As the release date for God of War III fast approaches, Felix takes a moment to reflect on what has gone before…
If you’re like me, the “G” in “GoW” means God, not Gears, and Kratos will be the name of your firstborn, regardless of gender.
I recently picked up the remastered God of War collection for PS3 and have been loving the first two God of War games all over again. I know there are other, newer GoW clones out there right now, but there is something about these classics that, once you pick them up, you just keep playing until it’s the next day and you’re feeling as crusty as Prometheus after having his guts ripped out. I have set out a few of my thoughts on why this is. For ease of reference, I use “GoW” to refer to both games as one big throbbing pile of awesome.
The combat design in GoW doesn’t just rely on the “invisible door locked until you defeat X enemies” approach. Periodically, it throws an environmental element into the fighting, such as: fighting baddies while pushing a rock up a hill, fighting in a room that is intermittently filled with flames, or fighting while two crushing jaws are closing in on you and you have to keep cranking them apart. This disguises the repetitiveness of the combat, keeping it feeling fresh long after it should. It’s like when you spray your favourite pub jeans with deodorant to give them one more wear before washing, but more convincing.
The magic number
GoW is the master of the rule of threes and here at Threepaper Reviews, we love it too. Often GoW will introduce you to a badass enemy (like a three-headed Cerberus), then spawn two more when the first one dies. Boss fights like the Hydra or Kraken often have three main stages. Later in the games they start messing with your head by presenting a fourth baddie or stage, just when you used your last magic on the third one, because you thought you had the game twigged. This is clever design. You feel smart for working out the game’s rules and then the game cranks it up, but within reasonable parameters, stretching you a little more each time. It keeps you from being complacent but doesn’t feel unfair or cheap, unlike, say, Ninja Gaiden.
The right (joystick) decision #1
Any wing chun artist will tell you that a key element of melee combat is interruptability, the capacity to switch up what you’re doing and try again from a different angle. This is the result you get with GoW’s decision to map the evade roll to the right joystick, because your movement is independent of where you are aiming your blows. The right joystick interrupts the left and can be done as soon as you see the enemy begin a move you want to get away from. This gives the combat a feeling as smooth as a yacht captain who’s just had a full brazilian slipping into some satin PJs and sipping a mohito while listening to “Sailing” by Christopher Cross. Why is smooth so good? Because if it’s smooth, you don’t mind doing it over and over again.
In contrast, Darksiders maps the evade dash to left joystick + R1. As a result, it takes a fraction longer to evade because your brain has to tell the left joystick (via the hand) to stop aiming attacks and change direction. This doesn’t always come off in the confusion of battle and you often end up accidentally dashing straight into the trouble you were trying to escape. As a result the combat feels as rough as a bearded truckie sitting on sandpaper while eating gravel and listening to Motörhead. It seems Darksiders compensated for this clumsy dash by adding an attack upgrade to it, making it offensive rather than defensive, so you could pretend you charged into the enemy on purpose. This made the dash attack move overpowering, leading to its spammage and thus to player boredom.
The right (joystick) decision #2
The corollary to mapping the evade roll to the right stick was that GoW had a fixed camera. Why do people hate this? You only need a movable camera if your core combat involves aiming a gun; in a melee brawler it is largely a distraction. You want to look around before jumping off a ledge? Stop whining and jump already! You want to look at the ceiling in a room? Big deal. I’m happy to lose all that in favour of tighter combat controls, given that combat is where you will spend the bulk of your game time. Plus, it frees the game up to show things from different perspectives and angles. The GoW designers knew how to frame a scene, playing with perspective to give you a sense of scale, like when they show you a looming behemoth in the far distance, a top down view of Kratos’ ascent up a spiral staircase, or Kratos walking across a long bridge and getting smaller and smaller.
Hey, it’s not all a bumlick!
GoW gets a lot right, but there is room for improvement. Most of the upgrade system is vestigial, i.e. for show and not that useful. Your starting weapons, the chain blades, are by far the coolest. You only really need to upgrade one type of magic. In the final battle of each game you get a new weapon and don’t even use your regular arsenal. Realising all this almost makes you not want to bother finding all those red orby chests for upgrades. Almost. If GoW 3 provides a more balanced weapon and magic system with genuine alternatives to the blades, I will be impressed.
Also, GoW does quick time endings very well. Because they work so well in GoW, lazy designers now cram them into all sorts of substandard games. However this feels a bit like blaming Black Sabbath for Warrant.