Having recently covered the excellent God of War Collection, I thought that I had had my fill of the series. Itís not that I wasnít looking forward to God of War III (GOWIII), but going through the first two games in such quick order is enough to test even the biggest fan. Revisiting the first two, updated and tweaked in all their glory, also reinforced my initial earlier impression that the original is the best of the lot. Well, it was the best of the lot. The first had a good balance of combat, platforming and puzzle-solving while the PSP release, Chains of Olympus, relied too much on ridiculous puzzles and the second mired in a confused state between challenging and maddeningly difficult. Then came GOWIII, and 10 hours later, the series had a new king.
I was sucked in from the very beginning. The third entry picks up where the second left off, with Kratos and his mighty Titan allies scaling Mount Olympus to their final showdown with Zeus and his Olympian cohorts. The game doesnít take long to impress with an opening that marks as one of the most enjoyable openers that Iíve ever experienced. The immense scale, showcased with Kratos scaling the Titan Gaia as war rages around them, floored me. Sony Santa Monica certainly knows how to make an impression.
Combat follows the same formula as its predecessors, and in the beginning Kratos is as strong as he was at the end of part two. After battling some crazy massive sea serpent-horse-spider creatures created by Poseidon, you then get to battle the god himself in a brawl that serves to demonstrate the gameís new sense of flair. The battle is violent, bloody, and brought home with the force of a hammer as you pummel the god while seeing Kratos deliver the pounding youíre administering through Poseidon's eyes. The change in perspective is novel and foreshadows a great many theatric touches that make for a raucous yet slightly melancholic finale.
It doesnít take long for Kratos to lose his powers Ė again Ė and go about building himself back up, but itís not so bad this time around. While your swim in the river Styx lowers your attributes Ė health, magic, item, and weapon ability Ė to their base levels, you still get to keep and use the equipment that you accumulated in the previous titles Ė Icarusí wings, the Golden Fleece, etc. The gear makes starting over much more bearable, and it doesnít take long before youíre finding chests filled with sacrificial items that increase your magical capabilities (feathers), health (Gorgon eyes), and power (Minotaur horns). You wonít be feeling vulnerable for too long, though, thanks to the copious amount of red orbs that spill from downed foes that go towards upgrading your weapons. The entire setup may be familiar, from acquiring weapons and spells from defeated gods to the long trek for vengeance back to the land of the living, but rarely has it all been implemented so well.
Itís not just the production values that are impressive in GOWIII. Sure, the graphics are gorgeous, the vistas amazing, and the voiceover work topnotch, but itís the gameís pacing and level design that really stand out. The weapons are a bit too similar to the standard Blades of Athena, which make their return in a slightly altered form as the Blades of Exile, with the exception of the extremely satisfying and massive Nemean Cestus gauntlets of Hercules, but the combo system that puts them to use hits the mark. New moves, like the ability to pull down flyers and use grappled enemies as battering rams, adds a lot of variety to Kratosí repertoire. The weaponsí magical properties, which now limits spells to the weapon equipped, are also much more interesting. The earthquakes created by Herculesí gauntlets will cause sturdier enemies to stumble while the Blades of Exileís Army of Sparta, with its troop of soldiers appearing to protect Kratos behind a shield orb, send approaching enemies flying back with their extended spears. The powers also evolve along with the level of weapon proficiency, with an evolved Army of Sparta including arrows that are shot into view as rapidly as you can press the circle button.
Combat also benefits more a sensible approach to enemy contact. The endless spawning waves of enemies common to the second title has given way to a satisfying, restrained style that keeps the pace brisk while limiting frustration and burnout. The enemy designs and horde composition also demand greater use of Kratosí arsenal for lengthier combos and maximum damage. For tighter spots or troublesome bosses, the Rage of Sparta, slowly built during combat, can offer some much-needed breathing room by bestowing limited invulnerability so that Kratos can use the Blade of Olympus to maul his foes with impunity. There is also another, final item that you will have to keep an eye on during combat: the item bar. Now the usage of the items stripped from a god, be it the Bow of Apollo or the Boots of Hermes, will deplete the item bar. It might seem like thereís too much to worry about but itís not so bad, much is the same but simply reworded and updated while the item bar means items wonít deplete your mana pool.
One thing that the series helped to popularize, and that I have since become tired of, is quick time events. While a few other titles have handled them well enough, most are content to use them as a crutch to the point of irritation. GOWIII, after the second itself left them bruised from all of the abuse, does the idea justice by making two important changes: buttons now appear on the edges of the screen and more time is given to press them. Not only does this make the events more intuitive, with the highlighted border and button icon being more noticeable, but it also opens up the central viewing area so that you can enjoy the killer animations. I found that the relaxed atmosphere actually made combat feel more fluid and enjoyable, as I was less rigid and tense in anticipation of the next direction.
I need to also point out how effectively the developers utilize force feedback. Rumble is present in most games now but GOWIII is both more impressive in its implementation with a more technical, and often subtle, approach. Itís the first time Iíve ever been impressed with its implementation. The feedback of the slow buildup from the approach of a Titan or the shaking when a puzzle is solved is different than before, more nuanced with gradual buildups that punctuate tense moments rather than simply being on or off.
The puzzles, in addition to the layouts of the levels, are also more mature this time around. Most of the puzzles in the past stretched their premises to the breaking point, almost or flat-out ruining some clever moments, while the developers now seemed to have realized that there is no use in having the player slowly lug five pillars across a room when one is enough; the focus now isnít on the time-consuming labor but on what such actions trigger. There remains a few sequences which hearken back to the older, more frustrating days: flying sequences that can leave you feeling like a pinball or edges that look as if they provide a solid place to jump from when youíre really supposed to be a quarter of an inch to the left. But still, they are far, far fewer than before, and the game is all the better for it.
Upon completing the game, which includes a multi-stage boss fight with a great side-view brawling sequence, you unlock a wide range of goodies. The noir-styled Kratos that appears in the later, more ethereal sequences becomes unlocked as an additional costume and offers a twist on the campaign by quadrupling the damage received and dealt. The Challenges of Olympus are also playable, providing a series of tests that involve everything from breaking 30 pieces of pottery in 30 seconds to defeating enemies without using any weapons. If you manage to complete all of the challenges, you can then fight in a more customized brawl through the unlocked Combat Arena mode. My favorite extra though has to be the behind-the-scenes videos. Similar to the bonus content in GOWII, the videos offer a look at everything from combat design to quality assurance to the voice-over sessions. The recording sessions in particular are interesting as you get to see the likes of Rip Torn and a rather saucy Malcolm McDowell chew up some scenes. One interesting revelation from the recording videos is that Kevin Sorbo, who played Hercules on TV, voices Hercules in the game Ė I had no idea. And itís always nice to see the QA folk get their due. If you still canít get enough after all of this, then there is always the ridiculously trying Chaos difficulty level that unlocks upon completion. More than enough reasons to keep playing.
As the end of the trilogy, God of War III sends the series out with a thundering boom. Sony Santa Monica really did a fantastic job in taking the best parts of an already great series and distilling them for one of the most memorable adventures in gaming. It looks and sounds amazing, controls great, and the bonuses deliver. Aside from a few sequences reminiscent of its more unfortunate past, overly difficult without reason and some gratuitously silly nudity, the game is thoroughly enjoyable. I will warn that, as it does look great, it might be too graphic for some; if you thought the series was violent or borderline, then you will want to stay away. If, on the other hand, you revel in mythology and the ability to slice Gorgons in half and topple mighty Cyclopes in showers of blood, then grab your blades and get to it. Zeus is waiting.
(This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher.)