God of War III
A man of few words, our blue-hued Spartan Kratos prefers to let his feet (and fists) do the talking - and this is exactly what he does from the very beginning of God of War III, which opens in about as explosive a manner as I've seen a game begin ever.
This is the fifth God of War title, the third in the main cannon, and it is clear Sony Santa Monica want to end this story arc with a bang, delivering one hell of an epic action game experience while at the same time honing gameplay that will be hugely familiar to fans of past titles. Of course, this is a PS3 exclusive, a system seller, and as such everything has been taken a lot further from the PS2 and the PSP versions that we enjoyed hugely before. Now, however, you get the feeling that the designers have held nothing back for this final hooray, Kratos' last stab at those pesky gods.
As such the game is almost nonchalant with its opening scale, Kratos riding atop titan Gaia to the summit of Mount Olympus and a show-down with dad and the gang. This is a who's who of classical deities, and this beginning acts as an ultra-violent statement of intent - Santa Monica's opening segment as climactic as any finale from one of the previous games - our embittered warrior taking on Poseidon in one marvellous and beautifully directed battle before Zeus banishes him back down into the familiar gloom of the Underworld. After the eye-widening spectacle of the opening, it is perhaps inevitable that Kratos finds himself once again stripped of god-like powers on the bottom rung of the ladder, determined as ever to achieve his vengeance at any cost.
Still, back to that early tussle with Poseidon which serves as a wonderfully watery introduction to the world of violent combat in God of War III, which builds upon the already sterling melee gameplay of previous titles. Leaping around Gaia's vast and sprawling torso you'll do battle with the god of the sea, the landscape shifting as Gaia herself becomes embroiled in the titanic struggle. What's obvious from the outset is the use to which the PS3's hefty hardware has been put, the camera swirling in and out - at once capturing the knitty-gritty of Kratos' struggle while at the same time offering a jaw-dropping glimpse of the wider scene, Gaia clinging to Mount Olympus while the gods themselves reign down everything in their arsenal.
This epic and unflinching scale continues throughout much of the game, and there's a definite sense that Santa Monica are enjoying unleashing everyone their wild imaginations - and classical history - can conjure up. No point holding anything back for the next title in the series after all, this is it.
So, where once upon a time a show-down with a god would represent the almighty climax of the game's plot, now you'll be coming across these 'boss' tussles frequently, and from early on in the game - the scenery changing as Kratos works his way up through the Underworld, uncovering new plot twists, meeting old and new faces, and gathering diligently the ability and the weapons to once again challenge the gods themselves.
The visuals, as you've probably seen in the pre-release videos and screenshots, are a real sight to behold, and as I mentioned before the ante-upping scale has gameplay applications beyond pure spectacle; the narrative joining the combat flexibility and innate variety in having been widened and deepened by the move to the PS3. This title has been three years in the works (since before God of War II, in fact), and there is loving detail in every scene and every battle.
Of course, you won't be taking on Helios in every dust-up, but even when doing battle with the dumb minions of the Underworld, the dogs of hell, and everything in between there's a sense of fluidity to the action - and also freedom - Kratos' arsenal more flexible now than ever before as every weapon has its merits. The Blades of Athena, the Blade of Olympus, Apollo's Bow, Hermes' Boots and the Cestus (a pair of insane fists) will all come under our hero's control - and all have their uses. Some of the finishing moves are even more bloody than ever before as well - the development team having gone to town on the blood, guts, gore and wails of agony in a way some might struggle to stomach.
Some of these weapons are powerful enough to interact with scenery in a way you probably won't have seen in a God of War game before, while chunks of masonry, tree trunks and more prove useful as context-sensitive weapons rather than just obstacles and background decor. Of course, combining moves to create smooth-flows of violent destruction is still the key to slick progress, but you'll want to play on medium or hard in order to get the most satisfaction out of the meaty combat.
Death and destruction aside, God of War III includes a fair amount of story-telling (some of the animated flashbacks are lovely, and expertly integrated) and there is some genuine empathy to be had with some of the side characters, in spite of the fast-paced action these instances serve to frame. You'll also find yourself engaging in a fair amount of exploration at times, and yes, there is the odd instance where you won't know what to do next, or where to go, although these moments are few and far between. Of course, there's some puzzles - usually of the environmental variety - to solve in order to progress or achieve a narrative aim, but these aren't usually too taxing. Rest assured, Kratos is still a killing machine at heart, and it is this ability you'll need to grasp rapidly in order to thrive in his third outing.
Attention to detail is once again at the heart of what makes God of War hum, from the delightfully atmospheric settings, the soundtrack which beautifully blends melancholy, mysterious and Hollywood-epic moods befitting of the classical theme. The pacing is also impressive, providing just enough pauses for reflection to keep things sensible, while constantly keeping things fresh, and not only through the ever-increasing scale (an army of titans aside).
Unlike other noteworthy PlayStation 3 exclusives, God of War III also makes some very sensible design decisions unrelated to the core experience. For example, there's no noticeable installation when you first slide in the disc, while load times between segments of the game are also cleverly non-existent. The HUD, too, is only on screen on an 'as needed' basis, leaving the view uncluttered and the richness of the HD world in full, dramatic view.
Of course, all this ultra-violence (and it is ultra) won't be to all tastes, and there is something hugely urn-ironic about the manner in which Kratos cuts through foe after foe, this is 300, this is Gladiator, this biblical. Don't expect much moral pondering and don't be surprised by the gallons of blood that will be shed sans-ceremony or mood-lightening one-liners. This said, there's a time and place for all of this - just be aware that this isn't a game for the younglings.
Still, as the orchestral score soars amid a city under assault from a flaming titan, while you simultaneously disembowel a centaur as lava and masonry rains down amid the chaos - it is easy to indulge God of War III, accept its gravitas and let Kratos' last struggle immerse you. There's no doubt that number three has reached this point as the natural culmination of the previous titles in the series, and as such it doesn't attempt anything radical or daring. What it does do, however, is to provide some of the most engrossing combat and visceral action the PS3 has to offer - presented expertly. Somehow, I think things might be looking quite good for Kratos. Vengeance, after all, is everything.