Developer and Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment of America

written by Randy Smith, September 2005

The first game I picked out of the pile was God of War, and here's why: based on the box it looked like another too-typical combat game with an enormously muscular protagonist to fuel the violent power fantasies of apparently all people in the world who play video games. How could such a game be considered innovative?, I wondered to myself, and my mind was flooded with fevered imaginations of possible strategies for breathing new life into those tired genres. Excited, I flipped on the PS2.

At its core, God of War is about frenetic side-scrolling melee combat, inheriting from, say, Golden Axe and its successors (including EA's Lord of the Rings games) and a bit from maybe the newer Castlevania games due to its inclusion of an Action-RPG character development system. Or as my 14 year old nephew disdainfully put it: God of War is a "button masher". While it's true that you can probably get through earlier parts of the game by putting the controller on the ground and stepping on it, in due time the combat sequences sport a tactical depth that demands a more deliberate approach. And the earlier degenerate button mashing is good in as much as it manages to facilitate entry into the game.

Killing lots of dudes is an innovative gameplay concept

One of the most striking qualities of God of War is its seamlessness, which is used to greater effect than any other game I can think of. The intro screen blends directly into the opening cinematic, which then blends into the training sequence, which blends into standard gameplay, which blends into boss monster fights and mini-games, and so on. Among other things, this accomplishment helps to maintain the story's forward momentum at all times without, for example, breaking regularly to pause or reflect. It also helps to suspend disbelief by not calling undue attention to the fact that you're playing a video game.

The game's fiction is fairly innovative as well, or at least well executed. The setting is an alternate ancient Greece in which the mythological is commonplace. The story seems fundamentally to be a revenge plot, but there were enough loose ends to convince me that interesting twists might be forthcoming. Our beefy protagonist, Kratos, manages to be compelling by being called upon to perform impossibly heroic feats, casually succeeding at them, and then demonstrating with dialog that despite his musculature, he is intelligent and motivated and also cries sometimes at the end of sad movies. Kratos maintains an unflappable confidence and nonchalance about the brutality around him (mostly his own doing) that makes him charming.

The aesthetic impact of controlling Kratos is pretty impressive. You really feel like a mighty, fearless, cold-blooded hero and not just because you can kill so many enemies. The design makes effective use of number of simple types of controls, stuff as basic as holding down a button or pushing a button repeatedly, by coupling them with interactions in which Kratos uses his brawn to force open chests or doors, push over enormous statues, or similar, such that the player feels involved with and responsible for these exploits. Kratos is also fast and nimble, which the player demonstrates via simple and effective systems for balancing on beams, dodging, sliding on ropes, etc..

Kratos one-ups Indiana Jones

The combat model reinforces Kratos's raw might, mostly via attacks where he rips enemies in half, pummels them into the ground, launches them into the air, that sort of thing, all of which is unflinchingly presented. He routinely defeats enemies dozens of times larger than him who have magical abilities, nasty tempers, and spikes growing out of their spines. Combat is tuned for fighting several enemies at once, and the controls provide great expression for lashing out in all directions and making subtle, dynamic adjustments to same as melee conditions evolve. The combat AI works for packs of enemies and allows them to express a range of tactics between kung-fu movie One-At-A-Time-ing and All-Together-Now-ing. The emergent player combat strategy isn't about considering every swing of Kratos's weird chain/sword weapons so much as it is about monitoring the overall flow of combat, especially the locational relationship to the enemies, and using combat and movement tools to manage that, keep the enemies at bay, wear them down, and eventually isolate and kill them one at a time.

This one-eyed monster is too wee to fuck with Kratos

Standard gameplay is routinely diversified by mini-game systems which succeed at providing novelty without disrupting the flow of the game. There are mini-games for climbing walls, fighting boss monsters, taking cover, humping girls, using the environment, various unique combat situations, and so on. One overall contribution of these is that Kratos often performs unexpected, unprecedented actions that lend the sense of being unlimited by standard game conventions. They keep it fresh.

Climbing and fighting at the same time makes for extra novelty

The Sex Scene

Rob walked in just as I got to the shameless sex scene, which goes like this. The narrator explains that despite his best attempts, Kratos is unable to quell his restless spirit by drowning it in constant sexual intercourse, which is weird cuz that always works for me, and the screen fades in to a scene depicting the ship's sleeping quarters and a pair of half naked women who coo and beckon. You can jump onto the bed, march across the sheets over to them, and interact with them, at which point the camera pans over to a vase on an end table and the staple mini-game interface of "do this thing with the controller right now" appears. During the mini-game, in response to each successful stage completion, the vase jumps around and in the end crashes to the ground, at which point the camera pans back to the bed in which the characters are suspiciously still in the same postures and states of undress (did they fake it?). You can do this over and over again because Kratos is so virile and responds to his spam email. Despite the simplicity of this interface, and despite the fact that Rob and I have made out, I did feel a little awkward demonstrating for him how to time the controller gesticulations to the sound of women moaning, like maybe I should be doing this in private instead.

We must protect our children from this depravity

Since I moved back to Vermont, I've become the only game developer that most of my friends know, which makes me the de facto defender of all things video game, hence I often get the question what do I think about that sex scene embedded in GTA3, to which my standard reply is:

Most real people in real life have real sex at some point or another, including even congressmen and Catholics, which qualifies sex as a normal biological experience. GTA3 is a game about killing cops, which I'd argue is less ordinary and less socially and morally acceptable. Consequently the game is rated 'M' for mature players, players who can successfully integrate into their worldview the simulated extreme violence and chaotic amorality portrayed in GTA3, keeping separate in their minds the notions of reality and fantasy. One hopes, then, that these same players are able to negotiate the troubling ethical terrain of seeing the image of two humans, represented in low-detail 3D polygons, apparently engaging in standard sex acts (but for the fact that the male is fully clothed), all this provided that they are first willing and able to track down and install the patch that unlocks this temptation in the first place. I don't mean to sound insightful; this is, essentially, a stock observation of America's hysterically fucked up values.

The sentiment is perhaps more artfully expressed at Maddox.

But let's get back to God of War.

Some Shortcomings

Over time Kratos obtains, via the character development system, new attacks, magic powers, and so on. I found that these added unneeded complexity to the combat system, at least at the rapid pace at which they were introduced. An increasingly overwhelming list of button combos perform special attacks that have nebulous feedback: did I really just perform the special attack or was that a normal attack? Why did I bother; did it do more damage or something? When combat gets difficult later in the game and you fail at something, you wonder if it's because the design expected you to use one of your new magical powers which you generally ignore because the interface is clumsier and the powers are less satisfying then basic combat. I mean, sure, it's fun to cut off medusa's head and use it to turn goat-zombies to stone, or to explode in a devastating lighting ball of Poseidon's Rage, but you pine for those simple, straightforward days a level back when all you needed to butcher your foes was near-immortality and an undying lust for revenge.

Partial list of special attacks

God of War does a fair job balancing and resolving the omnipresent tension between creating a cinematic experience and an interactive experience, but it often leans enough in the cinematic direction that it falls into the pitfall of stripping the player of some intention. In particular, Kratos tends to know more about what's going on than you do. This is fine when he's just being cagey about his troubled backstory, but with respect to gameplay being a step behind him can have unwanted consequences. I'm talking about stuff like the camera pointing at Kratos staring at something off-screen which is really interesting and potentially critical to his ongoing survival but which you the player cannot see. A more unique problem is when you're fighting some screen-dominating boss monster, and via a glance at its health bar and a quick mental calculation, you come to the conclusion that you will defeat the monster by 9:13 am, on Tuesday, April 10th, 2007, but just as you're distressing about what alternate strategy to employ before your rice is done cooking or your biological clock kicks in, the game launches a combat mini-game, and Kratos pokes out the monster's eyes, or stabs him in the throat with his own fangs, or bashes his head into a planet, or similar, and the fight is over. That clever Kratos! If only he'd told you what he had in mind, you could have done it together!

Balancing on a beam in pursuit of something off-screen. Kratos! Tell us what's out there!

There are some questionable, counter-conventional button assignment and interface decisions. Does that red stuff you pick up and lose all the time represent health? No, it represents experience points, which for my money isn't critical enough a real-time resource to justify any screen real estate. What does that clank sound mean? Is that my blood or the monsters' blood? Like any other goofy interface quirk, though, you eventually adapt to these.

God of War is saturated in gory violence, but juxtaposed against the protagonist's blasé demeanor and cast in the game's weighty tone, the composite package is just pretty funny, and invariable everyone laughs and has a good time when Kratos disgustedly kicks some lizard-troll's femur up into his heart in an explosion of blood and/or experience points. It's a bit like Army of Darkness, except without the obvious camp and irony. Personally, I'll take this any day over some character I'm supposed to relate to as he sociopathically butchers his fellow humans unencumbered by moral dilemma and based on some dilute justification. Yeah, I'm talking about you, Max Payne, you fucking psycho.

Psychologically unhealthy homicidal maniac with pleated slacks


I really liked playing God of War; I didn't feel the need to punch anybody or any abstract principle. I kept at the game longer than the schedule allowed, and I intend to come back and play further some cold winter night when no one likes me. The game succeeds at taking several evolutionary steps and pulling them together in a satisfying, holistic composite. SCEA should pat themselves on the back for this one, once they get done gleefully flinging into the air all of the money it presumably generated for them.

But God of War convinced me that, to Edge, the "Excellence" in the Edge Award's former title was just as important as the "Innovation", and I decided that my contribution to the vote would be to skew heavily in favor of the latter. I figured at least one judge should at least consider voting for something other than Half Life 2. God of War is an excellent game, but it isn't introducing anything unprecedented and unforeseen that will spawn clones for the next couple years. Despite my wanting it to, it did not reinvent the combat paradigm like, say, Super Smash Bro.s did. Expectations adjusted, I was ready to move on to the next game.


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All materials copyright 2005, Randy Smith