Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been playing my way – maybe finally – through the God of War series. And it can be distilled down to this: as Kratos, you slash your way through thousands of monsters and people because you’re angry because you’re sad.
Granted, having your wife and child killed – well, actually killing them yourself, to be more correct – is a bit of a bummer. But to foster that big a killing spree? That’s some next-level grudge-holding work there, guy. I certainly couldn’t manage it in person, and sometimes during my playthrough of the six games, I wondered if I’d manage it in by proxy.
But I did, and I’m kind of glad, because I don’t know that I’d be able to have a run through them all. The backlog is too large, and there’s only so much time one man can spare for a bald, angry Spartan.
I was familiar with the first two games. I’d played them on my PlayStation 2, many years ago, and had terrible memories of dying (a lot) and spending a lot of time waiting for the system to return me to the land of the living. This time, I played the PlayStation 3 remastered versions, which were all bells-and-whistles-polished and seemed to run a little snappier. They were part of an anthology which collected the first three games, plus two mobile variants, in one place.
The trailer’s good if you’ve no idea what these games are about. (Though I can’t imagine why you’d be reading if you didn’t? Hm.)
Basically, the games cast you in the role of Kratos, an angry, angry Spartan who is the (Greek) gods’ plaything. The first game sees you pitched against Ares, who is responsible for your anguished state. So, being a can-do member of the warrior class, you toddle off and figure out (with the help of Athena) how you can knock off a god.
Yeah, the whole first game is about punching God in the face. The second doubles down and makes it about punching the god (Zeus) in the face. And the third… well, it’s still about punching Zeus in the face because this is the gaming equivalent of when they split that Pirates Of The Caribbean film into two. But you know – you end up being a god yourself for the trouble, so I suppose punching out (a couple of) god(s) does have its benefits. (Though you do discover that Zeus was actually your dad – largely because as every mythology fan can tell you, the jerk is incapable of letting anyone or anything remain undicked – which lends a whole Sophoclean frisson to the proceedings.)
So yeah, the story is a bit convoluted. But it’s offset by the fact that the gameplay is largely superlative. The original game is the hardest in the series, I think – there’s some timed box-pushing puzzles that are ridiculously precise, and the final battle is a thumb-cramper of a bastard – but it sets the stage well. It’s hard to care about the human bicep you’re in charge of, but damn, when he cuts loose, it’s amazing.
The combat flows freely, and it’s fast and brutal. The environments and creatures are all very Ray Harryhausen, and there’s a distinct feeling of camp, though it’s often overpowered by the bro-sauce that’s liberally coated throughout.
(Here’s where I point out that the offscreen banging game, which appears in pretty much every other iteration of the series, is pretty lame. It’s just not cool.)
The boss fights are suitably epic, and take some doing. You fight larger-than-life monsters, often in improbable settings – this is a series that sees you fight your way out of hell repeatedly – but there’s always the feeling that you can overcome that starts tweaking the one-more-round part of the brain. There’s ways of cheating the system – start a combo just before you’re hit and often you can canned-animation your way out of getting hurt – but there’s a lot of dying and a lot of pattern-learning to be done to complete these things. These games might be the most sworn-at in my collection, because there are – particularly in larger boss battles – moments of absolute bullshit AI destruction that seem unfair. And yet, I carried on, because the brio of the undertaking is undeniable. This is balls-out bullshit big-kid grossness, and it’s a lot of fun, especially when you get around to killing Zeus, because holy shit does that guy deserve it. He’s even more of a dick than Hermes, which takes some doing.
Perhaps that’s the take-home of the main trilogy: gods are dicks, and you should throw rocks at them.
(The third game was the only one I played on the PS4 – and man, does it look great.)
The two portable games, Chains of Olympus and Ghost of Sparta looked fine on the PS3, and added a little bit of backstory to the proceedings, but they seemed to be a bit inconsequential to the whole thing. The meat of it all is God of War, II and III. I blasted through these two pretty quickly – unsurprisingly, they’re the shortest because of their original platforms – but honestly can’t muster more than a meh for them.
Another PS3 game, God of War: Ascension adds some different mechanics, and some truly grotesque world-building. It doesn’t really provide the same sort of narrative drive as the three main games, but it was a lot better than I had expected. There’s something indescribably creepy about gaming through a labyrinthine prison establishment built inside a pinioned god-creature.
I’m glad I’ve played these games, and played them in a row. Much like my playthrough of the Assassin’s Creed series, it’s easy to see where the mechanics change, and how the story develops. The games feel, I like to think, more like they’re meant to be played, because I have the play style and the mechanics more easily muscle-memory accessible.
Are they great games? Some of them. The three main games, certainly. Are they problematic? Most definitely. It’s difficult to empathise with Kratos, even though he’s a tragic figure, and the stories in the games could use a lot of polish. But fuck, they don’t play like the busted arse that was Dante’s Inferno – a poor knock-off at best – and the feeling of beating some of these bosses provides the best non-Dark Souls feelings of joy I think I’ve felt in gaming. I felt I wasn’t really brostosterone-laden enough to get through these games, but completing them does feel pretty good. It’s also made me want to dig out the mythological texts I studied years ago, so I suppose something positive has come out of the past month of hack-and-slash brutality.
In conclusion: these games are influential, stupid fun, and Zeus is a massive dick.