Having a static camera does create some problems though, particularly when enemies get in front of it or at a weird angle, making it difficult to see where and who to attack. Considering the rewards and the rarity of such annoying situations, however, I would say their approach paid off.
Even though the camera tends to be pulled away from the action, the game actually looks incredible up close. Characters are detailed just so, and the art direction constantly gives the game a sense of being a hazy illusion. The cutscenes are also phenomenal, with veins visible near Kratos’s neck and thick blood flowing from the chests of murdered soldiers. The real star of the production has to be Linda Hunt, the incredible narrator of the tale. She drew me in so quickly with her forceful presence that she iss able to take a relatively simple story told through a standard method and make it seem so rich and engaging that the entire game is elevated to a whole new level. The other actors are also excellent and the music and sound effects are dead-on, with vicious effects and beautiful music.
Clocking in at 9 hours, God of War isn’t a long game, and I have no problem with that. The developers had a story they wanted to tell, they told it, and that was that. But there did seem to be some Halo-itis creeping about – at a few points towards the end there are some puzzles that are so touchy, along with a few spots where enemies just continually spawn for what seems like hours, that it was as if someone noticed the brevity and tried to artificially prolong the experience. It's really a shame, since the game flows so naturally up to that point. Also, the last battle can be either anticlimactic or aggravating, depending on the roll of the dice - I died numerous times from an unblockable combo, but if you're lucky the last boss won't whip it out.
The game isn’t over when the god of war dies, though. Beating the game unlocks God Mode, which is a more difficult mode in which you can win more goodies. The standard unlockables are themselves quite enjoyable. You get to check out some levels that didn’t make it into the game, hear about and see sketches of the environments, check out the design process, get to see some backstory that hints at what the story to the sequel could be, and play a series of challenges. This is what I wish companies would do more often. Things that developers might find mundane or tiresome can be exciting to those not in the process – and they can be even add a bit more color to the game, like when you walk through the 3D character model graveyard and get to know a bit more about the Cyclops model than you wanted to. The one major problem I did have was that the game had a tendency to tear, more often when indoors, which is an indication that things aren't always v-synced so well.
God of War is a solid adventure through-and-through. What could have been a generic action platformer with yet another forgettable gruff hero has turned out to be one of the best titles on the PlayStation 2 with a fresh and memorable main character. Kratos’s aggression makes him tough, but his absolute single-mindedness in the face of tragedy makes him an interesting and non-standard hero. There are a few snags here and there, but this is a title that is worth owning.