God of War 2 is the sequel to the critically acclaimed (and incredibly fun) Playstation 2 game, God of War. If you haven't played the first and plan to, I suggest you stop reading here; there are going to be spoilers in this writeup out of necessity, and the games are a lot more fun and the plot a lot stronger if you play them in order.
At the end of the first game, Kratos had slain Ares, the god of war, and claimed his place on Olympus. In the time between the two games, he extended his power, turning Sparta into the brutal war machine it had always dreamed of being, and started conquering Greece polis by polis. When the game opens, Rhodes is besieged by the Spartan army, and Athena is begging Kratos to relent. Kratos refuses, and goes to Rhodes himself to oversee the destruction.
At this point, Helios, the patron god of Rhodes, intercedes to try to protect his city, and brings to life the Colossus, the gigantic statue built of him and one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Some of Kratos' godly powers are drained from him, preventing him from standing level with the monster. Later trickery on the part of Zeus drains the rest of his powers, and he is eventually slain by the king of the gods.
Kratos is flung into Tartarus, the portion of Hades that resembles Christian Hell, where the wicked are punished poetically for all eternity. However, the Titans, led by Gaia, all of whom have been trapped in Tartarus since the Titanomachia, help Kratos escape, and set him on a path to ask the Fates to change time and allow him to prevent his death at Zeus' hands.
I won't give too much more away, but I will say that I was very pleased with the plot. More mythical characters show up than in the original, and there are little references to mythology that a student of the classics will be tickled to see. Michael Clarke Duncan shows up as the voice of Atlas, and Harry Hamlin reprises his role as Perseus from Clash of the Titans. What more could you want?
Gameplay in God of War 2 is very similar to the original's, though the developers learned from the first game's mistakes. Melee combat is nearly identical, with more moves and some nice refinements. There are three new weapons, replacing Artemis' sword from the original game, each with a very different fighting style from the normal blades and a set of special moves.
The magic is similar, though each of the four types changes, some more drastically than others. A notable change is that Hades' soul spell has become a completely different earthquake attack, which I didn't make nearly as much use of. Here again, there are more moves.
Kratos has a couple of extra neat abilities, like slowing time in the presence of the right objects, using his Blades in a Bionic Commando-style grapple, parrying projectiles, and more. Controls for climbing ladders, ropes, and walls have been refined, and you can move around a lot more quickly and accurately. Swimming controls are nearly identical, but fortunately (as far as I'm concerned) there are far fewer swimming puzzles. The moving-wall-duck-into-underwater-pits puzzle from the original game was the first time in ten years I've thrown a controller at a wall.
You spend more time than in the original game following on-screen prompts, but the combination of this and the improved movement controls made the game seem a lot more fluid to me. Less time running back and forth killing guys, and more time zipping around in three dimensions pulling peoples' eyes out. There's nothing lost from the original in the gameplay, as far as I'm concerned.
The tricky puzzles, a large part of the first game, return. I felt like they were somewhat easier, not necessarily because I had to think less, but because there was more of an emphasis on solving and less on dodging. If you remember the spinning-objects-with-spikes puzzles from Hades in the original game, you'll know what I mean. There were still a couple of good stumpers, but overall, the puzzles felt more Monkey Island and less Mortal Kombat Mythologies.
There are a couple of nice refinements. The prompts at the bottom of the screen telling you how to work in-game objects (spin a stick, tap buttons, all of that) are clearer. A tutorial system explains the controls, interface, and special moves in precise detail, and can be turned off if they become annoying (which they will after the first time through, but even for a veteran God of War player, knowing what's new and changed without having to crack an instruction booklet is nice).
The experience system changes to simply list how much experience you have, instead of having little precision below 300 orbs, as in the original. Now you will know you have 2,345 experience, instead of a hair under 8. There is more experience than in the original, but there are more things to upgrade, too, with the addition of the new weapons.
The menu system is better, too. Pouring experience into upgrading abilities accelerates as you hold down the button, so you don't need to wait 5 minutes to get your blades to level 5. There are more special items that unlock abilities, each with a description and explanation. The section that shows you all of your special moves is now grouped into categories, and has better explanations of how to do each move, when it works, and what it does.
One final note is that the game can now remember if you use Widescreen and Progressive Scan from session to session. A minor detail, but I did find it irritating to have to go into the menus and make these changes every time I turned the game on in God of War 1.
Like in the original, there are a variety of unlockables and difficulty levels, so you can go back into the game and get a different experience. There are more unlockables, however, in the form of secret items you can find throughout the game that allow you, after beating the game, to replay on that difficulty with special abilities, enhanced stats, and (of course) weird costumes.
Since God of War 2, like the original, is fairly short (about 10-15 hours total, not counting all the times you'll die and have to go back), it's good to have this kind of replay value. Otherwise, the game could well be rental-only.
God of War 2 is a strong follow-up to a groundbreaking game. It doesn't change as much in the grand scheme of things as the original did, but that doesn't mean it's any less fun. In fact, with the small refinements, I enjoyed this game more. You can dive right into it if you've played the first game, and you'll have a good time. It's beautiful, with some breathtaking scenes, and gorgeous cut-scenes, that put the original to shame. There are more genitals, too.
If you enjoyed the first game, you'll love this one. If you hated the first game, well, you'll probably hate this one too. If you never played the original, you owe it to yourself to start there. Happy slaughter.