Games 3/19/08: God of War: Chains of Olympus, Turning Point: Fall of Liberty

God of War: Chains of Olympus
For: Sony PSP
From: Ready at Dawn Studios/Sony
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, nudity, sexual content)

There was never any real doubt that “God of War: Chains of Olympus” would be good. This is, after all, the portable debut of Sony’s premier action franchise. And if developer Ready at Dawn Studios’ work on “Daxter” is any indication, few studios are as capable of shrinking down Sony’s prized properties as the one tasked with bringing the mighty Kratos to the small screen.

But even with those expectations in play from the outset, it remains rather shocking how impressive “Olympus” is in its finished form. Ready at Dawn didn’t simply make a good interpretation of “God of War.” It made the genuine article.

Reports that “Olympus” is indistinguishable from its PS2 counterparts is a bit exaggerated. The graphics feature some jagged edges not found in those games, and while the framerate is fantastically stable, it only rarely approaches the level of perfection those games could handle without breaking a sweat.

But that pretty much is it for the divergences. Aside from those ultimately insubstantial issues, “Olympus” is “God of War,” verbatim, on a handheld. All things wonderful about the PS2 games — the incredible combo system, bounty of combat maneuvers, epic boss encounters and a so-well-tuned-that-you-take-it-for-granted balance between puzzle-solving and button mashing combat — make their way to the PSP without compromise.

In fact, if there’s a legitimate gripe with “Olympus,” it’s that it’s a little too faithful. Ready at Dawn throws in a cool new weapon in the late stages of the game, and the story — a prequel of sorts to the original game — provides some fun insight into Kratos’ come to being. But beyond that and some of the boss fights, much of what you see in “Olympus” will look some degree of familiar if you’ve played the other games. That’s not necessarily a terrible thing, but some will take umbrage with the game’s refusal to take risks in the hands of a new developer.

Also, “Olympus” is short. You can topple it in no more than five hours, and beyond a few harder difficulty settings and a smattering of arena challenges, there isn’t much in the way of other content to explore.

On the flip side, “Olympus” also is one of those games that easily commands replaying on the simple basis that it’s just that much fun. That’s been a hallmark of the series since the beginning, and given how brilliantly “Olympus” keeps up, it’s hardly an exception.

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Turning Point: Fall of Liberty
For: Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and PC
From: Spark Unlimited/Codemasters
ESRB Rating: Teen (language, violence)

“Turning Point: Fall of Liberty” kicks off its rewriting of history with a real head-scratcher: What if Winston Churchill had been killed in 1931 by that taxi that struck him in New York City? Would the Allies ultimately have lost World War II, and would the White House be draped in Nazi red?

Unfortunately, this little “what if?” isn’t just “Liberty’s” first moment, but its finest as well. The game hands the controls to you, and a stiff downhill tumble follows shortly after.

The problem is that, while “Liberty’s” story takes place in 1953, its gameplay comes from around 1998 or so. Enemy intelligence is barely there, with Nazis recklessly bum-rushing you or standing perfectly in place, ready to eat your bullets either way. Sometimes they even spawn out of thin air, only to disappear just as quickly when killed. They’ll readily throw grenades at you, even if you’re only a few feet away. That’s fine, though, because explosives only sometimes kill enemies.

Technically, the game fares little better. Clipping problems are humorously rampant, framerate drops not-so-humorously frequent. Animation is choppy, sometimes to the point where soldiers randomly warp a few feet. None of it is justified, either: “Liberty” looks no better, and often looks worse, than your average first-generation Xbox 360 game.

Even when “Liberty” does something different, bad code undoes it. The ability to melee enemies and use them as human shields is very cool, and the game occasionally allows you to dispatch enemies creatively using environmental kills. Unfortunately, “Liberty” has serious trouble with context recognition. Unless you’re positioned perfectly in front of a soldier, the melee option doesn’t appear. And without a general-use melee button to save you in a pinch, that often means you’ll die simply because the game failed you. That’s especially annoying when you’re in one of the portions of “Liberty” where the developers seemingly forgot to include checkpoints.

In the end, none of it is worth it, because “Liberty” barely expands on the intrigue brought forth by that original question. A few cool set pieces aside, the game could take place in almost any universe, and the mid-mission cutscenes do little to form a relationship between players and the average Joe-turned-one-man army they control.

With a decent storyline stripped away, “Liberty” becomes just another first-person shooter for three systems already bursting with them. Stripped of everything else it should have but doesn’t, it’s also impossible to recommend even as a curious rental.