NYR: God of War

god of war 01

Welcome to another instalment in my New Year’s Resolution series, which is seeing me dust off the forsaken games within my backloggery list and give them one more chance… in an attempt to see some of the titles in that expanding, unfinished and unloved collection get the time they might deserve.

It feels appropriate that some time around the release of the fourth console God of War game I – the obstinate Sony hater – finally sat down to finish the first God of War on the PlayStation®2.

In a conversation with a fan of the game I mentioned that it was my first time in control of the series protagonist, Kratos, and he immediately expressed his condolences.

“It’s too late to be ‘wowed’,” he said by way of an explanation. “When this came out it was really eye-opening.”

In some ways I am inclined to agree. The most significant factor that made the game such a hit – the series now spans three different pieces of hardware – was the limit to which it pushed the PS2. Millions of fans of Sony were able to see new life breathed into the then-archaic platform.

In 2013 God of War doesn’t produce that same effect. While I playing through it, a friend watched and observed that the game looked like shit. When placed next to any current releases God of War does look very ropey; even the pre-rendered cut-scenes that run at a higher resolution than the gameplay pale in contrast to their modern equivalents (and look like animated cave paintings in contrast to the content shown running on the PS4).

One scene in particular, in which Kratos hitches a ride on a Titan called Chronos, looks woefully under-produced. I need to draw attention to this as the camera clips halfway through the Titan’s side during what is meant to be a spectacular set piece. It is an unavoidable bug and everyone who makes it that far into the game will see it happen, so there are no excuses for why it is still present in the final game.

However, in other cases this game is as close to a masterpiece, in terms of design, as a game is likely to get.

For starters each level is huge with intricate, overlapping pathways lending the settings a feeling of being lived in, or at least being credible domiciles for the fantastical creatures that inhabit them. The first time that Kratos walks into Athens to be greeted by the sight of Ares, the titular god of war, stomping through a battlefield hundreds of feet away is hardly dampened by the lower resolution textures.

Likewise the puzzling in the game has aged well, with many of the conundrums set being on a par with Tomb Raider‘s best. Combinations must be synced, terrain clues must be discerned and there is one particular puzzle which involves a series of rotating rings that is a fantastic showcase for the environment and atmosphere.

The use of a fixed camera is mostly canny. It keeps the memory requirements for these large environments low while still managing to keep the game feeling dynamic. This also means that there are only three tangible loading screens in the entire game (I counted them) so long as you do not die, which makes the game extremely immersive thanks to not having to wait for any of the action to unravel.

The gameplay is far from perfect however, and there are areas of extended platforming which are deeply unsatisfying. Judging the distance between two platforms can be nigh impossible when the camera is positioned in such a fashion that you can barely see the next plateau.

This begins as a niggling problem in the earlier sections, where the margin of error is generous, but by the end of the game – when failure means instant death and a reload – and there are now moving platforms to contend with, I found myself failing upwards of 15-20 times on certain sections in which I felt I had insufficient control over the proceedings.

At the other end of the spectrum to the platforming is the combat. From the outset it is simple to set up flowing combos capable of devastating any number of enemies throws at you by the game, and this accessibility makes it very gratifying. That is, until it becomes apparent that there is no depth to it. Certainly, there are weapons and special items to collect that can then be levelled up for new moves and attacks, but they are largely irrelevant. By the time I reached the final boss I was still using the same twin blades from the very first level and still using the same 4-5 button presses to execute the same room-clearing moves. It made me feel like I was playing Dead or Alive 4 all over again.

This might have been what the developers wanted – to make you feel like the badass Spartan you are meant to be – but it falls flat after a while. With the dial of destruction turned all the way to the maximum at every encounter you soon start to grow desensitised to the carnage. This is not to mention that the most flamboyant moments are punctuated by utterly tedious Quick Time Events.

I died no more than six times during combat throughout my entire playthrough, and most of those deaths were because of a particular medusa two-step attack that would turn me to stone and then shatter me. No, the real threat was always the terrain negotiation.

The less said about the utterly bullshit storyline the better. They try to lend a Greek meathead some sense of gravitas but barely frame the justification for the combat. The fact that Asura’s Wrath looks like fucking David Mamet in contrast is telling.

Times have moved on since this instalment of God of War. It certainly hasn’t aged well visually and I imagine the HD remake, now available, will look clumsy next to superior examples of the genre from the current generation (namely Bayonetta).

At the same time it is hard not to admit that its influence has been felt. For better or worse God of War, for me, is the Half Life 2 of hack and slash action games; a high point in the evolution of its genre that has inspired everything that has come after despite my not getting on with it. The fluidity of the violence can be seen repeated in Heavenly Sword and the newest DmC and the ingenuity of the puzzles and the spectacle of the levels can be experienced in Uncharted. I would say that Kratos’s legacy will be a lasting one.

For more in the NYR series, click here.