Crispy Gamer

God of War II (PS2)

I won't mince words: God of War II is an incredibly well-executed game, from its absorbing gameplay and cohesive story to its gorgeous graphics and expert cinematic production. Forget newly released consoles with their superior technology -- the game is a modern accomplishment, even on dated hardware.

In this sequel you play as Kratos for a second time as he seeks to restore balance in Olympus and resurrect himself after being killed by Zeus. The Greek mythology angle is still refreshing with a more compelling story than the first game, and that's coming from someone who could care less for mythology.

What makes God of War II so appealing, though, is its seamless integration of story and gameplay. Cut scenes cinematically pan into playable environments without delay and are brief enough that they never disrupt the fighting. The overall production value, including voice work, rivals that of a Hollywood movie. More specifically, I never wanted to skip a non-playable sequence, nor did I ever have to roll my eyes at the type of corny dialogue that commonly plagues the medium. In short, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better balance of story and interactivity in games.

You?ll know right away you?re playing something special upon seeing the first level. Most games begin with scaled-down surroundings and basic difficulty, a familiar and easy way for designers to ease players into a new experience. God of War II shatters that familiarity, however, with a gargantuan yet manageable opening boss fight that sets an atypical and refreshing pace. The effect is pioneering and results in one of the most impressive first levels of any game.

The gameplay is gratifying and maintains the level of intensity the story sets up. It?s hack-and-slash action cleverly disguised in new clothing, but it?s perfectly polished and well-varied. After felling the introductory bronze Goliath, you'll quickly proceed to drubbing a mixture of mythological creatures and petty mortals, all while upgrading your weapons, magical abilities and strengths through collectible colored orbs.

You?ll scale walls like Spider-Man, both vertically and horizontally, and fight double the number of colossal giants from the first game. The boss confrontations are anything but your standard ?attack the blinking weak spots for massive damage? affair: Though they might not be the most creative challenges, they are prolonged and unrelenting.

In addition to a steady diet of killing and discovery, God of War II includes both platforming and puzzle elements to mix things up, all with an optimal amount of difficulty to keep the action uninterrupted. Overall, the tight combination of combat, puzzles, exploration and boss battles is remarkable. You'll go from pummeling baddies, solving puzzles to unlock doors, and facing massive gatekeepers in 15- to 20-minute quick-hit cycles.

Specific levels are also diverse, ranging from a war-torn metropolis and clammy dungeons to lush tropics and cloudy skies when riding Pegasus. Distant areas appear enormous in size and scale accordingly as you approach them. While many reviewers are quick to call games ?epic,? this one really is.

It should be noted that God of War II relies heavily on context-sensitive moments (read: playable cut scenes) that require responsive button mashing. You're forced to stay on your toes throughout the game as an event that requires quick timing can happen at any time, and not just during boss fights. This may seem annoying, but they are gracefully included and even feel rewarding once you get them right.

Regarding presentation, God of War II looks, sounds and feels like a PlayStation 3 game, save only that it is not in HD (480p widescreen is supported, however). The lighting is gorgeous. You?ll see dust particles move in sunlight like amoebas and Kratos? varied shadow move across thick, colorful marble floors. The audio narrative is equally exceptional, with the moody narration by Linda Hunt making a return, and the soundtrack -- with the exception of flying levels, which sound generic -- would make Hans Zimmer from ?The Gladiator? proud, as it is both fitting and forceful.

In terms of atmosphere, a smart camera and cinematic cut scenes are handled with great dexterity, as if a seasoned movie professional directed them. While you can't control the camera, I never felt at a disadvantage in solving a puzzle or meeting an objective by having it controlled for me. Often times, I found myself doubling back just to see how skillfully the camera handled my surroundings. The effect strikingly adds to the gameplay with an unmatched level of sophistication.

As with any game, there are some flaws. Players will regularly notice screen tearing as the seven-year-old PlayStation 2 does its best to manage large-scale levels without loading screens. It's hardly a deal-breaker, but it's there. Also, I grew slightly annoyed with having to hold R1 for three to five seconds just to open power-up crates, and the path to success is glaringly linear (open-world enthusiasts: proceed with caution).

God of War II will take 12 to 15 hours to complete. If that doesn?t sate your gamer appetite, Sony was kind enough to include additional features to enhance replayability, like a combo system, four difficulty levels and unlockable challenge modes. A bonus disc of behind-the-scenes video, photos and music is also included.

Despite a lack of innovation, God of War II is so beautifully executed and well-produced that it feels new again, all while retaining the familiar enjoyment of classic hack and slash. The entire package takes some of the best that videogames have to offer (namely action, platforming, puzzles, boss fights and a rare interactive story), and rolls them into one, superlative experience. It?s one of the greatest games of a generation, and easily one of the most memorable action titles in recent memory. Just reviewing it makes me want to play again.

This review was based on a retail copy of the game purchased by Crispy Gamer.