Thursday, February 16, 2006

God of War (PS2)

I'm in a log-rolling contest. In Hell.

If you haven't played God of War, I'm sure you think I'm kidding. I wish I were.

Here it is, right off the top: if God of War was Game of the Year in 2005, that's an indictment of the year.

One of most uneven games I've ever played, it alternately thrills and infuriates you. And when it's infuriating you, usually with incredibly cheap deaths, it's what I like to call a "curser." That means I hurled every expletive I knew, and some I made up, in one particular section of the game. Hell, as it were.

Let's back up a bit. First off, the animation in this game is better than anything I've ever seen on the PS2, and graphically, it's a marvel. Certainly, it's the high water mark graphically for the system. And it's not just the graphics--the environments themselves are full of a sweeping kind of grandeur, with immense scale, and the overall effect is brilliant. And the voice work is just as superb--absolutely top notch.

Then there's the story, which is wonderful. It gets short shrift, in some ways, to the action, but it's a new myth which is entirely faithful to the wonder and emotion of old myths. It's also beautifully revealed during the course of the game, and it's certainly one of the most poignant stories ever written for a videogame.

The problem with subverting the story to the action, at least to the degree that it's done here, is that the story is far more interesting than the action, which tends to get repetitive, particularly in the mid-game. Still, though, the battles are spectacular to look at, the puzzles are generally clever and well-designed, and they certainly support the story. And about two-thirds of the way through the game, after I'd just retrieved Pandora's Box, I felt like the game was really starting to soar.

Then I went to Hell. And in Hell, I spend most of my time either walking across turning logs (with blades), or climbing walls with revolving cylinders of stone (with blades). The problem with the walk is that below you is Eternity--instant death for one mistake, in other words. And there will be many, many mistakes, or at least there were for me. The idea of a multi-minute sequence where one tiny mistake equals instant death is just terrible game design. Absolutely terrible.

Even worse, it's not even thematically consistent. The game consistently makes excellent use of its environment to reinforce the myths of the Gods, but for the Challenge of Hades we get a log-rolling contest? Is this some kind of misguided lumberjack salute? Are we going to be shimmying up trees as well?

What's particularly frustrating is that the right way to do this section of the game was so obvious. When you're walking through Hell, you should be walking on a path paved with human souls, and those souls should occasionally reach up to drag you down with them. Destroy the first quickly or another will emerge, then another, and together they will drag you down into their nightmare.

That's Hell.

Climbing a wall? It should be a wall of souls. Duh. And they should scream and moan and reach out for you. It would have been totally creepy and unsettling. Instead, we get the lumberjack championships, complete with instant death. It's incredibly cheap and jarring, and I mean it when I say I cursed my way through it. I almost quit about twenty times, at least, and I was pissed off every single minute. That's how badly that section of the game was designed.

Once you get through, though, the additional backstory you get is fascinating, the final battles are fantastic, and the ending is absolutely stellar. The last half hour is vivid and totally memorable, which makes it even more baffling that the previous section would be total crap.

Anything else? The save system works fairly well, as does the quick restore after death, although there are times when it makes you grit your teeth in frustration. The camera is a nightmare, because it's fixed, and many times you won't be able to fully see what you're supposed to be doing until you're actually doing it, which is very frustrating.

This game is very, very polished. There is an unbelievable amount of detail, and nothing feels partially fleshed out or incomplete. The weaker parts of the game were just bad design decisions, not problems of execution.

If there's one more general weakness, it's that the game builds unevenly. There are long stretches where nothing feels more dramatic or important than what came before it, which is also a function of a game that added a few hours of content to extend the experience, even though it's not a long game by any means (about fifteen hours). So even though the locale might be different (and often stirring), and the enemies are different, it still feels very much the same.

So it's a game that is great in fits and starts, particularly the final sequences, and it's a game that has obviously been created with great care. It will also, on occasion, drive you crazy. It's certainly a top ten game for 2005, but how anyone could put it at the very top is beyond me.

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