Dispatches, Part One; Or: Okay, You Asked For It
After a long, long bout of avoiding what might has strangely gained the reputation of being the most critically acclaimed game of the PS2, “God of War,” I’ve finally given in and started playing. Granted, even walking into this I’m already a bit skeptical about the heaping amounts of praise it keeps getting—why is it that people always seem to have a new “Best Game Ever” list whenever a new sequel’s coming around the mountain?—but still determined to keep an open mind. Even if it’s only to eventually criticize the game, Aside from that, this also marks my start of a game journal, wherein I intend to document the experience of playing this game from start to finish, writing as soon as I can after each round of gameplay. This evening I began the game and played up through the entire Hydra episode on the normal, “Hero” difficulty setting (and don’t bother chastising me for not trying my luck with something harder—I’m sandwiching this in between work on three finals, so it’s a miracle I’ve found any free time at all to do this.)
First of all, I must say that I was fairly impressed by how the introduction of the game was handled. A while back Charles mentioned the idea of a game beginning , jumping straight to gameplay without any opening cut-scenes getting in the way. “God of War” doesn’t even attempt to do that by a long shot, but it does try out something fairly interesting, jumping straight to a cut-scene right from the introduction screen. It’s a nice way to cement the game as a game, not condescending to any traditional cinematic storytelling devices up front and it does its best to distance itself from the usual cut-scene dynamics, framing all of it without letter-box effects and putting a fair deal of it from the hero’s point of view. Still, it’s just an ordinary cut-scene, no matter how brief and well integrated it is. Part of me admires not doing the whole widescreen thing, as it tries to make as much of the game look and feel like gameplay, even when it isn’t. However, there’s a kind of dishonesty at work there which I absolutely dislike—after all, a cut-scene without letter-boxing is no more interactive than a cut-scene with them. It reminds me of one of the only real complaints I have with “Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater”, where during a cut-scene in which Snake assassinates somebody the widescreen bars disappear, giving the player the impression they are the ones in control. If an active button press determined whether Snake fired his gun it would’ve been perfect, but as it stands it’s nothing more than a clever cinematic trick, and still only a non-interactive moment pretending to be interactive. Granted, hasn’t pulled any cheap tricks like this (yet), but part of me wishes they’d just have used letterboxing and not bothered trying to make-believe a cut-scene’s not a cut-scene.
Altogether, the first level of “God of War” might prove to be one of the most impressive tutorial missions ever put in a game, but certainly not the most—I’m still very partial to the first colossus in “Shadow of the Colossus” and pretty much all of the Virtuous Mission from MGS3. In terms of placing a player into an experience and letting them go full steam ahead, “God of War” does a good job of balancing challenges pretty evenly, presenting enemies that can be eliminated with the player’s current weapons fairly easily, though not without some amount of difficulty. The only real problem here, and throughout the game’s combat so far, is the feeling of invincibility it gives me. Not once in the game did I ever feel really threatened by either minor enemies or bosses, seeing as all I had to do was wipe a few out or keep causing damage and I’d eventually gain more life back. The only times I’ve died so far were tip-toeing over the slippery planks between ships. Is this a problem all button-mashers have, paving the player’s road too easily with help along the way? I found the same situation in the “Lego Star Wars” games, which are probably the closest I’ve come mechanically to this. Still, this was just the tutorial, so I ought to expect things to be uphill from here.Aesthetically, all the in-game camera movement is absolutely spot-on, providing for very effective coverage that communicates all the basic information a player needs while also managing to put some nice expressionist and documentary spins on it. True, the “documentary” nature of the camerawork really belongs more to cinema than games, but certain similarities are going to be unavoidable as long as we keep using terms like “camera” in a medium where none exist, anyway. The amounts of movement are pretty ambitious and mostly pay off. From the looks of how he presents action, set-pieces and spectacle, designer David Jaffe feels similar to a Hitchcock or a Spielberg—flashy, flamboyant and emotional—whereas somebody like Kojima is more akin to Lang or Lucas—sparse, static and intellectual. I enjoy the latter far more, both in games and film, but whenever I want something purely enjoyable, even if it isn’t quite as sophisticated, you could to a lot worse than the former.That said, I’m not fond at all with the way that action is broken up in the game by the little instruction moments. One of the reasons I liked the first mission of SotC was the way that information was conveyed about the controls without disrupting the player. A hallmark of the MGS series, on the other hand, has been pushing all of the instructions neatly into radio scenes, where the game’s action is already paused so there’s nothing to disrupt anyway. “God of War” puts too many interruptions right up front, creating for a fair amount of frustration early on. It’s not enough to make you write off the game entirely, but it is worth mentioning, especially since the game does an excellent job of making itself understood most of the time by just putting those floating buttons in the environment at key moments. That’s all a player needs to figure out what they have to do—in fact, it’s more fun seeing a button, pressing it, and then finding out what it does. The potential sense of discovery is removed with the interruption instructions, which is an unfortunate, but understandable misstep.
Mechanically, the Hydra is a three-step process, appropriate enough for a tangle with the three-headed beast, and one which again does a decent job of instructing the player in the tools they’ll be playing the rest of the game with. The first part, within the ship itself, teaches the player how to use blocking and attacking in combination, and introduces them in the mini-game button presses as a way of dealing finishing blows to bosses. The second part, with the two heads on the ship’s deck, teaches the importance of environmental attacks, creating a puzzle the player must solve after exhausting the heads enough to turn the ship itself against them. Finally, the third part tests the player by forcing them to use all the skills they’ve accumulated in the last two battles—blocking & attacking, boss-fight mini-games and environmental multi-tasking.
On paper, it all looks very neat and studied, but in the game it’s something of a mess, which is how I expect it’s meant to feel. However, it’s not always messy in the good way that boss battles are, starting out wildly unpredictable and threatening until behavior bottlenecks into patterns which reveal the ultimate weaknesses of vulnerable body locations and repetitions. Instead, here it feels more like the fight is about making progress through action—weaken the Hydra by attacking it to the point of exhaustion, then perform either the mini-game strike or environmental hazard. In the first case a button appears to clue the player in on what to do, while in the second all the player has to go on is the conspicuously elaborate set-piece the battle takes place in.Altogether there’s a nice balance in these challenges, though I’m a bit perturbed by how easy they are to get past. After one learns how to time blocks and attacks, building up to the climax moments turn out to be fairly elementary, especially because these fights don’t give the bosses any specific weak-points to attack. Without any places to aim, or places where you need to dodge, all the player has to do is press keep attacking indiscriminately. Basically, you’re fighting a wall in the shape of a monster—it’s button mashing at its most rote and uninvolving.
This is especially disappointing, because it fails to do the one thing that almost all boss battles are meant to do—provide an arena for you to learn how to use the new weapon you’ve gained, in this case Poseidon’s power. Granted, I thought it felt way too early to start giving the player new abilities already—normally, that sort of thing is saved for the first dungeon after the initial tutorial mission—but even so, I found myself wishing that using Poseidon’s power was necessary in order to beat the Hydra, if only to validate the ability I’d just haphazardly earned. Fundamentally, the real problem was handing out the new power right away in this mission, instead of saving it for a later, more appropriate time.As it stands, the Hydra battle does manage to teach the player the importance of creating as many multi-hit combos with their starter weapons—button-mashing at its most sophisticated and satisfying— which is all this section of the game needed to do in the first place. Parceling out the first God ability seemed like a misstep of timing on Jaffe’s part there, perhaps indicative of an impatience I found crawling throughout what might be the game’s weakest area so far—cinematic presentation.
So far, “God of War” hasn’t revealed much of its story, which is a good thing. Greek myths traditionally begin in the middle and flash back to the beginning, which is how we find Kratos, perched on a suicide plunge before we jump three weeks back in time to where he fights the Hydra. In terms of narrative it’s a bit awkward to know the character’s fate from the onset, especially in the medium of games where loss and death throughout are to be held at a premium of threat, but altogether it’s handled a bit better than the mechanics of practical invulnerability have proved themselves so far (again, I’m expecting and hoping that to rectify itself soon).
I didn’t much mind the difference between fully-rendered cut-scenes and in-game graphics ones. They provide a bit more immediacy to the portrayed action, and ease you in a bit better. However, I found the ending cinematic—from the point Kratos finds the slaughtered women—to be very problematic on a number of levels, especially in how information is presented. Everything goes by far too quickly for the player to process what they’re seeing. I have no idea Kratos was on that ship, why he was trying to save these women, and that severely undercuts the extreme emotional reaction he’s having, because I’m not sharing in it at all. The “visions” are interesting, but problematic in the same way, because there’s no contrast between how Kratos’ reality is presented and his dreams—they both share the same staccato editing, keeping us far too artificially in the dark about his character.
Frankly, it feels as though Jaffe was a bit lazy here, simply wanting to move the game’s story on ahead as quickly as possible in order to get back to the gameplay. Sure, it avoids the MGS trap of neverending cut-scenes, but it falls into the even worse trap of poorly made cut-scenes. There’s a reason why Kojima takes his time with his narratives—he wants the player to understand everything as fully as possible. Granted, Jaffe’s story is far simpler than that of massive conspiracies-a-go-go, but it still would be nice for it to be rendered with something approaching the same kind of patience. So many details are breezed past that I’d like to be lingered upon—Kratos’ relationship with Athena, Ares’ war on Athens and the specifics of the Gods’ tasking Kratos with assassinating the God of War. This is the mission statement part of the game, the part where we learn what everything’s going to be about, and it ought to take a little longer than the mere minute or two it takes for the cinematic to end. It doesn’t matter if you think exposition’s boring—some amount of exposition’s necessary, and sometimes it has to be boring or else hardly anything’s been exposed.
Finally, there’s the quickie-threesome at the start of the next checkpoint. I’m glad to see sexuality finally make it in a genuine way to a mainstream game, even if it is only showing stuff that’d only amount to a PG-13 rating nowadays, offering mere toplessness and the old trick of turning the camera away just as things are getting interesting. The bit about the shaking and breaking pot on the bedside table is cute, if a little cliché. Altogether it’s only worth the laugh or two they seemed to be aiming for until the girls stop charging Kratos’ power anymore, at which point it becomes just an immature little side-note to the story at large. If the rest of “God of War” is aiming for epic poetry, this section amounted to a rude limerick.
That’s it for now, folks. I’ll try and keep going ahead in the game as much as I have time to do so, and keep documenting on the way.