GOD OF WAR / Sony / Playstation 2
Cinema has "popcorn movies", big-budget productions that Hollywood usually puts out in the summer. Their hallmark is style over substance, spending lavish amounts of money on impressive visual effects, and often having a healthy dose of sex & violence too. What's the gaming equivalent? I don't think console games were really capable of the "popcorn" effect on a graphical level until the Dreamcast/PS2/Gamecube generation, and the first one of consequence that I can think of was Sonic Adventure. Unlike Mario's move to 3D, which aimed to replicate the platformer action that the series was known for in a new dimension, Sonic focused more on over-the-top visual thrills, but did so by taking more control out of the player's hands; the most exciting and impressive moments of the game were also the ones you had the least control over. God of War is firmly in the "popcorn" mold, and really took over duties as poster child from the Sonic franchise. It's visually amazing for its time, but the tradeoff is that you often feel like you're barely playing except to mash buttons.

The story is a sort of hyper-violent 300-ized retelling of Greek mythology through the perspective of main character Kratos, some sort of hitman for the gods. Frankly, the story is stupid and not even worth recounting; it's just a contrivance to send Kratos through various Greek cities and locales fighting all the legendary monsters and gods of Greek mythology in rapid succession.

The core gameplay is an awful lot like Tecmo's PS2 Rygar remake, except Kratos is much more fluid and has a whole lot more moves at his disposal. And oh, buckets more blood too. And it's much more linear. And combo whoring. Really, this game is in the lineage of the cutting-edge arcade spectacle-based beat-em-up of the late 80s to early 90s; in between visually impressive moments you're mashing on tons of the same clone enemies. But good ol' Devil May Cry sneaks itself in as an influence here, as it seemingly did with every early-00s 3D action game, in that most enemy mooks take like 1000 hits to kill and the road to success is learning a few big combos and spamming them relentlessly in pretty much all situations.

First of all, the one faultless aspect of the game is the visuals, which are amazing for a 2005 PS2 release and probably worth the price of admission in and of themselves. Not just for technical proficiency but for creativity in scenario design and layout. This is the first game I can think of that really attempts to make you feel as if you're controlling one of those cutscenes where the hero does badass superhuman shit that you can usually never actually do in the gameplay.

Unfortunately, the primary way it makes this work is through limiting input and generally dumbing down the action, as well as putting you on a mostly extremely linear path with fixed camera angles the whole way through. The game is at its best when Kratos is surrounded by a pack of enemy mooks and is free to use the game's wide array of death-dealing techniques to whirl around in a fluid, well-animated killing frenzy, or in the (too-rare) big boss battles against gargantuan foes. When Kratos gets off dry land, however, things almost without exception get terrible. There's all sorts of iffy rope-climbing and net-climbing and rope-walking that are just clumsy and annoying, and in these "alternative" segments the game can't seem to do anything with a simple button press that can be done instead with tedious joystick-waggling and button-pounding. Probably a ploy by Sony to wear out your expensive-ass DualShock and force you to buy another one. There's also some platform-puzzling segments, mostly loaded into the back half of the game, that are obnoxious.

I felt the game's use of QTEs was also a misstep. Now, to be fair, most QTEs aren't mandatory. After you've wailed on some of the harder enemies for a while, you can sometimes kill them a little early by getting near them and pressing Circle when an icon appears over their head. This takes you into a little mini-game that involves either button-pounding, correct button-pressing, or joystick-rotating. But pressing circle when you're near them is a little dodgy to begin with, sometimes it just doesn't work for no explicable reason, and it gets worse when other enemies are around and able to backshoot you constantly while you're going for the QTE kill (which is nearly all of the time.) The joystick-rotating QTEs are also ridiculously finicky, requiring greater-than-Zangief levels of precision, which is particularly frustrating since they're necessary to kill the annoying Medusa enemies who can insta-kill you if they lock their stone gaze onto you for long enough. Again, most of the time these aren't even mandatory to kill a foe as you can just wail them to death. But wailing them to death takes a lot longer, and QTE Kills are also the only way to get health and magic refills out of the enemies, which become almost mandatory in the tougher latter stages where you get ridiculous heaps of damage dished onto you constantly.

What you end up with is a game that, to me, was maddeningly uneven. You'd be rolling along with a stretch of fun combat and then suddenly there's a rope-related segment, or a dodgy platformer with instant-death traps, or a QTE that just breaks the flow of the game. I thought it was still enjoyable enough on the whole to be worth a recommendation, especially since the PS2 version can be had for like 2 bucks, but not quite as good as the Vidya Hype Machine made it out to be back when it was released.
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