The God of War series closed out the PlayStation 2 with a bang, but it's been a long time coming for Kratos and crew's high definition debut. As the capper of the trilogy, is it even possible for God of War III to live up to expectations? If the ghost of Sparta has anything to say about it, it's a done deal.
Starting, literally, at the conclusion of God of War II, the third installment finds Kratos and his posse of titans attempting to scale Mount Olympus and fell Zeus. Of course, things are never as simple as they sound, and the god of gods gathers a group of his toughest immortals to keep the ghost of Sparta at bay. Getting to Zeus quickly becomes the problem, and this cat and mouse carries the game as Kratos uses anything and anyone to achieve his vengeance. The story here is much simpler than the last game, though the writing is just as strong. There's one clear goal, and the twists and turns rarely distract enough to dilute the main arc. Best of all, it doesn't use any cheap gimmicks or corny twists. If it's possible to make Greek Mythology even more interesting than it already is, God of War III does it.
If you've played either of the first two games in the series then you'll know exactly what to expect from the design. The quest is completely linear, with no branching paths and very little room for exploration. Invisible walls are everywhere, keeping Kratos from accessing areas he should be able to reach, yet keeping the player on track at all times. There are just a handful of areas in the game and you'll revisit most of them using newly-found powers to unlock previously sealed doors. The levels are expertly designed, taking you down avenues so unique that you're surprised when you pop back into a familiar area. It goes a long way towards squashing the feeling of backtracking.
Kratos comes armed to the gills. He has four main weapons including the electrified nemesis whip, the Blades of Exile, the Claws of Hades, and powerful gauntlets called Nemean Cestus. Typically, these weapons are handed down from the bosses that fall to your blade. All can be powered up multiple times by collecting red orbs, and each level unlocks a new set of attacks. By the time you reach the conclusion, the move list rivals that of Ninja Gaiden, with a focus on offense. Magic is governed by a meter that's replenished with blue orbs, and Kratos' special items are limited by another meter that rebounds over time. It's a tried-and-true system that isn't broke, so why fix it?
The game is basically an even split between combat and platforming with a few token head scratchers. You'll also acquire items throughout the game. Some are mostly used in context sensitive situations like the boots of Hermes, while others like Helios' head can be used at any point in the game. The other collectibles come in the form of gorgon eyes, phoenix feathers, and minotaur horns. Collect three of each and either your health, magic, or special attack meters are extended.
Of course, boss fights are a hallmark of the franchise, and the third iteration doesn't disappoint. In addition to the epic, quicktime-heavy sequences, you get plenty of traditional brawls where you must master the ebb and flow of combat. Clocking in a bit shy of God of War II, you'll get around nine hours of play from the campaign with multiple difficulty settings if you're so inclined. There are also challenge and arena modes to conquer, and some items you find in the campaign can only be used in these extras, or during your second playthrough.
God of War III doesn't stray far from the franchise formula. The path to the end is clearly defined, weapon upgrades work exactly the same, and the percentage of platforming to combat remains untouched.
God of War has managed to carve its own gameplay niche when compared to the Devil May Crys and Bayonettas of the industry. With a clear focus on offense, there's a certain rhythm to using each of the weapons. When you get in the groove, and couple that with using the right analog stick to roll out of harm's way, there's little need for counters and blocking, even though they're available.
All of the weapons have been expertly balanced so that you can truly choose the armament of your choice, power it up, and then watch the body count rise. You can quickly switch from one to another by pressing a direction on the D-pad. Juggles, area effects, and straight-up blunt force trauma are the precursors to the gruesomely awesome quicktime finishers. Because you have so much latitude, no two players play it the same-even if they use the same weapon. The caveat is that there are only so many buttons on the PlayStation 3 controller and you'll use every one of them, with L2 a modifier to use your magic and special items. Toss in Rage of Sparta mode by clicking both sticks and it may seem confusing, but the game does a great job of easing you into it and constantly supplying on-screen hints.
On normal difficulty, the combat isn't much of a challenge. Orbs are handed out like candy, and it always feels like your weapons are a level or two more powerful than they should be. We recommend stepping up the difficulty if you're a vet. No matter what difficulty you play on, the platforming can be tough. Kratos dies a lot more from falling into bottomless pits than from blood loss. The gauntlets you're forced to run through will test your dexterity and your patience as the fixed camera angles don't do you any favors. The puzzles are of the "pull a lever here, drag a crate there" variety, and if you die several times in a row, you're offered to switch to easy mode.
The titans were a big promotional point of the game during its development, but we're surprised how little of the game these instances account for. Yet what's here leaves an indelible mark. Like a flea on Andre the Giant, Kratos scales their body parts searching for a weak spot to exploit through quicktime events. These sections are given scale thanks to cleverly-placed titan body parts at the edge of the frame, and the very first encounter destroys anything the prior games accomplished.
Much like the design, the gameplay in God of War III is extremely similar to that of the first two games. While the titan element definitely adds a twist, if you've spent serious time at the helm of Kratos' blades in the past, you'll be able to jump right in and decimate.
God of War III definitely gives the PS3 a workout. The scale of the game, from top to bottom, is its most outstanding visual achievement. Creatures three times the size of the Empire State Building fully animating while scores of enemies battle on their surface is something we haven't seen before. The attention to detail in the gore borders on disturbing. Pull out Helios' head and watch as the veins and arteries sway underneath it. Innards spill out, skin stretches and then tears, and the blood is the best we've seen. The texturing and character models are so convincing that some of the real-time cinemas border on CG-quality. Couple all this with hardly any loading times and a silky smooth frame rate and it's apparent that this is some next level stuff. If there's one caveat it's that the fixed camera angles are almost torture. With such eye-popping landscapes you want to stop and just take a gander at times, but you have no control whatsoever.
Voice acting hits the mark time and again and the brooding music hits all the right notes at the right time. The sound effects are the real audio highlight, though. When the Claws of Hades go to work you truly feel as if you're wielding a weapon that's not of this world.
It's incredibly familiar and a bit brief, but God of War III still stands as a herculean achievement. A lot of TLC went into its creation and it comes shining through at every turn. The tweaks to the gameplay are minimal and the lack of titan interaction feels like a missed opportunity, but when Kratos is swinging his hypnotizing blades it's easy to forget that the rest of the world even exists. Packed with so many memorable moments, it will be talked about for a long time to come. If you aren't awed in some way, shape, or form, not even the gods can help you.
Reviewed on Sony PlayStation 3.