Sony's upcoming God of War is poised to get 2005 off to a good start for the PlayStation 2, thanks to its impressive visuals and tight gameplay. The promising title, in development at Sony's Santa Monica studios and born from the twisted recesses of developer David Jaffe's brain, caught our eye earlier this year when it was unveiled during a GameSpot visit to the studio. Since then, we've only had glimpses of the game--including some brief hands-on time at E3. Our appetites for ancient combat still weren't sated with Sony's recent visit to our offices to show off an updated version of the game, as the visit sadly didn't include any hands-on time. However, we're pleased to report the game's development seems to be coming along very well, with quite a bit more polish having been added since we last saw it.
For those unfamiliar with God of War, it's a third-person action adventure game that drops you into the apparently ill-fated sandals of Kratos, a fierce warrior who's been possessed by Ares, the god of war. Actually, being possessed has been quite the boon to the warrior's career, as the presence of a war god in his body has allowed him to become the most vicious fighter in ancient Greece. Unfortunately, all the carnage and violence has gotten to our boy, and he has decided he needs to destroy Ares. However, any reader of Greek myths knows that these gods are tougher than cockroaches. Thankfully, Kratos has access to the functional equivalent of a can of Raid--well, theoretically, anyway. It seems the only way to kill Ares is by using Pandora's Box, an ancient artifact that really screwed up the world the last time it was opened.
It's not like the box is resting in a shop under moody lighting, either. Rather, it's in a massive booby-trapped tower full of fatal puzzles and vicious enemies. While this all sounds like a promising setup for some kick-ass action, the game takes an intriguing left turn the moment you start playing: The opening sequence shows Kratos committing suicide. Confused? Don't be. The game is set in the three weeks leading up to the suicide and will fill you in on what drove Kratos to kill himself. While it's a little disconcerting to be playing as a dead man, the game's premise offers some nice hooks to pull you in, because once you've seen Kratos in action, you'll wonder what could bring him so low.
The demo of the game given to us was taken from God of War's first level and finds Kratos aboard a ship at sea that's undergoing a bit of trauma--hydra trauma, to be exact. The action in the level centers on guiding Kratos to help the sailors on the troubled boat and to deal with the pesky hydra. Matters are complicated by the fact that there's a storm raging and the fact that the hydra has more than one head, but therein lies the fun. Given that the level is from the beginning of the game, there was a fair amount of tutorial action going on to familiarize you with Kratos' abilities. Besides being a deadly warrior, Kratos also seems to be a whiz at moving crates and opening boxes, a job requirement for all action-game heroes. Thankfully, the game spices things up in this first level by requiring Kratos to move crates while avoiding the arrows raining down on him. Your goal is to get a crate near a wall and use it to jump up. The arrows heading your way can be a problem, as your crate has limited durability and will break if hit too often.
Later in the level, you'll spend a good chunk of time climbing up the ship's rigging, which is a fine showcase for the game's excellent melee combat system. The brutal system lets you perform just about every move you could on the ground when you're climbing, which is nice. As you guide Kratos further along, you'll start to encounter the hydra's heads. Initially, you'll take them on individually, which seems fairly manageable, thanks to a minigame-style combo system that lets you inflict copious amounts of damage by matching onscreen button-press commands. The catch is that the system is pretty hefty in the risk-reward department. If you pull the combo off, you'll be setting pretty, but if you miss a button press, you'll likely be chomped into oblivion.
One of the other new elements shown off in our demo was the leveling system for Kratos' various moves and abilities. As you go through the game, you'll earn experience points that you can use to learn new moves or beef up existing ones. In keeping with the game's themes, you'll be sacrificing the blood of your enemies, shown in handy meter form, to the gods to get the upgrades. Kratos' new moves will include everything from melee combos to supernatural attacks that summon lightning to damage enemies all around him. If all that isn't enough, you can also earn "rage of the gods," an empowering move that charges Kratos up and gives you access to an all-new set of moves.
While it seems as though Kratos may have too great an advantage over his foes, due to all the abilities mentioned above, that's hardly the case. While it's true that some of the smaller enemies fold like cheap suits in the face of his might, the larger ones require a bit more effort--which brings us to the hydra. As we've mentioned, the individual heads appeared to be manageable, but the final encounter pits you against three at once. Unsurprisingly, the trio isn't too happy that you've done away with the other heads, which makes for a tough fight, compounded by the fact that the main head heals the others. So what's a warrior to do? Think creatively. The boss fight served as an excellent showcase for the environmental interactivity that we expect will be key to keeping yourself alive in the game. The basic flow of the battle requires you to stun the smaller heads and pin them down using chunks of the ship. When you can focus Kratos' attention on the main head, you'll have to take it out using your skills--and a very large, sharp piece of the mast. The battle looked pretty spectacular, thanks to the scale (Kratos looks like a hobbit compared with the heads) and the cinematic camera.
Given what we've described already, it's probably not going to be too surprising to hear that the graphics in the game are already impressive. The powerful graphics engine ably pumps out highly detailed character models, dazzling special effects, and a slick sense of scale, with cinematic swoops of the game camera around the massive environments. One of the highlights we noticed was the animation of Kratos and his foes. While the work-in-progress build wasn't perfect, the action was impressively fluid in motion.
The audio in our version of the game wasn't final by any means, but it still sounded good. The rich musical score is promising, and the voice talent, which includes Academy Award winner Linda Hunt, ably sells you on the game's narrative. The effects currently implemented for some of Kratos' abilities are well done and sound robust.
Based on what we've seen so far, God of War is shaping up nicely. The graphics are an eye-popping testament to the fact that there's still plenty of life left in the PlayStation 2, and the gameplay features some very polished elements that we hope are expanded on even further. All told, the game looks good, has interesting gameplay, and should be quite a feather in the Santa Monica studio's hat. PlayStation 2 owners hankering for some ancient carnage would do well to keep their eyes peeled early next year, when the game is set to ship.