Game journalists love their shorthand when it comes to describing games. Take the classic example of “X game meets Y game.” Fallout meets Marble Madness, Fable meets R-Type, Railroad Tycoon meets Gears of War … you get the idea. The fact is, game experiences have grown exponentially in complexity – a single AAA title may employ wildly different kinds of gameplay to keep players on their toes and engaged. And without being able to reference the touchstones of our shared gaming past, describing these experiences becomes unwieldy. Brevity is the soul of … well, if not necessarily wit, then at least readability.
But a curious thing has happened with God of War and the brawler genre: It’s pretty much taken over. Instead of the more egalitarian “God of War meets 14th-century Italian literature,” we resort to the much simpler (and somehow more descriptive) “like God of War, but with unbaptized babies instead of harpies.” God of War has become the Platonic ideal of the brawler, a game that so perfectly captures the essence of this style of gameplay that other titles can’t help but suffer by comparison (that perfunctory “but” implying that your game is not God of War, no matter how hard it tries to be.)
How did this happen? After all, we’ve watched developers create new iterations of pretty much the same first-person shooter for the last 15 years, but no single title or series has risen up to claim the title of “FPS Archetype.” And while Gears of War may have at one point had the entire genre of third-person, cover-based shooters within its grasp, it stopped just short of total domination. (You wouldn’t call Uncharted 2 “like Gears of War, but with puzzles, platforming and wittier banter,” would you?) It’s not enough to be the best at one thing, it would seem, because “almost as good at two things” is worth just as much.
No, God of War set the standard for third-person brawlers because it found nearly perfect solutions to the problems that traditionally plague other games in this genre, and in doing so delivered an experience that didn’t feel like the sum of its constituents (“combat meets puzzle-solving meets Greek mythology”) but rather a cohesive experience.
Let’s start with the combat, perhaps the most potentially game-breaking aspect of any third-person brawler. Lesser games falter in this department because they’re unable to nail the “feel” of the action: either moves don’t flow seamlessly into one another, the game doesn’t offer players meaningful choices on how to dictate the pace of the battle or there’s so much going on that fights become impossible to parse and you have no idea why you won or lost. God of War‘s signature weapon, the Chaos Blades, neatly resolve these issues in one fell swoop. They’re perhaps the most flow-inducing weapon ever featured in a videogame – watching the incandescent blades swirl about the screen is a visual feast on par with many rave toys. While many games employ the “light horizontal/strong vertical” attack mechanic, the Chaos Blades’ sweeping, exaggerated sideswipes and volcanic power moves distill this gameplay down to its most straightforward and intelligible form. And because the Blades let you attack from a considerable distance, you rarely feel swarmed by your opponents, and it’s much harder to temporarily lose yourself in the action as a result.
Just as critical to players’ enjoyment is a brawler’s camera system. It’s something of an Achilles’ heel of the genre; plenty of reviewers have fallen in love with a brawler’s setting, story and gameplay, only to dock points from the final score because the camera didn’t cooperate. God of War‘s solution is deceptively complex. First, it took control of the camera away from the player. This is something of an “all or nothing” gamble: If players ever want to move the camera to allow them to look in a certain direction but find themselves unable to, the game is effectively broken. But God of War‘s level design avoided this scenario by perfectly laying out each room in such a way that players rarely even realize there is a camera. It’s an incredibly intuitive and, dare I say, cinematic approach to level design, and it even frees up a second analog stick for dodge maneuvers as a bonus.
And finally, there’s the setting. After 25 years of aliens and assault rifles, gamers have become a pretty jaded bunch, and an overwhelming feeling of “been there, done that” can set in within minutes if a game isn’t careful to distinguish itself. But God of War repurposed Greek mythology so effectively that it really does feel like something wholly distinct from all the other pseudo-historical action games out there. The designers were so committed to this vision of ancient Greece, integrating it into every aspect of its world and enemy design, that the final product feels a bit like the videogame equivalent of a concept album. And perhaps because of the mythologies’ built-in mixture of godly power and human drama, the designers found a way of imbuing the game with an epic scale that actually made sense within the confines of the story.
It’s conceivable that some other game may, at some point, rise up and take the title belt from Santa Monica Studio – after all, Double Dragon once had a stranglehold on the 8-bit brawler, despite plenty of worthy contenders. But I can’t imagine what the game will look like. Will it establish motion control as the de facto input method? Will it feature fully 3-D environments that track with your head movements? Will it place players in a world, holodeck-style, and let them explore it at their whim? I can’t speculate what the next 20 years of innovation will bring. In the meantime, however, I’m OK with God of War – and if other games aspire to be “like it, but different,” I hope they’re satisfied with second place.
Jordan Deam hopes to one day become the archetype for editors on exercise balls everywhere.