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Dispatches, Part Ten; Or: How To Crush Your Enemies, See Them Driven Before You, and Hear the Lamentations of Their Women In Ten Easy Steps

Well, pleasant dreamers, I’ve finally beaten the damn thing. Pandora’s Box has been opened, Ares is dead, and Conan Riddick Captain Willard Kratos has ascended to the throne of Thulsa Doom Lord Marshal of the Necromongers Colonel Walter E. Kurtz the God of War. So, after all has been said and done, after all the many varied mazes, traps and legions of combattants have been done away with, what can I say about the whole experience? How exactly did the cheese taste?

Frankly, a little stale.

I don’t know exactly how to order my thoughts here. I’ve finished the game– I hesitate to say “beat” it, since after a while I didn’t feel that much like I was actually doing anything. While all of this has been good fun and all, I really don’t understand how GoW has gotten this reputation for being one of the pinacle examples of PS2 gaming. Frankly, there’s a lot of tremendously anticliactic design here when it comes to the boss battle with Ares, but I’ll get to that in a minute. First, I want to redress one of the core problems of this game, which is the narrative presentation.

I know, this isn’t MGS where all the cut-scenes are expected to be somewhere between highbrow and lowbrow art and portentiousness when it comes to cinematic quality– let’s say between Ridley and Tony Scott– but still, GoW’s movie sequences have to be some of the worst written, composed and plotted out stuff I’ve ever seen in games, especially at the beginning and the end. Most of the stuff in the middle, actually, isn’t all that bad. So much of what’s going on works pretty well for flashbacks, where characterization can more or less be whizzed by without our having to think about it that much. However, when it comes to setting up and letting go of the crucial plot elements of the story (the nature of killing a god, the nature of Kratos’ nightmares, the nature of Pandora’s freakin’ Box) the game suddenly loses both the ability and interest to hold our attention for anything longer than the time it takes to namedrop slight, unsatisfying details. There’s no excuse for how poorly most of this game’s narrative is told through cut-scenes, especially when it comes to moments like Kratos’ “death,” and suicide plunge, which could’ve been pulled off in gameplay much more effectively, somehow. I’d order my thoughts a little more coherently at the moment if I cared to, but I can save that for a time when and if I decide to produce an epilogue to this epic. Suffice to say that Jaffe’s skills at actually presenting the story in any way other than gameplay are pretty much nonexistant, and the lack of imagination he displays when it comes to putting some of those extra moments into gameplay moments is dissapointing, to say the least.

I have to say, there’s been a lot in this session that brought me to mourn the potential this game had in many respects. Last time I forgave Jaffe for getting Hades wrong, depicting the God of the Dead as a giant, flaming red devil type guy, but this time I’m frankly pissed to see his version of the Underworld, which looks like it was stolen from the covers of any given Heavy Metal album from the 80′s. Come on– couldn’t you guys have thought up something a bit more evocative of the ancient myths than just a whole lot of jumping, log running and spiky climbing obstacle courses that feel like Satanic versions of stuff from American Gladiators? Couldn’t we have gotten some dramatizations of truly Sissyphisian torments through gameplay, or something like that? Should Kratos even be in the Underworld if he didn’t have the coins placed on his eyes to pay the ferryman across the river Styx? Couldn’t he have met his dead family there, and not in Ares’ twilight zone above, and hearken the game’s story back to precedents set by Orpheus in a more meaningful way? Am I expecting too much to think that a game designer ought to be thinking about these things, and not just settle for what looks like set designs from a Spinal Tap concert?

Okay…calm down, Bob… breathe…lower the Buddha ball…that’s better…

Now, the Ares battle is dissapointing in a number of ways. First, there’s the way Pandora’s Box is used, which I’m not even going to dignify by describing any more than to just say, flatly, that it’s a motherfucking joke. Second, the mechanics of both sections–the last part especially– are a bit too stilted to make that much sense in a strategic sense. Maybe I just wasn’t playing deeply enough, but when it came to the final battle I found that some of the patterns were fairly non-existant– I could get ahold of the block-and-attack portions, figure out how to dodge the spontaneous mountain…things…but the whole fireball stuff just threw me for a loop. Frankly, it’s a bit disheartening for a boss to have an ability which you can’t block, and can’t tell when they’re about to use. Perhaps I wasn’t paying close enough attention for cues, but it just seemed a little cheap to be able to break up patterns that easily and effectively drain the player of all the progress they’d been able to make up to that point. Fighting Ares, I found myself abadoning a lot of the strategies I developed in the game, and just devolved into mere button mashing. Sure, there were some parts where I had to think past how exactly I ought to be mashing buttons, but at the end of the day it’s all the same thing. Ares is beaten by hitting him lots of times. The only real challenge is not getting hit too much yourself, and without any real ways to protect yourself from some of the most damaging attacks, it really does feel like you’re at the mercy of the game’s AI at that point, randomly deciding whether or not you should lose. Perhaps this is an effective idea for how to design a battle against a god, against an instrument of faith, but here, I felt less like I was playing a sophisticated video game, and more like I was in a casino.

Ares is a fucking slot machine. That’s the way I see it, anyway.

Now, there’s the subject of a sequence of the game that Oren said I’d find interesting– the aforementioned Twilight Zone moment with the wife and kid. True, it is a pretty effective inversion of the core dynamic of grabbing enemies. Once again, though, that damn instruction screen gets in the way of it ever working the way it could’ve done best, ebbing its way slowly into the player’s subconscious. If there’s any single thing I’d have cut out of this game it’s those interruption moments, as they completely spoil the momentum of a game that, as Charles said, is all about momentum. As such, a lot of that sequence is flattened, and I can’t see it as anything other than another challenge to satisfy in the midst of swarms of enemies. It might’ve been a really nice moment, but in the end Jaffe turns the wife and daughter into liabilities. It’s too transparently a gaming objective that it can’t stand as evocative as it could’ve, had its requirements gone a little bit more unnanounced.

Telling us what to do and how to do it reminds us we’re playing a game, and can destroy the effect a game is often meant to have in forcing us to figure out what to do ourselves. After all the fucking block puzzles I’ve had to go through in this thing, you’d think the designers would assume I was clever enough to realize I could help Kratos’ family out by experimenting. Maybe I’m being a little hard on them, but designers need more faith in their players if they’re going to make games that don’t feel condescending.

Altogether, GoW has a lot going for it in terms of sheer structure and content, but lacks the proper context and polish that my preffered games also bring along with them, and therefore I can’t really help but fail to see this as anything except this– a side-scrolling adventure game that’s been dropped into a 3D world. True, it’s a really good side-scroller, and it’s been adapted incredibly well into the 3D environment, but when all’s said and done there’s nothing being done in this game that hadn’t already been done by the likes of stuff like Castlevania and Metroid, not to mention that there’s a fair deal this game doesn’t do which those games did. Now, granted– I don’t believe the makers of this game had any higher intentions than creating a really good version of the Castlevania/Metroid type, only set in a polygonal world– but I just can’t help feeling that if they’d taken a bit more time to get the focus of this game communicated as well as possible, it might’ve turned out better. Too much of this game feels derivative–all the temple portions just make me think of Ico all over again– that it can’t help but stand as merely the sum of its parts.

In the end, while God of War might be the world’s greatest button masher, I really wish they’d done a little more, here, because at this moment it’s certainly pushing my buttons, and not in a good way. Of course, this leaves the question of whether I’m going to get the sequel, but that, my friends, is a whole other story…

2 Comments

  1. frank wrote:

    Whew!

    Wednesday, May 2, 2007 at 6:30 am | Permalink
  2. Bob wrote:

    Yes, I’m glad I’m finished as well. I must say that the Dispatches method really added a lot to the gameplay experience– helped me digest the game in a number of ways. For my next one, I think, I’ll tackle “Psychonauts,” but first I’ll give myself– and everybody else– a bit of a break from my outlook.

    Quid Pro Quo, Charles– it’s your turn, next!

    Wednesday, May 2, 2007 at 7:04 am | Permalink

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