I have a bit of a confession to make.  I like to fancy myself a real gamer, but my past is pock-marked with missing “must-have” gaming experiences.  I’ve never played Counter Strike or Gears of War.  I never even so much as looked at Portal.  Also, while I’m loathe to admit it, I never finished the first God of War, and I never even considered trying God of War II.  Thankfully, the folks at Sony saw fit to give me an opportunity to right some of those wrongs with the HD-ified God of War Collection.  With God of War III slated for release in March, I figured it was now or never.  So I took it upon myself to play through all three games in succession.  And rather than add to the massive pile of plain old God of War III reviews, I decided to do the unthinkable, and review all 3 at once.  So get yourself a drink, buckle your seatbelt, and try to relax – we’re going to be here for awhile.  Here is my review of the God of War Trilogy.

God of War

God of War 1Five years is quite a long time in the world of video games. They’re kind of like dog years; multiply by 3 to see just how long ago that really was in terms of gaming technology. Popping in the God of War collection, I had reservations about whether it would hold up today, even if it was "upgraded" for HD. It turns out my trepidations about the game were largely unfounded. God of War is a stellar action-adventure title that not only holds up in 2010, it even manages to best some recent efforts in the genre.

Even in its relatively “infant” stage, the combat engine in God of War is top-notch.  Kratos is a whirling dervish of death, and his ability to smoothly eviscerate a roomful of enemies while maintaining seemingly unbroken combos is amazing.  A lot of games have combo-heavy combat that moves at breakneck speeds, but I find they often leave you feeling a bit out of control.  Kratos is incredibly responsive, and even in the midst of a massive combo attack, I felt completely in command.  In some games of this type (I’m looking at you, Dante’s), I find myself mashing a single button incessantly, performing the same attack over and over again with great success.  In God of War, I’m able to constantly mix it up, whether on the ground or in the air. 

As you might expect, the graphical presentation is probably the game’s biggest weakness.  The in-game engine has been polished and brought up to a silky-smooth frame-rate, but the other visual elements, namely the cut-scenes, are still stuck in 2005.  On my 42” plasma, the graininess and overall low quality of the cinematic breaks couldn’t be ignored.  This doesn’t detract from the overall experience as much as I might have feared, however.

The boss fights in God of War are just as breathtaking and bad-ass as they ever were.  The very first boss battle with the massive Hydra really sets the stage for what is to come in the entire series.  I was blown away by the scale and intensity of this first major fight, and I was pleasantly surprised by how well Quick Time Events (QTEs) worked within the context of the battle.  They allowed the developers the latitude to create impressive combat stunts that couldn’t be handled within the context of the actual gameplay system.  The great thing about QTEs here is that they allow such glorious representations of combat while still allowing the player some influence and participation.

 

 

GoWHydra

 

God of War is not perfect, however.  I found the difficulty to be ratcheted a bit on the high side at times.  This didn’t have so much to do with actual combat as it did with some of the environmental “platformy” type sections – especially the balance-beam areas.  The fixed camera often made it difficult to ensure that Kratos moved in the proper direction in these sections, and this led to quite a few fall-and-die-instantly moments. 

God of War also carries with it the worst block puzzle ever.  If you’ve played the game, you surely know what I’m talking about.  A room filled with spikes and a box that has to be moved through the room and around two corners within a very scant time limit.  This particular puzzle may have taken me a dozen tries to get it right.  This block puzzle made for soul-searing, rage-inducing fits of frustration.  If I never have to attempt that again, it will be too soon. 

I also need to mention the desert/siren stage.  This is the reason that I never finished the game my first time around a few years back.  I loved every second of God of War up to that point, but then I found myself wandering aimlessly through the desert trying to find those dang sirens for far, far too long. 

My last major gripe with the game is its tendency to repetition at parts.  I’ve made it pretty clear that I love the combat system, but there are times where it feels like that’s all that is happening.  Fighting wave after wave of enemies can be fun, but it has to be broken up with other gameplay elements.  There are times where I plain lost interest in never-ending combat.

The story of God of War is interesting enough; it’s not going to win any drama awards, but it kept me engaged throughout.  Beginning the game with Kratos diving off a cliff was an excellent choice, and the mystery of how he would have gotten to that point piqued my interest immediately.  The main crux of the plot involves Kratos’ quest to kill Ares, the God of War.  He gets a fair amount of help from the Goddess Athena by way of directing him to Pandora’s Box, which holds the power to destroy a God.  Of course Pandora’s Box is exceedingly difficult to obtain, and there are quite a few hoops for Kratos to jump through.  The narration of the entire tale is excellent, and I felt real empathy for Kratos and the past that haunted him. 

Overall, God of War is a wonderful game that holds up even today.  The brutal combat, interesting narrative and stunning boss fights combine for a marvelous action-adventure package.  Even with five years’ worth of dust and cobwebs, Kratos’ initial journey is well-worth taking.

Rating: ★★★★½

God of War II

GoW2While the first God of War released midway through the PS2’s life cycle, God of War II hit at the end of PS2’s days, even after the release of the PS3. Because of this, the developers were able to squeeze every last bit of performance out of the PS2 to create possibly the best looking PS2 title of all time. God of War II looks pretty dang good even today, but did they manage to recapture the magic and majesty of the first game?

Unequivocally, yes. 

We’ll start with the heart of God of War, the combat.  Wisely, the development team elected to refine the gameplay rather than try to rewrite it; after all, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  They did refine the controls even further to improve the already great responsiveness, and Kratos’ selection of combos is different but just as satisfying.  One of the biggest additions to the gameplay involves the addition of new weapons.  Over the course of the game, you’ll gain a giant barbarian hammer as well as a massive spear.  Both weapons have unique move sets and can be upgraded just like Kratos’ default blades.  These extra weapons aren’t just throw-ins, either.  I found quite a few situations where one of the new weapons was superior to the default weapon – though admittedly I spent most of my time wielding the trusty blades.  Overall, the stellar combat of God of War is only better in the series’ second chapter.

Another new gameplay element is the introduction of Kratos’ blades as a grappling hook.  This opens up a whole new way of traversing the environment, and allows for a lot more vertical-style platforming action.  This also upgrades the game’s overall epic-ness quotient, as there are times where the grappling function is used for some truly dazzling stages, including the famous Pegasus rides.

Another hallmark of the series are the magnificent boss fights.  God of War II does not disappoint in this area.  As a matter of fact, God of War II starts with one of the best boss fights I have ever seen – the Colossus of Rhodes.  A massive stone statue magically brought to life, the battle to take him down spans nearly an entire city and goes on forever (in a good way). 

 

 

GoWColossus

God of War II is stuffed to the brim with boss fights, and each one is both different and exciting.  The QTEs are back, of course, and the acrobatic feats they invoke against the game’s giant enemies are even more brutally satisfying than before.  If I had any complaints about the selection of boss fights, its that they occasionally make them a little too graphic for my taste.  I enjoy gore as much as the next guy, but there are times they really go over the top with Kratos’ decimation of his opponents.

Another improvement is the removal of much of the tedium and “cheapness” of the first game.  The few spots of balance-beam platforming are much easier to complete, and the developers didn’t try to one-up themselves in terms of the “worst box puzzle ever.”  Because there are so many great boss battles, much of the repetitiveness is gone.  You no longer spend long stretches of the game in massive hack-and-slash fests.     

The story of God of War II (which will carry on into its sequel) revolves around one word: revenge.  While the first tale dealt more with a man looking for relief from a haunted past, God of War II begins Kratos’ quest to bury his blades in Zeus’ belly.  The story here is more intricate and detailed, but at the same time I found it less engaging.  Where I felt some degree of sympathy for Kratos’ plight in the first title, I can no longer feel sorry for a main character whose entire aim is to kill Zeus, regardless of the cost.  I understand that he has a right to be severely miffed at Zeus (he does steal all of Kratos’ powers and, well, KILL him) but I don’t know that this excuses his actions.  In God of War II Kratos has lost any sense of morality or sympathy, and his character devolves into not much more than a rabid dog. 

Still, the story is presented beautifully, and it leads to a fantastic ending sequence that leads directly into God of War III.  While the narrative in the first game seems to live on a bit of an island, the story of God of War II and III seems to have been conceived of whole cloth, and I appreciate that.  Riding a Titan into a massive battle on Mount Olympus is one of the most satisfying and epic endings I have ever experienced.

God of War II took everything from the first game and made it better.  The combat is smoother and more brutal, the boss fights and general scope of the narrative is more epic, and the visuals presented look good even by today’s standards.  Sequels in video games are often superior to their predecessors, but it’s rare that they are better in every conceivable way.  God of War II is about as close as you can come to perfection in gaming.

Rating: ★★★★★

 

God of War III

GoW3God of War III arrived with sky-high expectations. For one, God of War II sits comfortably near the top of many "best of all time" lists. Beyond that, it is also the first next-gen title in an enormously revered series with a rabid fan-base – anything shy of amazing would be a huge disappointment.  It’s kind of like being the guy that had to follow-up Michael Jordan.  How the heck do you deal with that?

Right from the get-go, God of War III doesn’t pull any punches.  The ending sequence from God of War II is one of the best I’ve ever played, and the dev team decided to follow that up with one of the best opening sequences I’ve ever played.  God of War III begins right in the middle of the epic battle at the foot of Mount Olympus, and the epic scale of the confrontation is mirrored in the massive Titan Gaia you ride into war.  And rather than have you bother with bunch of filler, you get right to the meat with a massive boss battle atop the Titan.

Again the developers were smart enough to leave the combat system mostly intact rather than try to rework the whole experience.  Even though recent titles have tried to mimic the feel of God of War’s combat, they always to seem to miss the mark.  Dante’s Inferno probably came closest, but the sheer repetitiveness and lack of variety caused it to pale in comparison to the majesty that is God of War’s combat.  As in the previous entry, Kratos will gain the use of additional weapons to use alongside his trusty chainy hand-blade thingies.  In this case, two of the additional weapons are a lot likely the aforementioned blades, being some kind of variation on the original chain weapon.  But though they do LOOK similar, they play quite differently with different types of attacks.   

Basically everything about God of War III looks absolutely amazing.  The character models are richly detailed, the lighting, reflections and environments are about the best in the business, and the set pieces take “epic” to a whole new level.  Kratos’ character model in particular is astoundingly detailed, and he’s often sporting a glistening sheen of blood from his defeated foes.  I don’t see how you could be disappointed with the look of God of War III unless you are watching it on a 19” standard definition TV.  I’ll bet it would look good even there.

The excellent visual design is accompanied by the best sound design and voice acting in the series.  The actor who voices Kratos is largely forgettable, but to be honest he doesn’t have a whole lot to work with – there are very few ways to scream in rage and keep it fresh.  The rest of the voice talent is rife with talented, recognizable actors.  Rip Torn is a fine choice for Hephaestus, and I really enjoyed Malcolm McDowell’s turn as Daedalus.  An appropriately majestic score hits all the right notes, and the sounds of dudes being ripped in half is better than ever.

For me, the Colossus of Rhodes boss fight was the previous high-water mark for epically huge battles; but then God of War III started with me fighting a God while riding a frigging Titan.  Just as its forebears, God of War III puts a lot of effort into unbelievable bosses.  I thought I had seen it all with that first battle, but then I found myself fighting a skyscraper-sized Titan.  I can’t put into words just how great that particular fight is, but you’ll fight your way on, over and through said Titan in an attempt to find a soft spot in which to bury my blades.  The great thing about God of War III and the series as a whole is that I can’t think of a single disappointing boss fight.  On the contrary, all I can think of is how awesome they usually are.

 

 

GoW3Hades

 

At this point we are all well aware of the story in God of War III.  Kratos is continuing his quest to kill Zeus and take his lunch money.  While God of War II had us thinking riding Gaia into Olympus was the way to get that done, things change a bit as the story progresses.  It doesn’t matter a whole heck of a lot, though.  All you need to know is that Kratos is still mightily pissed and he will still stop at nothing to send Zeus to the underworld.  This brings me to one of my primary complaints with God of War III – Kratos is still bereft of any redeeming qualities.  He’s a bad mofo, to be sure, but that’s about it.  The game would carry an awful lot more weight if Kratos showed some element of humanity, or at least the merest hint of morality.

As in God of War II, I also had a problem with the level and graphic detail of the violent acts Kratos commits.  While I took mild issue with it in God of War II, in this installment the dev team took the violence even further.  A brutal curb-stomp every now and then is one thing, but repeatedly pushing the limits of violence is tough to stomach.  I’ve rarely seen this extreme level of violence in movies, and I fail to see why it needs to be present here.  Everything else about the game is astounding, and it’s a shame that it is sullied in some ways by extreme, unnecessary violence.  I also don’t understand why Kratos has to kill nearly everyone he happens to meet.  The violence here is also often directed at those who can’t defend themselves.

I also have a bit of a beef with how the game ends.  I won’t spoil anything here, but I will say that I thought the end-game carried on far too long, and took some odd and pointless directions.  I suppose it didn’t help that I felt nothing for Kratos by the end, as that most likely contributed to my apathy during the final sequence.  The aforementioned egregious violence also affected the final confrontation in a negative way, at least for me.

My complaints about the level of violence aside, God of War III is quite possibly the best action-adventure experience I have ever had.  From it’s jaw-dropping visuals, to its razor-sharp combat engine, to its boss fights of massive proportions, God of War III gets just about everything right.  It managed to fully live up to its Mount Olympus-sized expectations, and made for a fitting conclusion to an amazing trilogy of gaming goodness. 

Rating: ★★★★★