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Game Review: God of War ***(Out of four)

Rated: M (for Mature)

Platform: PlayStation 2

Developer: SCEA Santa Monica

Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment America Inc.

"God of War" is an impressive game -- not so much because of what it does right, but simply in its ability to do so much wrong and get away with it.

Kratos, the game's protagonist, is a prime example. He's your typical brooding anti-hero, complete with Mysterious Past, and improbably sculpted facial hair. A lesser title may have left him at that -- an empty husk of gaming cliche -- but here, the writers keep at him until they've attained a satisfying level of depth. This isn't to say that I warmed up to Kratos as the game progressed, but I did come to understand him as a character, and found myself looking forward to the game's cut-scenes, which, little by little, revealed his past and drew me into the story.

The game opens with Kratos standing atop Mount Olympus. Claiming to have been abandoned by the gods, he steps over the edge. As he plummets toward the rocks below, a narrator tells of the nightmares that have plagued him for years; death is to be his escape from madness.

Just as Kratos nears the end of his fall, the camera whisks us back three weeks earlier; Ares, the god of war, has launched an attack on Athens, and, as Zeus has forbidden the gods from waging war on each other, Athena asks Kratos to perform the seemingly impossible task of killing the god.

The gameplay of "God of War" is derivative of other 3D brawlers that incorporate platforming and puzzle elements, but it does manage to refine a few things in the process. One nice touch is the addition of context-sensitive moves that can be executed by following various button prompts that sometimes appear over the enemy Kratos is attacking. These moves are often quite intuitive, like when the player finds themselves rotating the left analogue stick back and forth as a means of twisting Medusa's head off (don't worry -- you put it to good use later), or when they're hammering on a button in an attempt to prevent from being crushed within the jaws of a giant hydra.

I also enjoyed some of the more unique locations as well; having to take on hordes of enemies while hanging from a rope was refreshingly stressful, and balancing across a thin beam of wood while hopping over giant saw blades was a lot more fun than it sounds.

But there were also a handful of sections that absolutely crushed the game's pacing, where a simple mistake resulted in having to reattempt the entire section from scratch. That the skills expected of the player aren't really otherwise relevant to the core gameplay make these parts especially infuriating.

Aside from that, its lack of originality, and the fact that it isn't quite as raw and visceral as it probably wants to be, "God of War" remains a thoroughly enjoyable game. Given its lack of replay value, however, it's also pretty short. Most people will be able to plow through this one in a couple days, and won't really have too many reasons to come back to it. My advice: rent it, savor it for a week, and move on.