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Post-Mortem Review

Like many geeks my age, I love to play video games. I also can’t afford to play them the moment they’re released. Or I’m just too lazy to do a write up when a cheap Indie game comes out. In any case, when I do get around to playing them, everyone else has moved on. But I’m here, dammit, and I’m going to talk about it even if the subject is long since dead. It covers everything that I think is worth talking about, whether it’s story or gameplay in order to answer that looming question: was it fun to play? That’s what this is, then: a post-mortem review of stuff I can actually afford. Spoilers follow.


GOD OF WAR III: When Brutal Becomes Annoying

Let me get something clear: I really, really wanted to like God of War III. I played the main series since it began on the PS2, and it is one of my favorites. Kratos, a former acolyte of Ares, ‘sold his soul’ as it were, to save his own life and become a murder-machine. Well, even more than he already was. In a rage-fueled bender, he ends up killing his wife and daughter which makes him very angsty. He decides to put all his chips into Athena’s guidance and seeks atonement. The game follows Kratos’s quest to murdilate Ares in order to be granted forgiveness for his crime.

  There isn’t much to say about the game itself, because the actual gameplay was extremely well-crafted. Since reviews tend to talk about the crappier elements, this makes it kind of difficult. But, for the sake of inclusion, here we go: the combat mechanics helped to solidify the modern hack-and-slash and really helped to stand out among more ‘stylish’ fighters like Devil May Cry. The environments were varied and you always had a sense that there was something bigger than yourself going on. The first visit to Hades was especially vivid, but that may have been both the environment and the rather awkward run-in with a lost soul Kratos had left to die earlier in the game. The music is all very sweeping and epic, suitable for a mortal with the task of killing a god to death.

  And speaking of death, you will die. A loooooooooooooooooooot. This isn’t a wholly bad thing, but it does have its faults. No matter how it happens, it’s the same general thing: screen goes black, celebrating your gooey passing, you hit X, you go back to a checkpoint. As has been mentioned by others, one of the most frustrating parts about this dickery is the “you are dead” notification. Why not just boot me back to the checkpoint like nothing happened? Maybe a fade-out or something, but seriously, I’m not sure why games feel the need to give you such an obnoxious call out every time. And when it happens about seven hundred times a minute, putting me back in the game as quickly as possible is far more appreciated than “Hey… hey buddy… you totally cacked it back there… did you know that?” Yes. Yes I did notice that.

  The biggest crime against gaming was the inclusion of Quick Time Events, button presses which ranged from “Hit square NOW to brutally decapitate a gorgon” to “Wiggle the joy stick to not be crushed”. QTE’s are annoying because they’ve been so over-utilized as a mechanic that it has effectively replaced actual gameplay. What I mean by that is, instead of player skill determining whether or not a certain sequence is survivable, twitch-reflexes are more important. Having to replay a movie sequence because you didn’t hit ‘Circle’ to keep the bad dude from headbutting your nose into your brain is not entertainment – it’s making sure players didn’t go make a sandwich during your cinematic.

Before I move on, I’m going to continue to beat this dead horse until I’m sufficiently convinced it’s no longer breathing. Another super-irritating aspect of QTE’s is that they always, always play the same over-kill sequence which, the first time you see it, is pretty neat. But because of their over-use, the player really starts to notice how awkward it is when, say, a Minotaur with its back to the camera smoothly rotates 180 degrees so you can watch Kratos stab it in the mouth for the billionth time. Or break its neck. I forget which in the first game.

  But I digress.

  So Kratos becomes huge (because plot device… er, Padora’s Box) and somehow manages to murder the shit out of Ares. He kills him so hard that the god’s corpse ends up nuking Athens (an explosive end which is, for some reason, retconned out of the sequel’s sequel). Afterwards, he asks Athena for her end of the bargain – that whole forgiveness thing. And she does, but in the most asinine way possible. She grants him the forgiveness he seeks, but says that the crime is so horrible that he must always bear the burden of living with the nightmares. Also, she says no god or mortal can forget such a terrible deed – kinda sorta not really ‘forgiving’, is it, Athena? In any case, Kratos decides to off himself, but the gods save him and make him into the new God of War (see what I did there?) which will certainly have no bad consequences in the future of Olympus.

  As I said, I love the first game. It was tightly developed and designed. It had a story with a beginning, middle, and an end. The main character had a definite goal. Moreover, while Kratos was a mass-murdering asshole, he was still human. He had been a soldier driven to madness by forces beyond his control and a lust for power, which ended up costing him his family. Few moments in gaming can match one of the final battles where you fight to save the memory of your wife and daughter against hordes of monsters because – in an action more telling than in any cut scene – Kratos hugs his family to regain his health. It’s this intense battle – I had to try it something in the neighborhood of ten times – which shows the player what is really at stake. Kratos doesn’t give a shit about Athens or the gods – it’s always been about his family.

  Anyway, everyone loved the game and they naturally made a sequel (although I distinctly remember a threatening ‘KRATOS WILL RETURN’ at the end of the credit sequence of the first game… but I could be wrong). Kratos, new-fangled god of war, has been marauding around Greece since the last time we saw him. Olympus is getting kind of antsy about this, so they strip him of his powers (how they do this is something which is never explained), trick him into draining what remains of his supernatural awesomeness into a slightly pointer plot device (The Blade of Olympus), and then kill him, sending him to Hades. Again. This makes the Titan Gaia wake up and save Kratos… somehow… and he fights his way out of Hades before taking off on a grand adventure to get gadgets, gizmos, and magic to murder Zeus for being such a meanie.

  The sequel is more-of-the-same, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Although I don’t think God of War really needed a sequel, the continuation of the story didn’t really hurt anything. Plus, I got a kick actually fighting tons of bosses as opposed to endless swarms of minions. Few mythological figures were safe from Kratos’s rampage, and the battles themselves were pretty varied. Everything seemed very fresh and fun, even if it was very DOOM II-y in the way it approached sequels.

But they still had motherfucking QTE’s, which are always terrible. Especially when you grind your way through a super tough boss only to instantly fail because you didn’t know you were going to be told to press triangle instead of square. Gameplay!

  Further, although I appreciate experimenting in some places, the swinging mechanic was an awful thing. There’s a sequence where Kratos uses his chain-blade-things to swing across ruins above a primeval jungle. I’m not quite sure if it was me, but holy CRAP was that section unnecessarily stupid. No matter how many times I played through the game, I would inevitably die enough times to make me really question why Kratos doesn’t just walk across that idyllic jungle. What, was he afraid he wouldn’t be able to butcher enough wildlife to keep himself aroused?

  Alright, so Kratos enlists the help of the Titans and then kills the Fates (umm… ‘kay) so he can go back in time and confront Zeus before he killed Kratos in the first place, by which I mean the second time Kratos died, by which I mean in the actual canon-ahfuckit. Completely ignoring the fact that he just made it so there’s two Kratoses running around (because Zeus didn’t stab him yet), Kratos beats up Zeus and almost kills him. But, because Athena is a spaz, she takes a sword to the gut to save her father and spills the beans (and her intestines – HA! I’m awful) that Zeus is also Kratos’s father! Which is important! So important that it was never broached in the series until now! Zeus runs away like a sissy, Kratos goes forward in time only to go even further back in time to gather the Titans and bring them forward in time (but not too forward) so he can kill Zeus for being such an unrepentant dick. Aaaaaaand smashcuttoblack!

  You might notice that the storyline kind of imploded toward the end, and I’m pretty sure that’s because the developers were running out of time to cram in all the story they wanted. Instead of doing the smart thing, which would have been to drop the unnecessary crap in favor of putting it in the sequel, they crammed it all in. Which is a huge shame – with proper room to breathe, the whole half-god thing could have been interesting to play out. Instead, it’s used so that Kratos develops daddy issues in the next game. Hurray. Because when you go from a family-killing mass murderer seeking redemption to a revenge-crazed member of Linkin Park, you clearly are moving the story in the right direction.

But it’s not a bad game at all – please, let me stress that. The story gets a little silly toward the end, yes, but it’s still a lot of fun. And isn’t that the whole point of gaming? You know – to have fun? Few can argue that something like Dead Rising 2 is the magnum opus of story-telling, but when you’re strapping chainsaws to the end of oars and paddling up an endless stream of zombies, story seems a little pointless. To return to God of War, despite the flagrant sequel-hook-y, unsatisfying ending, there was plenty of opportunity to really have the next game get into some really awesome territory.

  If you don’t remember how I began this review, you might want to take a moment to preemptively sigh – just get it out of your system.

  So, this game begins in median res, with Kratos and his Titan allies storming Mt. Olympus because, just to reiterate, Zeus is kind of a dick. This sequence culminates with Kratos butchering Poseidon in a sequence that reveals that the series may have gone a touch off track. After rescuing Gaia in a multi-tier boss fight, Kratos pummels the god of oceans into submission before gouging out his eyes (which kills him – you’d think the absolutely brutal beating would have done that, first, though). What particularly odd about this sequence is that it’s all from Poseidon’s perspective. I’m sure that someone thought that would be an interesting turn, but it just made me feel awkward as I’m filling in QTE’s to have Kratos beat the camera/player into submission. In a medium which the player is supposed to identify with the avatar on screen, such artistic choices take you out of the game and make you sympathize with the victims of your rampage – a kiss of death when your protagonist is gleefully (well – I think glee and Kratos were never in the same room, but you get my point) jamming his thumbs into the camera/player’s eye sockets.

  And that’s the first real sign that there’s something wrong with the game – apart from recasting a major character’s voice. God of War III seems like a design-by-committee affair rather than something which had a united purpose. This sequence is pretty amazing on its own, but the end cap of brutalizing Poseidon from his perspective – and thus sympathizing with him – is so awkward that I imagine a temp getting super excited about being asked his opinion and the rest of the team throwing it in there because it seemed like a good idea. But remember – first person shooters don’t make us sympathize with the monsters that are eating our faces, but with the unseen avatar – so why the hell did they do that?

  Anyway, Kratos is sent to Hades (surprise) where he kills Hades (the god, not the world’s most depressing residential area). Hades itself went through a makeover – while it was a red-tinged boney nightmare in GoW, here it’s a drab grey cavern full of ghouls who shuffle around and mutter. It’s really a let down from what could have been a pretty terrifying visit. As it stands, it’s honestly just another cave with the undead in it. Meh.

  While in the underworld (before redecorating Hades’s walls with ‘hint of brain’), our war-criminal/hero encounters Hephaestus, who is not immediately strangled with his own intestines. The god informs him that he’ll need to open Pandora’s Box – again – to kill Zeus and that he can’t touch it because it’s been protected by a magic flame which will kill anyone who touches it. And speaking of the recycled MacGuffin, Kratos has been in contact with Pandora, whom he has mistaken for his daughter for… some reason which is never really made clear. The quest to open the box and collect the power to kill Zeus becomes the main goal for the game – despite the fact that Kratos has already committed deicide thrice and twice that day alone; Ares, Athena, and Poseidon were all gods, last I checked.

  Kratos escapes from Hades and ends up butchering Helios along the way. The poor god of the sun doesn’t even get a boss fight – and he gets his head torn off to use as a glorified (or gorified… oh, man, I am AWESOME) flashlight. This sequence brings up another bit of aggravation for me as a player. Both Hades and Helios make mention of something Kratos has done in the past – apparently, Kratos murdered Persephone and did… something… positive for Helios. I was okay with the idea that Kratos, in his ham-fisted attempt to do… something… accidentally killed an innocent. It fits in with his tragic story arc. But the god of the sun makes mention of a debt he owes to our ‘hero,’ only to be killed for his trouble.

  This bothers me on two levels. First, why didn’t Helios help Kratos? Moments before, he shouted “Stay out of this!” to the player as he battled a Titan. Why couldn’t they have taken this one step farther and have Helios betray Zeus or just pretend he didn’t see Kratos to set up for a boss fight later? Hell, if you were still desperate to give Kratos Helios’s head, have Zeus tear it off for the betrayal. You know – actually show Zeus do something assholish to make us hate him. Because thus far, Zeus’s rage and fear toward Kratos seems entirely justified. The guy is killing everything and, before that, he was doing pretty much exactly what marked Ares for death in the first game. I’m sorry, but Kratos is the prick in this situation by almost every metric.

  The second part of this which makes me shake my head is that these two incidents clearly show the developers intended for you to play the various other entries in the series – and I don’t mean the prequels. I mean the PSP side-stories. While this isn’t bad, I feel it is a little cheap on their parts. Since you numbered this series I through III, you should only reference what happens canonically in the series and expect the audience to know what you’re talking about. If you are going to throw in more info from small entries – and by all means, do so for the sake of a good story – give us something more to go on than vague “I STILL REMEMBER THE DEBT I OWE YOU.” Did Kratos do a really good load of whites for you? Did he rescue your favorite horse? Did he not tell your wife when you pretended you were Zeus and turned into a swan to rape some poor woman? How deep does this debt go, especially considering how quick you are to abandon it when doing so means you die?

  What seems like five minutes later, Kratos kills Hermes, which is a shame because Hermes has more personality than a brick and was more interesting than pretty much everyone else combined. We chase him around a collapsing chunk of Olympus, wrestling with the god-awful jumping controls and murdering civilians. Oh, yeah, that’s another thing – you could always kills civvies in the series, but as far as I recall, this is the only entry where it’s actually mandatory – as in, you will die if you don’t kill innocent bystanders. There were moments in earlier games where you had to abuse a victim of the gods to proceed, but it wasn’t quite the same as some of the gratuitousness of this entry. I usually try to play my games on the straight and narrow as much as possible – I know this makes me boring, but I didn’t ask you – and being forced to kill fake electronic people who are just in the way makes me wonder if it’s too late to switch sides.

  Some other stuff happens, Kratos is given the option of sleeping with Aphrodite as opposed to killing her, we kill Kronos because he happens to be there, we kill Hephaestus because we plan on killing his daughter Pandora so we can kill Zeus (and yet we’re somehow the good guy?), we rescue Pandora who sacrifices herself to allow Kratos the chance to open the box which is completely empty anyway because (shocker) the power was in Kratos the entire time. You know, as if the trail of murdered gods wasn’t enough to convince people that maaaaaybe this guy was already pretty dangerous to begin with.

  Anyway, we get around to the boss fight with Zeus, which is split up into multiple stages, all of which are really easy. We also end up killing Gaia in the process of killing Zeus. After beating the ever-living stuffing out of the bastard, it looks like he’s finally dead. Then, his ghost comes back and kills Kratos. Kratos goes on a journey of self-discovery and forgiveness or something, which allows him to come back to life and punch Zeus’s ghost so hard Zeus springs back to life only to be beaten to death by Kratos. I’m sure that sequence of events sounded good on paper, but it was tedious and ultimately pointless to the conclusion of the game.

  Anyway, the world’s fucked because Kratos has killed the embodiment of everything ever. Athena’s ghost shows up and wants him to give her ‘hope,’ which I guess was the secret ingredient of Colonel Kratos’s 13-herbs-and-death recipe of god slaughter. There’s some pointless dialogue exchanged and Kratos ends up killing himself, releasing the final bit of god energy and finally – finally giving himself some closure for butchering his family.

  Apart from the mess of a story, the gameplay feels really watered down. I’m not sure why, but Kratos no longer feels like he’s doing any damage to the hordes of baddies. Maybe it’s just because it’s been seven years since the release of the first game and the genre has evolved since its inception, but the fights were boring and they almost always consisted of the same low-tier monsters over and over again. As for cannon fodder, they recycled all their enemies from previous games – with the exception of the chimera. And the one monster they should have eliminated completely for its terribleness was the satyr – THANK GOD THEY KEPT THOSE BASTARDS IN THEY WERE SO MUCH FUN TO FIGHT. Outside of the Poseidon fight, bosses were really unimpressive and did not have the same feel as the earlier games.

  The major updated gameplay mechanic – the items – were all fairly awkward to use in combat with the exception of the bow. And outside of one or two monsters uniquely weak against specific items, there was not a whole lot of point to their existence. The extra weapons – a carry-over from GoWII – were a nice touch, but were ultimately there only for a few sequences – either enemies with shields or puzzles. One weapon, Hades’s version of your own main weapon, appeared to be just a purple alternative to waving around red things to kill one’s foes.

  Certain ‘features’ also seemed to exist only because older entries had them. Do we really need to hammer the circle button to open doors by now? Or how about twiddling the analogue stick to turn cranks – that kind of input is always oh-so-much fun. I’m fairly sure this was done in the PS2 era to help eliminate load times. By now, though, it really kills the flow of the game. Compared to something which utilizes this same mechanic quickly – like Ratchet and Clank – and you’ll see what I mean. One game has you quickly spinning a bolt and then moving on. Kratos, for all his ability to slap Titans so hard it kills them, turns cranks like he’s about a million years old.

  On top of that, by 2010, most games featuring areas where you could fall re-spawned you next to the pit with a minimal reduction of health. I remember seeing it first in Evil Dead: Regeneration, and that was 2005. So why does falling down a pit lead to instant death? This isn’t Super Mario Brothers or Cave Story. Kratos is supposed to be this ultimate badass – why can’t he swing those chains up to the closest platform and grunt mightily about how this sucks? Or just give him a trinket – kind of like Sands of Time – which allows him to rewind time enough to put him back on the ledge. He did kill the Fates after all.

  I only bring this up because, somehow, the jumping mechanic got worse between the previous entry and this one. God of War III, just as the others did, keeps a helpful tally on your failures as a player by recording the exact number of times you died. By the end of my run, Kratos had met his end only 30 times – and I do mean only, here. Only two were due to enemies. Another two were due to ‘puzzles’ or other environmental anomalies. One was because QTE’s are stupid and should be punishable by having the offender’s genitalia slammed in a dictionary. The remaining twenty-five?

  Pits.

  Motherfucking holes in the ground.

  Now, I’m no master at video games, but I think it’s safe to say that I’ve mastered the double-jump. You hit jump twice as opposed to once. It’s really quite simple, outside of the physics of actually double-jumping in real life (it involves laser shoes and wires). But I swear that, at certain points, the game just didn’t feel like registering the second jump command. Kratos would gleefully take to the air and plummet to his death, well after I had hit the button a second time. Maybe I just suck, but the consistency of the failure – and the fact that somehow the double jump worked almost everywhere else – leads me to question whether or not this is a bug or something worse.

  But the number of deaths also gets at something much more sinister about this game – all the challenge is gone. I remember getting my shit wrecked by Ares in the first game and then Zeus in the second. I mean it took a long time to beat those guys because they were really, really tough. Even in subsequent play throughs, I would dread the final battles because they were daunting challenges. Not so here. Despite Zeus’s complete obnoxiousness at not staying dead, there was never a moment I was in danger of dying. A first in this series – I slaughtered the final boss without so much as a single death.

  Which brings me to my ultimate point – was this game fun? Quite simply, no. Whether the jumping mechanics were broken or not is ultimately moot, because those sections weren’t the bread and butter of the game. Action is. And that’s where the game falls flat. The mobs were too same-y, the weapons unimpressive, the locales bland compared to the previous entries, and the boss fights pretty unspectacular. Even the story, which can sometimes save a game from being bland, didn’t do as much as it could have. It appeared that, despite the pedigree, the game depended too much on what had already been done. As I told Ashlie after the first few hours of playing it, I didn’t want to continue except for the fact that I wanted to get it over with – which is never a good sign.

  The biggest tragedy here is the opportunity. We start the game in the middle of a war between huge Titans and the gods. But by the halfway point, all the Titans have been eliminated. It’s just Kratos being a dick. Why not have the war continue? Why not keep that sense of urgency going? If it was a race to get to Zeus first, I could maybe see being more of an ass to people who were in my way. But as it stands, the momentum is really lost by the time you’ve slaughtered half the gods on Olympus.

  And I have a feeling there was more to be done with Pandora, too. It was clear that Kratos was supposed to be using her as a substitute for his own daughter. But this is a point which is never, ever established outside of a few lines. It comes off as forced and out of nowhere. We really only interact with her in the last hour of the game, and it’s usually in an action sequence. When did Kratos give a shit about her? Also, the bastard killed her father before freeing her because he was going to end up killing her so he could kill Zeus. And on top of that, she ends up sacrificing herself anyway for absolutely zero purpose. It’s clear Pandora was meant to be his redemption, but it comes across like the writer shrugged his shoulders at one point and said “Well, we need this in there, too.”

  I really, really wanted to like this game. But it really left me thankful the series was done. Oh, wait, they had a teaser stinger after the credits implying Kratos was still alive after, you know, doing the only selfless thing in the entire game, thus voiding every bit of its significance.

  God damn it, Sony.

Purchase Project Northwoods at Amazon.com.   Purchase Washed Hands at Amazon.com   Purchase Improbables at Amazon.com.

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