It's hard to imagine a better swan song for the PlayStation 2 than God of War II. Though it's not destined to be the very last game for the system, it doesn't seem likely that anything else will come along in the coming months to trump what God of War II achieves. As the sequel to 2005's megapopular action adventure set within the basic confines of Greek mythology, it continues the agonizing and rage-fueled odyssey of the world's angriest man-god, Kratos, as he goes on another epic vengeance bender. It's an altogether familiar adventure in many ways, with a lot of gameplay mechanics held over that haven't necessarily been improved in any meaningful capacity, but that's not to suggest the game isn't better overall. God of War II is a brilliantly paced, tightly crafted piece of work that's as intelligently designed as it is thrilling to play. In short, it's exactly what you would want from a sequel to God of War.
God of War II picks up not terribly long after the original game's end (meaning if you haven't played the first game, you ought to before checking this one out, both for story continuity purposes, and because God of War is awesome), with Kratos having exacted his revenge upon the previous god of war, Ares, and assumed his role on Mount Olympus. But even with all these newfangled godly powers, Kratos is unsatisfied. He continues to command the Spartan army and directs them to tear through the known world, conquering city after city. This utter disregard for the other citizens of Greece displeases the pantheon, and Kratos suddenly finds himself on the outs with the Olympians. Betrayed by Athena and seemingly killed by Zeus, Kratos is rescued by Gaia of the Titans, the old race that the gods felled to eventually take power on Olympus. Gaia instructs Kratos that his fate can be changed, but only if he can reach the ridiculously remote temple that houses the Sisters of Fate. What follows is an epic and daunting journey that has Kratos suffering through trials that make his last outing seem like a lighthearted romp in comparison.
It's an interesting tale that God of War II tells, almost more so because so much of it is about what happens around Kratos, rather than Kratos himself. The game spends long stretches focusing on the myths and legends that surround the battles between the gods and the Titans, setting up backstory for the mess that Kratos has gotten himself involved in. In this regard, there's a bit less of an emotional connection to this game. You don't have any of those moments of personal horror as you did in the first game concerning Kratos and his savage past that led him astray--but that's OK. This isn't exactly a game that requires emotional storytelling to get by. God of War II is much more about the journey, the mythos, and the desire to just kill anything that comes within a step of your path.
Fortunately, the game gives you plenty to kill and makes it plenty fun to do so. Apart from the usual array of Cyclopes, minotaurs, and zombie warriors, there's a whole host of new characters to fight, not the least of which are several recognizable figures from Greek mythology, such as Icarus, Perseus (voiced by, of all people, Clash of the Titans' Harry Hamlin), and big-daddy Olympus himself, Zeus. Mind you, the God of War universe doesn't treat the mythology on which it's based with much regard for accuracy. This is basically Greek fan fiction, with the only real goal being to bring together as many characters from Greek mythology as possible and then provide fun ways to kill all of them. On this front, the game doesn't disappoint.
You could easily call God of War II a significantly more brutal game than the last. Though the core combat engine hasn't changed a lick, the action itself feels even more hysterically violent than before. Many of the goriest moves continue to come from context-sensitive button-pressing minigames. Larger, more powerful enemies can often be killed in some completely awesome way by wearing them down until a button icon appears above their head. From there, you press the buttons that pop up onscreen, and Kratos will, for example, yank the eye out of the head of a Cyclops or twist off the head of a medusa like a pop-top, among others. Many of the final blows delivered to the game's bosses follow the same type of formula, and not only are there more of them than in the last game, but they're even more fun to kill as well. The whole game is basically a giggle fest for violence junkies. If you aren't hooting, hollering, or standing up and slow clapping after each elaborate and barbarous kill, you've officially invested yourself in the wrong game.
With all that said, it's a bit disappointing that more wasn't done to the combat engine this time around. Kratos still looks extremely hardcore as he whips his dual blades around in every direction and murders everything in sight, but at its core, the combat feels pretty much identical to the last game, in that it's prone to button mashing and can be easygoing. That's not to suggest that the enemy fights are breezy, as there are some legitimately tough fights scattered all throughout the game, but there are times where you'll find yourself pining for a bit more depth to the combo system as you hammer on the attack buttons and find yourself making solid progress without much thought or care. Granted, that's only on the bottom two difficulty levels, and you'll more than likely find yourself in grave shape if you try that technique on the higher levels. But then again, most people won't want to put up with the fully sadistic nature of the higher difficulty levels for very long, so that's a bit of a double-edged sword, so to speak.
You do get some new combat abilities in God of War II, including new magic and weapons. Some of these are excellent, such as the earthquake magic that sends everything on the ground flying into the air and large chunks of rock flying every which way, or the giant hammer weapon that's agonizingly slow but delivers incredible damage. But like the original game, God of War II has a bit of trouble making some of these weapons and abilities consistently useful. Each time you earn a new magic, the older magic becomes irrelevant, and some magic, such as the medusa head that turns enemies to stone, is only useful for very specific segments of the game, which are pretty plainly called out. Weapons suffer from a similar fate. While they all do solid damage (especially if you upgrade them), the default dual blades that Kratos rocks from the get-go are just better all-purpose weapons and tend to be easier to use against most enemies. The one addition of real significance is a pair of flying sequences, where you board one of a couple of types of winged creatures and fly to your next destination on rails, while enemies fly in and try to kill you. These sequences don't involve much beyond swiping at bad guys that get close, periodically dash attacking them, and doing more contextual moves, but they're a nice distraction from the standard action. It's just a pity there's only two of these sequences.
While the combat hasn't seen much alteration in the years since the first game, the level designs absolutely have, and for the better. As well paced as God of War was, God of War II is paced immaculately. Every puzzle, every enemy encounter, and every little piece of the game's action feels like it's in the right place. The puzzle designs themselves are even better than the last game, staying tricky while not getting overly labyrinthine just for the sake of causing a headache. The basic puzzle designs haven't changed much, requiring a lot of lever pulling and switch hitting, but you do get some new twists now and again, such as the areas where you have to pick up random corpses and otherwise incapacitated warriors and use them as weights for switches or mangle their bodies in some horrifically bloody way to keep going. At times the puzzle goals feel arbitrary, but as you do spend the bulk of the game navigating this completely insane maze of an island trying to reach a seemingly unreachable temple, it makes sense that a few of the puzzles would just be there to mess with you.
Even the platforming sections feel tighter and more refined in this game. Suffice it to say, there's nothing like those cursed Hades blades from the last game in this one. There's even a new mechanic in the form of swing points that Kratos can latch onto with his blades. You simply jump up near one and press the R1 button to attach, and then hold that button down to swing. There are some really neat sequences in the game that involve this mechanic, and it's a welcome addition all around.
By the end of God of War II's 12 to 15 hour journey, you'll find yourself a mixture of exhausted, overjoyed, and a bit frustrated. You'll only be frustrated in the sense that the game doesn't wrap things up in an especially neat fashion and leaves you hanging for the inevitable next sequel. Again though, that the quality of the adventure is so high makes up for this one indiscretion. Once you're done with the game, there are the harder difficulty levels to attack, as well as a few bonus challenge modes that really aren't all that great. However, there's a bonus DVD that includes a number of neat behind-the-scenes features that give you some intriguing looks into the making of the game. There's no one feature that really stands out like the lost-levels feature in the last game (there's a version of that here, though it's not quite as deep or interesting), but there's a lot of interesting insight to be had overall.
On the presentation front, God of War II easily matches its predecessor and even surpasses it on several levels. This is another breathtaking game filled with superb art design and immense environments. No joke, the scale of God of War II is really something to behold. It seems like every new area you enter is backgrounded by yet another gigantic structure that you have to trek to, and when you finally get there, the sheer size of it seems even more insurmountable than it did from a distance. It's awe-inspiring stuff, to be sure. That the technical graphics are just as impressive is really saying something. As PlayStation 2 games go, this is one of the most attractive you'll encounter, especially if you run the game in progressive scan and widescreen modes. The character models are equal parts gorgeous and grotesque, the environments are incredible to look at (even when they're not gigantic), and everything runs and animates without a hitch. The fixed-view camera work is once again top notch, almost never giving you any problems during combat and doing a fantastic job of framing the action. The only real visual problem the game has is that you'll see a frequent amount of screen tearing as you run around and force the camera to move quickly. It's not horrible or anything, but it's there often enough to notice.
The audio is just about as fantastic as the original God of War's. Once again, the highlight is the soundtrack, which is the perfect blend of fast, intense orchestral work and soft, sometimes unsettling pieces. It's even more impressive that the music blends so nicely with the action. The choral singing ramps up as each moment of excitement transpires, and then things return to normal almost seamlessly afterward. The voice acting is also all-around excellent, though it's not quite as enjoyable as it was in the last game. Kratos is as gruff and over the top as ever, and some of the supporting performances--such as Linda Hunt as Gaia, the narrator; Hamlin as Perseus; and Corey Burton as Zeus--are top-notch work. On the other hand, a few of the performances feel a bit labored or overwrought. In particular, Michael Clarke Duncan as Atlas feels more wooden than imposing. The voice is right, but his performance is oddly subdued. Still, the few off performances aside, this is another enjoyable voice cast.
You could easily tag God of War II as "more of the same," but while the game definitely feels familiar, there's more to it than just a simple rehash of what made God of War fun. Its tighter, more focused pacing and dedication to creating vast, memorable levels sets it apart from the last game and makes it a better overall experience. Simply put, it's easily one of the best action adventure games of the last console generation, and it even trumps much of what has been shown in the current generation. For fans of the first game, and fans of bloody, violent, exciting action in general, God of War II shouldn't be missed.