This review originally appeared in E149, May 2005.
With Devil May Cry 3 achieving just the right balance between maturity and immaturity, and Resident Evil 4 establishing its own accomplished genre of revival horror, action games have entered a golden age. It's a time of harmony and fruition – of deluxe looks and vividly kinetic combat – and one that seems to have settled so utterly peacefully into the groove of outrageous violence. And, within that, God Of War – despite arguably not being the best in its class of recent standouts – is definitely its alpha male: loud, brash, cool. The prodigal son of a bitch.
It's hard not to feel that God Of War is the game that POP: Warrior Within was aiming to be, but with less Godsmack and more gobsmack – an unashamedly murderous spree of furious violence and unremitting, titanic spectacle. A true videogame epic, it's unfailingly sure-footed in its realisation of explosive drama, if not quite in terms of actual play. Such hyperbole is justified by the experience of God Of War, a game born for hyperbole, and one that's engaging through sheer impressiveness rather than anything innovative.
While the combat does have its refinements, in the form of responsive dodges, blocks and parries, God Of War doesn't match Devil May Cry 3's twitchy brilliance or Ninja Gaiden's sense of tight control. The bang per button press, however, is nigh unmatched, and what it lacks in subtlety it makes up for with gratuitous battery and bloodshed. It's about thunderous brutality and unabashed assassination, a sensation that's reinforced by the availability of fatality moves when enemies are approaching defeat. These often require the player to stab certain buttons, swivel the analogue stick and follow other onscreen prompts to drive the kill home. These fatalities can be awkward to pick out, however, when they're needed the most – during the midst of a chaotic, swarming battle – and it's in these situations that the combat can lose its precision. Slightly frustrating for those in it for the skilful execution it may be, but button-bashing is a valid strategy, making the game feel more like a headlong rush of might and power, especially for those just wanting to experience its remarkable sights.
Indeed, this accessibility is an appealing strength; while God Of War requires some thought and dexterity, it never matches the extreme demands of the aforementioned action titles, choosing instead to offer incredible amounts of thunder and fury for minimal investment, pulping corpse after corpse with even the most basic swings of Kratos' beautiful chain-swords. Even if, at times, the combat begins to feel like a churn, it nonetheless reliably produces some amazing butter – supremely smooth and thick with the taste of luxury.
As a consequence, of course, this can cause fights to feel somewhat flat, and suffer from a sense of creeping dullness, shifting it from breathless to out of breath. It's a guilty criticism, however, considering how everything is smeared so heavily in such an energetic, relentless spectacle: a skirmish across a rain-lashed boat culminating in the fantastically gruesome slaughter of a towering hydra; cutting a swathe through an ancient, war-torn Athens as raging gods tear down its very foundations; tracking a titan with an enormous temple strapped to its back as it crawls around the desert. These are just some of the sets from the game's opening few hours and, regardless of how monotonous the combat can seem, the backdrops are rarely anything less than magnificent.
The second half of the game, however, sees it elevated above just glorified sightseeing, and develops an even more stunning sense of location. Focused on just a single temple, it blends together puzzles and battles in a far smoother and more palatable manner than the opening sections. Not to mention Kratos' acquisition of a hefty new weapon that brings new heights of mutilation, and a breathtaking conclusion of fantastically puffed-up aggression and grandeur. The final stretch of the game is astonishing, marred only by a short but infuriating wall-climbing section whose inclusion leaves you simply bewildered.
Indeed, it's not combat fatigue that's God Of War's true weakness. Its Achilles heel is, like so many before it, the block-sliding puzzles. They're not abundant, but just about every time they appear they feel like an intrusive lull, even if a number of them do require some reflection. Also, while the game does try to add in a number of quirky diversions – such as grappling with enemies while climbing cliff faces, shimmying across lengths of rope or sudden-death trap avoidance – these feel hollow when compared to the carnage of the game's standout set-piece confrontations.
Still, few others have such an eager eye for explosive action, nor do they make such a splendid setting for it. With loading times limited to short, occasional pauses and some sensible, invisible checkpoints in place, it's a game that's held together as much by its technical muscle – as well as some striking design and cut-scenes to which the soundtrack is a phenomenal and suitably overblown accompaniment – as by the deadly, manageable grace of its combat. From the near-pornographic money-shot that occurs during the slo-mo moments of certain vicious attack combos, to the ludicrous events that send the player travelling down a monster's throat, God Of War is made from the stuff of legend, to become the stuff of legend. While it's far from being a supreme ruler of the action landscape, it succeeds in one truly godly task: that of making itself worthy of devotion from so many mortals.