Monday, March 31, 2008

This is Sparta in the Palm of Your Hand

At first thought, God of War : Chains of Olympus—the new Playstation Portable entry in the bestselling God of War action series birthed on the Playstation 2—should not exist. The series, like the Greek mythology it is playfully based on, should absolutely defy being on a handheld console—known for its impressive scale and incredibly visceral combat, the series just doesn’t make any sense on a 4-inch screen you can play on the bus. Impressively, game developer Ready at Dawn Studios has somehow managed to tame this Pegasus, and God of War has somehow made the transition to the handheld with most of its epic qualities intact.

Despite feeling a bit like God of War lite, Chains of Olympus is a worthy companion to its console cousins. Players once again take on the role of the Spartan warrior Kratos, who has been indebted to Ares (the god of war) after he saved the hero from a barbarian horde in battle. Kratos, a pale, imposing figure, therefore does the bidding of the Olympians throughout the series and is routinely jerked around by their politicking and rivalries. When we left him at the end of God of War 2 last March, Kratos had had more than his fill of Olympian machinations and was preparing to free himself from the chains of Olympus once and for all. The PSP game, however, is a prequel to all of this badassery, so even if you have never played God of War, Chains of Olympus is a good starting point.

The simplest way to explain God of War is to frame it in this context: as Kratos, you kick ass, look good, pick your jaw up off the floor, and then repeat until the climax of the game. The combat engine does not require any sort of finesse—some might say skill—like other genre stalwarts Devil May Cry or Ninja Gaiden, as Kratos can impressively dominate his enemies with just a few taps of the face buttons. The controls translate incredibly well from the PS2 to the PSP, as the lack of the second analog stick does not inhibit camera control since the God of War series features a fixed camera that artistically frames the violence—if you could consider this a sort of artistic pursuit.

The progression of the game is a sort of Grecian All-Star Game, as you traverse the various sights you read about in Lit Hum and do battle with Gods, Titans, and other figures from popular mythology. Players begin during the siege of the Greek city of Attica by the Persian Army, which has managed to bring along a massive reptile-like creature capable of terrorizing the entire city. This point is where the game suffers a bit as a result of the PSP—the scale has to be modified just a tad to fit on the screen. In the PS2 games, the lizard-thing might be the size of fifteen buildings—in Chains of Olympus, it’s only ten stories high. A tradeoff for portability, true, but now you can slay Charon or Medusa in organic chemistry.

Throughout your journey you’ll travel through the beautiful palaces of Helios (and even ride his horses!), Hades, and the Elysian Fields—undoubtedly the PSP’s prettiest game, Chains of Olympus spares no expense visually. It pushes the PSP to the absolute max, which sometimes causes the frame rate to drop—but hey, it’s dropping along with your jaw.

The only real, palpable tradeoff Chains of Olympus makes is in length. The game can be completed in under six hours, and there is much less content in the portable iteration than in the console ones—only one extra weapon, and fewer magic types to experiment with. Still, Kratos’ murderous romp is barely diluted by portability. For fans, the game should whet your whistle for God of War III coming to Playstation 3 sometime within the next year—for everybody else, put down the Iliad and become the God of War.


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