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.

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