God of War: Ghost of Sparta
Bruce Banner (aka The Incredible Hulk) is famously quoted as saying ‘Don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry’. God of War’s furious lead, Kratos, would never say this, mainly because he really couldn’t get any angrier – the man is a boiling, bubbling, bottomless pit of anger. If he were to up the anger quotient by even just a few notches we would probably only be left with a pile of smouldering loin-cloth, chains and perhaps the remnants of his bald pate. No, Kratos doesn’t need any more anger in his life; the question is, do gamers need any more in theirs?
God of War: Ghost of Sparta is Ready at Dawn’s second outing in bringing the wonderfully violent saga to the PlayStation Portable. Though 2008’s Chains of Olympus was somewhat maligned for its length, it nevertheless did a sterling job of authentically translating Kratos’ unique brand of rage onto the PSP’s diminutive screen. It also did wondrous things with the system’s processing power, a fact that is only overshadowed by the astonishing visuals of God of War III, a game that arguably raised production values not only for the God of War series, but for videogames in general. Obviously it would be unfair then to expect Read at Dawn to be able to replicate God of War III’s humungous titans on a handheld, but this is nevertheless the series standard that they have been forced to live up to. Astoundingly, ‘live up to expectations’ is something that Ghost of Sparta manages to do with some aplomb – it is every bit as vital, bombastic and spectacular as we’ve come to expect from Mr Angry and co.
Chronologically, Ghost of Sparta is set between God of War I and II and opens with Kratos having recently assumed the role of God of War after defeating Ares. Haunted by visions from his past (specifically of his dying mother and the fate of his brother, Deimos, who was taken as a child and imprisoned by the God of Death, Thanatos) the furious baldy heads out to see what’s what, flaming Blades of Chaos in hand. In all honesty, how the story meshes with the overall saga will likely sail over the heads of all but the most committed of fans, so complex has the tangled web of gods and mortals become. For the rest of us, it is a relatively successful self-contained sub-plot that, at the very least, serves as a sturdy excuse to knock some heads together/off/in-half.
From a technical perspective, Ghost of Sparta is a marvel that frequently exceeds what you would think the PlayStation Portable is capable of. Load times are extremely short and frame rates never less than rock solid, which in itself shouldn’t impress; but when you lay your eyes on visuals that genuinely wouldn’t look out of place on a current-gen console, you know that you’re playing something special. And it’s not just the technical grunt that impresses; every element of the game’s visuals exude a sharp eye for design and veritably drips with detail, with even the most hackneyed of environments managing to draw you in. Lava flows and spurts authentically, powdered snow wafts and drifts and sand is blown around cracked and crumbling temples. Dump a crazed, fire-chain welding Grecian into the middle of the scene, and you’re left with the best-looking PSP game to date, bar none.
Despite the glorious aesthetics, on some levels Ghost of Sparta is quite easy to dismiss as being just another instalment in a series that has long struggled to innovate within its own perfectly realised mechanics. In many respects, such criticism would be well founded; SCE Santa Monica Studios original God of War pretty much nailed the formula to which Ghost of Sparta follows almost religiously. Kratos himself has also changed little, showcasing a move-set that (for the most part) holds few surprises. It is fair to say then that Ghost of Sparta’s primary focus isn’t to innovate; instead, Ready At Dawn has set about polishing and further refining an already gleaming template. Most prominent in how it achieves this is in the game’s pacing, with levels being orchestrated in such a way as to keep over-familiarity and boredom at bay while avoiding frustrating spikes in difficulty. Weapons and magic are intelligently drip fed to you and at any given point and you are never far away from a new set of enemies, some new type of quick-time event or puzzle.
The sense of balance that permeates throughout Ghost of Sparta’s running time is the perfect canvas onto which to paint the OTT hyper-violence for which Kratos is famed. Heads are twisted off, wings are ripped from their sockets, innocent bystanders are pounded into the ground and Cyclops-eyes are popped with flaming Blades of Chaos. Despite many of these actions recycling old animations, that old magic somehow still manages to shine through. Though his eternal rage might be treading dangerous close to becoming self-parody, when Kratos is surrounded by harpies, minotaurs, globe-wielding machinations and screen filling demons, you (as the player) aren’t left with much time to dwell on such things; there’s far too much murder to keep you occupied!
Despite all the praise we feel able to heap on Ghost of Sparta, it is hard not to return to the fact that there is little here that hasn’t been done before; Kratos is surely getting to that point in his life when he really should be trying to broaden his horizons somewhat. Take Mario, as an example – though he has retained his mushroom eating, turtle jumping antics he has constantly managed to evolve and in turn be rewarded with enviable longevity. With God of War, each entry has essentially iterated on what has gone before and in doing so will inevitably fall foul of the law of diminishing returns in terms of consumer interest. While we are by no means suggesting that the next God of War should be ‘Kratos: Play, Create, Share’ or some kind of go-karting spinoff, the series needs to diversify in order to remain relevant.
It is telling that the game’s lack of originality is the biggest criticism we can levy against Ghost of Sparta. The simple fact is this is yet another high quality addition to a series that has rarely, if ever, disappointed, and is a rare example of a developer, franchise and games system working in near perfect synergy. From start to finish its epic production values, rock solid mechanics and impressive attention to detail shine through, making it an essential purchase for anyone who has any interest in the series or who is simply looking for a pristine action adventure to play on the go. So, while it would be nice for something a little fresher, Ghost of Sparta is as good, if not better, than the God of War titles that preceded it, and stands tall as one of the PlayStation Portable’s finest.
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