Sitting down with a pretty much finalized, full copy of God of War III last week made me realize two things. One, the design team at Sony's Santa Monica studio isn't exactly rocking the boat with regard to game design and mechanics. This is God of War, full stop. Hit the square button for a light attack, triangle for a heavy, mix them up to form combos, or grab a guy and rip him in half. If you've ever played a God of War game, you know how this works. Hell, if you've never played one, you probably still have a pretty good idea.
The other thing that occurred to me--the thing that immediately overrode my slight reservations at how familiar it all felt--was, Sony Santa Monica is not messing around here. This might play just like the old God of War games, but it looks nothing like them. It hardly looks like anything else on the market. I haven't been this impressed by wild camera tricks and raw visual fidelity since Uncharted 2, and you know how that turned out.
As the purportedly final installment in the trilogy that focuses on Kratos' story, this game starts big, picking up right where the last one left off, with Kratos and the enormous Titans stomping their way right up Mt. Olympus to take on the gods themselves. The over-the-top absurdity of the things happening on the screen leap out and smack you in the face as soon as you start playing. Kratos is riding on the bosom of a 500-foot-tall stone woman. He's fighting from her breast with Poseidon's giant horse monster. It's made out of water and, apparently, crablegs. Everything from harpies to a Titan made from molten rock is fighting to the death around you. I don't think "subtlety" exists in Santa Monica's vocabulary. But then this wouldn't be God of War if there were anything reserved about it whatsoever.
I wouldn't have believed everything I saw was running in real time unless Sony had explicitly said it was. It wasn't the texture quality or exacting level of geometric detail that impressed me but more the way the action was presented. There are times during that fight between Kratos and the crabby seahorse that the camera rapidly draws back seemingly a mile into the sky, until our Spartan hero is barely a few reddish pixels against a sea of grey ones. Then it flies back down to ground level again in a matter of seconds, and you're back to swinging those flaming chain blades again. Sometimes, you resume control of Kratos before you even realize it, simply because video game cameras aren't supposed to go this crazy while you're actually playing the game. But here they do.
Of course, you need those kinds of enormous, rapid changes in perspective when one of your principle characters is a hundred times bigger than the other one, but it's still a little jarring the first time it happens.
Again, though, the action in God of War III is straight out of the series' tried-and-true playbook, or at least what I've played of it so far is. You fight a bunch of skeletal fodder enemies early on, doing chain-whip combos and grabbing them to tear them asunder or (optionally) running around to use them as a battering ram. Later on you take on various phases of the boss fight against Poseidon's unnerving water-horse-thing, then travel inside that big stone lady (Gaia) to relearn how to swing and climb, then see the enormous corpse of the previous god of war Ares encased in ice, before you head out and finish killing the horse. Often while hanging upside down. If all this sounds a little disjointed it's only because the action all comes flying at you roughly at the speed of sound.
Once you've dispensed with Poseidon's minion, taking on the god of the sea himself is pretty cool, since he assumes an oversized form that looks identical to his normal incarnation except he too is made entirely of water. Also, he's caught in Gaia's massive stone grasp for most of the battle, so you get to beat on him with impunity while he shouts at you, which culminates in Kratos launching himself straight through the watery exterior and knocking Poseidon's man-sized true form to the ground.
That action began one of the more unsettling quick time events I've played in recent memory: The death of Poseidon, at the hands of Kratos, from Poseidon's perspective. Kratos hurls and bashes around the former deity for a couple of minutes as you see Poseidon's view dim and bloody repeatedly under the assault. Here's the kicker: at the end, Kratos picks you up, raises his thumbs directly over your eyes, and the game exhorts you to push in the two analog sticks to gouge your own eyes out. Every time a God of War game comes out, I wonder how the designers will be able to come up with something gorier and more unsettling than the last time. It seems they've not only done that, but found possibly the best use ever for pushing in two analog sticks at the same time.
I wish I could tell you more about later areas of God of War III, but the worldwide issue with PlayStation 3s has kept me from digging further into our review copy at the time of this writing. I can say right now that if more God of War is what you crave, you can probably skip the reviews and go straight to grabbing this on release day. Otherwise, my snap judgement is that in terms of sheer visual spectacle, this is on a whole different plane than other recent character-driven action games, but of course we'll need to see more of it before making firmer statements. We'll be able to show you video of some of this build next week, so come back then to get a closer look of your own.
Until then, here's the last time we got hands on with God of War III. Remember that?