Posted by: markfender | June 10, 2014

God of War

God of War has a lot to answer for.

kratosGod of War is the long-running Playstation franchise. It started as a technically proficient action game that gained critical and commercial acclaim. It’s had PSP games and bridged the console generation gap, creating two games on the PS2 and PS3, respectively. Almost all of the main entries in the franchise have the highest possible ratings on Metacritic (I didn’t read any of the reviews, however. I just looked at the numbers. Yes, I’m part of the problem), demonstrating that it’s a much-loved series of games.

As I mentioned, it’s a technically proficient game. The combat is the main draw here and it works very well, chaining combos together in a brutal display of over-the-top action (I don’t even want to contemplate the physics of throwing swords tied to chains wrapped around your arms as a useful combat ability, but whatever). Unfortunately, the game cheats. Now, this cheating is required so it’s somewhat forgivable, but it’s still annoying. See, your combos can be interrupted if an enemy hits you. That seems fair. Conversely, enemies don’t have a problem ignoring your combos in order to interrupt yours. And, even more annoyingly, if your enemy does a combo and you don’t block the first hit, you can’t block any of the hits. Many times I would get hit, stagger back, and then hold down the block button, only to have three more hits land on me because I was still staggering around from the first hit. That’s not exactly fair. Now, like I said, it’s a required ‘cheat’ on the console’s part, because, with the combos Kratos can pull off, you could very easily lock down enemies so that they never receive a chance to attack you. If the game is going to challenge you, it has to perform these cheats.

It also has puzzles. Most of the time, these are fairly straightforward. The Rings of Pandora section in the first game, in particular, stands out as an interesting design, both as a level and as a puzzle environment. There’s a few that aren’t signposted as well as they could be, but overall, I wouldn’t fault this section of the game. The platforming, however, is terrible. The game requires utter precision in these moments. For instance, there’s one room that has spinning saw blades running along the floor in a criss-cross pattern. There are two switches you need to hit, on opposite sides of the room, which will open a door. All of which, is timed. You have to hit one switch, avoid the saw blades as you get to the other switch, and then avoid the saw blades again to make it to the door in time before it closes. And the game does not give you a second of leeway. A perfect run is required. This is par for the course with all of the timing and jumping puzzles and it’s endlessly frustrating. Even an extra second on these timed puzzles wouldn’t be out of line – that would still be challenging, but would allow for minor issues to affect your run. You know, minor issues, like the fact that you can’t interact with anything unless you are directly facing it from the only angle that it will allow you to interact with it at. This is super annoying in combat as well, because the Quicktime Events to down enemies will only trigger if the enemy is directly facing you and you are directly facing the enemy. Hope they weren’t turned slightly to the side.

Speaking of QuickTime Events (QTE), this is definitely one of the crimes of God of War. While it wasn’t the first game to use them, it was the game that popularized them. God of War invented the modern-style of QTE, in which the button presses indicate a cinematic move that isn’t possible under the normal constraints of combat animations. These are meant to look impressive, which gives it the impression of style over substance (I would actually disagree with this premise in God of War’s case because the underlying systems are all substance, but QTE’s have been misused by numerous developers since this game with much less mechanical rigor). However, like all things in this game, there is no forgiveness. Press the button when it appears on the screen RIGHT NOW or you are kicked out of the loop and must start again. Again, a second of leeway would have been nice. This is particularly egregious in boss fights which require you to execute 7-8 moves in a row in order to defeat the boss. I once repeated the same QTE 14 times in a row before I successfully completed it once (only to discover that I had to do it three or four more times before finally defeating the boss). I just panic when presented with QTE scenarios – always have. I don’t know why.

Another annoying factor is the game constantly harping about how it’s hard. Every few deaths in the same section, the game asks you if you’d like to switch to Easy Mode. That would actually be a fine option and a nice touch on the game’s part, except that Easy Mode does not affect the difficulty of the puzzles or platforming bits. And those were always the parts that I died at multiple times (Not to say I perfect runned the combat, but I didn’t have to repeat those sections enough times to ever get that warning for failing a combat). So, it just feels like the game is mocking you.

But the greatest crime of God of War is the presentation. Back on the PS2, we had lots of cute cartoon mascot games. And then God of War happened and we have one cute cartoon mascot survivor (Ratchet). Now, I’m not decrying the death of cute cartoon mascot games (I only ever played Ratchet & Clank games so I’m still in good hands there). What am I decrying is the sudden glut of Mature titles, which I think can be directly traced to God of War. Because there’s a certain style of Mature title that proliferated after God of War that we’re still plagued with. Because “M for Mature” really seems to mean “M for Machismo.” Kratos is a man’s man. He doesn’t wear a shirt, slaughters everyone in gory fake blood spatter, kills even people who have helped him with no sense of regret or moral quandary, has a dead wife and child to motivate him, and “redeems” himself by helping a small white girl (even though she’s supposedly Greek). There’s a sex mini-game and lots of tits. It’s pretty much the definition of what a 14-year-old boy would consider to be Mature. Combine this with the punishing difficulty and you get a very telling vision of the mindset of the developers (Considering this is the same mind that brought us Twisted Metal Black – a great game that featured such downer “twist” endings for all the characters that it quickly soured the previously enjoyable game). And that mindset has plagued game development since.

My difficulties with God of War can easily be dismissed by most video gamers with the fact that I’m just not “hardcore” enough. But that’s a bullshit definition, formed from their own machismo related to skill at video games. Not everyone is looking for a difficult game, nor even wanting to show their mastery over a system to judge themselves in relation to their “peers.” Some are just looking for an “experience.” Some are looking to waste time with some point and clicking. And others aren’t interested in seeing another game starring a bulked-out space marine in a brown and green environment battle waves of waves of enemies with plenty of gory death animations. God of War’s popularity directly led to the bland sameness of so many games. God of War is the reason Bungie is known for Halo and not Oni or Myth. God of War is the reason we have Dante’s Inferno and Darksiders. God of War is the reason games can’t feature female characters. God of War is the reason we can’t have anything nice.

UPDATE: Oh, hey, I played the second God of War also. Overall, it was easier. I wouldn’t say it was a cakewalk, but it featured far less platforming sections and more “figure out where to go” type of puzzles. Which don’t end in death as many times. I also thought the game had dropped the “Do you want the game to be easier?” popups until the very end, because I never died enough times to trigger them. I also felt like the QTEs and needing to be directly in front of objects to interact with them were slightly more forgiving. Maybe they added a quarter second to input QTE commands? Not sure. The end of the game does ramp up the difficulty pretty quickly, however. And, most unforgivably, it featured a QTE with instant death if you failed it as the very last event in the game. And that had a cut scene attached to it that you couldn’t skip. So, yeah, it took me over twenty minutes to finish the game, watching the same cut scene over and over, because I couldn’t complete the goddamned QTE. So, that kind of soured the whole experience.

BONUS UPDATE: Oh, hey, I also played the third God of War, the first one native to the Playstation 3. So, now you can see the entrails you pull out of centaurs, before you wrap them around their heads to kill them. Thanks, next gen graphics. This game also featured a lot of first person slaughter. I don’t know why I need to see Kratos’ hands wrap around an enemy’s face and pluck out his eyes, but I’ve had that experience now, so great. This one also seemed to feature a lot of instant death puzzles – more than the previous games. There’s another game after this one, but all the reviews said the story sucked – considering the quality of story in these games, the mind fucking boggles.

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