Friday, 19 March 2010

God Of War 3

Developer: SCE Santa Monica Studio
Format: PlayStation 3

Score: 9.0

I had been trying my best to studiously avoid all God of War III coverage since the first gameplay footage was released back in December 2008; overexposure for any game – let alone one of the biggest titles of the year – risks the eventual experience feeling diluted, like watching a big Hollywood movie where you find yourself subconsciously ticking off all the big moments from the trailer. If there’s one series that needs to be played with equal parts adrenaline and surprise then its God of War. My resolve eventually cracked when the final trailer was released, the resultant internet clamor persuading me to take a little peek: “Agh, so excited! I saw that new trailer, left me feeling giddy. Game of the year” was my immediate, inarticulate, response. For God of War III is that sort of game. It targets the base, purer instincts with laser-precision, and nearly always gets it right.

Having been sheltered from the hype successfully, there are moments in this game which I hadn’t heard about before – the now-famous opening section included – where the imagination on display is far beyond what the majority of developers have been able to achieve with similar intentions and generic constraints. What’s also more impressive is that these high-points of God of War III aren’t just self-contained exercises in screen-filling destruction; instead they seem to fit neatly into the series-wide arc. In working towards a crescendo first hinted at in the ending of God of War 2 with the words “The End Begins…”, it’s somewhat logical that God of War 3’s set-pieces should be bigger, better and more inventive than its predecessors. It’s an approach that succeeds and the end result, when considering the viscerally satisfying – and strangely moving – ending, is one of the great videogame trilogies.

Although it’s obvious to suggest that fans of the previous games will get the most from God of War 3, the set-up is such that newcomers to Kratos will be just as gratified – it is likely that there will be a few of these players, given that God of War 2 was released back in 2007. The core mechanics of combat remain the same, albeit with some intelligent tweaks. Arguably the biggest of these is that the ‘secondary’ weapons, collected in quick succession from the clutches of slain bosses, have been given greater prominence. Many are essential for beating certain monsters and will likely supplant the Blades of Exile (your starting weapon) well before the end is in sight (something I felt wasn’t the case in the series' Playstation 2 entries). These weapons also no longer use magic, which highlights Santa Monica Studios’ intent in broadening the tactical depth on offer.

That it still feels like nothing but a God of War game is testament to the care with which Kratos’ third outing has been pieced together. Careful study of the successive upgrades, purchased using the familiar red orbs, reveals a plethora of extra moves; you’ll slowly feel out your favourites in battle, eventually developing a move-set that may not look exhaustive on paper, but proves intuitive and surprisingly graceful in action. It’s implemented so well that, backed by excellent animation and an absence of slowdown, entering a Zen-like state in which you forget you’re even playing a game, however corny that may sound, is pretty common. Purists may harp on about the technically superior systems of Japanese classics/God of War-inspirations such as the Ninja Gaiden and Devil May Cry series (and they’d probably be right), but in its best moments (roughly, er, 96% of the time) the fighting in God of War is just as fluid, varied and brutal.

Brutal is one of the common descriptions that will usually be attached to God of War III within the first minutes of every discussion (the others are epic and scale, which we’ll come to later). Here its use isn’t an exaggeration. Eyes are gouged, legs are chopped off, and fists are slammed into heads again and again and again… However, Santa Monica clearly understand that it isn’t just about merely spilling more blood than the competition; how these nasty yet hilariously over-the-top range of executions are depicted is just as important. Using a combination of dynamic camera movement and a great sense of player involvement, they instead invest this violence with a cinematic quality and impact that is conspicuously lacking when videogaming violence is tackled by less imaginative outfits. A good example would be the last part of the fight with Poseidon – you’re suddenly looking at events from the perspective of the fallen God, every punch from Kratos eliciting as much wincing as it does enjoyment. The final QTE perfectly mirrors your physical action with the controller and the action on-screen – although we won’t spoil what actually happens, it’s an early highlight that is matched and quickly surpassed as the game progresses.

Although in themselves QTEs are controversial, when used well they can be immensely gratifying. In this respect God of War has always been one of the standard-bearers, a tradition that God of War III continues. The visual feedback is rewarding, the button prompts – as evidenced by the Poseidon example above – reflecting Kratos’ physicality. In fact there’s one audacious moment in particular – literally the game’s penultimate playable section – that appears to poke fun at the player’s expense, as well as satirizing the frequent criticisms that God of War relies too heavily on QTEs. This moment doesn’t just encapsulate God of War 3’s magnificence, the sheer boldness and bloody-minded ambition, but it could only ever have existed in the third game, using as it does the accumulated weight of both Kratos’ quest for revenge and the series’ history since 2005, to superb effect.

It’s important to approach God of War III without expecting a full-scale revolution. As is apparent when examining every area of the game, part three builds on what has gone before without ever undermining this illustrious history or, more crucially, failing to improve. One positive, which may however cause series veterans to grumble, is that there don’t seem to be any difficulty spikes or overtly obtuse puzzles (whereas I distinctly remember encountering both in the previous games). Instead the difficulty curve is well judged, with an increase in your power being met by more aggressive enemies. The pacing too is excellent. Whilst the momentum is always pushing you forward, there are just enough breathing spaces and environment-based puzzling sections to ensure that the set-pieces, as frequent as they are, never threaten to turn into an empty bombardment of spectacle. Instead each such occurrence will likely live long in gamers’ memories.

These are the undoubted highlights of the game, multi-tiered and lengthy confrontations that frequently left me in awe. They also never feel needlessly protracted; for all Santa Monica Studios’ efficiency with both scale (a part of one fight takes place on a Titan’s finger) and all things epic (for there are very few other ways to communicate the sheer breadth on display here), the boss encounters work because you always feel like an active participant in the chaos. Interestingly David Jaffe, in talking about how he would change God of War were it made a few years later, said “I’d immerse you in being the hero rather than watching him” – it’s fair to say that he must be very proud of the work here. As well as being superb examples of game design, God of War 3’s peaks are also technically brilliant.

The game begins with a Plato quote – “The measure of a man is what he does with power” – the meaning of which is surely no coincidence. As this generation matures we’re getting used to successive games pushing back aesthetic boundaries, and God of War III is another step forward in this respect. From the lack of loading during play to the solidity of the game-world – its cohesion and endless vistas helping that aforementioned sense of immersion – it’s an excellent advert for the PlayStation 3, and a textbook example of harnessing a format’s capabilities with flair.

Admittedly God of War 3’s adherence to the ethos and construction of its predecessors mean that it’s unlikely to win over those who weren’t enamoured with the previous games. After all, the violence is worse (i.e., more fun), the tone is even more portentous (the story lacks the pulpy quality of Uncharted 2, but this gravelly seriousness is appropriate given the visual scale and use of Greek mythology), while the structure of spectacle/puzzle/platforming probably wouldn’t be able to support a fourth game without a dispiriting familiarity starting to creep in. But for now there’re very few games that can match God of War 3’s cinematic sensibility, its dynamics, its carnage. Turns out that final trailer only scratched the surface.

Previously published by D+PAD Magazine.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing

Developer: Sumo Digital
Format: Xbox 360

Score: 8.1

Over the years Mario Kart has had to endure a seemingly endless succession of imitations. It has stoically observed the gimmicky (Street Racer with eight player split-screen, anyone?), the soulless (Rare’s blandly efficient Diddy Kong Racing) and -looking ahead - the potentially innovative (that’ll be ModNation Racers and its real-time track creator), whilst itself undergoing revision after revision with each new iteration. However in amongst the controversy that surrounds each of these updates – a blue shell here, a sidecar there – is the consistency of the gameplay. This legion of imitators may often be technically superior, but nothing has really been able to match the controlled anarchy, pure joy and – important bit this – the strong sense of identification that lies at the core of Nintendo’s most important franchise. Nothing that is – cut for dramatic pause – until now.

Admittedly we’re tending a bit to close to hyperbole; Sega All-Stars is great fun to play and the first few hours, which I spent in a state of perma-grin excitement, give the impression that this is indeed a fabled equal to Mario Kart. Though that initial spark is eventually blunted – it’s all a little simplistic to leave any genuine impact - the overall impression is that this is as close as people who don’t own a Nintendo console will get to the experience.

It’s no surprise that this review only took three words before the first mention of Mario Kart. For Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing With Banjo-Kazooie, to give the Xbox 360 version of the game its full title for the first and last time, isn’t so much another imitation as it is a full-blown HD Xerox; the manner with which the developers have gone about lifting, er, inspiration from Mario and co is so brazen as to be endearing. It’s fair to say that, in this respect, Dante’s Inferno and it’s love for God Of War didn’t have quite the same effect. Tellingly the two best Mario Kart clones in my memory – Crash Team Racing and now this – are the two games that have stuck closest to Nintendo’s blueprint. Sumo Digital of course have a huge part in Sega All-Star’s success, but their role is one that has been built on this fifteen-year old foundation. What they’ve done is proven that Mario Kart’s key mechanics are pretty much timeless.

Sumo Digital certainly has pedigree in this area. Not only were they the developers behind Sega Superstars Tennis, the previous attempt at marrying Sega’s glittered past to a standard sports genre, but it’s their recent work on console conversions of OutRun that acts as the basis for the handling model in All-Stars Racing. Both areas are significantly more successful here than they were in Superstars Tennis, which lacked both the engagement of Virtua Tennis and the wealth of Sega references that permeate every track, choice of music and even mission briefing here.

Drifts can be triggered to slide around corners by using the brake trigger whilst driving; the longer this drift is maintained the bigger the boost you get once the brake has been released. It’s a basic version of the system of drifting used in OutRun – here you hold down the left trigger as opposed to applying deft touches to skilfully manoeuvre – but suits the accessible approach that ensures even newcomers to the karting genre will be able to slide around in no time. It’s also no less an enjoyable experience for being so streamlined, as some of the closely-fought races I’ve had online will attest to. This emphasis on accessibility also extends to the track design itself, the majority of which are wide and full of eye-catching loops and jumps, with little or no emphasis on tricky turns; the only course that had me confused at first was a later Super Monkey Ball-themed level, and that’s probably more in keeping with the disorientation of Monkey Ball itself than any fault on Sumo Digital’s part.

Also commendable is the license structure. Everything you do in the game, be it a single race online, a grand prix or one of the many missions, rewards you with Sega Miles, which are then added to a cumulative total that slowly sees your ranking rise. Having the reward of ever-higher licenses framing everything you do in the game creates an excellent sense of progression. The aforementioned missions are also a well-considered addition to the other standard modes on offer. Ranging from mini-tournaments to races in which the main task isn’t always to come first (in one mission you’re given an infinite supply of boxing gloves with which to attack Billy Hatcher until he submits) they work best as quick diversions from the action elsewhere, whilst completists also have the chance to get an AAA ranking in each one (there are 64 in total).

Added to the racing mix are the inevitable weapons. Aside from the brilliant character specific All-Star moves (another feature from Superstars Tennis), there isn’t anything remotely as unfair as that dreaded blue shell. Missiles, bouncing bombs and mines are only fleeting annoyances, while the items that briefly affect your playing experience (for example, the rainbow covers your screen in waves of colour) are actually more pleasing than disorientating. In general if your basic driving skills are good enough then even the Advanced Grand Prix won’t pose too much of a challenge. The All-Star moves are only handed out to those languishing at the back of the pack, but it’s worth being a bit rubbish to see them all. In fact the sight of Ryo Suzuki’s bike suddenly turning into the iconic forklift truck from Shenmue, before ramming aside the likes of AiAi and Space Channel 5’s Ulala to the front of a race set in House Of The Dead’s Curien Mansion is already one of our gaming highlights of 2010. Such an episode, and the All-Star moves in general, also highlight what is the key strength of All-Stars Racing: it’s unconditional love for all things Sega.

It’s everywhere: the use of Nights in the Lakitu/race-starter role, the courses set in such locations as a Monkey Target course, or the city streets of Jet Set Radio, the classic Sega themes on the soundtrack. It even extends to the name of the Achievements, our favourite of which is Dreamarena (“Play a friend over Xbox LIVE”). Chances are if you’ve been gaming for a number of years then a lot of Sega All-Stars Racing’s appeal will be in the various memories tied to many of the games referenced here. If you’re a Sega super-fan then you’ll be in heaven (even at $32,500 the chance to purchase Alex Kidd from the in-game store as a playable character is Primark-like value). Sega Superstars Tennis made clever use of Sega’s history, but not to the extent evidenced here. Mario Kart may still hold the crown overall but All-Stars Racing is certainly the closest Sega has come to its own Smash Bros, and in its own little way suggests that, putting aside the welcome updates of classic franchises like After Burner, the still-mighty company has finally learnt to accept – and even revel – in its status outside of the hardware race.

Previously published by D+PAD Magazine.