Some games seemed destined for the top. It's hard to predict and even harder to define, but once in a while all the elements come together to create something that catches everyone's eye. It's almost like a cosmic conjunction when the action feels right, the style is electric, and the visuals grab on first glance and don't let go. Before its release, a large amount of buzz had built up online and in magazines—and nearly everyone who saw it agreed—God of War had it.
By most accounts, the game has walked its talk and made good on the hype and excitement generated by the media. I was fully prepared to agree and join the crowd of cheerleaders before I started writing this review, but now looking back and reflecting on it after completion, I'm not so sure. I certainly think that God of War is an outstanding game when looking at each of its components, but it takes more than technical excellence to create a true classic.
A third-person action adventure from Sony's Santa Monica Studios, God of War comes from the pedigreed minds behind a number of Sony hits like Twisted Metal: Black and War of the Monsters. The game stars fallen warrior Kratos on a quest for revenge against the Greek god Ares. The reason for this quest is told through a series of cut scenes whose drama won't be spoiled here, but it's safe to say that anger and rage are his driving forces.
Kratos is a very able-bodied man with many techniques at his disposal and a thirst for bloodshed. Gamers who like their action on the brutal side will not be disappointed after seeing the carnage caused by his Blades of Chaos—two huge knives on the end of extendable chains. Backed up by these weapons (as well as magic and abilities provided by the gods), no man or beast found in Greek mythology can stand up to his assault. Without overstating the case, blood-drenched violence is rained down upon everything in his path.
Although it's clear that using the Blades of Chaos and slaughtering mythical monsters are the highlight, gameplay strikes a balance between combat and environmental navigation. A large portion of the game takes place inside a large complex divided into small areas, each with its own set of puzzles. Although none of them were extremely difficult, they were always engaging and interesting, providing a break from the action while being straightforward enough to keep the pace of the game very high with little dead space to be found. I admired that I was never stuck on either combat or puzzle-solving long enough to become bored.
Gameplay aside, the game itself is absolutely beautiful. Featuring a static camera, I was treated to many stunning environmental shots showcasing the hard work and excellent design incorporating classic elements from Greek mythology and combining them with videogame scene-setting. The view from a cliff below Pandora's temple overlooking a desert was stunning, and doubly so after reaching a ledge and seeing the crawling giant on whose back the temple is perched. The characters in the game are just as impressive as the landscapes and the people behind Kratos' animation deserve a standing ovation. Watching his bladed chains spin and whirl was hypnotic, and the amount of work that must have gone into making such sequences so seamless was no doubt backbreaking.
God of War takes a very mature approach to its presentation during combat and cutscenes. Although the depictions of gory death are extremely graphic, I do feel as though they are an appropriate fit to the violent fantasy tone of the game. The weapons themselves spill raging rivers of blood, but Kratos also shows lethal hands-on creativity in ripping the flapping wings off of shrieking harpies or impaling giant serpents onthe masts of ships. Visually, very few punches are ever pulled.
Nudity is also on display, with multiple examples of females being shown completely topless, or with garments so thin and revealing that they might as well be. Obviously, neither kind of content will be for everyone, especially children who might not be prepared to deal with bare breasts and stabbing soldiers in the stomach with their own swords. But, as a mature gamer who is very conscious of my purchases, I appreciated it and would welcome similar efforts—as long as it was clear who the intended audiences were, as it was here.
This is usually the time when I bring up a game's flaws, but I could find almost nothing to hold against God of War, technically speaking. Occasionally there would be a less-than-perfect camera view, but outside of that, Santa Monica Studios has crafted an unassailable product. However, I must admit that I had a hard time warming up to Kratos; I find that he lacks the "classic" element I mentioned in this review's opening.
His bone-white skin and twisting, flying blades cast a strong spell, but as a character I found myself being kept at a distance from him throughout the length of the game. It was hard to identify with a character so focused on destruction and rage, and in spite of the fact that his reasons for being so hell-bent are eventually revealed as valid ones, I never felt very much for him at any point.
Obviously, he is aimed to be something of an anti-hero, and in this respect I think he was successful. But, I can't help but think that a valuable sense of connection is lacking. For being the focus of the adventure, I needed more than madness and hate to motivate me. As cliché as it sounds, a little bit of heroism and maybe even a sympathetic trait or two would go a long way towards warming up Kratos' cold persona. As cathartic as it may be at times, I don't believe that any truly great games are built around characters with such hard, dark cores.
Comparing Kratos to others of his ilk, I was somewhat reminded of an earlier character, the vampire Kain from the original PlayStation's Blood Omen. However, even as a vampire wantonly draining villagers and bringing ruin to the world, I never felt distanced from Kain the way I did from Kratos. There was a balance to Kain's character, and he retained much of his humanity even while committing terrible atrocities. If anything, I would say that this lack of a connection, this lack of balance is God of War's weakest link.
It's undeniable that God of War is an outstanding technical experience. As a critic, I really can't find any flaws in the production values or the intensity of the graphic content, but I still couldn't help feeling a little bit empty after all was said and done. It may set a new high watermark by polishing its mechanics to near-perfection, and the integration of combat, animation, puzzle-solving, environmental design, and graphics are about as fine as anyone making an action game on the PlayStation 2 could hope to produce. Still, I can't help but think that a little more depth and soul underneath Kratos' untouchable repertoire of fatalities would have lifted the game into true super-stardom.