God of War

For the past few weeks, I've been playing the PS2 game God of War. It's quite good, though I'm not sure it reaches the astronomical heights that most reviews seem to place it. It does a lot of things right, but there are some aspects of the game that are downright annoying. I'm more of a casual gamer, and to be honest, I'm not to familiar with action/adventure games like this (I've never even played any of the Tomb Raider games), so it's possible that I'm blowing some of this out of proportion.

Based on Greek Mythology, the game focuses on fighting and puzzle solving, with the occassional cutscene and annoying jumping/balancing exercise. It's a pretty brutal game, in terms of adult content and themes, so be warned. When I bought the game, the store clerk said "Ahh, good game, good game. Easy to learn, hard to master." Yeah, he's obviously a tool, but it actually makes sense. It's easy to get going, but to progress far in the game, you will need to master some of the more obscure elements of gameplay. Here are some thoughts on various aspects of the game:
  • Combat: The mechanics of combat are intuitive, easy to learn, and fun to use. This is a good thing, because fighting represents the majority of the game, and indeed it is the funnest thing about the game. Your main weapon is a pair of blades that are attached to your arms with chains, thus giving the ability to swing them at a distance. Later on, you get access to other weapons and magical spells. The system works extremely well, allowing you to do certain attack combinations that do more damage or take on a more defensive posture. When fighting big enemies and bosses, once you reduce their heal level to a certain point, you're given a certain sequence of buttons to push (or other actions). These "mini-games" might not sound like a lot of fun, but they actually are. All in all, the combat system is very well thought out and fun to use.
  • Bosses: I had to single out the bosses from the combat section because these enemies are just a blast to fight. Unfortunatly, there are only three bosses in the game... but they're all great. The first boss is the Hydra, and it's a very well conceived combat sequence, with multiple stages that are both challenging and fun. The second boss (don't know what this one is called) is not as elaborate (and the circular motions required in the "mini-game" takedown were a pain to get right), but was also more challenging due to the fact that I had very little life or magic power left. Still the animations were great, and the way you had to kill the thing was neat. The final boss is Ares, the Greek God of War (more about this will be mentioned below in the story section), and this is another one of the multi-stage bosses. Like the other bosses, each stage is challenging and fun. For some reason, defeating Ares was surprisingly easy for me. The first stage wasn't that hard, though I died on my first try. The second stage had me worried for a bit, but I got through it without dying (Thank you, Army of Hades! That spell saved my ass on the first two stages.) Now, the third stage, that took me about 10 seconds to defeat. I must have just gotten lucky or something. Still, it was great fun and one of the best parts of the game.
  • Puzzles: The game interweaves various puzzles with the action sequences and cutscenes, a feature I'm told is common with other action/adventure games. The pacing of the game is excellent as it never gets carried away with any particular type of gameplay, and it cycles through them often enough to keep you interested. The puzzles themselves are often interesting and sometimes challenging. Maybe a couple of them are too challenging, but I was able to get past all of them eventually. Many involve pushing or aligning blocks, or depressing buttons on the ground to trigger various contraptions. It's funny how games these days try so hard to eschew the "Find the Key" dynamic present in so many earlier games... keys are so boring, you know? But there are a couple of equivalent things in action here. That's not a problem with the game, and in fact, most of the triggers are rather clever and well thought out.
  • Obstacles: Along with combat and puzzles, the game will sometimes throw in some obstacles that you need to jump over, climb up, or balance-walk across. For the most part, these tasks are just exercises in tedium. For example, towards the end of the game, you end up trying to escape from Hades. This is the most obsctacle-laden level of them all, and the most frustrating part of the game. One particular obstacle really got on my nerves. Towards the end of the level, you have to climb up these spinning cylinders and they have spikes where if you touch one of them, you fall all the way back down to the bottom (you have to climb a long way's up too). After I fell off for the 100th time, I almost turned off the game forever and put in the new Castlevania game. Eventually, I got through it, but what ended up happening was that I had mostly memorized the rotations and blade positions. That's just stupid. Most of these tasks were just as annoying and basically fell into the Do it again, stupid! theory of game design. It's the worst part of the game. Thankfully, the truly frustrating ones don't occur that often.
  • The Camera: One other thing that annoyed me was the inability to control the camera. I always wanted to be looking around, and there were even times in the game where the designers knew you couldn't see an area and used that in their designs. Frustratingly, some of the walk-the-plank obstacles were made more difficult because of the position of the camera. Most of the time though, the camera was ok (and sometimes, like when you're walking down a spiral staircase, it looks fantastic), but it was disorienting when I started playing. I'm used to being able to look where I want. Also, there were times when their cues for what to do next were kinda difficult to find. For instance, when running around in Athens, you get to a roadblock. It took me a good 5 minutes or so (an eternity when playing a game) before I figured out that you could just cut the barricade down. Then it took another 5 minutes to spot the tiny rope that lets you swing across the ditch. Frustrating. I have to admit though, that for a fixed camera game, they do a pretty good job (I just don't like it).
  • Visuals and Audio: The designs in the game are extremely well done, from the main hero to the various beasties to the ancient Greek architecture and landscapes. Interweaved with the combat and the puzzles (ok, and the annoying obstacles) are various cutscenes which also look great. Everything about the game just looks fantastic, which I think is something of a rarity. The audio is also very good, though it gets a little repetitive. A little more variety would be nice, but what's there is great.
  • Story: The story is mostly told in the cutscenes, which are thoughtfully spaced out throughout the game, further contributing to the game's well paced experience. The story is a little on the dark and brutal side, and indeed the game has all sorts of adult themes including very graphic violence and even nudity. The main character, Kratos, isn't that likeable of a guy (except in asmuch as he's a badass and his end goals are noble), but once his background gets filled in a bit, he becomes a little more understandable. For those not worried about spoilers, the story fleshes out how Kratos came to make a deal with Ares, the Greek God of War, and how Ares eventually betrayed Kratos, who vowed revenge. Ares seems to be a little upset with his father (Zeus) and Athena, as you see Ares laying waste to Athens all throughout the game. The other Gods aid you in your quest to destroy Hades. One mildly annoying thing about the story is that the end-goal of the game is to destroy Ares, and you encounter him very early on in the game... only to be wisked away to a labrynth to get Pandora's Box (which you need to defeat Ares). The majority of the game is encompassed with finding Pandora's Box, and then once you find it, you're sent down to Hades. So the game basically feels like it's moving the goalposts all the time. As I said, it's a minor quibble, but I did find it a bit odd.
  • Usability: One of the most impressive things about the game is the lack of "Loading..." prompts (bane of the PS2). The game seamlessly transitions between gameplay and cutscenes and back again, giving the game a much more immersive quality than most others I've played (I assume this is accomplished with the use of precaching techniques). As I've already mentioned, the game is very well paced, deftly switching between combat, puzzles, obstacles, and cutscenes. Save points are well spaced too, and the game includes various auto-save features that make some of the more frustrating battles or obstacles much easier to deal with. The combat system and gameplay is simple, yet deceptively powerful. The game explains how to accomplish most tasks as you go, so there's no need to rtfm. The menus, text screens and other prompts that come up are easy to read and use. Many of these things are typically overlooked in games like this, with the developers choosing to spend most of the time on the graphics or the animation. To have a game with both excellent visual design and usability is pretty impressive.
Overall, it's a great game, but there are a few flaws that I'm surprised are not noted more in reviews. Or, I should say, in the ratings, as many reviews I've read call out the problem areas, but still end up rating it in the astronomical 9.5-10 range. I guess the game does so many things so well that it's hard to give it a worse rating, but I'd be fine giving it a rating between 9-9.5...

After completing God of War, I've moved on to the latest Castlevania game, which is theoretically in the same action/adventure category as God of War. However, it's a distinct step down. It's not that it's a bad game (though I suppose I haven't played enough to really make up my mind), it's just that it immediately rubbed me the wrong way. First of all, you're not playing one of the Belmonts. A trivial point, to be sure, but the person I'm playing is a bit of a tool (and the story is correspondingly lame). The attacks and combinations are nowhere near as fun as GoW, and the level design seems to be much more monotonous. I have a feeling that it won't be long before I'm begging for one of those annoying "do it again, stupid" exercises in GoW. The other thing that was immediately and noticeably annoying was that every time you go into a different room, you have to endure a "Loading..." screen. This is one of those things that I loved about God of War, but I think I started to take for granted. Comparatively, this game stinks... so perhaps the high ratings weren't too high after all.