Does context matter? This is the question that's been whirling around in my head, like the Blades of Chaos, as I battled through the two PSP titles in this collection, now reborn in HD for the PlayStation 3.
A good game should remain a good game wherever it lands, surely? And both Chains of Olympus and Ghost of Sparta are assuredly good games, at least within their own narrow niche of blood-spattered melee combat. But they are unmistakably handheld games reworked for a different format. Does that lessen their appeal, or simply remind us of their more humble origin?
Let's not get ahead of ourselves. Following the success of the first God of War Collection, which transferred the first two games into HD so that fans could enjoy the whole trilogy without having to sully their eyes with olden days pixels, it was somewhat inevitable that their handheld cousins would also get the PS3 treatment, enabling the Kratos completists to have all his brutal escapades in one place.
Kratos, killing some dudes.
In Chains of Olympus, released in 2008, Kratos is angry that the goddess Persephone is trying to destroy the world, and so sets off to kill the s*** out of a bunch of dudes. In Ghost of Sparta, released in 2010, Kratos is furious that his brother is being held in the underworld, and sets off to kill the s*** out of even more dudes. Also, monsters.
That, in a nutshell, is both the strength and weakness of the God of War series. Kratos, our nominal hero, is a walking tantrum who stomps around Greek mythology murdering pretty much everyone he meets, having QTE sex with anyone left and then shouting about how angry he is. Subtle he ain't, but he is pretty much perfect for a game where extreme violence is the driving motivator.
And here's where the restrictions of the PSP make themselves known. Yes, there's violence here, but it's timid in comparison to the ludicrous over-the-top slaughter of the main series. You'll rarely see more than four enemies on screen at once, the methods available to you for killing the s*** out of them are limited and those epic boss battles are considerably less jaw-dropping.
Kratos, about to kill some dudes.
Puzzles, never a particularly pivotal part of the series, get short shrift with basic block-shoving and pressure pad combinations seeing you through most encounters when they arise. Even the Quick Time Events that are used to take down the boss monsters feel rudimentary when played alongside the flesh-rending button-matches from the other games.
Perhaps most obvious is the loss of agility. Where Kratos once sprang and slashed with balletic ease, here he feels heavier and lumbering, his movements programmed for the limited travel of the PSP's slippery control nipple. With a full analogue stick to play with, there's a heaviness that takes some getting used to. It's not terrible, but it's definitely noticeable.
So, what to make of God of War Collection: Volume II? Developer Ready at Dawn has retooled both of Kratos' PSP outings - Chains of Olympus and Ghost of Sparta - presenting them in full 1080p and with stereoscopic 3D support.
Based on the numbers alone, it may sound like a recipe for disaster. The PSP itself only renders at 480x272 - a mere 16 per cent of the full 1920x1080 resolution the PlayStation 3 is capable of. Ready at Dawn's original artwork, in terms of geometry, textures and cinematics would have been optimised specifically for the handheld's miniscule res - so how can the games possibly work at "full HD" without looking rather ridiculous in the way that the original Splinter Cell HD remake demonstrates quite spectacularly?
The answer is rather straightforward. Ready at Dawn has performed some proper remastering, porting across its engine to the PlayStation 3 specifically for the purposes of this project and then setting about improving art from both a geometry and texture perspective. The result is an excellent product that we'd recommend without any hesitation to any PS3 owner because the God of War Collection: Volume II has that important final ingredient: the original game still stand up well in 2011, and can only benefit from the transition to an HD console.
"We ended up going through every single character in the game and doubling or tripling polygon count by hand, as well as up-rezing and re-painting every texture across both games at 4x resolution on both characters and environments," Ready at Dawn art director Nathan Phail-Liff posted on the PlayStation Blog.
The result is a release that pays appropriate homage to the original PSP titles but doesn't look embarrassing on the PlayStation 3. The games still look old-skool, with the detail increases subtly applied, but in motion both titles in the Collection manage to impress. Over and above the artwork improvements, it's worth noting is that Ready at Dawn appears to have significantly upgraded lighting over the PSP game, which can have a very dramatic effect on many different scenes.
To get an idea of how successful the developer has been with its remastering, check out this comparison footage, taken from both Chains of Olympus and the technologically more challenging Ghost of Sparta. Here, we've captured the same clips from the PSP version, upscaled them, and put them side-by-side with the PS3 version running at 720p.
The new God of War Collection actually has the ability to run at three different resolutions, depending on how the PlayStation 3's XMB is set. If you have 1080p engaged, both Chains of Olympus and Ghost of Sparta will default to a full 1920x1080 framebuffer. The developer could have downscaled this for 720p users in order to provide supersampling anti-aliasing (Sacred 2 follows this approach) but instead opts for native 1280x720, resulting in a more consistent frame-rate. Finally, both games also support stereoscopic 3D, with 720p per eye packed into the usual HDMI 1.4 format.
A commonality between all rendering formats is that Ready at Dawn has elected not to implement anti-aliasing at all. This is just about the only disappointment we have with the in-game look of the new release (the last God of War Collection supported 2x multisample anti-aliasing, but there was no 1080p mode). Especially in 720p mode, the jaggies are quite pronounced - mostly down to the high contrast edges and the relatively low poly count. While anti-aliasing on a full 1080p framebuffer might have been asking a bit too much, some kind of edge-smoothing at 720p would have made a great deal of difference.
Ready at Dawn hasn't just concentrated on improving physical resolution. The comparison video above, running at 50 per cent speed, demonstrates quite clearly that the move to 60FPS is just as important as the massive boost in the amount of pixels being rendered. Both of the developer's PSP outings really pushed the hardware and this resulted in a fairly choppy update - 30FPS was targeted but as you can see from the video, there's a lot of screen-tear in there, suggesting that the game was often over budget in its rendering, and actually operating significantly below the target frame-rate in heavy scenes.
Chains of Olympus and Ghost of Sparta are mini-miracles for the PSP, but even compared to the original PS2 titles, they do suffer from a somewhat laggier response from the controls - and this is almost certainly down to the much reduced frame-rate. In this sense, the new PlayStation 3 Collection isn't just about the venerable handheld titles looking nicer, it's about making them play better too.
For the purist looking for the best possible gameplay experience, 720p mode is the way to go. Aside from a few frame-rate dips on cinematics, the actual in-game action is essentially running at a locked 60FPS. Similar to the first God of War Collection, the only impact to frame-rate comes from screen-filling fiery and magical effects but even here the impact to gameplay is minimal.
Switching over 1080p gives you the 2.5x resolution boost and fewer issues with jaggies (because, put simply, the edges are that much smaller) but the compromise comes in the form of more screen-tear and more noticeable dips in frame-rate. Once again, cinematics bear the brunt of it, but the full HD support can see tearing encroach into actual gameplay. There's no doubting that there's a definite visual edge in opting for 1080p, but fill-rate issues at 720p are only magnified at the higher resolution, resulting in more noticeable performance dips.
It's also worth pointing out that the later Ghost of Sparta puts quite a bit more strain on Ready at Dawn's bespoke PS3 engine than the older Chains of Olympus. The studio appears to have been on a mission to extract the best possible visuals from the PSP in its original work, and this translates into a performance impact on both PSP and PS3 versions of the game.
With 1080p in particular, the hits to frame-rate are much more noticeable - the plus point being that the improved visuals really impress. While we're not quite at the level of the original God of War Collection, Ghost of Sparta running in full HD really is quite lovely, and the improvements that Ready of Dawn made to the artwork in the remastering process appear to be that much more apparent, as you'll hopefully pick up in our comparison video.
Just how much of a difference does the remastering make? Here's a comparison video for you to look at. Note the increase in frame-rate as well as resolution. Use the full-screen button for 720p resolution or click the link below for a larger window.
A montage of action from Chains of Olympus, where we play the game through in both 720p and 1080p resolutions. Aside from some fill-rate issues (mostly in cut-scenes) which are amplified at 1080p, frame-rates remain very high.
Ghost of Sparta gives Ready at Dawn's PS3 engine a bit of a workout in 1080p mode, but again, the performance at 720p is consistently excellent.