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God of War: Ghost of Sparta review: This Spartan stands tall

Randy Nelson
Randy Nelson|@@dangerpenguin|October 25, 2010 12:01 PM
The past 12 months have been very good to fans of the God of War franchise. Nearly a year ago, we got HD versions of the original PS2 game and its sequel, followed by the excellent God of War III for PS3. Then came the revelation that Ready At Dawn, developer of the knockout God of War: Chains of Olympus for PSP, was returning to the system with a brand new entry, God of War: Ghost of Sparta.

As great as Chains of Olympus had been, the idea that a portable God of War could satisfy after the epic PS3 iteration seemed, well, like it would take an act of ... gods. It's a good thing, then, that Ready At Dawn clearly drew on some otherworldly powers in creating Ghost of Sparta: a game that upholds the standard of quality in gameplay, storytelling and sheer wow factor of the series, while also -- like Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker before it -- blurring the lines between portable and console experiences with its amazing presentation.%Gallery-92258%While it's true that great graphics don't make a game, they can make an already great game better. In the case of Ghost of Sparta, a huge part of what its developer has done to squeeze such an epic experience onto such a small screen is in the way of visuals -- in this case, the best you've ever seen on a handheld. From in-engine cinematics to screen-filling beasts to making you nearly feel the heat inside of an active volcano, you will forget that you're not playing a PS2 game. If anything, this makes the first two console God of War titles look dated.

While longer than Chains of Olympus, it's obvious early on that RAD wasn't just going to add a couple more levels and some really kick-ass graphics and calling it a day. Ghost of Sparta feels like a from-the-ground-up effort, with levels, enemies and set pieces designed outside of a handheld game mindset. If I didn't know better, I'd say that the game was planned for release on consoles -- that's the scope of it. At the same time, there's no sense that the developer was too ambitious and had to cut corners or otherwise squeeze the experience onto PSP with sacrifices.

To the contrary, it shines on PSP, even with what -- for so many others -- has been a limiting set of controls with which to work. Controlling Kratos feels great: It's easy to perform attacks, evasions and unleash the power of brand-new weapons without crazy modifier buttons or the like. That, and the camera is -- no joke -- perfect, despite not being player-controlled. It's actually put to great use in creating some breathtaking moments, such as panning out for an extreme birds-eye view of Kratos against stunning backdrops.

Ghost of Sparta also succeeds at bringing some fresh gameplay concepts to the franchise. Kratos can now swing from one horizontal rope to another in a new acrobatic feat. There's the ability to grab and slam enemies to the ground for a good pummeling, the Blades of Athena can be set ablaze to break through armor and, of course, there are new weapons, including one that drains orbs from enemies. Kratos also gains a Spartan shield / spear combo that lets him move while blocking and destroy parts of the environments.

A from-the-ground-up effort, with levels, enemies and set pieces designed outside of a handheld game mindset.

Speaking of which, the settings in Ghost of Sparta are fittingly larger-than-life, from a high-and-dry Atlantis, to the volcano I mentioned, through icy mountains, the city of Sparta -- home to the series' most risque sex minigame yet -- and more. Tying it all together is a very well-paced story, set between God of War and God of War 2, that provides a glimpse at Kratos' childhood in Sparta and delves into the fate of his brother, Deimos.

If you've played a God of War game before, you can expect Ghost of Sparta to live up to your expectations -- and sometimes exceed them -- but, inevitably, there's the fact that the formula hasn't changed in any huge way. It's just really pretty, has refined combat and a more engrossing story than Chains of Olympus. If you were hoping for something really innovative, you're out of luck. If you have a PSP and haven't played it since beating Peace Walker (I can hardly blame you), it's time to get it out and charge it up. Because, while the system may be small, this game -- like the Spartans in it -- stands tall.

This review is based on a final retail version of God of War: Ghost of Sparta provided by Sony.