Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Colossal, Bald, and Colossally-Balled

By Kirk Hamilton

I beat God of War II last night. Wait, let's back up. A couple days ago, I found myself staring glassy-eyed at my screen, pressing L1 through what had to be my 45th Final Fantasy XIII battle of the evening, and I realized: I needed a break. There are plenty of things I like about the game, but it just wasn't doing it for me. So I switched gears and played God of War II instead.

At The Border House, Alex Raymond talked a bit about trying to use the word "completed" in place of "beat." I like that line of thinking, but in the case of God of War II, the latter term is entirely appropriate. You must beat this game - it demands to be bludgeoned into submission. Violence onscreen is mirrored by mashing the circle button to stab, stab, stab - teeth are gritted, tendons tighten. Completion requires violence.

God of War Collection was one of the best values on the market last year, especially for all the people (like myself) who picked up a PS3 Slim after the price drop and hadn't owned a PS2. $40 for two games, and I'd heard from a ton of folks that both of them, God of War II in particular, were as good as anything that's come out this generation. Those people were right.

(Editorial note: screw Gears of War - God of War gets the GoW Acronym in this post. Also, it is and will always be God of War I and II, since regular numerals are for sissies.)

From the opening cinematic of the first game (Kratos stands on a cliff while a choir sings, I shit you not, "Kratos! Dominus!") to the apocalyptic, literal cliffhanger end of the sequel, irony is out the window. These games wear their sincerity and purpose on their bloody sleeves. The only humor is inadvertent, like Kratos's perma-smell-the-fart demeanor, or the hilarious poncing of Perseus just before Kratos breaks a wall with his face.

Actually, there's a lot of that sort of humor in the game. The sheer force with with the Ghost of Sparta performs actions, ripping back levers, tearing open crates, bashing open urns, ramming a Kraken to death with a bridge... Italics couldn't buy this kind of exposure. Eventually one begins to wonder why Kratos doesn't just cut to the chase and just do it all with his giant, swinging cod.

'Cause let there be no doubt - this game has huger balls than any other game ever made. It doesn't spin in your disc drive, it whirls. It doesn't have a soundtrack, it has thunder... no manual, but a tome of guidance. To open the game's case for the first time, I had to use both hands and let out a roar, breaking open the case in a shower of blood-red orbs.

Gameplay in God of War is a stomping dance of destruction. Here is Gameplay as Drum Solo, and not some tinky drum set, either - these are war drums, thundering anvils and taiko, blasting tympani. Battles have a rhythm all their own - Kratos is a heavy character, but also graceful, whipping his chains about the screen like something from Cirque Du Solei.  Roll, swing, swing, heavy - Roll, swing, swing, heavy. Dugga-da dugga-da chick!

The only game I've played that matches God of War's unique rhythmic sensibility was this year's Bayonetta. In so many ways the Yin to Kratos's Yang, Bayonetta flits and floats, dodging and taunting enemies before unleashing a fleet flurry of fists, feet, and follicles. Kratos, on the other hand, beats his enemies into a daze, then bashes their heads into the ground until something shatters. The two games are diametrically opposed, Gene Lake vs. John Bonham - the only thing they share is a dedication to kicking ass.

Never before has a game made me feel as satisfied as I felt when I finally beat God of War's most challenging sections. After dying again and again, having the game tauntingly ask me "would you like to switch to easy difficulty?", when I finally pushed that statue through the trial of the Phoenix in GoW II, or when I made it up those ridiculously frustrating logs of bladed death in the Hades levels of the first game... man, celebratory fist-pumps have never felt so enthusiastic, or earned.

There are some frustrating aspects to the games' controls, faults brought into sharper relief by Bayonetta's superior flow. Kratos moves slowly, and once he sets his mind to moving, it is sometimes impossible to get him to change tack. Some of the special moves (L1+square, in particular) start a really long, underpowered spinning move that enemies can break, but players can't. Also, the dodge-roll is inconsistent, and frequently winds up with Kratos rolling straight into the legs of an oncoming minotaur.

But once I got my head around the game's idiosyncrasies, they became part of its rhythm, of the indelible print that it leaves on the mind. And I couldn't have been more stoked about the unresolved ending - after all, the final chapter sits by my keyboard as I type this, its giant glowering eye daring me onward.

My gaming time over the past month has consisted primarily of Heavy Rain and Final Fantasy XIII. I didn't even realize it, but I had become Ed Norton, obsessed with my end tables and my collection of suits... talking endlessly about narrative and storytelling, linearity and choice.

God of War's savage gameplay has re-awoken my inner Tyler Durden.

I am not my fuckin' khakis.


Jay said...

I fired up GoW III yesterday and holy BAWLS! I'm sure you've checked out the demo (or maybe not) but talk about visceral. The graphics themselves seem to violently bludgeon my eyes while the animations sweep razor-sharp pixels across my brain.
I played the first 2 on ps2 so it's my first experience with an HD Kratos (and man, the farts do seem smellier in 1080p). Regardless of graphics though, it has arguably the most epic prologue I've ever played.


ps - I think someone got Assassin's Creed in your Fight Club.

Tim Mackie said...

I haven't been fortunate enough to play much God of War ever, but this sounds pretty well in line with what I've heard from siblings and others I know who have played it.

As for the notion of "completing" games rather than "beating" them, I agree that that's apt for most games today. I may be young, but I'm old enough to remember the good old days when video games were much more difficult than they are today, and every game you finished made you feel like Rocky Balboa. I still use that term "beat" to describe games in this vein, like when I beat Mega Man 9 yesterday, but I tend to use "finished" when I get to the end of games like Half-Life 2 which I found enjoyable but not particularly challenging.

I digress a bit, but I also use "beat" in the God of War sense when a game is so brutal that it feels like I've literally smashed its skull with a large rock. I haven't had that feeling in a while, which tells me I need to get my hands on a PS2 again. It's been so long since i've had ready access to one.

Kirk Hamilton said...

Jay - wow, man, I just played through the first hour or so of GoW III today. I had the demo, but hadn't wanted to play it, since I hadn't finished GoW II.

Um... holy shit.

That might be the most impressive opening sequence I've ever seen in a game, period. There aren't really words... the gameplay seems to feel pretty familiar, but much, much faster than the previous games. The rhythm is really different. I can't believe how hard it hits, and how fast. What once was Bonham is now Brann Dailor. Can't wait to play more.

Tim - it's true, the adversarial relationship I used to have with games happens much less frequently. But yeah, it's cool to have a challenge, to get mad at a game and then beat it on its own terms... I recently started Demon's Souls, and that game takes "adversarial" to a new level. Like, I wouldn't be surprised if it was hacking into my computer and stealing my banking info right now. I'd say more, but it's listening.

But man, if you want to see brutal, find a way to check out the opening 45 minutes of God of War III. Let's just say... I'm glad I'm not Poseidon.

The Tetchy Snail said...

After all the press around III, I was inspired to replay the first 2. There's just no other game that nails, with every single action, the utterly visceral ferocity that GoW does. It's impressive just how well some games hold up against their more modern, refined siblings. The GoW games could literally be released right now without showing their age (beyond the graphics, that is), and to my specular shader, high definition pc gamer's eyes, they still looked pretty damn good.

Special mention must go to the ending of the fight with the horse master in GoW II, which concludes with Kratos smashing a door open with the chap's head, placing his now twitching and drooling visage in the opening thus created, and then repeatedly slamming the door until everything north of the guy's neck is reduced to a particularly unappetising human sushi. Not to mention that the game shamelessly encourages you to revel in this moment by hammering the O button to slam the door over and over and over again. My precise thoughts at the time were 'AAAAAAA! RAAAAAA!!'. That's deep, right there.

I don't know if they included the bonus making of stuff with the reissued version, but the original had some very interesting featurettes with interviews and work in progress models/animations etc. I was able to trace the evolution of one animation in particular, that of grabbing a harpy from the sky and ripping its wings off, as it changed from a grab and rip, to a grab stomp and rip, to adding Kratos throwing the newly severed wings away, to the final stage which made Kratos hurl the wings down as if attempting to brain them on the ground. Just a fascinating little glimpse into the process, for me at least.

Sadly, I don't have a ps3 (or should that be psIII?), so won't be indulging in III for a while yet, but I thought that GoW II had one of the most impressive openings in a game to this day (the immense multi-part colossus fight). If III is topping that (and from your reactions it doesn't even sound like a contest) then it must be epic indeed.

Kirk Hamilton said...

Seriously, it is that epic. Like God of War II meets Super Mario Galaxy.

As amazing as the second game was, the intro to the first one was actually my favorite (it probably still is). Jamming that Hydra's head down the mast was just so sweet, and really threw down the gauntlet. I think about playing that back when the game came out... people must've shit.

I'd forgotten about when Kratos finally beats the Horse Lord in GOW II (a boss fight that took me a BUNCH of tries)... the sheer cathartic brutality with which he destroys the dude is so over-the-top. Kinda crosses over into parody, awesomely.

And yeah, for the intents and purposes of this post, I think we gotta call it a PSIII. Heh.