Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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New England Gamer
December 2010

Crying Over Spilled Milk

The first time I played God of War, I burned through it in a weekend. It was just that good, and while God of War II and III would both suffer from plot and pacing problems, they too were games that would earn my devotion through their quality. God of War: Chains of Olympus would do the same, proving the PSP was a viable platform for top tier action games. The most recent game in the franchise though, God of War: Ghost of Sparta, has me convinced that it may be time for everyone's favorite butcher of Greek mythology to go down for a nap.

To be sure, Ghost of Sparta is in many ways an exemplary game. Like Chains of Olympus, it plays like a dream. It's also gorgeous to look at. Having played a number of games on the platform, I'd feel confident in saying there isn't another game that looks better on the PSP. The whole experience is just silky smooth. Even so, the game falls short simply because the developers did nothing with the game that hasn't been done in previous entries in the franchise.

Which shouldn't have been much of a problem. Every God of War since the original has in some sense been something of a rehash of what's come before, following a fairly by-the-numbers routine of hacking, slashing and ritual decapitation. They all open with an epic boss fight, followed by main character Kratos getting angry at something and ending with his tearing that something limb from limb.

This has worked well in the past because behind all that sameness has been a sturdy foundation of emotional resonance. Kratos' motivations have always been broad and clear. He was tricked into killing his family by the gods and hates himself for his role in that, and desires more than anything else to enact vengeance on the deities that manipulated him. While it may be hard to empathize with Kratos' drive to kill anything that steps in his path, it's easy to understand feeling guilty and wanting to get someone back for something they've done to you.

In God of War I, II, and III his rage is so great that it's utterly believable that he'd go as far as he does to bring down Olympus. Moreover, considering his strong feelings of guilt, the player can easily fall into the story in Chains of Olympus, where Kratos is pursuing what may be his last chance to reunite with the daughter he killed. Ghost of Sparta comparatively follows Kratos' quest to rescue his brother Deimos, a character only hinted at during the course of the God of War games. The entire story is essentially squeezed from a few fleeting lines scattered across the franchise. His sudden desire to rescue this long lost brother feels almost entirely detached from the rest of the series, and in turn Ghost of Sparta feels unnecessary. Finishing the game, the word "milk" came to mind.

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The milking of long running video game franchises has sadly become something of a standard for the video game industry. It's not much of mystery why. Established franchises are very valuable from a fiscal standpoint. They already have a built-in fan base, and moreover have an established world and gameplay mechanics for developers to build on. New properties comparatively represent a huge risk. They have to prove themselves viable in a world where quality doesn't always guarantee success and if they fail then all money spent making the game great amounts to a waste. Being a for-profit business, it only makes sense that publishers and developers would seek out an assured pay day over a possible flop.

Now, there is no arguing that publishers and developers shouldt make money off of what they do; it's when that money becomes the sole purpose of a game though, it becomes a problem. Consider the Call of Duty games. Now I'll admit, I enjoyed Call of Duty 4. It was a fun weekend rental that did some really cool things with its narrative. That said, I often wonder if the Call of Duty franchise might have been better off had the game never been released. Its profitability arguably led to Activision's current practice of churning out a near annual procession of sequels and spin offs, each a bit more derivative then the last. And while the most recent release in the franchise, Call of Duty: Black Ops was by no means bad, it was easily the most heavily criticized entry in a long time. It may have sold a bajillion copies, but it may also represent a step back toward the mediocrity that Call of Duty 4 broke free from.

Activision and Call of Duty aren't the only ones guilty of this trend. The fortunes of the Xbox 360 often rise and fall entirely with the current status of the Halo games, and as such Microsoft has released one almost every year of this generation. Square Enix released countless spin-offs and remakes in the five years it took to make Final Fantasy XIII, most of them lackluster. Imagine how much better that game, or for that matter the disastrous Final Fantasy XIV, might have been if the resources and talent squandered on its spin-offs had been turned back toward the main line games.

Now generally speaking, I am a fan of sequels. More of a good thing is still a good thing, right? Even so, if you eat too much ice cream it's going to give you a headache no matter how good it tastes. Sequels on their own aren't a bad thing, and God of War: Ghost of Sparta is by no means a bad game. To say it was made for the sole purpose of making a quick buck might be saying too much too soon. That said, I'd say the God of War games have the reached their peak, and in turn may have reached the point where their creators should stop and give the franchise a chance to breathe. To do otherwise, to push forward with sequel after unnecessary sequel would serve only to lessen the greatness the series has always achieved.

Because consumers aren't stupid, and you can only sell the same thing so many times before someone else swoops in and offers something different and better. Games like Call of Duty might be on top now but the day will come, sooner rather than later, that the success they've enjoyed is no longer sustainable. And when that day passes all that will be left is a husk struggling to reclaim what it once had, but held back by a reputation of mediocrity that might have been avoided had its creators only been smart enough not to milk the cow dry.

Read more by Stewart Shearer

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