Since God of War 2 is likely the PS2’s swan song, let us briefly reflect on what made the system so great: lots and lots of games, split into an impressive stable of worldwide development support, and Sony’s willingness to get behind unique ideas (Amplitude, Shadow of the Colossus, etc.) and support them alongside their more trusted, traditional products – which is exactly what God of War has become. Wherever there is a Sony system, Kratos will be there to split skulls, yell at the skies, and engage in unspeakable acts with multiple women.
But just because God of War has become a property to bank on doesn’t mean that the sequel is any less epic, viscerally satisfying or downright entertaining. With the impressive engine and smooth combat already built for the first game, Sony Santa Monica have had two full years to focus on pure game and level design, and it shows. While ultimately not as expertly paced or quietly innovative as the first game, the fantastical Greek mythology-derived sequel provides one hell of a fun action/adventure game and a parting slap in the face to anyone who even considered packing their PS2 away just yet.
Every last bloody drop
As high as the visual bar has been raised in the last six months with next-gen games like Motorstorm and Gears of War, you’d still be hard-pressed to describe God of War 2 as anything less than beautiful. It’s a sublime cohesion of great art design and raw technical prowess, and can stand tall even amongst the afore-mentioned next-gen powerhouses. It’s just that good-looking. If we’ll be comparatively squeezing this much juice out of PS3 at the end of its life, the mind truly boggles.
Regardless of what visual plane of a given scene you’re moving on, every corner above and below you, and miles off in the background behind you is drawn and rendered with an eye for detail and artistic finesse. Never does the graphical direction feel lazy; even if you feel like the combat and story are dragging (which is hard to imagine) you’d likely be motivated to progress and explore simply to see the sights and epic set pieces. The grandiose scale of the first game returns and even knocks it up a few notches, allowing for some truly jaw-dropping vistas; it also goes a long way having a cinematic flair and a camera that can be used as much for cinematography as for gameplay. The vast majority of the cutscenes are done in-engine, but they impress as much as the CG ones thanks to smart direction and clever use of the engine.
There’s quite a bit of story in the game, and it’s entertaining even if it isn’t particularly fascinating thematically. By the end of the first GoW we found out Kratos to be a more interesting, tortured character than he initially seemed, but he’s still a bit of a humorless jerk (and yells "I am the God of War!" a few too many times throughout the course of his adventure). I won’t get into the tale itself for spoiler reasons and because it’s ultimately not why you’re playing the game, but I will say that you’re after Zeus himself this time (after besting Ares previously), so things are a bit more complicated. By the end of of the game it’s basically alley-ooped the narrative to God of War 3, but more in a "goddamn I can’t wait to play this next chapter" way than anything approaching frustration (like, say, Halo 2). It would be nice to see a modicum of subtlety introduced to the characters in that inevitable next installment, but one more time around for the over-the-top, unflinchingly aggressive cast is okay for now.
Gameplay, ultimately, is largely unchanged from the first GoW. You’ll venture through temples, ruins, caves, cliffs, and across the bodies of giant creatures in sprawling-yet-linear levels, fighting pockets of enemies and solving environmental puzzles along the way. There a few pegasus-flying segments in the first half of the game, but they serve more as a fun change of pace than a significant addition to the series (think what we’ve seen of Lair meets Panzer Dragoon Orta, though not as good as either).
Many enemies return from the first game, but there are plenty of fresh faces to destroy too. Some of the returning creatures didn’t really need to be brought back (those annoying ground-burrowing stabby dudes and spear-wielding goat men come to mind), but they also took special care with some of the finishing moves and animations for the new ones: you’ll finally be punting devil puppies and pulling out cyclops eyes just like you always wanted to. The combat itself isn’t much deeper outside of a couple new moves you’ll pick up, but it’s more well-balanced and won’t see you relying on only a few choice moves by the end of the game. Three of the magic powers you pick up are all new visually, though they serve exactly the same purpose as their equivalents from the first game. Similarly, there are a couple of new secondary weapons, but it’s tough to want to use anything else when your default Blades of Chaos are so much fun. You can still button-mash your way to victory much of the time, but most of the bosses and mini-bosses require you to dig a bit deeper into your repertoire.
Boss battles were definitely a highlight of Kratos’ first adventure, though they were few in number. Thankfully they’ve upped the count noticeably for this installment, with fairly menacing foes capping off almost every new area you hit. There’s a nice variety too, as the developers found ways to make the smaller scale, human-sized battles as interesting as the colossal ones you’re used to from the series. I would give examples, but it’s really half the fun experiencing it fresh for yourself (though I will say that there are at least two occasions where the boss itself becomes a level – very cool).
It’s really personal preference whether you prefer it, but many of the puzzles you’ll solve to progress in GoW2 take quite a bit more "outside the box" thinking than the first, and will likely halt your journey on more one occasion. The original GoW usually showed you what you needed to do and left it up to you to figure out how. GoW2 often gives you no indication outside of a closed gate, really forcing you to experiment with the interactive items around you. It’s not that they’re abstract, they just involve new mechanics for the series that you don’t know that you can do until you perform them (like picking up dead bodies, which you’ll be doing several times). As a result the better puzzles in the game really make you feel like a genius when you figure them out, they’re just not as consistent as you might expect.
As large a scope and narrative vision that the game works with, its focus is ultimately still its greatest strength. It’s still completely linear through and through, every second outside of combat only having one way to go and one way to do things. It may seem like a bad thing on paper, but it helps keeps your progress logical and natural, regardless of how huge a role you’re serving in the world. And regardless of how violent, chaotic and intense things get, you always feel in control, and it goes a long way to just letting the game be fun at its own pace.
The end begins
It’s an unfair complaint to level, but it should be said GoW2 just couldn’t possibly have the same impact as it’s predecessor. God of War was such a visceral, mature expression of combat and mythology, all of David Jaffe’s violent game design fantasies impeccably realized. God of War 2 expands its scope and expounds on its epic story, but it’s simply a great sequel to a classic game instead of a classic in itself. It’s still miles ahead of almost every other game in the genre though, a polished, gorgeously presented expression of raw energy, exploration and fun. There are dozens of "wow" moments, whether it’s uttered at the site of a translator’s face being bloodily slammed into a stone tablet, a hideous snake woman’s hideous exposed breasts, or simply cutting off a griffon’s wings midair. The PS3 is looking more and more tempting for those who haven’t yet made the generational leap, but make sure you check out the PS2’s departing love letter, a fantastic "thank you" and tribute to a legendary system and console generation.