22 Jul 2016

God of War
2005 - PS2 - SCE Santa Monica Studio

God of War’s critics have two complaints: it is an adolescent depiction of violence, sex and masculinity; and it is a button masher without the depth of Devil May Cry.

We'll get to the tits later -- first: the combat, which is way better than anyone gives it credit for, yet it still only, like, the fourth best thing about the game.

This much is true: if you can block and position yourself around the enemy competently most of your combos are only about as useful as each other. This is the origin of this oft-parroted criticism: “it’s all just square-square-triangle” — which ignores the reality that you still have to get yourself into position to use that combo, and if the other combos don’t add fathoms of depth, they still add variety. Still, said block is very generous, as is the dodge which will even cancel through your attacks. To keep this sort of thing from becoming a snooze you need to throw everything possible at the player... but it’s not until the second game that the player throws down with the varied groups of enemies that make the combat kick and bite.

This is where the original God of War mostly makes up for it: many fights have some gimmick to agitate your play, an environmental hazard, a timer, movement restrictions, and so on. Few battles are alike. The most memorable to me are the battle with on the conveyor belts against undead archers and harpies; the one where you kill centaurs whilst trying to stay within magic circles; and the final boss fight itself. Throw in some competent platforming sections and puzzles and you have a stew of delicious scenarios. Devil May Cry 3, released a few months earlier, has a different approach: it takes the quality and quantity of moves and weapons to another level (and moreover absolutely oozes with Eastern style in all the combat animations), where God of War concerns itself with varied level design.

By the way, is it just me, or does God of War feel like an descendant of not only the beat-’em-up, but also the action platformer? Consider: the importance of spacing, jumping to avoid hits, close combat weapons swung at a distance, dealing with interesting combinations of enemy movement and attack patterns. This is... Castlevania, in a 3D space! For all the kids who say Castlevania: Lords of Shadows is "just" a God of War clone, give MercurySteam some credit: choosing God of War to mimic was a smart choice. Sure, Castlevania 64 was also Castlevania in a 3D space, but God of War actualizes it like Super Mario 64 did for Mario.

What God of War does add to the combat of 3D action games is the finisher move that leads into QTEs. This is not just a superficial effect, a way to get flashy, gory cinematic moves into the game, though it is that. It is mechanically interesting as well — stay with me guys, it’s true. First, it doesn't force you to kill an enemy once you've damaged it enough. Keep it hanging around so you can take advantage of the finisher effect later, if it's worth the risk, such as killing a gorgon only after you've used up your magic because you know you'll get magic orbs for finishing it — this element is especially effective in the sequels when we get better group combat and more finisher effects.

Second, it asks you to get in close to the enemy, so imagine: you're low on health, and whilst desperate a slash finally causes an circle prompt above the Minotaur, a ray of hope to get the upper hand, but careful: all the enemies are still attacking all around you. If that doesn't get your heart racing... you are playing on "Spartan" difficulty, right?

While simple, there is something inherently effective and impactful in how God of War works, a flow of the fighting to make thrilling and grotesquely beautiful battles. If you're not convinced, maybe consider just how many other games have taken up the finisher and QTE mechanics since. I even wonder if the first developers to use longer QTEs in FPS games had a sneaky look at God of War.

Still, that's just the combat. As mentioned, more important is the level design, but also the story — and the moments in which they seem to be the same thing.

I’m not even sure I even have the words to eloquently describe why I like God of War so much as an adventure. I can try, perhaps using words like epic and inventive and complete, and that is accurate, but it isn’t really saying enough.

To those who have played the game, I can mention things like: ah, what a clever moment it was when, after fighting through the afterlife of Hades, you ascend a rope... and find yourself climbing through the hole you saw a strange gravedigger working on much earlier in the game! (then you have to ask: who is this omniscient gravedigger, anyway, and what is his connection to the Gods?)

Or how one of the first levels is the same location as the last level, and it doesn’t feel repetitive, but feels monumental because you are fulfilling the quest that was set up very effectively in that earlier level. Also, at the end of that early level there is a quiet bay, a pretty landscape for a serene between-levels breather — then you return there at the end and find the giant Ares standing in the lake, and it becomes the site of the last battle. Epic.

It feels like a game that was conceived as a whole, built from every direction at once. It employs a wit that elevates it and makes me think of me of a mature Nintendo game, but God of War eschews any contrived “seven themed elemental temples” stuff.

Instead, it tells a focused story of Kratos and Ares. Though you travel far from Ares in order to find a way to beat him there there are almost no distractions from the core conflict between these characters. You just learn more about their relationship and why Kratos needs to kill Ares, the explanation for his rage and his willingness to kill without mercy. So, the brutality of the action (and even sometimes the puzzles!) is thematic food for... the story!

Remember the Legacy of Kain series? Action-adventure games, operatic stories of vampire anti-heroes and their violent world. After Legacy of Kain: Defiance I waited eagerly for news of a new game, but playing God of War years later made me realize that I wasn’t so fussed about a new Kain game anymore. Other games can fill that gap. The common prejudices paint Legacy of Kain as a high brow game for adults, and God of War as lurid or trashy — which is about true for the God of War sequels, which have maybe the worst scripts I've ever had the displeasure of hearing, but we'll discuss those another time. The first game is different. God of War might lack grandiloquence, but its violent tale of revenge has hooks that will play in your mind like the riffs of a death metal chorus.

Speaking of which, just check out the other best thing about the game: the fucking music, dude:

By the way, if you are still concerned that all the gratuitous gore, professional wrestling physiques and the sex mini-game make God of War “adolescent”, then I say this: all the better to enjoy it. If you can enjoy being an adult and enjoy your “inner child” when playing Mario or whatever, you can certainly still enjoy stuff you started enjoying as a teenager. Embrace your inner adolescent: those are the years that we started to develop into awesome people, so celebrate them. Is all this hatred of games that appeal to teenagers from people who hated being a teenager? Are they jealous or resentful? Put it aside and revel in the base pleasures of simulated hyper-violence and crude erotica. It’s only human.

David Jaffe’s entire gameography shows he is an artist confident with his adolescence. His latest, Drawn to Death, is inspired by the grim and gory drawings bored male students scribble in their workbooks — skulls, pentagrams, fire breathing dragons, guns — and I think that says it all. He’s not embarrassed by his baser tastes. He embraces them. God of War is a game powered by adolescent pleasures, but is steered by a perfectly adult understanding of theme, drama and irony.

This is why I'll defend God of War against all non-believers.


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