a review of God of War II
a videogame developed by sony computer entertainment santa monica
and published by sony computer entertainment america
for the sony playstation 2 computer entertainment system and the sony playstation 3 computer entertainment system (as part of the god of war collection)
text by Andrew Toups
Oh for the love of Christ. Yes, God of War 2 has meticulously rendered backdrops, skillful, inspired art direction, sweeping, breathtaking vistas, a dramatic, cinematic score, cleverly designed stage layouts, and setpiece after memorable setpiece. No, none of this matters. At the end of the day, God of War 2, though thoroughly well-designed, well-intentioned, and near impeccably well-put together, is an abject failure of videogame. The fact that it has been a success — both critically and commercially — is simple evidence of the sorry state of the medium.
I’ll admit, I enjoyed the first God of War. A lot. It was entertaining at the time, and hey, God Hand hadn’t come out yet, so I guess I just didn’t know any better. It starts off with a compelling premise (the protagonist’s suicide, with the rest of the game playing as flashback) and from there the plot only gets juicier and more interesting. The gameplay mechanics (which are nearly identical in this game) suffered from problems which I’ll get into in a moment, but at least the game was trying. The game cared. It had vision.
By comparison, God of War 2 wants nothing more than to be a sequel. It comes off like a band who, after releasing a hit record, follows it up with another that mimics its predecessor track for track. So every memorable scene from the first game is recreated here in one way or another — you will sacrifice an Innocent Bystander for the Whims of the Gods, you will encounter many Big Names From Greek Mythology, you will traverse Large Objects of Staggering Scale — but what’s missing is writing. Frankly, the plot is stuff. It’s Greek mythology fanfiction. It starts off dumb and continues to only get dumber throughout the game’s 10-odd hours. While the game has as many compelling scenes (if not more) as the original, it lacks anything resembling cohesion. The story is just a flimsy excuse for more action, and so it gets thrown out the window as a motivating factor.
But the real reason God of War 2 (and by extension, I suppose, its predecessor) is a horrible mistake from the ground up is simple. It starts with the duck roll in Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. The duck roll, if you don’t recall, is the default function of the context-sensitive action button which causes link to perform a brief forward somersault that provides a quick, oh-so-slight boost of velocity to Link’s jog. The duck roll is useless. It gives you no advantage in combat, nor are there any puzzles or setpieces that require you to use it — it barely even decreases the amount of time it takes to walk. It is entirely extraneous, yet at the same time it is essential to keeping that game from becoming monotonous. Why was the duck roll — which, bizarrely, is called “attack” on the HUD, despite not actually ever doing any damage — included in the game, then?
Well, the duck roll exists so that the player has something to do while walking through Hyrule field. It provides the same basic “fun” response as pressing A to make Mario jump does in Super Mario Bros. Take this away, and the game does not fall apart — however, suddenly the time it takes to reach the next destination seems to dramatically increase. Those dragging moments caught between objectives, trying to find the next point to move the story forward, become all the more excruciating. The game’s design, which is already pedantic, patronizing, and perverse, becomes much more transparently so. Without the opiate of the duck roll, the lie that the game is built on becomes clear.
Hypothetically, of course. Though I’d love to play a hack of Ocarina of Time with the duck roll removed, just to see.
What does this have to do with God of War? It’s only a minor exaggeration to say that every button press in this game triggers a duck roll. It’s an exaggeration only because every little action does have a specific in-game use — but those uses are, 95% of the time, either spoon-fed to you in ham-fisted environmental puzzle, or just entirely meaningless. For the first 25% of the game, nearly every fight can be won by mashing the square button. As more “difficult” enemies appear, nearly every fight can be won by mashing the square button and occasionally flicking the right analog stick to dodge. By the end of the game, you may have to block every now and then. Boss battles are about as involving, only interspersed with occasional Quick Timer Events and with a greater time limit between health recharges. When you die, you restart and flick the dodge stick a few more times per square button push, and bam, you’ve won. The game is constantly throwing heart stopping scenery and violent, over-the-top setpieces at you to distract you from this fact, so you never notice all this. But it’s happening.
How does this work? In any other game, such a technique would quickly grow repetitive. But God of War understands that dark secret of game design, the same one that inspired Miyamoto to let Link somersault his way across Hyrule Field. It’s in the animations; it’s in the way there’s a brief click for every single contact your blades make with the enemy, and the solid ker-uck and buzz from the dualshock that accompanies each strike. It’s in how fast Kratos runs, and the fluidity with which he performs his own duck rolls (which now have an entire analog stick devoted to them), and the way you can cancel and alter your attack combos on the fly. It’s in the way the orbs you gain by killing monsters home in on you automatically. It’s in the fact that those orbs are rendered at all when there’s no concrete need for them to. It’s in the motherhecking double-jump which serves no goddamned purpose whatsoever, and is taken for granted as something Kratos (who, very early in the game OHMYGODSPOILERWARNING, is stripped of all his godly powers) can just naturally do.
The game is clicky, crunchy, and meaty. Every little action feels good, and every little action gives you that little “fun” response that Miyamoto understood so well in designing Ocarina of Time.
On top of this, the game gives you the illusion of choice. By the end of the game you will have acquired a wide array of subweapons, abilities, alternative melee attacks, and new combos, all of which can be leveled up. During combat you have free and ready access to any of these, all of which will jerk around and beat down the hordes of mindless generic greco zombies that surround you. There is a large element of choice here, but regardless of your input, the output is always the same. There’s nothing resembling strategy here. This is Final Fantasy VII turned into an action game: at the end of the day, it’s only about overkilling your foes in new and interesting ways. That powerful new summon you find isn’t appealing because it’s powerful, but merely because it’s new — so you can see that totally sweet cutscene that plays when you use it.
To put it another way, imagine a version of Dance Dance Revolution where hardcore pornography plays in place of the usual music video, and the directional presses are largely optional and not scored on timing. If you miss enough thanks to being distracted by all that hot, wet hecking and sucking, then you die. At least this hypothetical game is a bit more honest about what it is, though really, the God of War series is essentially the same thing, but with stuffloads of money thrown on top of it.
It is not entirely right of me to fault Sony Computer Entertainment Santa Monica for making this game. Surely they knew that all of the above was true, and that all of the above would make a successful game. Shame on them for indulging us, but shame on us for wanting it. Shame on us for coming to expect this sort of skullhecking as “fun”. This isn’t fun. It’s a nervous tick. It’s a bad habit. It’s obsessive compulsive behavior. It’s going through an entire box of q-tips in a day, because rubbing the inside of your ear feels so good the first time that you just can’t stop, and you eventually start to tell yourself that those little clumps of blood on the cotton are just really dark, moist bits of earwax that you’re better off without.
No. This is not what videogames are. I give God of War 2 zero stars because I do not play videogames to numb the pleasure centers of my brain. And I certainly do not pay fifty dollars for the privilege.