Sony has been on a pretty amazing roll. In the span of just over a year, the company’s first-party lineup for the PlayStation 3 has included the likes of Killzone 2, inFamous, Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack in Time, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, MAG and Heavy Rain. That’s an impressive bunch. It came to a head earlier this month with the release of God of War III, the final chapter in what has become Sony’s prominent franchise. Will the Ghost of Sparta finally exact his vengeance against the gods of Olympus and earn a place in the pantheon of video games?
God of War III picks up immediately where God of War II left off, with Kratos riding on Gaia as she and the other Titans climb Mount Olympus to assault the gods. The opening level is trademark God of War. While other games are in the habit of holding players by the hand teaching them the ins and outs of the control scheme and gameplay mechanics during the initial moments, God of War III wastes no time in sending players on its wild roller coaster ride. After fending off a dozen or so undead legionnaires, you’ll engage in a massive struggle with a leviathan before confronting the Greek god of the sea and oceans, earthquakes, and horses, Poseidon, a boss battle with an eye-popping finale. It’s the kind of moment most action games build up to. For God of War III, it’s merely the opening 30 minutes. By the time the 10-12 hour campaign reaches its conclusion, you’ll have fought and defeated more mythological creatures, more Titans, and more gods than all of the previous God of War entries combined; at least that’s what it feels like. Kratos’ revenge-fueled tour is a lavishly violent spectacle.
God of War III takes an “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it” approach to gameplay. It stays true to the series' formula of ferocious combat, light puzzle solving, platform elements and quick-time event-triggered money shots. There are a few new wrinkles to speak of. For one, the button icons for quick-time events are no longer huddled in the middle of the screen. Instead, they’re spread around the edges to correspond with their position on the controller. In other words, if a quick-time event calls for the circle button to be pressed, the icon will appear on the right hand side of the screen. It makes quick-time events easier to get through, especially for those players who don’t care to memorize the placement of the face buttons. The item meter, which appears beneath Kratos’ health and magic bars, is a new addition. Kratos can only use certain items for a short duration. One such item is Helios’ head. The noggin of the Greek god of the sun casts light and reveals hidden areas, but it can also be used to stun enemies, the later of which uses up the item bar. Unlike health or magic, the item meter doesn’t require orbs to replenish; it regenerates on its own. Kratos’ arsenal of moves has also expanded. He can now grab enemies and use them as battering rams, and he can mount creatures – once he’s beaten them into a weakened state – and control them at his will.
Where God of War III truly excels is presentation. Like Uncharted 2: Among Thieves before it, God of War III is a showpiece for the PlayStation 3. Kratos has never looked better, and the rest of the models aren’t too shabby either. Combat has become significantly more intense, with up to 50 enemies on screen at once. Ultimately, what makes God of War III stand out from the crowd is its cinematic flair. The camera work is exceptional. Whether it’s zooming out to give perspective of the enormity of an enemy compared to Kratos, or whipping around to provide the perfect angle of a death blow, the end result is moment after jaw-dropping moment. The best part is you’ll be living these moments with controller in hand, in real-time, not as a spectator watching a cutscene. Audio is equal to the task. The soundtrack is epic, the sound design is amazing, and Rip Torn headlines an all-star voice cast. Seriously, just hand Mr. Torn his Spike TV VGA Award right now.
What Doesn’t Work
There isn’t much, but there are a couple of issues worth mentioning. The first deals with the four main weapons at Kratos’ disposal. These include the Blades of Exile, the Claws of Hades, the Nemesis Whip and the Nemean Cestus. One of these weapons is not like the others. That would be the Nemean Cestus, a pair of powerful gauntlets shaped like lion heads that belong to Hercules…or at least used to. Of the four, the Cestus is the only distinct weapon. True, each of the weapons possesses unique magical abilities, and more importantly they’re purposeful in combat - you can’t defeat certain enemies without the Cestus, for instance, and just about every enemy is susceptible to one weapon or another - but the Cestus is the only weapon that doesn’t feel the same as the Blades of Exile (and even then the combos are pretty uniform). It’s the only weapon that isn’t a sharp pointy thing at the end of Kratos’ chains. More variety in weapon selection would have gone a long way in enhancing combat even more.
The other issue I have is related to the story. Kratos is on a warpath to kill father, Zeus, and no god, Titan or mortal is going to stand in his way. Until, that is, he comes across a character about two-thirds of the way through the game and suddenly Kratos develops a conscience. Wait, what? Kratos develops a conscience. Yeah, it’s a shift in character that makes absolutely no sense and, even worse, goes unexplained in the narrative. Then there's the ending. Or should I say endings. There are several of them. Just when you think the credits are ready to roll, there’s another sequence. I got the sense Sony Santa Monica had a few ideas on how to wrap up the story but rather than choose one, they decided to throw them all in. Even when the credits do finally roll, it’s still not over. There’s a brief scene at the conclusion of the credits that you’ll want to hang around to see. For the love of Zeus, pick an ending! The last 30 minutes of God of War III are, sadly, a drawn-out mess.
God of War III is like James Cameron’s Avatar. Odd comparison, I know, but hear me out for a second. Avatar, the movie, was a technological achievement more than a triumph in storytelling. We’d all seen the story before, in movies like Pocahontas and Dances with Wolves, but it’s a tale that has stood the test of time. That’s why Avatar is still an excellent movie in spite of its weaknesses. God of War III is very similar. It’s a technical achievement more than a triumph in gameplay. There’s nothing particularly innovative or fresh about the gameplay, but it’s gameplay that has stood the test of time. That’s why God of War III is a tremendous game in spite of its shortcomings. It’s a carousel of mythological carnage that has set the bar for action games to come. It goes without saying Kratos has etched a place for the God of War franchise in the pantheon of video games.