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.
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
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.
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
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.
is perhaps more artfully expressed at Maddox.
But let's get
back to God of War.
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
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.