The residents of Mount Olympus haven't gotten a good night's sleep since Kratos moved in. Not only is the new god of war a grumpy, self-professed god-hater, he got the throne by killing Ares, something that naturally makes the other gods a little . . . jumpy. It's not long before Zeus -- who presumably can't stomach sharing a bathroom with the deicidal maniac a moment longer -- decides to do something about it.
So begins God of War II -- and what a beginning it is: Kratos is tricked into giving up his immortal powers while locked in combat with a Wonder of the Ancient World, the Colossus of Rhodes. Brought to life by Athena, the 100-foot bronze statue immediately sets about trying to squash Kratos, forcing the antihero to hack into the monstrosity and smash its scaffolding from the inside.
It's spectacular, exciting, inspired -- and all in the first 10 minutes. It also sets the bar high for the rest of the game -- a ballsy move on the part of the designers. But amazingly, God of War II manages to make good on the promise, ending up not only better than the original, but one of the best PlayStation 2 games, period.
For the uninitiated, the God of War series can be shorthanded as "Clash of the Titans reimagined by the weird kid in study hall who wore black T-shirts and drew heavy-metal album covers in his spiral notebook." The monsters are hideous, the hero lethal, and the women regularly topless; mix in several thousand gallons of blood and gore, and you have a pretty clear picture of what's up. Like Kratos, God of War II isn't smart or subtle. It's a game where you go to fantastic places, meet fearsome enemies, and chop them to pieces in a quest for revenge against Zeus himself. And on that level, it works beautifully.
Just as in the first version, the game makes good use of the mythological playground. But while the original drew on Greek mythology here and there, God of War II is overflowing with recognizable figures: nonstop walk-ons by gods, goddesses, heroes, and denizens that play like a Dean Martin roast on Mount Olympus. Even Clash of the Titans fans get a nod: Perseus is voiced by Harry Hamlin, who played him in the 1981 film. (Too bad his run-in with Kratos goes so poorly for him.)
Beyond the kinetic game play and the occasional how-do-I-open-this-door? puzzle, what impresses right away is how great God of War II looks -- especially for the aging PlayStation 2. Saying it looks as good as a next-gen game borders on hyperbole, but there's no question it looks far better than a game on seven-year-old hardware should. Even better are the between-level movies, which move the story forward in dazzling fashion; this is one of the few games where the noninteractive parts are just as fun as the game play.
What you're left with is an incredibly satisfying game. Add a cliff-hanger ending, and God of War III can't come soon enough . . . though with God of War II's collection of mythical icons and (ahem) colossal scuffles, it's hard to imagine how a sequel could top it. Then again, we'd have said the same thing after God of War, and look how wrong we'd have been.