God of War: Ghost of Sparta
For: Playstation Portable
From: Ready at Dawn/Santa
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood
and gore, intense
violence, nudity, sexual
By Billy O'Keefe
This is the third "God of War" game to release in less than three years. If you count last year's rerelease of the first two games, it's the fifth.
It's little surprise, then, that most of "Ghost of Sparta" feels pretty familiar. A few new ideas aside, Kratos' latest adventure overwhelmingly follows the template established by his previous escapades: There's a ton of melee combat against the usual minions, some multi-level boss fights against gods and monsters, a few environmental puzzles and platforming challenges to break up the pace, and a dash of new insight into the mental makeup of gaming's angriest protagonist.
At its worst, "Sparta" treads beyond familiarity into outright predictability. Players with legs in the series will know almost psychically when the game is about to switch gears, and even little details like the locations of secret treasure chests are so predictable as to feel automatic when found. Familiar enemies with familiar attack patterns make repeat appearances, and the patterns in which larger non-boss enemies appear — by themselves the first time players see them, and in pairs and eventually sets later on — is customary at this point.
All of this should be a bigger problem than it is, and it is a shame that a developer as talented as Ready at Dawn doesn't just completely flip the script and try something wildly different.
But all of this would be a bigger problem than it is if "Sparta," like its series cousins, didn't do what it does so ridiculously well. The first "God of War" ignited a train of imitators that's still rolling strong six years later, but no protagonist in any of those games controls as perfectly as Kratos does, nor do any of them possess an arsenal or a default weapon that's anywhere near as devastating or versatile as the Blades of Chaos. All of that carries over without issue to the PSP, and "Sparta," which might be the prettiest portable game ever made, satiates the series' enormous appetite for scale without breaking a sweat.
Furthermore, while "God of War III" looked understandably prettier on the PS3, "Sparta" arguably trumps it elsewhere, mixing gameplay styles at a better pace than that game did. "Sparta's" puzzles feel just right in terms of length, scope and difficulty, the platforming challenges are far more intuitively designed, and one of the game's new ideas _ a handful of breakneck chase sequences that, sadly, pop up only occasionally _ is also responsible for some of its best moments.
Though not by much, "Sparta" also outdoes its big-screen counterpart in the area of storytelling. The story sets itself in between the first two games, introduces players to Kratos' brother, and allows us to delve deeper into Kratos' familial backstory without daring us to detest him the way "GOW3" did. The introduction of Kratos' brother also makes possible another new gameplay wrinkle, but because it's story-dependent and shows up near the end of that story, the specifics of that wrinkle not be spoiled here.
(c) 2010, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.