The death in 2016 of author and screenwriter Michael Herr focused attention on his greatest achievement – Dispatches – and its stellar place in the realm of creative writing. Arguably the Vietnam War’s most enduring literary legacy, it was described by John Le Carre as ‘the best book I have ever read on men and war in our time.’ Dispatches is indeed an enduring anthem to a conflict that shaped and defined a generation: a cultural reflection of heady times, a literary spectacle that conveys the energy of a rock concert, the speed of an action movie, the deluded insights of a drug trip and the questioning and suspicion of the Establishment. But is Dispatches a vibrant example of war reportage gone feral, or a deft work of the imagination, a novel posing as journalism? In numerous conflicting statements, Michael Herr only muddied the issue.

In the four decades since its 1977 publication, the reputation of Dispatches has solidified (and one might argue, calcified) within the New Journalism pantheon. Feted for its radical departure from war reporting norms, and stylistic innovations, it’s held by many to be the authentic account of what ‘being there’ was like; only writing of such unconventional nature, the argument goes, could sum up such an ‘unconventional’ war. Herr based his 200-page account on his year-long experience in the hellhole of Vietnam, in 1967-68, when he filed for Esquire, Rolling Stone and other magazines. Free to roam the battlefield without daily deadlines, he wasn’t beholden to values historically instilled into, and expected of, daily news reporters, including the treasured concept of ‘objectivity’.

In an interview in 2000 with The Observer newspaper, Herr described his mission as ‘part of the [1960s] decade thing. I had done the decade, and it had to end in Vietnam’. Yet unlike many artefacts of that tumultuous era, Dispatches hasn’t dated. Re-reading Herr’s pyrotechnic text reveals a journey imbued with contemporary, universal and timeless relevance. Moving across its jagged landscape, the reader is taken, as in a game of chance, on a random route without the comfort of narrative coherence or even a clear overarching argument. The book becomes a reflection of the war itself, one which the American nation has stumbled into, become hopelessly lost in, and from which there’s no way out other than withdrawal and defeat.

From the outset, Herr establishes the hallucinatory quality that hovers over the story, describing a map of Vietnam posted on his wall depicting the country’s French colonial-era territories, all of which have dissolved into history:

It was late ’67 now, even the most detailed maps didn’t reveal much any more; reading them was like trying to read the faces of the Vietnamese, and that was like trying to read the wind.

The signal here is clear: we’re heading into vaporous, shifting, and unknowable space. The Vietnam we’re familiar with from television news and magazine spreads, he suggests, the one that the media in what the grunts call ‘the World’ has imbued with currency, isn’t the same Vietnam we’ll encounter in Dispatches, which is a world turned upside down, filled with fantasies, lies, insanities, a constant sub-stream of absurdity, a world of delusions and darkness. Herr quickly shifts the reader to the battlefield where he encounters an American soldier hyped up on pills ‘like dead snakes kept too long a in a jar.’ Fellow soldiers describe the grunt as crazy, and, if Herr cares to look into his eyes, ‘that’s the whole fucking story right there.’

I think he slept with his eyes open, and I was afraid of him anyway. All I ever managed was one quick look in, and that was like looking at the floor of an ocean.

In just a few pages, Herr manages to convey his key intentions: to defy the conventional view of the war; to establish its ‘unknowability’; to position himself as an innocent abroad, moving into the war’s darker corners with a blend of anxiety, curiosity and courage; and to attach his perspective, and his fate – unlike many correspondents in Vietnam – to the ground soldiers pursuing an elusive enemy and prosecuting an unwinnable war. Confessing that he always went to sleep stoned in Saigon, Herr also unsettles the professional expectations, and literary conventions, of ‘reliable’ war reporting.

This isn’t a battlefield of confident commanders and patriotic, polished troops lined up in rows with visions of victory; in Herr’s eyes, and in his narrative, there will be no shiny medals or songs of men marching off to war. They’re replaced with disillusioned, hollow-eyed, drug-addled recruits and draftees flown on Pan American shuttles to Saigon, and their songs will be The Rolling Stones’ ‘Have You Seen Your Mother Baby Standing in the Shadows’, Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Purple Haze’, and The Animals’ ‘We Gotta Get Out of This Place’. In earlier wars, correspondents packed whiskey; ‘We packed grass and tape.’ Yet, as Herr later acknowledged, some elements never change:

Young men are expected to go, to fight, to kill, to die. And with young men, it’s always fascinating, I mean it’s one of great clichés of war literature – the young man full of piss and vinegar and ready to get into combat to prove his gallantry and his courage, make his family proud and his community proud. And they go and they see what it is, and it’s too late.

Herr has no illusions about the men he’s mixing with, and whom he admires. For all their brutal honesty, they were also victims of Vietnam, of what the war was doing to them. ‘They were killers. Of course they were; what would anyone expect them to be?’ The narrative is shadowed by an almost constant intertwining of twin anxieties: the soldiers’ quest for vaguely rational explanations of their mission, which never come, and Herr’s fascination with his equal failure to fully understand why he is there. (At one point he offers a trite explanation: ‘I think that Vietnam was what we had instead of happy childhoods.’)

In his attempt to make it ‘less real’, Herr ironically imbued the Vietnam conflict with a degree of authenticity that other media representatives could not, or would not, replicate. In one of the book’s most cited lines he declares, ‘Conventional journalism could no more reveal this war than conventional firepower could win it…’ yet he also acknowledges the difficulties faced by correspondents reporting the war for daily outlets (and ‘the incredible demands put on them from offices thousands of miles away’) and by journalists for news magazines like Time, whose reportage is worked up into ‘uni-prose’; against this, Herr acknowledges his comparative freedom to write and file at a more leisurely pace (a piece he’s written for Esquire appears ‘like some lost dispatch from the Crimea.’). Yet, as he observed, mainstream journalists knew that no matter how honestly they reported the war, ‘their best work would somehow be lost in the wash of news, all the facts, all the Vietnam stories.’ Herr sites himself in the media pack even as he leans away from it, adopting in Dispatches the role of a lone operator, the existential observer/journalist who approaches his subject with a sense of moral engagement.

As his jagged narrative draws to a close, Herr is back in ‘the World’, reflecting on his Vietnam experience and the value of not having stayed too long: ‘We came to fear something more complicated than death, an annihilation less final but more complete, and we got out’, though not without scars, including dreams of dead Marines in his living room. Herr – like many – suffered trauma-induced depression, as he revealed in his interview with The Observer newspaper:

I did go crazy. The problem with Vietnam is that if your body came back, your mind came back too. Within 18 months of coming back, I was on the edge of a major breakdown. It hit in 1971 and it was very serious. Real despair for three or four years; deep paralysis. I split up with my wife for a year. I didn’t see anybody because I didn’t want anybody to see me. It’s part of the attachment. You get attached to good things; you get attached to bad things. Then I decided to look the other way. Suddenly I had a child. I went back to my book.

Although Herr claimed it took ‘about six years’ to write the book, it reads as if penned in the heat of battle, with an often-frenetic sense of urgency carried to the page. Publishers asked him to write more about Vietnam, about war. ‘I say: “Haven’t you read my fucking book? What the fuck would I want to go and do that for?” […] I’m not interested in Vietnam. It has passed clean through me.’ In 1978, he worked on the script for Francis Ford Coppola’s epic Vietnam film Apocalypse Now, ‘But after that, that was it. No more Vietnam.’ When the American effort collapsed in 1975, he’d seen the coverage on TV news:

I watched the choppers I’d loved dropping into the South China Sea as their Vietnamese pilots jumped clear, and one last chopper revved it up, lifted off and flew out of my chest.

With this nod to the genre of magical realism then in vogue (Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude had appeared in English in 1970), Herr lays open the question of whether Dispatches is a work of non-fiction or something else: a reality-based novel, a fictionalised memoir, an amalgam of genres beyond any one? ‘Even if we read it as fiction’, asks Connie Schultz in The Columbia Journalism Review, ‘Dispatches is a work of enormous power, but would its sense of urgency and loss be diminished?’ She partly answers her own question: ‘Thirty years after reading the book for the first time, I still have the same gut response: at least I understand why I will never understand what happened to our boys in Vietnam.’

Herr remained evasive on the subject of whether Dispatches was a work fiction or not. Parts of it were, he admitted, what is labeled, in the context of television news, ‘produced reality’. In 1978, one year after its publication, Dispatches was recommended for the U.S. National Book Award in the non-fiction category; yet in a 1992 interview with Eric Schroeder, Herr referred to the book as a novel, adding, ‘I don’t think it’s any secret that there is talk in the book that’s invented.’

But it’s invented out of that voice that I heard so often and that made such penetration into my head… I don’t really want to go into that no-man’s-land about what really happened and what didn’t happen and where you draw the line. Everything in Dispatches happened for me, even if it didn’t necessarily happen to me.

A decade later, in a filmed interview, he was again asked if Dispatches was fiction or non-fiction, and was again elusive:

I have no idea, I don’t know the difference. I’ve never known the difference. I have to tell you that I have no idea what that difference really consists of, between fact and fiction. […] I’m confused, I’m really confused. Like, you read a memoir, you read an autobiography, I have no idea what’s real and what’s invented and what’s wish fulfilment and what’s confession.

Where does creativity end and invention begin? In contemplating what he’d created, Herr’s response in 1992 offers an insight: ‘I would say that the secret subject of Dispatches was not Vietnam, but that it was a book about writing a book. I think that all good books are about writing.’

His comments suggest an unwillingness to be linked to any particular literary frame, any more than he’d wished in Vietnam to be labelled a particular species of war observer. Yet his combat features filed in 1968-69 were received by his editors and published as journalism, in magazines that clearly delineated to their readers whether they were reading fiction or non-fiction, throwing into doubt the question of authenticity. In the same 1992 interview, Herr confessed ‘there are errors of fact in the book’, explaining:

When the Khe Sanh piece was published [as an essay before the book], I had a really beautiful letter from a colonel who had been stationed there; he corrected me on various points of fact. I lost the letter, and it didn’t turn up again until after the book was in print… I couldn’t bear to go in and make the revisions myself. I was tapped out. I was exhausted from the project. Including the year in the war, I had spent eight years working on it, and I just couldn’t do any more.

In subsequent editions of Dispatches, Herr did nothing to correct these apparent errors. Rather, he seemed to suggest that the fiction/non-fiction debate wasn’t his problem, but a conundrum that had grown out of historical precedent. The ethos of the New Journalism argues that ‘fact-based’ journalism denies the possibility of alternative versions of ‘the truth’. Like Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe before him, Herr had thrown himself into the ring of raw experience, a literary pugilist ready for a fight, with no hope of, or desire for, objectivity, to write as much from the heart as the head, a heart that he wore defiantly on his sleeve.

Herr redefined the war reporting memoir: what mattered to him was less about the accuracy of a quote or description, and more about how it was received by the reader, and perceived by the reader as being authentic or not. To achieve that objective, the difference between fact and fiction matters less than the outcome. While the issue is left unresolved, or at least unanswered in conventional literary terms, Herr’s work in Dispatches, marked by its freewheeling style and self-referential perspective, opened the way for more interpretative and personalised forms of war reporting, and war reporting memoirs. Its value in that regard alone is enormous and enduring.

As a literary artefact and legacy, it remains unique. As one observer noted,

Somehow, a young journalist whose previous experience consisted mostly of travel pieces and film criticism managed to transform himself into a wild new kind of war correspondent capable of comprehending a disturbing new kind of war.

Historic Mosque City of Bagerhat

Situated in the suburbs of Bagerhat, at the meeting-point of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers, this ancient city, formerly known as Khalifatabad, was founded by the Turkish general Ulugh Khan Jahan in the 15th century. The city’s infrastructure reveals considerable technical skill and an exceptional number of mosques and early Islamic monuments, many built of brick, can be seen there.

Brief synthesis

The Historic Mosque City of Bagerhat is an important evidence of medieval city in the south-west part of present Bagerhat district which is located in the south-west part of Bangladesh, at the meeting-point of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers. The ancient city, formerly known as Khalifatabad, sprawls over on the southern bank of the old river Bhairab and flourished in the 15th century BC.

The magnificent city, which extended for 50 km2, contains some of the most significant buildings of the initial period of the development of Muslim architecture of Bengal. They include 360 mosques, public buildings, mausoleums, bridges, roads, water tanks and other public buildings constructed from baked brick.

This old city, created within a few years and covered up by the jungle after the death of its founder in 1459, is striking because of certain uncommon features. The density of Islamic religious monuments is explained by the piety of Khan Jahan, which is evidenced by the engraved inscription on his tomb. The lack of fortifications is attributable to the possibilities of retreat into the impenetrable mangrove swamps of the Sunderbans. The quality of the infrastructures – the supply and evacuation of water, the cisterns and reservoirs, the roads and bridges – all reveal a perfect mastery of the techniques of planning and a will towards spatial organization.

The monuments, which have been partially disengaged from the vegetation, may be divided into two principal zones 6.5 km apart: to the West, around the mosque of Shait-Gumbad and to the East, around the mausoleum of Khan Jahan. More than 50 monuments have been catalogued: in the first group, the mosques of Singar, Bibi Begni and Clumakkola; and in the second, the mosques of Reza Khoda, Zindavir and Ranvijoypur.

Criterion (iv): The Historic Mosque City of Bagerhatrepresents the vestiges of a medieval Muslim town in the northern peripheral land of the Sundarbans. It contains some of the most significant buildings of the initial period of the development of Muslim architecture in Bengal. Shait-Gumbad is one of the largest mosques and represents the flavour of the traditional orthodox mosque plan and it is the only example of its kind in the whole of Bengal. The second important monument, Khan Jahan’s tomb, is an extraordinary representation of this type of architecture as well as calligraphic parlance.

The site exhibits a unique architectural style, known as Khan-e-Jahan (15th Century A.D.), which is the only known example in the history of architecture.


The original picturesque location and the natural setting of these densely located religious and secular monuments along with the medieval form and design are intact. The property of the Historic Mosque City of Bagerhat contains and preserves all the necessary elements which include not only mosques but also residences, roads, ancient ponds, tombs, chillakhana (ancient graveyard). Therefore, the attributes of the city are still preserved.

The threat of the unauthorized activities by the community and the extreme salinity of the soil and atmosphere, which can potentially threaten the physical integrity of the attributes, are being closely monitored by the site managers. In particular, interventions are needed to preserve the Shaitgumbad Mosque.


In order to preserve the authenticity of the monuments, conservation and restoration actions have respected the use of original materials (lime and mortar). Notwithstanding, some of the original features, such as stone pillars inside the mosques, reticulated windows, pediment, upper band of cornice, were lost in earlier interventions.

Many of the structures continue to be in religious and secular use contributing to the social and communal harmony by the way of retaining the original features of traditional practices.

Protection and management requirements

The property is managed under the Antiquities Act, 1968 (Amendment 1976). In addition the Department of Archaeology protects the property under the Antiquities Export Control Act (1947), the Immovable Antiquities Preservation Rules (1976), the Conservation Manual (1923) and the Archaeological Works Code (1938).

The Department of Archaeology ensures that inappropriate activities which may affect the Outstanding Universal Value of property such as buildings or infrastructure cannot be constructed within or close to the property, and no one can alter or deface monuments within the property.

The Government of Bangladesh has worked on the implementation of recommendations set out in the Master plan prepared by UNESCO 1973/74-1977/78 for the conservation and presentation of the Historic Mosque City of Bagerhat. Though the financial efforts have been made to address the conservation problem derived from salinity, this has not been comprehensively solved and deterioration has continued. The implementation of the management plan, including conservation provisions, will need to be monitored so as to evaluate achieved results and provide new action plans in response to emerging conditions.

Conservation of the historic landscape, buffer zone and the property has yet to be addressed. A number of issues have recently been identified and will constitute the basis for a new project named “South Asia Tourism Infrastructure Development Project” (Bangladesh Portion), which is going to be shortly implemented. Challenges to sustainably manage these concerns, along with the conservation of the property, will need to be taken up to ensure the long term preservation and protection of its Outstanding Universal Value.

A Conversation with Grover Furr (4/26/22)

This is my just over 2-hour conversation with Professor Grover Furr! Dr. Grover Furr is an author, professor, historian, and Marxist, who teaches Medieval English Literature at Montclair State University. He has published numerous books on the topic of Stalin & The Soviet Union of his day, Including “BloodLies: The Evidence That Every Accusation against Joseph Stalin and The Soviet Union in Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands is False”, “Khrushchev Lied”, “Leon Trotsky’s Collaboration with Germany and Japan” and “The Murder of Sergei Kirov: History, Scholarship, & The Anti-Stalin Paradign” & I am Tristan, a small ML youtube channel, who is a huge fan of Furr’s. It was an honor to talk with him and I hope to be able to pick his brain more in the future!

Book Review: Downward to the Earth, Robert Silverberg (1970),of%20a%20science%20fiction%20book%20I%E2%80%99ve%20ever%20read.

The first two-thirds of Robert Silverberg’s masterpiece Downward to the Earth (1970) is easily in the pantheon of the best sections of a science fiction book I’ve ever read. I found it emotionally engaging and often downright nerve-racking, moody and disturbed, and engages in an intelligent and poignant manner with the issue of de-colonization which was coming to the fore in the 1960s.

However, the work falters somewhat when Silverberg’s a “woman deters you from your quest and has a pair of breasts” mentality (momentarily) kicks in. I swear that every other sentence relating to the one female character (who only appears in a chapter or so) describes her breasts…. Or her scandalous revealing clothes… Or her nakedness… Or her wailing about the dangers of the journey…. And then she exits the narrative, thankfully… And Silverberg’s brilliance returns.

Welcome to Holman’s World and the stories of the few humans that still reside within its decaying hotels, forest stations, and among its natives.

The alien world Silverberg creates is vividly realized and inventive. Holman’s World (Belgazor) is a decaying jungle planet — replete with fascinating flora and fauna — recently relinquished by the Company back to its sentient native inhabitants. Most praiseworthy is Silverberg’s successful tackling of one of the most difficult aspects of sci-fi, the creation of a believable and sufficiently ‘different’ alien species — the elephantine nildoror and the fanged apelike sulidoror.

Gundersen has returned to Belgazor after a lengthy absence. His motives aren’t immediately clear. We learn that he performed a few unsavory deeds when the Company ruled the planet. The only one I can reveal without ruining the plot involves gathering venom from large snake-like creatures (the venom is used on Earth as a pharmaceutical to regrow limbs) and allowing the nilidoror to partake of the venom with the humans.

Gundersen meets up with a few remaining humans on the planet at the Company decaying hotel and notices that the sulidoror, whom weren’t much of a presence when he lived on the planet, are now performing many of the tasks that the Company had forced the nildoror to do.

After taking his leave of the tourist groups which have descended on the hotel Gundersen sets off on a journey to the mist country where nildoror rituals involving rebirth take place. The nildoror allow him to start his journey as long as he promises to come back with a man who committed an unknown crime against the nildoror.

On the way Gundersen meets Kurtz (a reference to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) who has undergone a horrific transformation after participating in the nildoror ritual of rebirth. Silverberg’s descriptions of the horror the planet can inflict on humans is chill inducing and one of the strengths of the work. Despite Kurtz’s condition Gundersen decides anyway to undergo rebirth with the nildoror.

The characterization of Gundersen, the protagonist, is spot on — he’s believable, relatable, flawed, and painfully human. The various other characters which Gundersen meets on his journey are often equally well-drawn (not so much Gundersen’s ex-lover, Seena). The plot unfolds in a deliberate manner enhancing Gundersen’s character (what he choices to reveal to us and when).

What I found most appealing about Downward to Earth was the transformation that Gundersen undergoes regarding the nildoror natives. The nildoror do not produce art, build buildings (the suldoror build sheds for them), or perform agriculture. As a result the Company and its agents were inclined (despite the nildoror’s sophisticated language) to treat them as little more than animals. Gundersen had previously held this belief and vestiges of it remain when he returns to the planet. However, over the course of the novel (and his confrontations with the tourists who occasionally run into him throughout his journey) Gundersen undergoes a wonderful transformation. Although this is a somewhat predictable plot device Silverberg pulls it off in a believable manner.

The world of Belgazor is hauntingly beautiful and dangerous (including diseases which cause a kaleidoscopic array of crystals to emerge from the living flesh, strange parasites that turn their human hosts into husks, etc).

The work’s only blemish is Silverberg’s treatment of the female character Seena (discussed above).

This is a brooding masterpiece of social science fiction.

On Hastings Street in Downtown Vancouver. Summer of 2018.

Hastings Street is one of the most important east-west traffic corridors in the cities of Vancouver and Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada, and used to be a part of the decommissioned Highway 7A. In the central business district of Downtown Vancouver, it is known as West Hastings Street; at Carrall Street it becomes East Hastings Street and runs eastwards through East Vancouver and Burnaby. In Burnaby, there is no east-west designation. The street ends in Westridge, a neighbourhood at the foot of Burnaby Mountain where it joins the recently built Burnaby Mountain Parkway and diverges from the continuation of the former Highway 7A as the Barnet Highway, to Port Moody, British Columbia.

Formally named in 1885 for Rear-Admiral George Fowler Hastings of the Royal Navy, the street runs past such well-known Vancouver landmarks as the Marine Building, the Vancouver Club, Sinclair Centre, Harbour Centre (once Spencer’s, Eaton’s, then Sears and now the downtown campus of Simon Fraser University), Dominion Building and Victory Square (the location of the city’s original courthouse) and the Woodward’s Building; located in the old Dunn’s Tailors building at Homer and West Hastings is the campus of the Vancouver Film School, while on the corner of Cambie is the Carter-Cotton Building, the former headquarters of the Vancouver Province newspaper. East of Woodward’s, the street forms the heart of Vancouver’s historic original downtown, once known as the Great White Way because of its neon displays, and which is today the Downtown Eastside. Through the East End, after a stretch of warehouse-type commercial and wholesale businesses, the street forms one of the commercial cores for Vancouver’s Italian community in a mixed-ethnicity retail area in the area of Nanaimo Street, just east of which the Pacific National Exhibition and Playland are on the city of Vancouver’s eastern fringe. After leaving Vancouver, Hastings forms the core of a Burnaby retail neighbourhood known as the Heights and then traverses Capitol Hill to the Lochdale and Westridge areas.

PS2 Review – ‘God of War II’

The Greek gods were not good people. They were often violent, deeply vengeful and just generally unpleasant. The God of War franchise takes this element and brings it to the forefront, taking the darkest elements of Greek mythology and mixing it with original ideas. God of War told the story of Kratos, a Spartan warrior. When Kratos was about to lose his life to a barbarian warlord, he offered his soul to the God of War, Ares, in exchange for power. Ares accepted, and Kratos became his avatar on Earth, slaughtering all in his path … until Ares had Kratos unknowingly kill his own wife and child. Unsurprisingly, Kratos was unhappy about this, and when the other gods offered him a chance at revenge, he eagerly took it. After questing through Hades and back, Kratos fought Ares and killed him. His revenge complete and his guilt remaining, Kratos attempted to commit suicide … and was instead taken up to Olympus to replace Ares as the God of War.

Naturally, Kratos isn’t the kind of person to use power wisely. Almost as soon as he becomes God of War, he begins to abuse his power, using it to allow his former homeland of Sparta to run wild over all of Greece. The other gods are rather displeased with Kratos’ behavior, but, being Kratos, he simply ignores them. When he assaults the city of Rhodes, the gods see it as their chance to get rid of him once and for all. After tricking him into releasing his godly power, Zeus himself slays Kratos and all of the Spartans in the city. Kratos isn’t one to take his own death lying down, and with the aid of Gaia, the last remaining Titan, claws his way out of Hades and sets out on a quest of find the Sisters of Fate, the only people with the power to allow him to alter his fate — something no god or mortal has ever done before. Along the way, he’ll have to travel to Hades and back and battle his way through every mythological beast from the Cyclops to Cerberus.

Despite the myriad of Greek mythology that can be found in God of War II, it certainly isn’t a game for those who have a dedicated knowledge of that mythos. Kratos takes on Theseus, legendary hero of countless stories, and sticks his head into a doorway and repeatedly slams the door in his face in a shower of gore; watching this was so completely strange and over the top that it was difficult to take seriously. This kind of gore fills the entire game, as those who are returning from the original should be well aware. Dismemberment and disembowelment are common, and spouts of blood are perhaps the most common sight. The Brutal Kills that Kratos can perform to finish off an enemy are often disgusting, and even regular combat descends into epic amounts of brutality. This is not a game for the faint of heart or for those looking for a heroic figure. Kratos isn’t a sympathetic character; he’s a brutal heartless murderer, and he’s only gotten worse since God of War.

For the most part, not much of the gameplay has changed since the original God of War, and anyone who’s played the original should have no problem jumping right into God of War II’s combat. This is a mixed blessing; while it’s easy to pick up and play, it also means those who played God of War are going to see a lot that is almost too familiar. Kratos moves and attacks identically to the last game, and the only real difference in combat comes when you find some of the new items and abilities. The items themselves feel like “upgraded” (or in some cases, downgraded) versions of the abilities found in the previous God of War.

Since Kratos no longer has the favor of the gods, he instead gains his powers from the various Titans of Greek mythology. Zeus’ Thunderbolt is replaced with a magical bow with some slightly different moves. The Rage skill has undergone a dramatic change. In the original God of War, Rage of the Gods was an upgrade to Kratos’ blade that filled up in a sort of “Limit Break” fashion, and it could be unleashed for invincibility and upgraded damage. In God of War II, Rage of the Titans is more like the Devil Trigger ability found in Devil May Cry; it grants Kratos new and more powerful attacks for a brief period of time, and it can be toggled on and off at will.

As with the combat, enemies in God of War II are going to feel distressingly familiar to those who played the first game. There are quite a few new enemies, but a lot of the foes you encounter, especially in the first half of the game, are taken straight from God of War, from the character design and attacks to the Brutal Kill moves. This wouldn’t be so terrible, but it sometimes makes the game feel more like a rehash than a sequel.

God of War II really shows improvement over the original game in its boss design. God of War’s opening level was spectacular, intense and exciting. Trapped on a boat in the middle of the ocean, you battled a massive Hydra through the entire stage, culminating with a dramatic boss fight at the end. Unfortunately, God of War went downhill from there, with only two more boss fights in the entire game, and nothing that quite captured the excitement and danger of the Hydra. In a way, God of War II opens up in a very similar matter. Kratos must work his way across the besieged city of Rhodes while battling the Colossus of Rhodes, animated by the gods who wish to eliminate the God of War. Naturally, it ends with Kratos actually breaking his way into the Colossus and smashing it apart from the inside. In its own way, it is perhaps more dramatic than the Hydra fight, but unlike God of War, it isn’t the only boss you’ll face for a majority of the game.

In fact, God of War II features a substantial increase in boss fights over its predecessor. The catch is that, unlike God of War, not all of these fights are against giant monsters. They range from the aforementioned Colossus to legendary heroes like Theseus. Each fight is fairly different, and while they don’t all feel as dramatic and exciting as the first, they are a very welcome change from the endless streams of weaker foes. I would say that the bosses in GoW2 seem even easier than their counterparts in GoW, and a skilled player should be able to smash through them with a minimal amount of damage. It’s a minor complaint, especially since the fights themselves are surprisingly fun, but those who complained about God of War’s ease will not find much of a difference here.

One of the more interesting new segments takes place when Kratos gets access to the Pegasus, a horse with flaming wings. He uses it to travel from location to location, as the gods send their servants after him in order to halt his progress. Combat on the Pegasus is basically a form of rail shooter; Kratos can ram his enemies with his Pegasus, slaughter them up close with his arm blades, or shoot them from a distance with his bow. As in regular combat, when an enemy reaches low health, Kratos can leap off the Pegasus to deliver a coup de grace in a brutal and incredibly gory fashion. These segments are surprisingly fun, but the controls feel a bit unpolished, and some elements, particularly the bow, are more difficult to use than I’d like. The extra weapons and gameplay segments provide a very welcome change from the on-ground combat.

God of War was one of the best-looking titles on the PlayStation 2, and it should come as no shock that God of War II is just as good. The character models are smooth and well done, although there is a still a noticeable amount of reused models from the first God of War. The level design, however, is fantastic. Be it the besieged city of Rhodes with the giant Colossus raging in the background of every area, or the gigantic Horses of Fate that are part of the myriad of guardians of the Sisters of Fate, each area is memorable and stylish. It’s amazing to see what the PlayStation 2 can pull off sometimes, and God of War II really manages to make the aging system shine.

Especially noticeable is the heavy lack of loading times; you should encounter little to no loading at all, which is a rather impressive feat. One element that makes an unwelcome return from God of War is the fixed camera. For the most part, this camera works quite well, but there are a few occasions when it was just a bit wonky. Thankfully, God of War II also severely cut down on the amount of insta-kill jumping puzzles (although they still exist!), so this problem doesn’t reach the same level of frustration as Hades did in the first game.

While God of War II’s audio aspect doesn’t quite match up to its visual prowess, it’s still fairly impressive. The dramatic music fits basically every scene, and the actual sound effects are disturbingly well done. The sound as Kratos rips the arm off an enemy and beats him to death with it is creepy (to put it lightly!). Most of the voice-acting is excellent, although a few characters sound a bit stilted. Kratos in particular is rather mixed, as he seems unable to express any emotion other than anger … but to be fair, that is perfectly in character for him.

It’s God of War II. If you’re even reading this review, you’ve probably made up your mind to buy the game, and nothing short of a disaster could change this. Luckily for all of the fans of the first title, God of War II is a worthy sequel. It adheres very strongly to the concept of, “If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it,” perhaps to the point of excess. It is a well-designed game, with terrific level design and a smooth, excellent combat system, but it also doesn’t particularly bring anything dramatically different to the field. This isn’t a bad thing at all, but returning players will surely feel a serious case of déjà vu on Kratos’ latest adventure. However, that’s the worst one can say about this latest outing, and anyone who enjoyed the brutal action in the original God of War will be pleasantly surprised by God of War II.

PS2 Review – ‘God of War’

When I mention God of War, the first question people ask me is always, “Is it as good as the hype?” To truthfully answer the question, you have to explain a few things, the first being that God of War is a gruesome game in which you are required to inflict your evil will on countless amounts of undead, and even human, foes. Things are sounding good so far, but there is a catch. The second thing is that the ESRB label reads as long as a Christmas list, with items such as gruesome violence, blood and gore, nudity, and sexual themes, but I truly feel they forgot to warn that this game is only as good as the hype when taken in small doses. High quality game as it may be, God of War is not a title that you can sit down with for three to four hours at a time because God of War gives you too much, too fast. Ultimately, however, the game is as good as the hype.

The opening sequence gives you a short glimpse into the future: Kratos, our evil, yet identifiable un-hero, hurls himself off of the highest mountain in Athens, claming that his gods have abandoned him, giving you a short taste of the end of this story of bloodlust and revenge, while leaving you wondering about the cause. You later find that Aries, god of war and son of Zeus, has taken physical form and is quickly bringing hell on his sister Athena’s beloved city of Athens. Kratos, being the only mortal strong enough to defeat a god, has been charged with the task of doing so, with the reward of relieving his mind of his mysterious past.

Actual gameplay takes place three weeks in the past, on a half-sunken ghost ship. The game starts off strong, hurling hordes of baddies into your path, only to be slaughtered by your blades. The controls are very easy to master, giving you the ability to brutalize and murder your opponents in the sickest fashion. This game is really a button-masher’s dream due to the fact that dealing out 40- and 50-hit combos right from the get-go is no problem. These combos can be built upon with an experience system, along with your other weapons and magical abilities.

As mentioned before, the controls are quite simple. Your face buttons control your quick, strong, and grab attacks as well as jumping, and the shoulder buttons handle your blocking, dashing, and magic activation. During the first five to 10 minutes of the game, you’ll either be screaming at the top of your lungs or just plain awestruck by how intense and fun the game can be.

The majority of this game is spent dicing enemies with two of the coolest weapons that I have ever seen in a game. Kratos wields two half-swords that he controls by hurling them with attached chains. Infused by the gods, these blades have the ability to create molten lava or fire at the finale of a rush of cuts and slashes. Near the midpoint of the game, you will uncover the Blade of Artemis, a rather large sword that would remind you of the sword held by a character named Cloud. The Blade of Artemis is one of the few secondary weapons in a game that actually could take over as the most used weapon. The giant blade has the ability to split enemies right down the center, horizontally or vertically. The blade’s only drawback is the fact that you don’t get a very cinematic fatality.

Sure, you can cut an enemy in half, but that’s been done by too many games. With the dual half-blades, you can use the circle button in conjunction with any face button to engage a grab fatality. The fatalities are very brutal and very quick, but this was the part of the game that I was talking about when I said that it wears thin fast if you play it too long. You have immediate access to all the fatalities right off the bat. As good as they are, if you are anything like me, then you try to end every enemy in the most ghastly manner imaginable. Doing this every time you have an enemy lobbed at you gets a bit old too fast. However, if used a bit more sparingly, it could make the game near perfect.

To be fair, SCEA did give a break from the same old fatalities every once in a while, with special fatalities for the bigger adversaries, by either mashing the circle button to fight a blade down the throat of a giant minotaur or by pushing face buttons as they appear on screen to dodge a cyclops’ attacks and jabbing your swords into his skull. These fatalities, coupled with the boss battles, may very well be the reason I played the game all of the way through. Five minutes into the game, you’re already launched into your first boss battle. While the first part of boss battles is your basic hack, slash, and block, the latter half are played by pushing context-sensitive buttons in order to create quite the cinematic battle sequence. I read an interview in which one of the developers revealed that the game’s engine has been in the works for a little over five years, and I have to say that it shows. The game flows fluidly from one piece to the next, with only cut scenes breaking up the action. Throughout the duration of the game, I can only recall a total of two load points

The action in God of War is good … great even. However, no action game would be truly complete without at least a hint of puzzle solving, and God of War does an amazing job of seamlessly blending both elements into a neat little package. The puzzles don’t feel like a cheap attempt to throw in some puzzles to break up the action sequences, and they actually fit in well with the trials and tribulations of the Greek gods. At one point, in order to progress through the temple of Hades, you must first rescue a captured Spartan only to maneuver his holding chamber into a sacrificial room and place it in between two walls of flame. Deadly traps of this nature are littered throughout the puzzles, making them quite enjoyable while usually fighting off a decent amount of undead forces.

The game boasts above-average visuals that keep you pulled into the Greek world and culture. There are many games out there today that cut corners and make things look good from afar but less than stellar when viewed up close. God of War is not one of those titles. I am one of those gamers who will explore every little inch of an environment before moving on and am pleased to say that during the entirety of God of War, I was not able to find one instance of that nature. The developers did an amazing job of putting detail on the right objects, based on what parts of a level you can access with Kratos as well as the camera angles, which also make a great contribution to the atmosphere. Using techniques that are taken straight out of any good action movie, the camera angles are unique and well thought-out.

The Greek atmosphere is held together quite well by the gameplay, characters, and graphics, but the icing on the cake is the amazing soundtrack. I truly believe the God of War has one of the top five soundtracks of any game within the past year. Many titles make half-hearted attempts and creating epic scores to go along with the mood of their game. God of War is one of the few titles to actually accomplish the job and do so with such elegance. Several titles have offered up their soundtracks on CD, and I have very rarely ever taken such an interest in a game’s soundtrack, but I would actually purchase the God of War soundtrack, if it weren’t already free. SCEA made a very generous choice to make available a free download of the entire soundtrack via a key on the back of your instruction manual.

God of War, quite obviously, has no multiplayer mode; it’s just not a game that would work well with another Kratos running around. I found much solace in the sheer amount of extra content both on the disc and online that would fill that small void. By defeating the game on various difficulties, you will gain access to many unlockables, which are clearly stated in the back of your instruction manual. Treasures such as back stories of Kratos’ family, glimpses into the future, literature on the monsters, gods, and ancient Greece are all actually very interesting items, but one of the best unlockable items in any game ever is the addition of deleted levels. Showing deleted levels that didn’t make it into the game is a very novel idea. I think a lot more games should do this in order to give you a window into the game development process so we can see why things do and don’t make it into the game, due to story or time constraints.

With high quality gameplay, flashy graphics, and an impressive soundtrack, God of War is one of the better action games to come out in a long time, and its originality and flat-out style is enough to make a great addition to any gamer’s collection. The blood, gore, and blatant nudity will be enough to attract any mature gamer, but the action and detailed storyline will keep any gamer addicted.