"Ranking the God of War Saga"

One thing that usually defines PlayStation versus its competitors is how, more often than not, they are willing to leave behind some of their most successful IP from years past in order to try something new. Obviously it's not 100% their approach, as there are still some franchises that date back to the original PlayStation that are still alive today. Franchises like Gran Turismo, Ratchet & Clank and more importantly, God of War. 

The lifespan for the God of War franchise has been fascinating to follow. Originally released during spring 2005 at the tail end of the PlayStation 2 generation, the original God of War initially raised the bar for what was possible in combo based action games. Showing a level of scale previously unseen in gaming, an incredibly easy to use/incredibly addicting combat system paired with unflinching brutality, God of War absolutely left a mark in PlayStation history, cementing protagonist Kratos as one of the brand's most recognizable mascots, and becoming one of THE franchises people would seek out a PlayStation console for.

However, by the time the series saw the release of the prequel "God of War Ascension" in 2013 (the sixth core main game released across PlayStation 2, the PSP and the PlayStation 3), and saw a decline in sales and critical reception, there were serious talks about the once venerable franchise running its course, and joining old PlayStation IP in the graveyard as the brand would seek newer, fresher IP (like seen with The Last of Us released the same year Ascension dropped). Flashforward 5 years later to the PlayStation 4 generation, with the release of the reimagined God of War from 2018 sporting a different look, feel and mythology (and raking dozens and dozens of Game of the Year awards and huge sales numbers) the God of War franchise is still alive and kicking, more relevant and reinvigorated as it moves to the release of the next official entry, "God of War: Ragnarok", coming later this year.

To celebrate the occasion, I went back and replayed every single God of War game released in the main systems (ignoring the one mobile offshoot due to not being able to acquire it), and from a fresh 2022 perspective, I'm ranking them all from the original all the way to the reimagining from 2018. Having replayed them all, I stand of the opinion all the entries are pretty great for what they were going for, with obviously some entries standing the test of time better than others. I was sorta surprised where I landed with some of these compared to how I felt about them when originally released, but that's the fun of hindsight and age. 

So here it is, my ranking of the God of War franchise in 2022!

7. God of War 3

So I'm starting the list with probably one of the most controversial picks, but I have my reasons. 

There is absolutely no denying how important the release of "God of War 3" was for the PlayStation 3 at the time. After the system finally gained some momentum thanks to a great year of releases in 2009 (which included Killzone 2, Infamous, Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack in Time culminating with the release of the critically acclaimed Uncharted 2: Among Thieves), 2010 was finally going to unleash the one game many people were holding off to buy a PlayStation 3 for. On March 16, 2010, fans finally got to witness the conclusion to the trilogy for a franchise that so strongly defined the tail end of the PlayStation 2, which left off on an agonizing cliffhanger. 

Even today, the most impressive thing about God of War 3 is how visually stunning it was for something released on the PlayStation 3. A system so battered by its brutal development tools, God of War 3 paired with Uncharted 2 delivered on the potential of Sony's much maligned third console, and the level of scale and detail seen in sequences like the Titan climb of Olympus that kicks off the game, to the fight with the titan Cronos in the final third of the game, there is no denying what an incredible visual achievement Sony Santa Monica wrung out of their first PlayStation 3 entry. And with the gameplay maintaining the series' signature tight gameplay, there was plenty here to make GOW fans happy.

So why is it at the bottom of the list?

The highs of God of War 3 are so incredibly high, people tend to forget in between those high moments, we have probably the most unevenly paced God of War entry of the Greek era, where big moments of spectacle and grandeur are followed by yawning gaps in uninspired looking environments with relatively pedestrian gameplay moments. Because the game is entirely set up and down Mt. Olympus, this entry turns out to be a surprisingly low-scale affair despite the huge scale it presents itself as. With the story just basically being a repeat of God of War 2, some of the elements introduced here (like Athena's hidden powers and the hidden corruption of the gods), seems like unnecessary rug pulling that overcomplicates the game's basic revenge tale. And with Kratos being at his most violent and unlikable (paired with the game's insanely detailed graphics engine pushing the violence as far as it can go), maiming gods in such violent, gory fashion (the less said about the moment with Poseidon's princess, the better), the story's final attempt at trying to humanize him fall incredibly flat despite that attempt. 

Enough of what makes the early God of War entries great is still represented here that fans of the franchise would still find a good time with God of War 3, and years later its spectacle remains quite the sight to see even in 2022. However, the more pronounced issues in between its epic moments, and a depiction of violence that doesn't play as well in the more sensitive times we live in, makes God of War 3 a game I still like but have a tough time recommending to people nowadays. Call me a wuss for growing up or feeling more sensitive about things, but these are the things that made me enjoy this entry way less this time around than back then. 

6. God of War Ascension

Yes, I know God of War Ascension's critical and commercial reception is what basically put this style of God of War game on ice and sent Sony Santa Monica in its five-year long journey to reimagine the series on the PlayStation 3. Yes, there are some major design choices made in this game that made it clear the studio was in the "let's complicate things that used to be simple in prior entries" phase of the franchise. Yes, I know the story is so simple as to be almost inconsequential. Yes, I know that the game doesn't have the slap in your face spectacle that defined God of War 3.

And yes, I found myself enjoying my replay of this game more than I did God of War 3.

As you can see, I'm going to find myself being an Ascension apologist, because frankly, replaying this, even with some of the choices made, I don't feel this game is that massive a stepdown in quality as the other franchise entries. If anything, I would argue God of War Ascension is both a victim of timing and circumstance. It being the sixth officially released entry in the franchise (which include the trilogy spanning the PS2 and PS3, and the two PSP games by Ready at Dawn) sporting the same kind of gameplay, of course the critic and fan community would start feeling burnt out on the well worn formula. It being a prequel released after both PSP games sported some pretty important backstory about Kratos left this console prequel with not much material to work with. And to throw an extra cherry on top, the mythology tapped here with the Furies and the Hecatoncheries was a clear sign that the Greek mythology well had dried up, and 2018's reimagining going the way it went was the clear sign it was the right next step for the franchise.

At the same time, despite these things you can easily knock Ascension for, I feel SSM doesn't get enough credit for some of the things they did well with this installment. Even with some of the complication added with the new rage meter necessary to pull off combos and the switch to L1 + X necessary to do parrying, the combat system in this game I feel got so much added layers to it, it actually justifies why they don't give you another official weapon like other entries. Imbuing your Blades of Chaos with the different elements adds that extra layer of versatility that shines well once you master the combat. Some of the puzzles here (a staple in the God of War franchise) got spruced up with the time manipulation mechanic lifted straight out of the Raven Software developed shooter "Singularity". Not to mention SSM continued showing their mastery of the PlayStation 3 hardware, with the visual variety in display that harkens back to the adventurous feel of the much more beloved "God of War 2". I stand by Ascension getting a little too much hate for its own good.

Yes, "the law of diminishing returns" definitely hit this entry hard, and additions like the multiplayer side made it clear SSM was aware they needed to try new things to reinvigorate the franchise. While they definitely hit gold with what came after, I still say Ascension despite its problems is still a really good time, and while still visually gruesome thanks to its advanced graphics engine, I didn't find it as "in your face" brutal like I did God of War 3. Depending on the time of day if you were to ask me, both 3 and Ascension are interchangeable in my mind where I may find myself recommending one over the other. It's only this time where I found myself having more fun with this one than I did 3, even though 3's impact to the PlayStation 3 is more important, and its highs are definitely higher. If you're curious and don't have a PlayStation 3 around you anymore, give them a whirl with the PS Plus Premium tier. 

5. God of War: Chains of Olympus

If you were to be completely oblivious about who develops certain games, you can definitely look at God of War: Chains of Olympus (both on its original PSP release and it's remastered version on the God of War: Origins Collection on PlayStation 3) and absolutely think that Sony Santa Monica delivered a relatively smaller game with the TLC of their first two God of War games. That's how good the work developer Ready at Dawn managed to do in bringing Kratos over to Sony's relatively successful handheld, bringing so much of the gameplay intact, while at the same time doing some controller concessions that ended up working really well and at times better than the main console counterpart (I stand by the decision of dodging with the shoulder buttons feeling slightly better than just right stick dodging because it helps not remove your finger from the attack buttons). 

While the story told here is pretty simple, in a relatively brief fashion we start getting slightly more context for Kratos' drive in the later games, and just how big his desire is to reunite with a family that died all by his own fault. Moments like visiting the relatively peaceful land of Elysium and seeing him reunite with his daughter Caliope before being forced to shun her away to save a world he believes doesn't deserve saving adds extra complicated layers to his character, and sorta justifies his excessive anger that boils over in the later games in the timeline. And while still relatively small scale in nature compared to its console brethren, some of the locales shown here and the level of scale they were shown still remain impressive for a game in the PSP hardware that translates well to its remaster. Not to mention the alternate weapon earned here (the Gauntlet of Zeus) is so ridiculously OP it's' cathartic getting to destroy with ease the later waves of enemies in the game. 

Clocking in at a modest 4-6 hours, it's definitely a brief time all things considered, but a massively solid first entry for Sony's portable device, and its content for my money delivers less friction and less off putting moments these days compared to the PS3 entries. Hope it's added soon to PS Plus Premium!

4. God of War (2005)

The one that kicked it all off is still a pretty amazing showcase of what the PS2 was capable of in the great year that was 2005. From its initial introduction battling the Hydra in the Aegean Sea, to visiting the city of Athens to bear witness to the towering image of Ares waging war on the city, to the journey to the Desert of Lost Souls to find Cronos and visit Pandora's Temple he carries in his back, the original God of War is an absolute marvel of adventure and simplistic design, doing so much with so little and introducing us to the tried and true combat that was able to carry this entire franchise for a good six main entries. 

While impressive to think of the impact this game made on the PlayStation 2 in 2005, in 2022 this game still manages to hold up relatively well as an action game. With the one exception of the spikes of Hades section near the end that can cause some hair-pulling frustration, the game mostly remains a great, joyful ride with relatively perfect pacing flow between combat/exploration/puzzle solving, and really wears its "Clash of the Titans + Rock N' Roll" style with relative ease. With a Kratos that's a bit of a jerk but with a bit of range as he struggles with the errors of his past as he finally seeks to bring down Ares, it's easier to rally behind him when he's still not the overtly inflated rage jerk from the final game in the trilogy. Also, the reveal of why his skin is pale as a ghost remains one of the great twists in gaming. 

Considering the successful franchise it spawned, it's easy to see why with how good the original God of War remains. Even with some of the QOL improvements the later entries eventually delivered, this first game still remains special as one of the PlayStation 2's defining games, and one that still remains fun to play for fans of combo based action games. 

3. God of War: Ghost of Sparta

Its unfortunate this entry got overshadowed the way it did by releasing in the same year as God of War 3. With all the attention the new console entry was getting at such an important time in the PlayStation 3's life (and the declining interest in the PSP as rumours began to build towards its successor), its easy for fans to shrug off this second entry in the handheld considering all that was happening around it. Which is a shame because for my money, the second entry by Ready at Dawn delivered the second very best entry of the Greek era, with probably one of the stronger stories to boot. 

Written by God of War 2 & God of War 2018 director Cory Barlog before his first departure from SSM, Ghost of Sparta gives us the story that was originally planned as a follow up to the original game (as seen in a tease in some of the extra features from the first game), where we learn a bit more about Kratos' background from his time as a kid in Sparta, and how much the kidnapping and presummed death of his brother Deimos led him down such a violent path. Picking right where the original God of War left off, Kratos' discovery of the potential of his brother being alive send us through such a tight, varied journey that works really well in cheekily tying itself to classic Greek mythology, all while delivering an overall much improved game over RAD's own Chains of Olympus. The actual conclusion of the story managed to retroactively justify some of the story decisions taken in the official second and third entries in the franchise, and did a lot to try to humanize Kratos right before his official darkest chapters. That the game then managed to push above what's expected from the PSP served really well as an official swansong to the device, and a testament to RAD's chops as a developer. The remaster work in the God of War Origins Collection serves as a good testament to their technical chops, and I hope modern audiences without their PS3 or PSP at hand get to experience this one again via PS Plus Premium!

2. God of War 2

The official sequel to the epic first PS2 entry and the official swansong of the console remains to this day the finest entry of the Greek era, even if it almost gets outclassed by Ready at Dawn's sequel thanks to the story.

If the original God of War served as an effective proof of concept, God of War 2 takes that concept and blows it up tenfold with a game on a scale that sent out the PS2 on such a relatively high note. Sony Santa Monica famously decided to stick this sequel on the PS2 despite the PS3 already being out. Their mastery of the PS2 hardware at the time helped them focus more time in creating content instead of figuring out the technicalities of new hardware. That decision paid off, as they sure created the most packed game in the Greek era to make it the most adventurous of the bunch. From riding Pegasus to the island of Typhon to then making your way to the Sisters of Fate, God of War 2 is continuously one epic realization of the series' Greek ambitions, with the gameplay and scale taking everything the original one did and improving on it tenfold. 

The game's near perfect mix of combat/exploration/puzzles worked so well, it help offset a bit that the story, a simple tale of revenge, wasn't as compelling a story as the original game. Not to mention this game doesn't allow for a time to humanize Kratos or try to justify why suddenly he's full of rage (which Ghost of Sparta retroactively did three years later). Having the Titan Gaia serve as sort of a mediator and help paint an antagonism towards Zeus and the Greek pantheon added depth to the story and help build the world around Kratos more than his personal journey in the first game. And because we were at the time right before the super realistic graphics engine that powered the PS3 games, we were still quite in the cusp of pushing what Kratos was capable of with his brutality while not fully crossing the line. 

With that said, the simple story did help keep the focus tight on the game, which for my money is still one of the most fun and varied God of War games from the Greek pantheon, and probably the crowning achievement of this era of the series. Even though the PS3 entries would slightly build up from here and upping the spectacle ante, there's something that feels like it all came together with this entry in all its aspects compared to the other entries' more lopsided qualities. There's a reason this is still considered one of the greatest action games ever made. For my money, lots of its strong qualities hold up well here in 2022 as they once did in 2007 and its remaster release in 2009. Definitely check it out if you have PS Plus Premium!

1. God of War (2018)

The 2018 reimagining of God of War is Sony Santa Monica's masterpiece.

Let's not mince words. Even with me defending God of War Ascension in this list, there's no denying the impact the tepid commercial and critical reception of that game left in the studio. It forced Sony Santa Monica to reevaluate if the franchise had a future, which led to the return of God of War 2 director Cory Barlog to try to think of ways to reimagine the franchise. Through a hard 5-year process (which you can see glimpses of the tough journey in the Raising Kratos documentary), which included the pushed up timeline of having to make this game sooner in lieu of the cancellation of a new IP being cooked at the studio (leaving SSM with one failure away from closing), and many doubts that the new approach for the series would be well received, one can't imagine the immense pressure of getting this reimagined game right.

Which makes the game's success all the more sweeter. 

Sony Santa Monica not only was able to bring Kratos successfully to a new mythology, but did so with an entirely different vibe and pace that was clearly different from the games that came before, but keeping enough hallmark touches that unmistakenly keeps this entry in the same spirit of the franchise. Completely skewing a full on reboot, director Cory Barlog took on the hard task of proving there was more to Kratos than the unlikable murderous jackass he had devolved to by the time God of War 3 came around. The game expertly sets this new entry as a new beginning anyone can enjoy, while expertly wrestling with Kratos' murderous past, not absolving his past deeds, all while showing his attempt at trying to regain his humanity with his son Atreus. While clearly similar in vibes to Naughty Dog's The Last of Us, the reimagined God of War made the approach its own.

The irony is that not only did Sony Santa Monica successfully manage to shift God of War to a different kind of game. It managed to take what Naughty Dog popularized with its Uncharted and Last of Us games, and keep that level of prestige while still making a damn fine videogame. Whereas everything that people praised about ND's games was everything surrounding the gameplay, SSM managed to take great inspirations of other genre stalwarts like Dark Souls, and bring in their trademark "pick up and play" tightness that feels so unmistakably God of War. Combat in this game is deep and consistently changes and gets better as you play, with the Leviathan Axe giving us the fantasy of wielding Thor's Mjolnir hammer and the versatility a flying axe can have on the gameplay.

More importantly though, God of War 2018 cemented its status in gaming pantehon thanks to its mimimalist, impactful story. Taking cues from plays, the game's one shot camera sticking us with Kratos and Atreus journey in its entirety without cutting (unless you die) served as a great way to engender and connect with both these characters, where we watch them grow through both their grief over losing a loved one, to Kratos' struggle to move on from the atrocities of the past. It expertly builds from the games that came before, and even finds pathos out of some of the more brutal entries (looking at you, God of War 3). It makes for a game where once its quiet ending comes, it lingers in your mind, where you realize you may have just witnessed a true work of art.

That this work of art helped keep Sony Santa Monica among us is a blessing, and its a big reason why the upcoming "God of War: Ragnarok" is one of the most anticipated games to come. This game not only rejuvenated a franchise many thought ran its course. It proved videogames this good could still come in a gaming sea that was being overcrowded with endless, samey open world games and games as a service. If anything, it was a testament of the power of this medium, and its something Sony Santa Monica should feel pride in after its grueling five years of work. 


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