“God of War 2” is destined to be the last great game on the Playstation 2. The PS2 may not have the processing power of its beastly younger brothers, but that black box has managed to produce an experience that bests any next-gen offering in terms of sheer scale of imagination, one which is perhaps only rivaled by last year’s “Shadow of the Colossus.” “God of War 2” is intense, vicious, beautiful and should be played by everyone anywhere near a PS2.
The first moments of the game make clear the scope of the adventure the player is about to undertake. Kratos, clad in black armor as the God of War, descends to earth to aid his favored Spartan army in destroying the city of Rhodes. Athena begs him not to, but not even a goddess can keep our man from his inalienable right to carnage. Unfortunately, Athena is not one to make a subtle point. She blasts life into the Colossus of Rhodes itself and sics it on Kratos. He is pursued until the end of the level, battling Rhodesian soldiers and slowly ripping the monster to pieces before finally felling the Colossus by climbing it from the inside. At this point the player might think “God of War 2” was opening with its best trick, but the Colossus is not even the biggest (and by no means the baddest) enemy Kratos will have to face.
The original “God of War” began with a comparable struggle against the Hydra, but the rest of the game was noticeably lacking in boss battles. Not so in “God of War 2.” Bosses are plentiful, varied and consistently challenging. I won’t ruin it all, but among Kratos’ foes are Perseus, Icarus, the three sisters of fate and finally Zeus himself. It’s hard to imagine what mythological badasses are left for “God of War 3,” because it shouldn’t come as a surprise that none of these characters fare too well after meeting “the ghost of Sparta.”
Kratos comes back in full force in this installment, killing every character he encounters in the game save a handful of Titans. For those who don’t know, Kratos is a fallen general of Sparta who became the God of War after killing Aries in “God of War.” He’s seven feet tall and bone white with the ashes of his murdered wife, except for a single red stripe across his chest and face. He has been killed twice now, but seems to treat Hades more like a sauna than a prison. Seared into his arms are the blades of Athena, two vicious knives at the end of retractable chains, indiscriminately and somehow gracefully eviscerating anything in their path. In video games especially, actions speak louder than words, and these blades constitute Kratos’ personality more than anything else does.
All of the bloodshed feels uniquely appropriate to Greek mythology. There is something about Greek mythology, with its heroes, monsters, magic and legendary weapons, that seems to scream for a video game. What does Achilles have besides special moves, a lot of hit points and a level 99 shield? SCEA’s re-envisioning of classical mythology feels visceral and genuine. It might not always be completely accurate (I guess there was only one minotaur), but things like the ferocity of the monsters and the enormity of the Titans feel fresh and living instead of like stale and tired verse covered in DSers’ tears. The same goes for the staggering and beautiful architecture and landscapes, which at once dwarf the player and drive him to conquer them.
Nearly every enemy has a minigame fatality that can be triggered once it has taken enough damage. By pressing a certain button or twisting the control stick, Kratos will climb a Cyclops, slam his blades into a Minotaur’s mouth or rip a wraith’s arm off and use it to decapitate him. The cutscene-minigames vastly expand Kratos’ lethal vocabulary, without having to dedicate buttons to specific actions. We’ve seen this before in games like “Resident Evil 4,” and I’d expect to see the minigame functionality appearing much more frequently in the future.
The fatalities and the rest of the combat system remain essentially unchanged from the last game, which is a very good thing. Kratos feels agile and forceful at the same time, and each hit, evasion or block feels truly satisfying. The screen shudders only slightly every time the blades hit an enemy — not enough to break the rhythm of the battle but enough to fully touch off the sickening sound effect. There are three new weapons to wield, each with their own persona and purpose, but the majority of fighting will still be done with those flailing, flaming blades.
“God of War 3” will no doubt be on the Playstation 3. Given the precedent that has been set, SCEA should be able to make other designers look silly when they get their hands on next-gen technology. “God of War” was a massive, vicious and beautiful adventure, and “God of War 2” has only upped the ante. Kratos has no doubt sealed a place among the great badasses of videogames, next to Solid Snake, Master Chief and Leon Kennedy. The end of “God War 2” suggests a trilogy though, and so perhaps Kratos will burn out his brief candle in the next installment. As for “God of War 4,” dare we say Norse?