Playing as an antihero in a videogame is nothing new, but 2005's God of War was, for many, the first time they'd been asked to play an outright villain. Protagonist Kratos never made the “right” decisions, always disposing of his enemies in the cruelest ways imaginable and murdering anyone who wasn't of immediate use to him. Still, he turned out to be one of the most compelling characters we'd ever played as, so we couldn't help rooting for him as he went from being a tormented madman to being a tormented madman who was also the Greek god of war.
Of course, it also didn't hurt that the slash 'em-up he starred in was one of the most balls-out fun games on PS2, enabling players to easily and spectacularly carve up legions of nasty-looking monsters with a sublime, superhuman grace. God of War II takes everything that made that experience great and pumps it full of methamphetamine and steroids, with Kratos once again charging headlong into ridiculously dangerous settings to angrily tear apart everything he meets. The action is just as brutally satisfying as before, as Kratos uses Athena's Blades - a whiplike pair of scimitars on chains - to slice dramatic, rage-fueled arcs through hordes of enemies. And this time, there's a whole lot more of it and it rarely lets up for long.
At the same time, the game still manages to strike a perfect balance between furious action, clever environmental puzzles and awesome interactive cinemas (which range from elaborate, usually violent set pieces to simpler, hit-the-buttons-on-cue fatalities), keeping players riveted with a constant stream of new stuff. And it's all driven by a superb story that has Kratos stomping, slashing and leaping through mythological horrors to gain an audience with the three Sisters of Fate.
The obvious question for fans is, where does Kratos go from here, now that he's a god? He goes where every other powered-up videogame character does at the start of a new adventure: square one. As God of War II opens, you'll get to play as godly Kratos for a little while, but don't get used to it. Before long, something terrible happens that leaves him stripped of his powers and technically dead, and his only chance for salvation is to visit the Fates and convince them to change his destiny.
The Sisters aren't easy to get an audience with, either, so Kratos will have to contend with an army of creatures that range from stunted, Cyclops-riding satyrs to mammoth Titans so huge that entire levels are built around their bodies.
Because a powered-down ex-god isn't quite going to cut it against odds like that, the game grants Kratos new, upgradeable powers and weapons almost constantly. Some of these - like the new hammer and spear Kratos will get to lug around - are unremarkable, while others - like the artifacts that enable him to slow time, toss back projectiles or even fly - are a lot of fun.
Then there are the new spells Kratos will earn, which enable him to do stuff like chain together bursts of foe-stunning lightning, or stomp the ground to start an earthquake - complete with a storm of red-hot boulders, once it's upgraded. You'll be able to easily access all these powers on the fly, which is great, because you'll need to whip them out frequently, whether it's to stun a boss or just slow down a giant rock-crusher so that you can run through it.
While the game is insanely demanding - especially the first time through - it's also pretty forgiving in terms of not dicking you over when you die. Checkpoints are plentiful, and if you get killed, you're almost guaranteed to come back just before the point that gave you trouble. The puzzles are also fairly lenient, as they're designed to be slammed through quickly. Some of them are pretty clever, and the solutions aren't usually obvious, but if you've explored your environment and know how things work, you should be able to figure them out pretty fast.
One thing that isn't forgiving is the actual combat. It might be button-mashy and quick, and your combos might have devastating effects on your enemies, but they'll keep coming fast and they'll mob you if they get the chance. And in the rare instances when Kratos actually has to protect someone else, they'll often ignore you and go straight for the weaker target. Strangely, though, the fights never really feel like too heavy a challenge; like so much else in this game, their length and difficulty feel perfectly balanced. They're also relentlessly satisfying and gruesome, particularly when you're tugging the eye out of a Cyclops, or straddling a minotaur and stabbing him in the mouth.
If you like a game that beats you down, however, God of War II is happy to oblige. There's a face-smashing Titan mode to play through after you've finished the game once, and if you want a shorter humiliation, you can tackle the Challenge of the Titans mode. Meant to prolong the challenge for experienced players, it sets you to short, seemingly impossible tasks, like air-juggling 10 enemies to death in under a minute.
Visually, God of War II is even prettier than its stunning predecessor, featuring huge, beautifully detailed environments filled with cool little touches like dust motes that dance around in beams of light. In fact, when the game's running on an HDTV at 480p, it's hard to believe that you're looking at a last-gen game at all. That's even more impressive when you consider that the aging PS2 hardware frequently choked on the first game's lavish visuals, but rarely has trouble here.