Kratos gets back to his best
Sony Computer Entertainment
Santa Monica Studio
It has been five years since Santa Monica Studio first unleashed God of War on the Playstation 2, marking a hyper-violent landmark for Sony’s still impressive hardware. Alongside PSP and mobile offerings, the company also delivered one of the last great games of the PS2s lifespan with 2007s God of War II – pushing the console to its absolute limit with the scale and complexity of its visuals. Now Kratos is back with his first true next gen outing and it’s clear from the opening moments that the developers are once again pushing the boundaries of consoles.
After the stunning animated title sequence (created by Imaginary Forces; a company who specialise in creating intros for movies and TV, including Mad Men and Scorsese’s latest Shutter Island) we resume the story right from where GOW II left off – with Kratos ascending Mount Olympus on the back of Gaia. He has formed a tenuous truce with the newly resurrected Titans to bring the tyrannical rule of the Gods to an end as Zeus and the remaining Greek deities try to hold back their towering foes. When Poseidon binds the Titans with a serpentine, watery creature, it is up to Kratos to free them.
The transition from cutscene to gameplay is practically seamless and a fluid, simple tutorial brings you up to speed on the games accessible controls while on all sides a massive battle is taking place. The first entire level takes place on and inside Gaia, as you attempt to save her from Poseidon’s seahorse/crab boss monster. Here, you’ll be introduced to the tremendous scale which GOW III is capable of representing, as the camera zooms from a close up of Kratos decapitating some hapless foe to a shot which shows Gaia in all her monstrous beauty. And this not only happens in real time but also, frequently, allows you to continue clambering around her bulky frame. This multi-stage opening fight comes to a rousing finale; with the game balancing out the massive scale of the previous scene with an intimate and powerful one on one between Kratos and Poseidon. We’ve never seen anything like it in a massive, commercial action game and doubt you have either.
And that’s just the opening 20 minutes of a game which will take many players upwards of 10 hours to complete. That journey will see Kratos cast down into the underworld where he must retrieve the only weapon capable of slaying the king of the Gods – bound within flame and secure in Pandora’s Box. He will travel through hell itself and Daedalus’ (the brilliant Malcolm McDowell) terrible Labyrinth, fighting brothers and former allies to reach his goal. To say that we were impressed with God of War III’s introduction would be an understatement but happily the game doesn’t rest on its laurels, delivering probably the most consistently satisfying play experience we’ve had this year.
The key thing which GOW III gets right is the moment to moment gameplay – there’s no use having awe-inspiring set pieces or great QTE’s if the path to getting there is filled with repetitive weapon fodder. The enemy variety is top notch and there’s always a mixture of easily despatched grunts with larger enemies which allows you to mix up your approach. The grapple move makes a welcome return, and weaker foes can be picked up and wielded like a battering ram, cutting a swathe through your enemies. Heavy and light attacks can be mixed into intuitive combos but the game never punishes you for button mashing, particularly as many of your opponents have extremely generous health bars, with some bosses taking many minutes before you even make a mark in their defences.
The design and implementation of the weapons are some of the best in the business; from the ever popular Blades of Athena (which actually seem a little less powerful than before) to the ridiculously enjoyable Cestus – a pair of lion-shaped gauntlets which have limited reach but incredible strength, undoubtedly our favourite. In a smart move, magic powers are now tied to a specific weapon, leading to less inventory trawling, with effective but bland electricity attacks (for the Nemesis Whip) and soul summoning paling in comparison to the undeniably cool, 300 inspired attack which throws up a defensive scrum of shields with spears and arrows raining death on your enemies. Linking magic and weapons also streamlines the games’ fully featured upgrade system – grabbing those red orbs and levelling up earns stronger and more complex attacks as well as improving your magical powers.
Also making a welcome return are Kratos’ items – our cowardly ways meant we favoured the bow, which made our enemies look like angry pincushions before we put them out of their misery. You also gain Helios’ head – ripped screaming from his body – which can be used to light your way and stun enemies.
Speaking of story-necessary decapitation; God of War III is probably – no definitely – the most violent game we have ever played. Each lash of your blades produces copious blood and fatalities for regular enemies often involve dismemberment, evisceration or both. And that’s before you get to the people Kratos REALLY dislikes – the Gods. The bloodletting here is ridiculously vicious but also sometimes intensely intimate, as with the face-off against Poseidon or the closing moments of the final battle. This isn’t the place to wonder if the violence goes too far (answers on a postcard...) but suffice to say it earns its 18+ rating and should be kept well away from young eyes or anyone with a queasy disposition. On a lighter note, the series’ regular, random nudity also makes a reappearance, and Kratos gets to enjoy a mildly interactive intimate adventure in the arms of Aphrodite. All we’ll say is that their new physics engine seems pretty accurate.
Love them or hate them, QTE’s are also back and Santa Monica Studios have even taken the time to refine this long standing aspect of the series.
Prompts now appear in the quadrants of the screen which correspond to the face buttons on the PS3 controller. It may seem like a small thing but actually helps you stay involved in what’s happening on screen as you can catch the required inputs in your peripheral vision. There’s even a music-playing mini-game to be found which will delight fans of Guitar Hero but made us bemoan our stubby fingers and hand-eye coordination more befitting a geriatric, drunken sloth.
The graphics are among the best on the system, rivalling even the stunning Uncharted 2. Kratos himself is incredibly detailed, with scaly, textured skin that looks like you could reach out and touch it. This is all the more impressive in those moments where the camera zoom from his tattooed face to that of a titan, where the detail is almost as staggering. A late on encounter with Cronos is the best example of the incredible detail and scale as Kratos stands next to the titan’s fingernail, the massive head in the background. Every enemy is ludicrously well designed and presented, and the visual evocation of the underworld may not match the recent Dante’s Inferno in eccentricity but more than makes up for it in delivering a cohesive world.
God of War III is certainly a great game but it’s not quite perfect – falling down principally on its platforming elements. The problem lies with the fixed camera, a staple of third person action titles which allows unrivalled cinematic presentation. And for the most part, it works, subtly panning and tilting as you run and slice and dice and swing from place to place. But the fundamental problem is that a fixed camera position gives you no perspective from which to plan a landing in 3D space. We can’t count the number of times we missed a platform and fell into oblivion because we simply couldn’t see where we were going. It’s far from a deal-breaker but does lead to mood-killing frustration from time to time – particularly in a number of timed chase sequences where a single missed leap spells instant death and a restart. The utterly bleak nature of the character is also something of a problem – Kratos hasn’t even got token moral choices like those in Dante’s Inferno. If something is in your way, you’re probably going to hit it til it dies. There’s also a lengthy coda which is going for arty but merely comes across as self-indulgent.
But these issues are minor, only coming into sharp relief because the rest of the product is so entertaining and well produced; a testament to the development team who appear in the copious extras on the disk. This may be the final tale of Kratos , the God of War but it’s hard to imagine another IP creating an experience this immense, intense and mature any time in the near future.