We've been taught that vengeance is bad. The lesson of every tale of revenge, be it written or shown, is that it comes at too high a price. We keep seeing that if you're not careful, vengeance could destroy you, the world around you or the people you care about. Many times, it's all of those things. Everyone from Edmond Dantès to Hamlet to Maximus has had to figure this out.
God of War III eventually makes this point, but not before squeezing out every possible drop of rage-filled joy with its bare hands. It's about utopian payback, where all rights are wronged, and where anyone who stands — or perhaps ever stood — in your way is met with feral contempt and force. Vengeance indeed might be bad, but that doesn't mean it can't be fun, and God of War III is some of most ridiculous fun one can have en route to the end, consequences be damned.
Leading the charge is Kratos, the series' lead character who's always struck me as a mix of Spawn, He-Man and "Stone Cold" Steve Austin. He is the engine who powers the experience, and a character who satisfies a lot of our most base, aggressive urges — one of them being the need to fearlessly fight back against the establishment with extreme prejudice. This third installment has been painted as the end of a fight that started years ago when Kratos exploded onto the scene as a god-killing Spartan warrior. He killed Aries, the god of war in the first game, and then helped rekindle the feud between the Titans and Mount Olympus in the second chapter.
Now Kratos makes his PS3 debut on the back of the Titan Gaia, who is scaling Mount Olympus while her other brethren fight off the forces of the gods, as well as some of the gods themselves. This is where the game begins, wasting no time in baring its visual splendor to the player and setting the tone for the Kratos' ride through Greek lore. The game is a gift to the eyes.
Like its predecessor, God of War III throws you right into the chaos of battle. The last game pit Kratos against the Colossus of Rhodes, whose massive fists would crash through the walls. This time, Kratos' first task is to face Poseidon, the god of the sea, who is accompanied by his entourage of horse-headed sea serpents. The game shows visual reverence to the magnificence of the gods, their power, and everything surrounding them. Poseidon, even as the first boss, would probably have made the cut as a final boss in any other game on looks alone. His "battle form" is that of a giant being of water, glistening and churning as he tries to spike Kratos with his building-sized trident. Up close, Kratos himself is a sight to behold, as you can practically see his muscles working as he yanks out the eyeball of a Cyclops. His facial expressions were spot-on, showing the visage of one whose fearlessness is drenched in single-minded bloodlust. Watch for some of the sneers he tosses at certain people he meets — they're almost empowering.
Even more stunning was how the game addresses the concept of scale, especially when it comes to the Titans, who have been built like living levels. Gaia's just a taste, as Kratos does battle on her back, her arm and even inside her, next to her beating heart. Instead of simply having the ground vibrate every once in a while to simulate movement, I enjoyed how the angle of play was constantly changing. The earliest example of this was on Gaia's arm, where Kratos has to fight off one of Poseidon's serpents. The camera zooms out to show how small Kratos really is along with what Gaia is doing. The battle angle changes from simply being relatively flat to suddenly upside-down, as Gaia loses her grip on the mountain. This forces Kratos to hang from the "ceiling," so to speak. Eventually, he also has to climb his way up as Gaia regains her grip.
Of course, this isn't the only example of Titan-style level design in the game. Kratos eventually has to do battle with another Titan in a sequence that reminded me a little of Shadow of the Colossus. It's a truly epic throwdown that melds fighting, climbing and some timing exercises. I won't spoil any more, but it remains one of the most memorable parts of the game.
The intriguing design extends far beyond the Titans. Kratos' journey takes him everywhere from the depths of Hades to Hera's garden, the forge of Hephaestus and even the Daedalus-constructed Labyrinth. Like the previous games, each area seems to have its own visual soul, and the PS3's considerable power only augments it with brilliant examples of detail and animation, such as the towering Hephaestus (the blacksmith god) working in the background of the forge, forced to curl up in a smaller space, courtesy of Zeus. The Labyrinth, with its assortment of condo-sized cubes, chains and whirring machinery, would have reminded me of "Hellraiser," were it not for the nice mahogany finish on the cubes' wooden walls.
What helps this world come alive is the team of Greek mythology all-stars Kratos meets en route to Zeus, the target of his revenge. This is the first time we see all of the gods of Olympus in action, and it was captivating to see how the design team interpreted them as foils to Kratos. The most benign is Athena, who serves as Kratos' guide back to Olympus in a posthumous, spiritual Obi-Wan Kenobi role (she died in the last game). Zeus, of course, is the lighting-hurling king of the gods, and Hades was masterfully built as the hulking, fearsome lord of the underworld. You also have the mad inventor, Daedalus, as well as the goddesses Hera and Aphrodite. The encounter with Aphrodite is also memorable, but for reasons that have nothing to do with killing or vengeance. You even run into Hercules.
All these characters help put together a relatively compelling story, one that explores more of Kratos' inner torment but also outlines his effect on all of Olympus. Some characters are even sympathetic, such as Hephaestus, and you as the player are forced to watch Kratos' unshakable focus on his revenge sometimes run over others who might have legitimate problems with him. In a way, it adds to his character, giving him imperfections and flaws that we don't like to see in people we like to call heroes. Kratos may be a badass, but he's a complete, means-to-an-end badass who would burn a man alive just to get his bow and arrow.
The combat system serves as the method for the player to help Kratos administer his beatdowns. It remains simple, but with some new wrinkles. At heart, you can still mash your way through almost any fight with the Square and Circle buttons. However, the weapons have changed. Kratos still rocks his blades, but they have been renamed the Blades of Exile. He also eventually gets the Chains of Hades, the winged boots of Hermes, and the Nemean Cestus gauntlets, which can smash onyx and the shields of enemies. Those who've played the demo already know about the head of Helios, which serves as a flashlight and useful battle tool. Kratos also eventually gets his hands on a bladed whip that shoots electricity. All of these weapons can be leveled up with the red orbs you get from wiping out your foes. Another tweak is how the Kratos "rage" attacks are done with the Blade of Olympus instead of his regular weapons. The sword is now utilized as a finishing-move weapon instead of a selectable melee weapon.
Some of Kratos' new moves include a battering ram technique, where he picks up a grunt, holds him like a shield and sprints into others, sending them flying. He can also latch on to enemies with the blades to close the distance. He also now has the power to ride and control certain creatures, like a fire-breathing hound, club-wielding Cyclops or flying harpy. The harpies, in a useful twist, can be used to traverse great distances or help Kratos reach certain platforms. It adds a solid, agile element to Kratos' repertoire.
Of course, it wouldn't be God of War without the Quick Time Events, which are deftly placed throughout the game at significant moments, like finishing off bosses. The button prompts stay out of the way so the player can see more of what's going on, such as the disemboweling of a centaur or turning someone's face into a canoe without much interruption. The game hasn't lost the series' penchant for finishing off major enemies with gloriously nasty and satisfying deaths. There were more than a few times where an "Oh, s---" escaped my mouth when I ended a boss fight. I'm not going to spoil them here.
Another element to consider is the game's puzzle work, which I thought provided a nice mix of cleverness and simplicity. My favorite was the optical trickery used in Hera's garden, which provided enough confusion to make it challenging without being completely silly. Music-game players will also like the muse sequence, a simple yet entertaining minigame that allows you to exercise some of your note-catching skills.
There was very little I didn't like about the game, but the "flight" sequences through the tunnel of the Chain of Balance seemed to go way too fast at times, forcing you to watch Kratos collide with beams, wooden platforms and flying debris. When that happens, you're forced to look at the exercise as a case of trial-and-error and not as a potential rush. I also had some initial trouble with the occasional stupid death, courtesy of a funky camera angle, but that sounds like nitpicking.
God of War III was an epic, satisfying end to a legendary series that helped strengthen the concept of the ultimate against-all-odds protagonist. It's 10 to 12 hours of power with a conclusion that gives the player a hint that there could be more to come. If Kratos' journey is truly over, I can honestly say I enjoyed the ride, consequences be damned.
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