It's hard to imagine a better swan song for the PlayStation 2 than God of War II. Though it's not destined to be the very last game for the system, it doesn't seem likely that anything else will come along in the coming months to trump what God of War II achieves. As the sequel to 2005's megapopular action adventure set within the basic confines of Greek mythology, it continues the agonizing and rage-fueled odyssey of the world's angriest man-god, Kratos, as he goes on another epic vengeance bender. It's an altogether familiar adventure in many ways, with a lot of gameplay mechanics held over that haven't necessarily been improved in any meaningful capacity, but that's not to suggest the game isn't better overall. God of War II is a brilliantly paced, tightly crafted piece of work that's as intelligently designed as it is thrilling to play. In short, it's exactly what you would want from a sequel to God of War.
Kratos is back, and he wants to stab something.
God of War II picks up not terribly long after the original game's end (meaning if you haven't played the first game, you ought to before checking this one out, both for story continuity purposes, and because God of War is awesome), with Kratos having exacted his revenge upon the previous god of war, Ares, and assumed his role on Mount Olympus. But even with all these newfangled godly powers, Kratos is unsatisfied. He continues to command the Spartan army and directs them to tear through the known world, conquering city after city. This utter disregard for the other citizens of Greece displeases the pantheon, and Kratos suddenly finds himself on the outs with the Olympians. Betrayed by Athena and seemingly killed by Zeus, Kratos is rescued by Gaia of the Titans, the old race that the gods felled to eventually take power on Olympus. Gaia instructs Kratos that his fate can be changed, but only if he can reach the ridiculously remote temple that houses the Sisters of Fate. What follows is an epic and daunting journey that has Kratos suffering through trials that make his last outing seem like a lighthearted romp in comparison.
It's an interesting tale that God of War II tells, almost more so because so much of it is about what happens around Kratos, rather than Kratos himself. The game spends long stretches focusing on the myths and legends that surround the battles between the gods and the Titans, setting up backstory for the mess that Kratos has gotten himself involved in. In this regard, there's a bit less of an emotional connection to this game. You don't have any of those moments of personal horror as you did in the first game concerning Kratos and his savage past that led him astray--but that's OK. This isn't exactly a game that requires emotional storytelling to get by. God of War II is much more about the journey, the mythos, and the desire to just kill anything that comes within a step of your path.
Fortunately, the game gives you plenty to kill and makes it plenty fun to do so. Apart from the usual array of Cyclopes, minotaurs, and zombie warriors, there's a whole host of new characters to fight, not the least of which are several recognizable figures from Greek mythology, such as Icarus, Perseus (voiced by, of all people, Clash of the Titans' Harry Hamlin), and big-daddy Olympus himself, Zeus. Mind you, the God of War universe doesn't treat the mythology on which it's based with much regard for accuracy. This is basically Greek fan fiction, with the only real goal being to bring together as many characters from Greek mythology as possible and then provide fun ways to kill all of them. On this front, the game doesn't disappoint.
You could easily call God of War II a significantly more brutal game than the last. Though the core combat engine hasn't changed a lick, the action itself feels even more hysterically violent than before. Many of the goriest moves continue to come from context-sensitive button-pressing minigames. Larger, more powerful enemies can often be killed in some completely awesome way by wearing them down until a button icon appears above their head. From there, you press the buttons that pop up onscreen, and Kratos will, for example, yank the eye out of the head of a Cyclops or twist off the head of a medusa like a pop-top, among others. Many of the final blows delivered to the game's bosses follow the same type of formula, and not only are there more of them than in the last game, but they're even more fun to kill as well. The whole game is basically a giggle fest for violence junkies. If you aren't hooting, hollering, or standing up and slow clapping after each elaborate and barbarous kill, you've officially invested yourself in the wrong game.
The brutality has definitely been ramped up in this sequel.
With all that said, it's a bit disappointing that more wasn't done to the combat engine this time around. Kratos still looks extremely hardcore as he whips his dual blades around in every direction and murders everything in sight, but at its core, the combat feels pretty much identical to the last game, in that it's prone to button mashing and can be easygoing. That's not to suggest that the enemy fights are breezy, as there are some legitimately tough fights scattered all throughout the game, but there are times where you'll find yourself pining for a bit more depth to the combo system as you hammer on the attack buttons and find yourself making solid progress without much thought or care. Granted, that's only on the bottom two difficulty levels, and you'll more than likely find yourself in grave shape if you try that technique on the higher levels. But then again, most people won't want to put up with the fully sadistic nature of the higher difficulty levels for very long, so that's a bit of a double-edged sword, so to speak.
You do get some new combat abilities in God of War II, including new magic and weapons. Some of these are excellent, such as the earthquake magic that sends everything on the ground flying into the air and large chunks of rock flying every which way, or the giant hammer weapon that's agonizingly slow but delivers incredible damage. But like the original game, God of War II has a bit of trouble making some of these weapons and abilities consistently useful. Each time you earn a new magic, the older magic becomes irrelevant, and some magic, such as the medusa head that turns enemies to stone, is only useful for very specific segments of the game, which are pretty plainly called out. Weapons suffer from a similar fate. While they all do solid damage (especially if you upgrade them), the default dual blades that Kratos rocks from the get-go are just better all-purpose weapons and tend to be easier to use against most enemies. The one addition of real significance is a pair of flying sequences, where you board one of a couple of types of winged creatures and fly to your next destination on rails, while enemies fly in and try to kill you. These sequences don't involve much beyond swiping at bad guys that get close, periodically dash attacking them, and doing more contextual moves, but they're a nice distraction from the standard action. It's just a pity there's only two of these sequences.