When the first God of War rampaged its way onto the gaming scene in 2005, it wasn't as much a breath of fresh air as it was a joyously brutal punch to the face. Fusing stylish and creative reinterpretations of Greek mythology with the feral power of its franchise antihero, plenty of action game lovers rejoiced at having a classic epic at their hands — and Sony gaming finally had a face.
Kratos, the aforementioned antihero, won fans because, for lack of a better term, he was the ultimate badass. Capable of wiping out grunts and god-like beings alike with the flaming Blades of Chaos attached to his arms, he tore off heads, crushed skulls, ripped out insides and grew his legend across the bigger and nastier God of War II as well as the equally important prequel God of War: Chains of Olympus for the PSP.
Now comes God of War III, the apparent final chapter of the series, as well as the title unofficially (and perhaps unfairly) pre-anointed by many PS3 owners as the console's signature piece of work. At a preview screening of the game earlier this week, director Stig Asmussen promised that this latest installment of the franchise would "redefine" the concept of scale in gaming. At least, that's the plan. You don't tout a game as a combination of D-Day and the movie "Cloverfield" (as Asmussen did) without trying to go big.
Perhaps no game in the past few years had such a legendary start as God of War II, which immediately asked you to take down a giant, animated Colossus. God of War III is reaching for the same epic beginning, picking up where the last chapter ended, with Kratos riding the back of the titan Gaia as she and the other Titans are scaling Mount Olympus. It's the Titans versus the gods of Olympus, with Kratos in the middle serving as a very powerful and pissed-off X factor.
Asmussen unveiled an impressive scripted trailer focused on laying out four key gameplay elements. Asmussen made it a point to say that everything in the trailer "was real. We can do all the stuff that you see here."
The cornerstone of the entire God of War III experience is going to be what the team calls "Titan gameplay," the game engine that revolves around the massive beings who Kratos aids in his quest for vengeance against the gods. The Titans embody the team's attempt to try and blow the roof off the concept of scale. This means one thing: living, moving levels.
From what was said, much of what Kratos does is happening on the Titans, who are the size of some states. Structures, forests, ruins and other things that would constitute whole levels in the past games are all taking place on spots on the Titans, who, it should be noted, are in the middle of fighting a war. It's levels within levels. Asmussen put it in perspective by saying that the entire Medusa level from the first game could fit in the palm of Gaia's hand. He chose not to elaborate on exactly how fighting your battles on a gigantic, sometimes fleshy creature would play out on the screen, since no one has really tried it on this type of scale before. This reminded me of the bonus features section in the very first God of War game, where developers talked about some ideas regarding the Kronos level being left on the cutting room floor. A lot of them had to do with some of the Titan gameplay concepts, especially ideas regarding a moving, living level.
Another new wrinkle coming to God of War III is the ability to commandeer and ride creatures, such as the Cyclops. Simply knock off the rider, use the Blades to latch on and boom, you've got yourself a one-eyed tank on legs. There's going to be some strategic value to using something like the Cyclops, as it's the only way to crack through some enemy defenses. Harpies are also rideable creatures, as Kratos can grab onto their legs and use them to float over large chasms. It also helps that you can also use them to divebomb into the ground for a flashy and battle-effective landing.
There's also a retooled weapon system, which aims to give the player chances for shifting weapons more easily in the flow of battle, reminiscent of what Capcom has done with Dante and the Devil May Cry series. Asmussen said that one thing the team learned via fan feedback was that no matter what other weapons were available, the Blades were still the go-to death-dealing tools of choice. This time, they want to give the newer weapons more life. One such example was the Sestos gauntlets, which make Kratos look like he has stone lion heads for hands. They are pure beat-down melee weapons, complete with their own move set and combos.
The last key concept brought up was large-scale battles, with Kratos being able to do more against bigger groups of enemies. Instead of doing the same thing for five guys that you would do against 20, Kratos now has an array of grab moves that Asmussen said would "evolve" with more enemies. One move that stood out was a "battering ram" grab, where Kratos would pick up some poor grunt, use him as a meat shield and then charge through ranks of enemies, running them over in the process. Think of an ash-covered Adrian Peterson (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adrian_L._Peterson). That's the battering ram move.
All of these elements were again put on display with an actual demo of the game. The demo took place on a yet-to-be-named city level, starting with a beautiful establishing shot showing a Titan climbing over some buildings and the god Helios hurling fire at him from his flying chariot. Kratos' mission in this segment is to try and find a backdoor of sorts into Mount Olympus.
The character model of Kratos practically jumps off the screen, especially up close. He's got a lot more muscles visually working, while at the same time, he's not going to be some hulking beast running around the screen. He's a got a lot more going on with his face as well, the better to show emotions with, other than the sneering countenance fans have grown accustomed to seeing.
Also expect to see a little more action with the in-game camera. The demo showed off a lot of active close-ups whenever Kratos was either tearing off some creature's limbs or shimmying across a wall ledge. Hot zooms were in the previous games, but they were almost always used to display scale. In the demo, we got to see the camera zoom in on Kratos as he was pulling out the eyeball of a Cyclops. We saw him visibly grab on with his hands and strain to slowly, forcefully extract the eyeball, complete with a hint of a stretching eyestalk before it snapped off.
This leads to other things we saw in the God of War III demo. With greater scale and ideas comes greater … gore. Part of the appeal of the series was its sheer brutality (who can forget Harry Hamlin's Perseus getting mashed, drowned and then impaled on a big hook in God of War II?). One of the mother-of-god moments of violence in the demo involved Kratos knocking down a centaur and opening up his guts so they can spill on the ground. Another moment was against the new creature called a Chimera, which was part goat, part snake and part lion. Kratos made sure it was dead by first cutting off its snake-like tail, knocking it down, breaking off one of its horns and then jamming it into the side of its head, staking it to the ground.
Among the most graphic moments dealt with the god Helios. After using a ballista to help the Titan knock Helios out of the sky, Kratos now has to go to where the broken god fell. Once Kratos got there, he was surrounded by grunts and soldiers, some of whom formed a phalanx of shields around Helios. Kratos couldn't break past the shields — but the Cyclops he stole could. Once the shields were broken, it was time to, uh, grab something from Helios. Like his head. A layered mini-game is involved in relieving the god of his cranium, made especially nastier with the power of the PS3. We saw flesh tear and Helios' eyes darting around in panic before the head came off.
It turns out that Helios' head is also a new tool. It gives new meaning to the term "headlight" by actually emitting light that can help Kratos detect secret doors and passages. It can also be used as a magic lantern to illuminate dark tunnels.
The game demo ended with an example of the "Icarus ascension," where Kratos catches air with his Icarus wings and flies up through an obstacle-laden tunnel. It's a mini flight game of sorts, and will be utilized as a sort of transit system between areas, sometimes within the Titans themselves. The final shot was Kratos hurtling toward the face of the Titan who was climbing on the edge of the ruined city.
God of War III is taking a play from its PS2 predecessors by simply making everything bigger while sprinkling in gameplay ideas. The first God of War was a well-balanced introductory piece, serving in a way as a sketchpad for the third installment in terms of the scale-based ideas. The second one was bigger, more intricate and detailed, but the dramatic boss confrontations were its hallmark. The third one is aiming to be the ultimate trilogy-ender, the culmination of everything we've seen before.
The only thing that God of War III doesn't have yet? A release date. That's going to be announced at E3.
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