Saturday, October 3, 2009

God of War I/II Review: Deicide, Ribaldry and Quick Time Events

Greek mythology encompasses an enormous treasure trove of ideas that can be culled for various media. Its characters and creatures are evocative, well known and, better yet, in the public domain. Greek myth may be particularly well suited for action/adventure videogames due to the simple but resonant plots, the larger-than-life personalities, and the items and upgrades the heroes get along the way. This was suitably demonstrated with the critically acclaimed God of War back in 2005, and again in 2007 with God of War II, seen by many as the bittersweet finale of the PS2 era. Having recently played through both titles for the first time, I'd like to continue my series of reviews on games that everyone has already played by sharing my opinions on the franchise, and by-proxy some of my thoughts on the genre in general.

Right from the start, it's clear that the main aspiration of God of War is over-the-top awesomeness. The first level pits you against a massive Hydra and a legion of undead soldiers on a sundered ship, and the action rarely lets up as you travel through a beautifully realized fantasy vision of ancient Greece beating the crap out of all manner of mythological creatures. The combat is polished and visceral, but after your titanic clash with the Hydra (get it, 'cause you're on a sinking ship, hehe), there is a conspicuous lack of of epic boss battles, though this is mostly remedied in the sequel. I might have preferred if some of the more generic enemies were weaker and more numerous, but this may just be personal taste.

It is good that the combat is solid, since this is strongly the games' centerpiece, though the gameplay in God of War is actually surprisingly diverse, throwing in bits of platforming, exploration and puzzle-solving to keep things interesting. Predictably these other elements aren't as polished as the combat, since that was what the controls and camera were designed around. Some sections that involved pushing heavy blocks or statues around grew rather tedious, but I was actually surprised at how clever some of the puzzles were. The designers wisely refrained from trying to incorporate physics-heavy puzzles, and the solutions tend to rely more on logic than skill. They also didn't seem to repeat themselves. I was also surprised at how little the fixed camera got in the way compared to some newer titles. The climbing and swinging bits got decidedly amped up for the better in the sequel. It was clear that a lot of effort was put into these ancillary sections, and I appreciated the variety despite occasional frustrations. The game presents the option to lower the difficulty after the player has died one too many times at a particular checkpoint, and I appreciated the thought, but what was rather annoying was this only ever came up after I'd screwed up one too many times on a tricky platforming section, and the option clearly stated that lowering the difficulty would only effect the combat. This is rather like offering to lend a blind man a city map after he has just walked into another signpost.

This is essentially the videogaming equivalent to 300: disposable testosterone-fueled mindless entertainment. It's edutainment in that you might be influenced to learn more about some of the mythological personalities depicted, but that's sort of like saying S.T.A.L.K.E.R. teaches you about Russian cinema, or that The Lord of the Rings: Conquest teaches you 20th century literature. It doesn't come off as particularly mindless when compared to other games in the genre, which should tell you something about the general level of videogame plots. In this case, as with 300, everything is clearly meant to be over-the-top and larger-than-life. No punches are pulled, gleeful violence abounds, and that's a large part of what makes the games so fun to play. You are a man on a mission, you will let nothing get in your way no matter how much stuff you have to break, and the game lets you revel in that. Frequently the game actually forces you to kill innocent civilians who have gotten in your way or who must be sacrificed for the greater good. There's no namby-pamby moral choice here; you are a selfish, violent bastard, and your goal is to bust heads.

This pervading theme of violent retribution provides a necessary balance to the often frustrating challenges you are faced with. You will frequently be irritated with the tasks you are trying to perform between or during bouts of enemy attacks, but these very enemies also provide you catharsis. It all fits with the theme of fighting back against the uncaring Gods who mistreat you, though here "Gods" can be replaced with "Game Designers." It may sound like I'm giving this game an unwarranted pass on its frustrating segments, but I honestly felt everything fit together nicely most of the time, building up frustration and then giving you monsters to satisfyingly unleash that frustration on. The liberal use of checkpoints didn't hurt either.

A couple of parts did go over the line for me though. As with Castlevania, I found one or two sections involving gorgons exceedingly aggravating since they can temporarily turn you to stone, and if an enemy so much as sneezes on you while you are in this state, you shatter and die (yet it takes considerably more to shatter a stone enemy). Also, never jump near a Gorgon, since a three-inch fall when turned to stone is enough to shatter you. (Unlike the myth, averting your eyes doesn't help either.) This game is also one of the first to use the much-beloved quick time event, though here I find it fun rather than frustrating because, unlike the gorgon stare, it seldom means instant death should you screw up. Other developers borrowing the "press a button!" mechanic should note this important detail(!)

The relentless feeling of the game did also get to me at times. In the vaguely similar Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, the Prince is frequently conversing with himself or his female companion Farah, and these bits of dialogue did a lot to hold my attention and make me want to keep going. In God of War, the protagonist is silent, and you are forced to contend with seemingly herculean tasks before each tidbit of story is begrudgingly unraveled. This helps the overall theme, but it also makes the experience feel oppressive at times. You will be frequently presented with fresh new challenges, perhaps more so than in Prince of Persia, but you will be alone. It works with the theme they were aiming for, but at times I was tempted to pull out my iPod. Luckily the games’ music is excellent, and I particularly liked the score for the sequel.

There are some RPG elements here: different weapons and a few magic spells that can be powered up, which introduces the familiar issue that the experienced players will find all the powerups that make them stronger while the noobs face an increasingly difficult uphill battle, but then they can switch to a lower difficulty or play “tea party” or something. I also would have like the option to downgrade weapons and spells since for me the fun is in trying different approaches and combinations. It’s good that there is some long-term reward for killing things (experience orbs) since you’ll be doing it a lot, and the limited number of enemies, as well as the relatively modest change in your abilities, prevents grinding from becoming an issue. Aside from some nifty spells that can summon lightning or legions of the undead, there’s also a nifty rage mechanic which I feel works much better in the sequel since they included an off-switch.

If you look past the flashy combos and fine motor control, God of War’s combat can be seen as a game of resource management. You are attempting to preserve your health through an uncertain number of enemy waves, and you have a number of resources at your disposal to help with this. You use your magic and rage meters to deal with enemies in ways that are less hazardous to your health, and you pick up orbs from fallen enemies to replenish your meters. Treasure chests will completely refill one of your meters (depending on the type), but in battle these can only be opened if there is enough of a lull in the action, so when to go for them might be key. You want your magic and rage to get you to the end of the fight, but if the meters are left at full, then the corresponding orbs you pick up will go to waste. There are also the questions of which spells or abilities to use on which enemies, and which enemies to fight normally in order to recharge your other meters at the potential cost of health. It’s all a delicious balance, assuming you’re willing to go in expecting more than a button masher. (On the other hand, when a chest had the option of refilling health or magic, in the first game I invariably chose health due to higher spell costs.)

There are many other games that I’d look at in resource management terms, but this aspect of God of War is quite polished, and more importantly a lot of fun. The basic job of hacking up foes is great fun as well since it’s less about mastering combos and more about using the right maneuver at the right time against the right opponent. If you like action/adventure games and haven’t gotten around to playing these, I heartily recommend you give them a shot. I thought the sequel was a little better overall though a few aspects of the first game felt more polished to me, but with either title you can’t go wrong. They were on the cutting edge in a lot of ways when they were released, and they still hold up solidly today.

Alternatively the whole franchise was a big ripoff of Hero of Sparta for the iPhone.

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