Written by Colin Stevens and Kevin Dunsmore
God of War has long been one of Sony Interactive Entertainment’s marquee franchises. Debuting on the PS2, Kratos’ long journey for vengeance has spanned six main titles across multiple systems. Though that journey may be over, Kratos’ story is far from it. God of War hits PS4 next week and leaves the rage-fueled Kratos of previous games behind.
Having just recently finished the newest God of War (the review of which can be found right here), it didn’t seem entirely fair to rank it so soon, so this list consists of the previous six God of War entries only. With a focus on Norse mythology and an older, more restrained Kratos, God of War seeks to chart a new course for the franchise. With the era of Greek mythology over, it’s time to look back on the previous God of War games and see how they stand up next to each other.
Warning: spoilers ahead
6) God of War: Ascension
Let’s get this out of the way – God of War: Ascension isn’t a bad game. Being the worst in a series filled with masterpieces isn’t at all an indicator for being terrible, it just makes it a disappointing outing for our tragic anti-hero. Ascension was beautiful, played well and had its own fair share of epic set pieces that most other games would kill for. Unfortunately, following the beyond epic God of War III as the next console entry in the series was no easy task and it ended up falling short of expectations by a significant degree.
God of War: Ascension acts as a prequel to the series, picking up six months after Kratos was tricked into killing his wife and daughter by Ares. Kratos finds himself imprisoned by the Furies and sentenced to be tortured for all eternity for breaking his oath with the God of War, which sets him on a journey to escape his fate. During the adventure, Kratos discovers that Ares had always planned to turn him into the perfect warrior and did so by helping Kratos defeat the barbarian army and, with some assistance from the Furies, tricked him into murdering his own family. The rest of the game follows Kratos in his rampage to kill all three of the Furies, with him eventually deciding to become the champion of the gods to get revenge on Ares.
The gameplay of God of War: Ascension is similar to that of God of War III, but with multiple tweaks to the formula. One interesting addition is the “World Weapon” system, which allows Kratos to pick up swords, clubs, javelins, slings and shields that enemies drop and use them for a limited period – if he doesn’t have a World Weapon equipped, Kratos simply uses his feet and fists in their steed. Ascension also introduced tether mechanics, where Kratos can keep an enemy at bay with one of his Blades of Chaos while he continues to attack enemies with the other. Throughout the game, Kratos obtains four magical attributes that he can imbue his Blades of Chaos with: the Fire of Ares, the Ice of Poseidon, the Lightning of Zeus and the Soul of Hades. Unfortunately, even though these gameplay additions are interesting, Ascension ultimately relied far too heavily on Quick Time Events, even when compared to past entries in the series. Encounters that would have otherwise felt epic seemed automated and the overall sense of scale the series is known for was a bit subdued. Throw in a fun but ultimately unnecessary multiplayer mode and you have the least impressive game in a legendary series.
5. God of War: Chains of Olympus
The PSP’s raw power and plethora of buttons had many PlayStation fans begging Sony for a God of War game on the handheld, and Sony didn’t disappoint. Bringing in Ready at Dawn, who had just recently released the stellar Daxter, the duo began work on what would ultimately become God of War: Chains of Olympus, a game created to humanize Kratos and justify his rage against the gods he would eventually kill by God of War III.
God of War: Chains of Olympus takes place during Kratos’ ten years of servitude to the gods. After repelling a Persian invasion, Kratos witnesses Helios being plucked from the sky, plunging the world into darkness. Sent to the Underworld to retrieve him, Kratos is haunted by his daughter, Calliope, who leads him to Hades’ wife, Persephone. Giving up his powers in order to be with his daughter in Elysium, Persephone reveals she had conspired with Atlas to destroy everything, thus freeing herself from her husband. Realizing that the only way to save his daughter is to embrace the monster he has become, Kratos reclaims his powers, kills Persephone, and chains Atlas to the world, forever cursing him to hold it up. Leaving Calliope behind, Kratos returns to his servitude.
Chains of Olympus perfectly replicated the God of War formula on a handheld. From the combat to the level design to the brutal takedowns, Ready at Dawn did Santa Monica Studios proud. The game’s ultimate claim to fame was how its story worked to humanize Kratos. By focusing on his relationship with his daughter, we get a firsthand look at how warm and kind he can be. Meanwhile, forcing us to watch him throwaway his daughter to save her helps us further understand why he hates the gods so much. Still, Chains of Olympus is not without its faults. Clocking in at only a few hours, Chains of Olympus is the shortest game in the series. Mini-games involving the thumb-stick felt awkward due to hardware limitations. Finally, the game’s visuals haven’t aged particularly well and can be quite distracting when playing the PS3 remaster. Still, God of War: Chains of Olympus was an excellent first attempt by Ready at Dawn and has a story worth experiencing at least once.
4. God of War
The game that started it all holds up surprisingly well, even though later games improved upon its base greatly. God of War introduced us to Kratos, a brutal warrior from Sparta and champion to the gods of Olympus. Everything that the series is known for holds its roots in the first God of War: an offense-oriented combat system, excessive gore, sex, profanity, epic battles and more. For its time, God of War felt like a game made specifically for adults, by adults. It became a major seller for the PlayStation 2, and remains one of its absolute best games.
God of War begins just as Kratos decides to throw himself off a cliff to end his life. The majority of the game catches us up to this moment and explains why Kratos would end it all so drastically. He was tricked by Ares into murdering his own wife and daughter, whose ashes were infused with his skin, causing endless nightmares of the event ever since. Kratos decided to serve the other gods in hopes that they could rid him of these nightmares, but after ten years he has little to show for his service. Athena promises Kratos forgiveness for his transgressions if he defeats Ares, who is in the midst of destroying the city of Athens, and after a long series of trials and tribulations, Kratos opens Pandora’s box, making him giant and godlike. Kratos proceeds to kill Ares, but the gods still refuse to take his nightmares away, so he attempts to kill himself instead, bringing the game right back to its dark beginning. Athena decides to save Kratos at the last second and give him a seat on Mount Olympus as the new God of War, setting forth a chain of events that all of the gods would soon regret.
God of War’s combat drew parallels to its hack and slash contemporary Devil May Cry. Both are heavily action-oriented, with smooth controls and a certain flare for cinematics. While these similarities remain apparent, God of War carved its own place into video game history with its fluid battles, inspired design, use of Greek mythology and a protagonist whose rage is still unparalleled. It employed simple but enjoyable puzzles, often merging its hyper-violence with mild brain teasers that balanced well with the heavy combat of the rest of the game. This pacing is something every other game in the series would have to attempt to replicate, and all managed to pull it off to varying degrees of success. Its storytelling, graphics and gameplay were at the top of its class, and though it may feel a bit simple in comparison to later games in the series, God of War remains a classic and is deserving of any gamer’s time and money.
3. God of War III
If God of War II was the Empire Strikes Back of the series (in that it took everything the first game did and simply made it better in every conceivable way), God of War III was the Return of the Jedi. It’s fun, it’s flashy, it’s got some great action and many memorable moments. Though its writing leaves a little to be desired, it serves as a great cap off to an amazing trilogy. The biggest difference here, of course, is that Luke Skywalker didn’t murder every other character in Star Wars and drag himself off a cliff into the unknown in the end.
God of War III’s story is simple: it takes place exactly where God of War II left off, with Kratos on the Titan Gaia’s back, scaling Mount Olympus to kill his dad Zeus and everyone else that gets in his way. There’s not a whole lot of deviation from this basic premise, and that’s just fine – with a game as epic as God of War III, things don’t need layers upon layers of nuance to be entertaining. Kratos ultimately kills Zeus with his bare hands and impales himself with the Blade of Olympus. This act returns hope to humanity instead of giving it to the ghost of Athena, leaving him seemingly dead in the process. Of course, a bloody trail leading off the cliff of Mount Olympus suggested Kratos was still alive, and now that the new God of War has dad-Kratos at its helm, it’s clear that he survived his descent back to the mortal world.
God of War III’s combat smartly mimics its predecessors in most every way, effectively not breaking what didn’t need fixing. Kratos’ Blades of Exile remain his bread and butter, though other weapons such as the gauntlet-like Nemean Cestus and the soul-summoning Claws of Hades balance out his repertoire nicely. The real draw of God of War III is its beyond epic set piece moments, including the opening sequence which finds Kratos scaling Gaia while Gaia is scaling Mount Olympus during an insane fight with Poseidon and his massive hippocampi (water horses with crab-like appendages). Kratos’ battle with the Titan Cronos is perhaps even more over-the-top, with its insanely massive scale and gory fingernail ripping. Even the smaller-scale encounters are memorable, like his brawl with Hercules or the drawn-out race to catch Hermes. God of War III, while not as perfectly paced or well-written as God of War II, remains an absolute titan of a game, and is undoubtedly one of the PlayStation 3’s finest exclusives.
2. God of War: Ghost of Sparta
Ready at Dawn’s first stab at the God of War franchise, Chains of Olympus, was a great addition to Kratos’ story. So, when it was announced Ready at Dawn was returning to the franchise, expectations were high. And they didn’t disappoint. God of War: Ghost of Sparta not only built on previous games, but managed to exceed them thanks to refined gameplay and a deeply personal story that added significant depth to Kratos’ character arc.
Taking place between the events of God of War and God of War II, Ghost of Sparta reveals that Kratos’ mother is still alive and being held in Atlantis. Carving a bloody trail to the aquatic city, Kratos learns that his brother, Deimos, is still alive, having been kidnapped years earlier after Zeus feared he’d be the one to end his rule. Being held by the god of death, Thanatos, Kratos enters Hades, frees his brother, and successfully kills Thanatos, but at a great cost. With Deimos and his mother dead, Kratos’ rage hits an all-time high, setting the stage for his vengeance in God of War II and III.
Much like Chains of Olympus, Ghost of Sparta goes to great lengths to humanize Kratos and justify his vendetta against Zeus. By introducing the tragic abduction of his brother, being forced to kill his mother, and having Deimos die in Kratos’ arms, the game successfully gave him a solid reason for wanting to kill Zeus. On top of the excellent story, the gameplay was heavily refined to match what we saw in God of War III, an impressive feat considering the relative lack of buttons on the PSP. Even more impressive were its visuals, which pushed the portable hardware to its limits. Even today, Ghost of Sparta stands as a technical marvel on any handheld.
1. God of War II
For a franchise like God of War that has produced so many excellent entries, deciding which one is best is a challenging feat. However, we kept coming back to God of War II, the much beloved second entry in the franchise. From gameplay improvements to a deeper story to a greater amount of overall content, God of War II shattered expectations to give players a near perfect action-adventure experience.
God of War II takes place shortly after the events of Ghost of Sparta. Angry at the gods and still plagued by nightmares, Kratos channels his rage into conquering numerous cities. Afraid of Kratos’ growing power, Zeus tricks Kratos into giving up his godly powers and proceeds to kill him. Saved by the Titan Gaia, Kratos seeks out the Sisters of Fate to return to the point Zeus killed him, gains possession of the legendary Blade of Olympus, and exacts his revenge. After fighting through the island, gaining access to the Sisters and killing them, Kratos was finally able to challenge Zeus. However, before he’s able to deal the final blow, Athena sacrifices herself, revealing that Zeus is Kratos’ father. Enraged, Kratos uses the threads of time to bring the Titans to the present and he begins his assault on Mount Olympus.
God of War II was not only a great sequel to the original game, but stands tall as the best entry in the God of War franchise. Gameplay was heavily refined to be faster and more brutal while providing exceptional variety. While the story didn’t spend too much time developing Kratos, it was still excellent with its themes of betrayal and deception. While modern pop culture (Disney’s Hercules, DC’s Wonder Woman, etc.) tend to portray the Greek gods as the good guys, God of War II flipped that on its head by giving players a darker look at these larger-than-life characters. Most importantly, God of War II provided everything a gamer could possibly want out of a God of War game. With more epic bosses, new weapons and a New Game Plus mode that let players carry over everything with no limitations, God of War II was a game players could experience as many times as they wanted. With numerous memorable moments, excellent pacing and addicting gameplay, God of War II is the best entry in this epic franchise.
God of War is out April 20 exclusively on PS4.