Thursday, March 24, 2005


Over the past few years there has been a handful of games that, out the outside, looked really cool but that were secretly designed only for alien robot cyborgs from outer space. These games, including such knuckle-exploders as Ninja Gaiden and Devil May Cry 3, are obviously some Last-Starfighterian attempt to recruit our young into military service (or, in this case, ninja service) and not regular play-for-entertainment games of the human variety. Sure, when you play, you feel like a badass for the thirteen-point-seven seconds between instances of the reloading screen, but... well, there are no legends of ninjas flipping off walls, slicing people in half, and reloading several times per mission because some white-ninja mook killed them.

Sure, there have been a couple of games that were both awesomely cool in combat and accessible by those of use without two thumbs on each hand. Legacy of Kain: Defiance was one of them. You can do so many cool things (and do so, repeatedly, ad nauseam) that you almost forget that you're doing it in the same level over and over. Crystal Dynamics knew they were dealing with a badass vampire lord, not some spoiled, washed-out newbie hoping to save the world. So you could swing a big sword, telekinetically toss people around, perform huge combos, and drink blood from across the room. Fricking awesome, right? Imagine what would happen if someone combined that sort of empowerment with, like, more than one level!

In God of War, you are a mighty warrior, chosen of Ares, charged with destroying the God of War himself. Doing this requires, as you might imagine, mowing down wave after wave of evil bad guys, many of which were ripped from Greek mythology and had their togas and sandals replaced with AWESOME. Kratos (you) does this with a pair of bigass swords chained to his arms, but he could just as easily do it just by bludgeoning things to death with his scrotum, because he drips awesome from every pore. He's even bald, and he has a goatee, too, and big unicolor tattoos. In the beginning of the game, he wakes up with two naked women in his bed, and he's unsatisfied because his awesomeness is too much for two naked women. The developers could have just as easily replaced the model for Kratos with the word "AWESOME" and had the word "AWESOME" wield two bigass swords (or a scrotum).

The thing is, Kratos' awesomeness comes across in gameplay. Moments from the beginning of the game, you're grabbing enemies and tearing them in half. And you're doing this before the tutorial text tells you how to do it, because the combat is so intuitive (once you get past the fact that X is jump and not the main attack) that you can generally figure things out on your own. So, minutes after you start the game, you're fighting hordes of dudes, tearing them in half, and doing insane air-juggle combos that would make Soul Calibur's Maxi go, "Good lord man, just chill."

Then you see the genius of the balancing system. Every time you get comfortable, they toss in a new monster. First it's the minotaur, which does all sorts of blocking and isn't in any way simple to kill. You first run into two of them, and you have to figure out how to win. Things like parrying (which is what happens when you time a block perfectly, and which is insanely simple to discover and perform) become important when the enemy isn't just loafing about like the undead dudes you fight at first. Then you get the mini-game symbol, which brings you into a "kill it" mini-game that is different for each type of enemy (Minotaurs require rapid button presses, gorgons require rotating the analog stick according to prompted patterns, etc.), and if you kill an enemy that way, you get a specific power-up reward (Minotaurs always give Health). Essentially, every time you see a new enemy, there's a real sense of, "Well, damn, how the hell do I beat that," coupled with a likewise real feeling of, "Guess I better just get to work." The challenges in the game generally feel daunting-yet-doable, and the cannon-fodder battles are just enough to remind you that you are a badass, no matter how badly that stompy ogre with the jawbone club clobbers you.

One amazing thing about the game is that it is apologetically epic in scope. Before you even finish the tutorial mission, you meet up with the hydra and beat it up. Soon thereafter, you enter Athens, which has been attacked by Ares and his minions. You beat up a few minions and work your way into the town, and there you see Ares, all 200 stories of him, stomping about and tossing people around. The scale is such that Athens seems like a puddle to him, and the people are like little tiny bugs. The hydra was huge (at no point does the entire hydra, or even any two of its heads, fit onscreen at the same time), but Ares is a monster. And you get to fight him. Again, "Well, damn, how the hell do I beat that?"

I have never played a game that made me feel so awesome and insignificant at the same time. Kratos shoves aside ogres and minotaurs; he wields Medusa's head as a weapon against his foes; he has the attention of the other gods, who hate Ares but won't break Olympian policy by directly waging war on him; and he sleeps with two naked women at the beginning of the game (oh, and they are really naked; somehow, Sony got away with naked boobies in God of War). On the other hand, his enemy is a god to whom Kratos himself is roughly the size of a horsefly with no flight ability or annoying buzzing sound. Knowing how awesome Kratos is only helps you anticipate how awesome your enemies must be. Oh well. Guess you better just get to work.

And that's the trick. God of War doesn'y rely on making you learn the hardcore ins and outs of the system to win. When you beat it on super-hard difficulty, no spaceship from ancient Greece is going to come and conscript you into taking on Ares for real. The game is pretty, intuitive, empowering, and cool, and you don't have to be part of that 1% of gamers who don't mind reloading 25 times to get past the first boss.

Well, damn. How the hell will anyone beat that?