The residents of Mount Olympus haven't gotten a good night's sleep since Kratos moved in. Not only is the new god of war a grumpy, self-professed god-hater, but he also got the throne by killing Ares, something that naturally makes the other gods a little . . . jumpy. It's not long before Zeus—who presumably can't stomach sharing a bathroom with the deicidal maniac a moment longer—decides to do something about it.
So begins God of War II—and what a beginning it is: Kratos is tricked into giving up his god powers while locked in mortal combat with a Wonder of the Ancient World, the Colossus of Rhodes. Brought to life by Athena, the 100-foot bronze statue immediately sets about trying to squash Kratos flat, forcing the antihero to hack into the monstrosity and smash its scaffolding apart from the inside.
It's spectacular, exciting, inspired—and all in the first 10 minutes. It's also a ballsy move on the part of the designers, setting the bar so high for the rest of the game. But amazingly, God of War II manages to make good on the promise, ending up not only better than the original, but also one of the best PlayStation 2 games, period.
For the uninitiated, the God of War series can be shorthanded as Clash of the Titans re-imagined by the weird kid in study hall who wore black T-shirts and drew heavy-metal album covers in his spiral notebook. The monsters are hideous, the hero lethal and the women regularly topless; mix in several thousand gallons of blood and gore, and you have a pretty clear picture of what's up. Like Kratos, God of War II isn't smart or subtle. Instead, it's a game in which you go to fantastic places, meet fearsome enemies and chop them to pieces in a quest for revenge against Zeus himself. And on that level, it works beautifully.
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Just as in the first, the game makes good use of the mythological playground to create a fun game environment. But while the original drew on it here and there, God of War II is overflowing with recognizable figures from Greek mythology: a nonstop parade of gods, goddesses, heroes and denizens that plays like a Dean Martin roast on Mount Olympus. Even Clash of the Titans fans get a nod when Perseus makes an appearance, voiced by Harry Hamlin, who played him in the 1981 film. Too bad crossing paths with Kratos goes so predictably poorly for him.
Beyond the kinetic gameplay and occasional clever how-do-I-open-this-door? puzzle, what impresses right away is how great God of War II looks, especially for the aging PlayStation 2. While saying it looks as good as a next-gen game creeps into hyperbole, there's no question it looks far better than a game on 7-year-old hardware should. Even better are the between-level movies, which move the story forward and dazzle the viewer at the same time—one of the few games where the non-interactive parts are just as fun as the gameplay.
In the end, you're left with an incredibly full, satisfying game experience. Add a cliffhanger ending, and God of War III can't come soon enough . . . though with God of War II's collection of mythical icons and colossal (ahem) scuffles, it's hard to imagine how a sequel could top it. Then again, we'd have said the same thing after God of War, and look how wrong we'd have been.
God of War II from Sony Computer Entertainment for the PlayStation 2. ESRB Rating: M (for Mature). $49.99. Score: 9 (out of 10).