Fans of Sparta and blood-soaked combat, the real March madness has arrived.
If watching "300's" King Leonidas cut through thousands of Persian warriors didn't satiate your desire for hyper-violent swords-and-sandals action, then surely Sony's "God of War II" ($49.99) will have you pushing back from the table feeling quite full.
The sequel to 2005's mega-smash actioner is the unofficial swan song for the long-in-the-tooth PlayStation 2, but no retiring console could ask for a better send-off. This is button-busting action gaming at its finest and proof positive that you don't need a zillion polygons to create a compelling opus.
Anti-hero Kratos comes off his Olympian throne at the beginning of "God of War II" when an out of control ego gets the better of him. As punishment, he is tricked into giving up all of the powers gamers earned by the end of the first installment. It's a hoary plot device to set up a sequel, but since the quest to regain those powers is so thrilling, it isn't as detrimental as you fear when it first happens.
From the very first frame of animation, "God of War II" is pure testosterone-driven game play. The first sequence is a tutorial-in-disguise, positioning Kratos against nothing short of the fabled Colossus of Rhodes brought to life. Unlike the deadly first hour of "The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess" on the Nintendo Wii, this how-to-play sequence sets the tone for all to come. And what's coming? How about flights atop Pegasus? Or perhaps showdowns with some of the best creatures from Greek mythology, such as Cerberus, a Euryale (sister of Medusa), and the very model of modern hubris, Icarus?
Between these massive encounters that occur with greater frequency than in the first game (which proves Sony was listening to fans), Kratos will cut, rip, and tear apart thousands of soldiers and monsters with his chain swords. These weapons are as deadly as they are artful. With quick button combos, Kratos transforms from a really angry dude to an incredible acrobat. At no point does the game devolve into a brainless button-masher, though, as there are some expert puzzles that give your thumbs a suitable cool down period before the next blood-letting.
It's very important to underline the absolute sheer amount of violence in "God of War II." This game is M-rated to the core. But like the first "God of War" — and unlike the number of urban—thug dramas that followed in the wake of "Grand Theft Auto" — the violence exists to serve the story. This chronicles a period of mythology full of hard brutality and had Sony pulled back back on Kratos' ability to give better than he gets, the effect would have been disingenuous.
"God of War II" features stunning art direction, proving that you don't need the horsepower of a next-gen console to create a visually arresting game. The character and environment design, coupled with a brilliant use of color, form a universe that you'll never grow tired of.
The voice work is also strong, thanks to TC Carlson's growling Kratos and some inspired casting, including Harry Hamlin revisiting his role of Perseus from "Clash of the Titans."
The biggest complaint that could possibly be leveled at "God of War II" is that it's only a marginal improvement on the original game. However, the first game correctly knew not to overstay its welcome. When "God of War" finally ended at the ten-hour mark, you felt like you were just getting warmed up. You wanted more time with Kratos. But even after another ten hours of "God of War II," this madman of vengeance still knows how and when to make his exit. And so, to some degree, does the PlayStation 2 along with him.