Saturday, January 8, 2011

REVIEW - God of War : Ghost of Sparta.

It's been said that Sony's stalwart handheld is denied the stratospheric success of the Nintendo DS because it's trying to do two things at once: offer console-style games and be a device that fits in your pocket. The best titles of Nintendo's platform have a different ambition. They embrace their smaller, handheld nature and are designed to take advantage of what makes portable gaming unique.

The trouble with the PSP's attempt to recreate the experience of PlayStation 2 titles is that corners must always be cut, and concessions made. Even the better games for the platform - Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, Valkyria Chronicles II - no matter how refined, tend to feel inferior to their console brethren due to pacing and structure that consciously tailors itself to the nature of a portable platform.

With those (great) titles, their in-a-nutshell summary of quality tends to go "it's a great game, but..."

There are no "but"s with God of War: Ghost of Sparta. It is a PSP title that brazenly styles itself in the image of its console counterparts, and there are no corners cut. No concessions made. Pacing is not sacrificed, production values are not curbed, and design is tight.

Finally. I'm playing a PS2 game on my PSP. It's rather miraculous.

First of all - as we've come to expect of the franchise - it's gorgeous. Its shock value trembles back and forth between the satisfaction of God of War II and the jaw-dropping technical wizardry of III. Don't get me wrong - this doesn't look like a PS3 game - but it manages to be just as astounding, and forces the player to say "I didn't know this was possible on this system."

Quite regularly - several times during each half-hour or ninety-minute session spent with the game - a vista will come into view. A set piece will reveal itself, a boss will burst forth or the player will find themselves just strolling through the game and stop to marvel at it, and ask the question: how did Ready At Dawn do this?

I have no idea, but they have well and truly proved themselves masters of the PSP hardware with Ghost of Sparta. It is, simply, a stunningly good-looking game.

Presentation is excellent across the board - all the voice work, sound design and music is up to the standard we expect of the series - but Ghost of Sparta actually manages to outpace God of War III in the story department. This is no doubt due to (God of War II writer/director) Cory Barlog's duties as writer - this guy designs the best GoW stories - and the driving narrative ends up being much more intimate and revealing than the ham-fisted attempt which marred the end of III.

That said, Ghost of Sparta happily takes a few cues from the most recent console title. From platforming and set piece design to quicktime events, the lessons learned there are put to work here, to comfortable effect. It allows you to slip into the gameplay without missing a beat, and enjoy yourself. Delicious. But - as with Chains of Olympus - Ready At Dawn aren't about to just leave it at that.

Once again, they provide Kratos with an alternate weapon that you actually want to use here and there (which begs the question, why did it take so long to think of this particular combination for a Spartan warrior?), and offer an added tweak to the combat with the ability to swath Kratos's blades in fire on command. It's a very small thing, but there's something deeply satisfying about imbuing the last, spectacular strike of his standard combo with a blooming explosion of flame.

Beyond that, what's on offer here is the standard spectacle we've come to expect from God of War. A rogues gallery consisting of the who's who of Greek myth (which you think would've been exhausted by now), spectacular, ever-changing locations to visit, and one very angry Spartan. What brings Ghost of Sparta truly up to par with its contemporaries is the excellent pacing and design - new mechanics and enemies are introduced and thoughtfully laced together, requiring the player to continually experiment and gently push at their comfort zone.

In return, the game consistently presents us with another fantastic series of God of War encounters, and consistently one-ups itself throughout its campaign with Kratos's unbridled savagery and the shocking, grand challenges that he stubbornly refuses to cede to. It is nothing less than a wonderful adventure.

Now, with all that being said, there's this one part where you fight your way to a ship, to set sail to your next destination. You come aboard the ship, and the ship sets sail in a little cutscene. Then, suddenly, it's back to gameplay. Kratos is on deck, and a bunch of monsters are there to be killed.

It's like, "what? When did these guys show up?" And then you kill them and it becomes another fantastic set piece moment, and you forget about it. But there is that one part that didn't live up to the rest of the presentation.

They didn't have a ten-second cutscene showing those monsters climbing aboard, and Kratos pulling out his blades with his timeless, scowling "I'm ready" expression.

I point this out, because that one absence - that one omission - is the only problem I have with the entire game.

God of War: Ghost of Sparta is, without caveat, the best game I've ever played on the PSP. It's a rip-snortin' adventure of grand proportions, it is insatiably good-looking (often shockingly so), it plays like a dream, the story is thoughtful, brutal and involving and it's the first time I've played a game on the PSP that didn't feel, even for a moment, like a concession was made to fit this little handheld.

Anywhere. Except that one missing cutscene.

-the best-looking PSP game ever
-fantastic production values across the board
-satisfying, balanced, elegant and visceral combat
-keeps the gameplay improvements from GoW III
-incredible set piece moments
-great story
-a grand adventure
-pretty much everything

-that one missing cutscene
-could've had deeper puzzles, I guess

Spectacular. Buy it now

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