Thanks to the staff of OnlySP, I am inviting you to come on a journey through our 50 favourite games. Some of these are forgotten gems, some you will guess straight away. Others cover more than one game in a series, or compare two similar games.
Without further ado, let us dive deep into a relatively recent action series, one that nevertheless has seen acclaim and radical reinvention accrue over its lifetime.
#11. GOD OF WAR, BY MITCHELL AKHURST
THE JOURNEY OF A (GENRE’S) LIFETIME
From conception in 2002 through to its reinvention in 2018, the God of War series charts the history of spectacle-fighter games with incredible proximity, beaten only by the franchise that invented the genre, Devil May Cry. Of course, the idea of ‘spectacle-fighter’ as its own genre is as debatable as the God of War franchise is often divisive.
Originally coined by Yahtzee, of The Escapist’s Zero Punctuation, the term refers to the stylish and mechanically deep action games that Devil May Cry spawned: a type of hack-and-slash game that usually has fixed camera angles and makes use of cool combos against a variety of interesting enemies.
From this perspective, the first cycle of God of War games were viewed as the more ‘simplistic’ side of the genre, especially debuting in the same year as Devil May Cry 3, which is often held as the best of the spectacle-fighters. Combos were relatively easy to pull off, enemies were not as punishing, and the games had fewer mechanical choices necessary to progress through the linear story of the game. These complaints still dog the series, even with the radical changes of 2018’s God of War.
THE BLOODY BEGINNING
In establishing the series’s tone and visual style, director David Jaffe and the team at Sony Santa Monica borrowed from Heavy Metal magazine and the creature effects of Ray Harryhausen, combined with some of the best technical presentation on the PlayStation 2. Upon release, 2005’s God of War was rewarded with millions in sales and universal praise.
More than a reskin of the Devil May Cry formula, God of War followed a fast-paced cinematic style reminiscent of Prince of Persia or Half-Life. Instead of complex platforming, the stylish combat was broken up with puzzles and light exploration that hearkened back to Tomb Raider or the 3D Zelda games. Still, at this point Jaffe was careful to avoid pure ‘adventure’ elements, to keep up the pace.
Unlike Ocarina of Time, for example, the game had no fetch quests or specially delineated dungeons. Each chapter of the game flows seamlessly onto the next; a structural conceit that presaged the following generation’s obsession with seamlessness and hidden loading times, in games such as Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series. God of War also helped (along with its contemporary, Resident Evil 4) to popularise the quick-time-event as a way of increasing interaction during cutscenes.
The linearity that makes God of War so neatly trimmed and pacey would never fully escape criticism over the course of the sequels made in this style. As the Zelda and Tomb Raider connection might suggest, the gaming audience was (and still is) unprepared for action-adventure games—particularly fantastical ones—that have the straightforwardness of a first person shooter. On the other hand, the linearity of Japanese spectacle-fighters such as Bayonetta is never criticised quite so harshly, so the problem might be cultural rather than with the genre itself.
For 2007’s God of War II, new director Cory Barlog took much of what worked with the first game and re-arranged it into an even greater achievement. Even though the PlayStation 3 had been on the market for several months, GoW II saw massive sales success on the PS2, and was also as critically acclaimed as its predecessor.
Everything about God of War had been polished to mirror-sheen with this sequel, the only downside being the same vexatious inclination to trilogy-building as The Matrix or Pirates of the Caribbean. That is, put bluntly, GoW II is excellent and fantastic until it is not; with the ‘decisive showdown’ between Zeus and wayward son Kratos proving far from decisive—and the game ends on a cliffhanger whose sole purpose was to advertise the eventual God of War III.
Still, the game is more than the sum of its unfinished story threads. Longer, deeper and broader in scope than the first, GoW II transforms the franchise’s vision of ancient mythology from a grab bag of erudite nerdy influences into its own brand that would only grow more distinctive and weird from this point on. The most notable of these God of War trademarks were the otherworldly locations and the deliberately anti-Disneyified characters.
The former came from GoW II‘s more diverse levels: though the first game has plenty of variety, a large percentage of it takes place in Cronos’s Temple, a level that would not look out of place in Prince of Persia, Tomb Raider, or yes, the 1981 Clash of the Titans. On the other hand, the gleaming palaces and sophisticated machinery on GoW II’s Island of Creation could hardly be mistaken for anything but God of War.
As for the franchise’s approach to mythological characters, God of War II cements the idea that history (or mythology in this case) is dictated by the best PR team and not necessarily right and wrong. ‘Villains’ may find themselves to be strange bedfellows with humanity, and the ‘good guys’ are really just the ones with the most power. Unfortunately, this creative interpretation of mythology does not redeem Kratos himself, who has another compelling story of loss but, as a personality, is quickly reduced to a vengeance-obsessed cypher.
This characterisation would only devolve further as the series went on, leading to a stagnation during the PlayStation 3 years.
The latter three games of the ‘first cycle’ of God of War—GoW III, Ghost of Sparta, and Ascension—each have their own pros and cons.
GoW III was a spectacle of new-generation horsepower in its day, ending the console trilogy with a bang, but its story offered little-to-no redeeming value in its characters. Ghost of Sparta was the better of the two PSP entries in the series and filled important gaps regarding Kratos’s brother Deimos, but did not quite break away from the ‘bite-size’ structure of PSP games. Finally, 2013’s Ascension felt a bit too arbitrary, being a prequel to Chains of Olympus, which was already a prequel to the original God of War.
Of these games, GoW III represents the highest accomplishment, and for many fans, neither of the others are a chore to play, but by 2013 the formula had well and truly ran its course. Another entry like this would probably have led to the death of the franchise.
Luckily for everyone, Cory Barlog returned and, for the second time, took what worked in the prior games and built God of War into something new. For an excellent critical look at why 2018’s GoW is a must-play, check out the review from OnlySP’s Ben Newman from earlier in the year.
Impressively, despite entirely different locations, themes, characters and game mechanics, the new GoW hews closely to the two important God of War staples: the franchise’s visual flair and its approach to mythological figures. Though the Norse and Greek settings are skilfully distinguished from the outset—showing Kratos chopping a tree in a snowy forest—the sleek machinery, ancient temples and abandoned settlements overrun by magical beasties are all well represented.
Even more overtly than with the arrogant gods of Olympus, the new GoW drives home the adage that power corrupts. Like the Marvel comics that themselves cribbed from Norse mythology, GoW is interested in telling nuanced superhuman stories with emotionally rich characters who still kick ass when necessary.
Despite his leaving Santa Monica Studio, David Jaffe always had his own hopes for what a sequel might be like. For example, he wanted Kratos to cross to other realms of myth, away from Greece, and he wanted to take the game in a more Zelda-inspired direction. 2018’s GoW does both, without sacrificing the connections to its franchise’s past.
Thanks for joining us for a look at Sony’s current crown jewel. Leave a comment with your own favourite spectacle-fighter game, or your impressions of the new God of War, and keep an eye out for Chris’s article later this week on how God of War’s character-action connects to fighting games.
Next week, we take a look at one of Bioware’s biggest games of the last ten years.