By Marshall Garvey
Developer: SCE Santa Monica Studio
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Platforms: Playstation 2, Playstation 3
Release date: March 13, 2007
Genre: Hack and slash, action-adventure
Rating: M for Mature
As I said in the beginning of my Hall of Fame Review for Fallout: New Vegas, many of the finest video game sequels distinguish themselves by improving on whatever few shortcomings their predecessor had. God of War II occupies a different territory of sequels, for in a basic sense it’s none too different from God of War. The bone-crunching, hack-and-slash gameplay that shook up Playstation consoles in 2005 remains virtually unchanged, as it should be. Rather, the 2007 sequel is one that exceeds the first by simply taking everything that worked on the initial go-around and, in the timeless phrasing of This Is Spinal Tap, cranking it up to 11. In fact, it goes well past 11. I’d say it’s more like 111.
Make no mistake: The first game still packs a punch that hasn’t waned at all as it approaches its 10th anniversary. But God of War II is just a titan of a game, taking everything that was vitalizing about its predecessor and kicking them up to new levels of bloodletting grandiosity. The gameplay experience is among the most completely satisfying ever crafted, whether you’re a straightforward button-masher or a player of nuance and painstaking skill. The plot, meanwhile, weaves a tale of humiliation, redemption, and pathos that far surpasses the first game’s story, all while throwing every trinket of Greek mythology at you that its 14-hour running time can allow. The complete result is an A-class blockbuster that also served as the perfect swan song for the PS2. Some seven years later, it remains a peak in action gaming that few others surpass. If you haven’t experienced it yet, dust off your Playstation 2, unsheathe the Blades of Athena, and buckle in for one Hades-level hell of a ride.
The story wastes no time picking up from the climax of the first game. With Aries felled, Kratos is now the God of War, overseeing seamless conquest with little serious opposition. But it comes with a price: He’s high on the power of destruction, and in the process has alienated the other Greek gods. Refusing to heed their criticisms, Kratos joins the Spartan army in their conquest of Rhodes, during which Zeus offers him the Blade of Olympus in order to defeat the Colossus. However, Kratos has to instill the blade with all of his godly power, making him mortal in the process. He fells the Colossus, but has unknowingly fallen into a trap. He’s given up all of his godly powers in that moment, and Zeus, infuriated by Kratos’s defiance of the other gods, slays him and the Spartan army. Not, however, before offering Kratos one last chance to declare obeisance to the gods, which the proud warrior naturally refuses.
As Kratos is dragged to the Underworld by the arms of Hades, he’s given a second wind by the Titan Gaia. She urges the now former God of War to find the Sisters of Fate, the controllers of time who could prevent his death and allow him to change his destiny once and for all. Summoning what strength he has left as a mortal, Kratos breaks free of the arms dragging him down, climbs back to Rhodes, and begins his quest to alter his fate. He will not only have to endure a hazardous trek to reach the Sisters of Fate, but must also acquire powers from various allies who doubt the very sanity of his journey. Even without the powers of a god, however, Kratos is driven by a rage and determination that defies measurement. It all points to another showdown with Zeus, one that will reshape not only the fate of Kratos himself, but all of Greece.
The first supreme strength of God of War II is its most familiar: the simply kickass, brutal gameplay. As mentioned earlier, the gameplay remains basically the same as God of War. And what’s not to love about that? Wall-climbing, sliding down ropes, nonstop orb-collecting, leaping awkwardly to your death on the simplest jumps, forcing blades down the throats of Minotaurs, mindlessly slashing enemies even after you learn intricate combos, swinging around with your blades, and frequently frustrating but ultimately satisfying quicktime events (you WILL read that inscription, motherfucker!) were all executed so perfectly in the first installment, doing away with them would be a massive detriment. Consider, for example, how Resident Evil 5 retained RE4’s revolutionary over-the-shoulder camera view, but failed to replicate the seamlessness that made the previous venture so perfect.
Instead, God of War II keep things intact, simply making them even more massive in scale and impact. There’s nothing in this game that could be considered miniscule. The amount of puzzles, battles, and bosses is significantly greater. The puzzles, while sometimes impossibly baffling, strengthen the overall pacing. The battles against recurring enemies are delicious insanity; just when you think you’ve ended a fight by slaying one cyclops, two more will drop in. And when a battle like that ends, it’s likely just one puzzle or some thirty seconds before an even more hectic one is sprung on you. As for the bosses, there are four times as many here as there were in God of War, and each one is a rewarding challenge to take down. For my money, none was quite as satisfying, repulsive, and frustrating all at once as the Gorgon sister Euryale. If you’re not familiar with her from Greek mythology, I’d say, imagine if Medusa and Jabba the Hutt had a love child…
What makes this gameplay experience all the better is how, insanely overwhelming and relentless as it is, it’s also impeccably fluid. A few years before the Batman Arkham series made for the smoothest beat-’em-up scheme of all-time, no series did laying waste to hordes of enemies at once as richly as God of War. The quicktime events, while pretty much guaranteed to spark a few fits of anger, give many moments even more punch. Even the tutorial is a grandiose, sudden quicktime event. Before you’ve even learned how to swim, grapple and jump properly, you’re fighting a giant golden statue by launching yourself from a giant arbalest onto it.
GOW II also deftly avoids being repetitious thanks to a variety of attacks. Aside from the signature chained blades, players can utilize Typhon’s Bane (a magic bow that fires gusts of wind), the Atlas Quake stomp, the Barbarian Hammer, Icarus’s Wings, and the Head of Euryale (a well-earned reward for defeating her, capable of turning enemies into stone). Simple button-mashing will suffice for most (I know it does for me!), but it’s a blast to mix things up with the various weapons and magical spells you acquire. My favorite is always the Golden Fleece, an armlet that allows Kratos to catch projectiles and hurl them right back at the enemy. And when the situation looks impossible, the Amulet of the Fates allows you to literally slow down time, given that a Fates Statue is nearby.
While the game could veritably coast on the strength of its muscular play, it actually magnifies that with a superb storyline. In film, many great sequels (The Empire Strikes Back, The Dark Knight) excel when their story is centered around the protagonist suffering defeat, tribulation or despair. While it’s enough to simply enjoy the action, the arc of seeing Kratos stripped of his powers, ascending from utter defeat at the hands of Zeus to change his fate makes each battle resonate far more. When the final battle with Zeus finally does arrive, you feel the weight of the moment as if you’re in Kratos’s shoes…er, sandals.
The story is given even greater panache with the ingenious use of Greek mythology. Kratos’s quest leads him to bump shoulders with an almost exhaustive lineup of hallowed figures, whether they’re a boss battle or merely show up for a brief encounter. Having a revenge plot against Zeus is rich enough, but that’s merely the beginning. You also get to fight Sirens, Gorgons and Minotaurs, liberate Prometheus from his eternal torture, fly with Pegasus, and climb around the contours of Atlas himself, for starters. Oh, and did I mention Kratos flying into the sky on the back of the flaming Phoenix itself, right after brutally slaying the Kraken? The finest mythology moment, though, comes when you encounter a washed up, desperate Icarus. So what do you do? Well, fight with him on a plummet to the depths of the world, tearing his wings off in the process while bashing his head in. Does it get any better than that?
Also of superior quality is the game’s level design, which gives everything a breathtaking and detailed scope. While the graphics are easily dated by today’s standards, each level is unique, challenging, and intriguing to explore. Even in 2015, the cinematic cutscenes are beautifully rendered too, and capture the sweep of Kratos’s revenge tale in movie-like fashion. Shit, come to think of it, wasn’t there going to be an actual God of War movie, with Djimon Hounsou as Kratos? But wait, I digress.
While seven years is indeed a long time, it’s still surreal to think of God of War II as a farewell to the Playstation 2 era now that we’re in the age of the PS4. My playthrough of it for this review was indeed the first since 2007, when I received it for my 18th birthday in November. But it sent my pulse racing every bit as much as the first time I steered Kratos on his payback quest. Whether enjoyed as a sequel, on its own, for its story and mythology, or just for a rollicking great time of slashing up waves of enemies, few can top the rich entertainment of God of War II. To call yourself a gamer and not experience it would be a defiance of the gods not even Kratos himself would think to commit.
Author’s Note: Don’t fret, we will induct the first and third games into the Hall of Fame as well, guaranteed!
Original advertisement for the game: