Game: God of War II
System: PlayStation 2
Although hailed by a surprising amount as the swansong of the PlayStation 2, God of War II does little to differentiate itself from what has come before it. Granted, the tight gameplay and breathtaking graphical presentation of the original God of War remain intact and its enormous production value - evidenced not only by the game itself, but also by the inclusion of a supplementary DVD containing a great length of behind the scenes footage – is nothing to be dismissed. It is unfortunate then that the significant time and effort spent refining what was already debatably the pinnacle of modern action gaming has failed to yield a game that is in any way noticeable superior to its predecessor. Further, a few tweaks to the combat system and all the new content do not disguise the surprising absence of numerous elements that made the first game so good. God of War II is undeniably an extremely polished and satisfying action game, but squanders the opportunity to have suitably expanded on the impressive foundation that had already been laid down for it. For the purpose of this review, there will be SPOILERS. However, I will try not to spoil any plot elements that you don’t discover in the first 30 or so minutes, BUT I will reveal later weapons, spells and other content that you may want to be surprised by.
The foundation is the original God of War. As Kratos, a Spartan general who fights with the magical Blades of Chaos – ferocious weapons bound to his body by long chains that are seared into his forearms - you must traverse fairly linear environments and basically cut down the enemies that stand before you. This may sound reminiscent of classic old hack ‘n slash offerings such as Streets of Rage or Golden Axe, or even the more recent Devil May Cry or Ninja Gaiden games. It is actually a combination of the elements of both, but what sets this franchise above the others is the skill with which it is executed. There is no exaggeration in saying it is a sheer joy to play. God of War consists of light and strong attacks combined with blocking, grabbing, special moves, magic and dodging, and while that may sound somewhat complicated, the control scheme renders it extremely accessible to all. Each movement is rewarded by fluid animations and sound effects that make the strong attacks feel as though there is a weight behind them - the DualShock 2’s rumble feature is used to great affect here. Everything is necessarily bloody and some grab moves particularly barbaric. Context sensitive attacks flash random inputs on the screen at key moments as well, requiring you to be alert at all times. The technique was masterfully applied to the first game’s boss fights (and is also present in God of War II), making each a frantic but memorable experience – these jaw-dropping exchanges were one of the game’s most prominent features. RPG elements revolve around the collection of ‘red orbs’ from either chests or slain foes which are then used to upgrade weapons and magic ala Devil May Cry. Not only a novelty, some abilities change drastically when upgraded fully, and so it should not be ignored. Also shamelessly stolen from Dante’s outings, is the Rage of the Gods / Titans, which is basically like a limit break stance when you’ve filled your super-move-esque gauge up. Standard platforming and puzzle-solving elements round out the experience, and God of War II inherits most of these things untouched. It uses the same engine as the original, which (while tethering the title to the aging PlayStation 2) is a testament to its inherent strengths. Due to this, the game benefits from a strong foundation, if from little else.
Plainly no effort was made to reinvent the wheel with God of War II. Not only is the engine seemingly copy/pasted from its forefather, but the same animations are used for the most part as well. Even the staunchest fan would be hard-pressed to find any, even slight, differences in the dress or appearance of the protagonist, which is considerably unusual. There have been a few changes, though, not all for the better. A good one to start with is the grappling point system. Small luminous effects are now placed on hooks, ornaments and various other things you’d be able to get a Blade of Chaos caught on. When near one, pressing R1 allows the player to throw their blade at it and swing on its chains, much like a vine. Being fairly forgiving, the mechanic is fun to use, although rarely necessary. Only a few designated places in the game require you to use the technique, but in fairness one specific implementation during a late boss fight is very well done and makes you wish the move’s potential had been better exploited in other areas. Another positive addition is legendary ‘golden fleece’. Once obtained, somewhere around the middle of the game, you will be able to ‘parry’ incoming attacks of all kinds by blocking just when the attack connects. If successful, Kratos can follow up by launching an invincible, high-priority attack against all nearby enemies, or, if the countered move was a projectile, fling it back at his attacker. What makes this feature so fun to use is that its input timing is lenient- think Dead or Alive 2, not Street Fighter III. There is also room to experiment with its use, since missing a parry and taking a hit is nowhere near as punishing as in the aforementioned games, unless of course you are playing on the game’s ‘Titan’ (Very Hard Difficulty) mode. The game’s special moves (executed by holding L1 and pressing a face button) used to be long automatic combos and were not very useful simply because you could be hit out of them at any time. God of War II’s replacements are far more usable, with either more damage or knock-down effects balancing their extended vulnerability. Special moves might be an improvement over the old, but magic is an area which has taken a step back. Two of the spells, Euryale’s Gaze and Typhon’s Bane are pretty much carbon copies of Medusa’s Gaze and Zeus’ Lightning, but the other two, Cronos’ Rage and Atlas’ Quake are pale in comparison to Poseidon’s Rage and Army of Hades that they replace. The bright side is that all the spells, except for Atlas’ can now be used while moving, and so will be seeing more use in battle than they used to or might have otherwise.
Another feature that will no doubt see more use in God of War II than in the original is the new weapon system. Forget the Blade of Artemis- the new sub-weapons can be switched in and out by pressing the R2 button and are actually better than the Blades of Chaos in some areas. The first one Kratos will get his hands on is the legendary Blade of Olympus – the weapon used by the gods to defeat the Titans in the Great War of old. Not as long reaching as the default, and not quite as fast, the Blade of Olympus is obscenely strong, and when upgraded, is by far the most powerful weapon in the game, bar none. The catch to this one is, while you will use it to dispatch the first boss, The Colossus of Rhodes, you will have it taken from you, and will not recover it until the second play-through of the game. Its power is well worth the wait however. The second new weapon is the hammer used by the Barbarian King to almost kill Kratos before Ares’ intervention in the first game. It is a typically slow, strong single-hit weapon that can create shockwaves. At first glance is seems to possess a zero-MP replacement to the missing Army of Hades spell, but even when fully upgraded hardly matches that attack and is more of a distraction technique to offset the weapon’s lack of agility. Early in the game there is a sequence where you must tear a magic spear-wielding griffin rider from his mount. Later in the game his corpse turns up and offers the final sub-weapon, the audaciously-named Spear of Destiny to the player. Especially effective against the pesky returning satyr enemies, the spear is a long-range alternative to the blades that has a shotgun-like energy burst attack and is also able to plant explosive charges on the ground that are time released – many creative scenarios can be set up by this weapon. In all the weapons are fun to use and have their individual applications. Ultimately though, their creative design does not change the fact that the Blades of Chaos will still be getting you through the bulk, if not all, of the game due simply to the superiority of their design coupled with their ease of use and undeniable cool factor.
Technically, the game is a marvel. I have often harped on about the age of the PlayStation 2, and there is no ambiguity about this game being a ‘last generation’ title, but still it manages more out of the hardware that runs it than any game in recent memory while consistently delivering large-scale, almost cinematic scenery, large numbers of enemies on screen and an unwavering 60fps framerate to boot. Some large models suffer from either blockiness, like the Steeds of Time, or low texture resolution, such as the Colossus of Rhodes, and there are vertical sync issues here and there, but it is mostly passable. Something that really adds to the visual presentation, though, is the uncontrollable camera that is perfectly positioned at all times. It should be obvious Sony sunk a large amount of money into this project, and so it stands to reason that its production value is unmatched on the current generation. Apart from the extraordinary visuals, which are now de rigueur at the house of Santa Monica, the game’s budget bestows on it another no-expense-spared voice track featuring impressive performances across the board. It does not have the cast of Tiberium Wars, but it is a joy to listen to all the same. There is no hammy voice acting here to mar immersion into the experience, unlike, say, in Final Fantasy XII. The soundtrack is still fantastic, but it invariably relies too much on remixes of Zeus’ Wrath Devine by Cris Velasco from the first’s battle against the legion of Kratos Clones. There is also a wealth of unlockables that puts other games to shame. First off, you can unlock Urns which offer different powers by finding them during the game. You can also unlock the Blade of Olympus by finishing the game. There are 7 different hidden costumes / characters to reward finishing the game, as well as other tasks, such as collecting 20 cyclops’ eyes. Challenge of the Titans replaces Challenge of the Gods as a scenario based final trial, and Arena of Fates is a new mode where you choose the terms, powers and enemies to duke it out with in a ring of your choice. However the icing on the cake, when it comes to presentation and extras, is the second disc, a dual layer video DVD, which is devoted solely to behind-the-scenes features chronicling not only the game’s development, but in-depth pieces on specific things – the design of Zeus gets its own feature, for example. The sheer amount of video here is unprecedented, and really makes you wonder why the making-of footage of other games was interesting at all. A tip of the hat also goes to the producers for not mandating the joke that is the ‘special edition’. All copies of God of War II sold in the United States and Canada come with this second disc as standard. Unsurprisingly, however, when we PAL regions get a local release, we will have to pay an additional premium for the extra disc via a special edition. So, in Australia, the $39.99USD I payed for the game would have turned into $99.99AUD ($79.68USD), had I decided to wait until April 13 for the local version. Bravo, SCEE. I just had to add this little outburst of bitterness- it should not overly detract from the great work the producers did here.
Unfortunately, this is where the praise ends. Where the game’s design has garnered acclaim from me thus far, most of it can be attributed to mechanisms already left in place from the first game. From a creative standpoint, I would go on a limb to say that nothing added in God of War II is objectively better than what had already been seen in the first God of War. Additionally, it is my opinion that the quality of this game’s artistic design, as a whole, is significantly poorer than its forerunner, and were it not for all the positive technical traits it directly inherited, it would have sunk into the obscurity of other mediocre, forgotten titles. To really send this idea home, God of War II does everything conceivable to drive the franchise into the ground short of rewriting the game engine and starting from scratch. That maybe too harsh, but I truly believe an enormous quantity of postives from the first have been cast aside, and most of the opportunity to expand the mythos already establish squandered. Consider, first, the premise of God of War. The intention for Kratos to journey and become strong enough to kill Ares, the god of war, was necessitated by the fact that Zeus, king of the gods, had forbidden direct conflict amongst the deities. I am only spoiling the first half hour by saying that now, Zeus has decided he will just forget about that and kill this god of war all by himself. Err… Another thing – Athena claimed that Cronos was the last of the Titans, but now there are Titans all over the place – even the narrator from the first game turns out to be Gaia, the Titan of Earth. It poses the question of where they all came from, but more worryingly, suggests there was almost no intention to take the story in this direction during production of the original. Characters’ personalities and motives are also questionable if you consider the first game. Zeus, first and foremost, was portrayed as a kindly old pacifist who preferred to hide his limited involvement in affairs as much as possible; posing as a gravedigger. Now he is petty, vindictive and seemingly high on power. Cronos, who now aids the player, is another example. Before, he sought to destroy Kratos in his mission to slay the god of war, but now is more than happy help kill Zeus despite his general hatred of gods as opposed to a single grudge against their king. Their designs have changed too. Hades differed from the other deities with his tall, slender demon-like form and is now portrayed as a smaller squat humanoid who bears a resemblance to Death Adder from Golden Axe.
In context these are insignificant gripes. Their indication of the creators’ disregard for the existing canon however is troubling, and extents into the general narrative. Shallow as the first game’s story was, it was fleshed out by gorgeously animated stylistic flashback sequences that gave a depth to Kratos and the relationships that set in motion the main events and prevented the experience from being as flat as it might have been. God of War II not only dispenses with those compelling cutscenes, it also skimps in the story department with regard to both style and substance. There is no legendary overtone to what little storytelling there is here which makes the absence even more glaring. Too many unknowns are left to the imagination. Clearly much has transpired between Kratos taking the throne and becoming truly resentful of the pantheon he is a part of. Even more is implied about the Titanomachy, of which only glimpses are shown, leaving gaps that are obvious and frustrating. The Titan Atlas refers to a previous encounter with Kratos, which has never been shown expressly or even alluded to, and yet is made quickly enough to suggest the player was intended to know about it. Plot holes abound, and are, honestly a much larger issue than would appear based on the space I have allocated to the topic. While spoilers prevent me from divulging more than this, I will say that one of the techniques employed is time-travel. A troublesome literary device to be sure, it is here so poorly utilised that, after finishing the game, even a brief discussion of events will reveal that hardly any of the narrative makes sense, put in context. It certainly falls short from the succinct, neatly resolved narrative that befitted God of War.
To its credit, God of War II is paced out very well. There is just the right mix of mindlessly cutting through waves of fodder enemies, being trapped with a few powerful ones, solving puzzles, platforming around, and running into bosses or more complicated encounters. However, more could be done with that formula. Puzzles are almost identical, and in many cases, watered-down versions of the kind found in God of War. Spike puzzles, pressure plate puzzles… all have been seen before. The new ability ‘Fate-walking’ allows you to freeze time all around you to solve time-based puzzles when you see a green glowing statue of the Fates nearby. What could have been a very interesting puzzle mechanic instead comes off seeming like the creators just could not be bothered timing the complicated triggers for some of the puzzles, and instead copped out by offering the time-slowing effect in those certain areas. This is particularly obvious because only one puzzle in memory actually seemed like it needed the ability. Most of the time you will have passed the gate and be long gone from the puzzle arena before the timer runs out. Too easy by coincidence? All the puzzles are blindingly simple, maybe because I had solved a very similar version of each in the original game, except for one, which was blistering hard. In this scenario, you have to work a machine that makes the floor drop at the same time as the ceiling, incidentally layed with spikes, falls toward you. While you are doing this, skeletons keep spawning to impede you. One hit and Kratos stops manipulating the thing. Although working the thing is too clunky, combine it with skeletons that take forever to kill, and the swiftly falling roof (which is instant death if it reaches you, by the way) and you have a puzzle whose frustration-generating capacity rivals that of the Kratos Clone battle last time. I mention it because it stands in sharp contrast to the relative easiness of the rest of the game. All the while you solve these simple but drawn out tasks, the question is bound to beg at some point; ‘why am I doing any of this?’.
Only a handful of non-combat tasks are integrated into the level or story in any meaningful way. One minute you will be trying to manoeuvre a phoenix’s egg into lava to birth it, and the next that trifle will be all but forgotten as you are forced into battle with a Kraken boss for no apparent reason. Speaking of bosses, they are almost as inconsequential as the puzzles. Personally, the Hydra and the Minotaur from the previous instalment were some of the most extravagant and satisfying boss fights I have experienced. Definitely a defining feature of that title, I had high hopes for the bosses this time round. Since the action opens to a set-piece battle with the Colossus throughout Rhodes (an overwhelmingly promising first impression), you might be expecting similarly impressive efforts throughout, but if so you will be disappointed. No other boss in the game comes close to the daunting spectacle of battling a giant as it destroys a city, or a sea monster ravaging a fleet of ships, but some are honestly no more than laughable. The previously mentioned Kraken looks like a hi-res Pokemon - its dopey expression had me questioning momentarily whether I was in fact playing a God of War game. Along the way some Greek heroes of myth are also encountered. Without naming names, the legends of these warriors are shamed by their portrayal here. Poorly crafted models as well as predictable (block three hits then do a combo, repeat – no joke) attack patterns bring into question why they were added at all – they have nothing to do with the story. Cameos of legendary characters also aren’t hip as far as I’m aware. Ironically, since you get the golden fleece, you might be expecting to run into one hero in particular, but guess what? You don’t. Funny isn’t it?
God of War II is a great game mostly because it retains intact the game mechanics and technical things that made the original the 2005 Game of the Year. This alone more than makes it worth your time. My review has been coloured by the fact that, within all reason, this game could have been more. A lot more. Combat is largely the same, and the graphics are still impressive. The puzzles are a tad dumbed-down and the soundtrack is only half-original. That in itself is acceptable, but consider that the artistic cutscenes are gone, the bosses are less impressive, and that the plot is flat, illogical, in an overall different direction, as well as being in direct contradiction of the canon of the first game. These things are disappointing, and it is a shame that the franchise is now in Cory Barlog’s hands – he must be the only creative director in the industry who could possibly not only fail to properly expand on a game like God of War but also take it some steps backward in a few areas. But make no mistake – God of War II is very likely the best game to be released on the PlayStation 2 either this year, or from now until the end of its lifespan. It may detract from the original in more ways than it improves upon it, but considering how brilliant a game the first was, these failings are negligible in the grand scheme of things.
Graphics (Technical): 10/10
Graphics (Artistic): 8/10
You probably already knew whether or not you were going to buy the game before reading this review, but I’ll qualify everything I’ve said already by endorsing it anyway- go and buy it. It’s a no brainer. The only thing more certain is that you should own God of War if for whatever reason you don’t already. Just to be clear, if this game deserves a 9, the original almost certainly deserves a full 10.