Monday, 1 March 2010

God Of War 3: Demo Impressions

On Thursday, Sony released the first publicly open demo of God Of War 3, making it the first time since the Eurogamer Expo that anyone outside the press in the UK has managed to see the game - and of course the first time since the event that we at IQGamer have had a chance to play it. What comes next is our hands-on impressions of the title, in which we originally had hoped would amount to a progresses report on how the game is coming along. Or so that was the idea, if it wasn’t for the fact that this recent demo release is in fact a nearly year-old build first shown off to the press at E3 2009, and then used once again for the public showing at the Eurogamer Event in London.

When I first played GoW3 at the EG Expo I came away particularly unimpressed with the whole thing. Visually the game appeared to look rather flat, with simplistic texturing and a distinct lack of bump-mapping bringing depth to the proceedings. The game also seemed to use only basic pre-baked light maps for shadows, and the much talked about dynamic lighting system was only partially on show. In addition the framerate was pretty poor compared to other competing titles, running at 30fps during any battle scenes with just a hand full of enemies on screen, and only ever hitting 6fps during scenes in which nothing was going on.

However having the demo at home and seeing it running on a properly ISF calibrated Plasma screen, it is apparent that much of what I observed with regards to textures and visual effects was simply down to the HDTV’s being used at the EG Event left in an un-calibrated state. The actual game looks much nicer at home away from all the poorly set up, dynamic mode, upscaled 1080p disasters that showed off the game so badly before.

The framerate still hinges on fluctuating between mostly 30fps and 60fps – which is the kicker for me personally, but the texture detail and various visual and artistic effects come through much more nicely than before. For example you can you can see the finer details found in the ground and wall textures, the pre-baked shadow maps actually add a good sense of depth to the proceedings, whilst the dynamic lighting – albeit used sparingly – comes off as quite a nice touch. The hand-painted skyline and two-dimensional background parts also blend well into the environments and create a sense of fantasy in a dark foreboding realm.

Despite this, the build used for the demo feels completely outdated, having none of the additional complex graphical effects seen in recent footage and screens. Shame, as it really doesn’t look too bad initially, and there are parts of the demo which were quite impressive, like when the Molten Stone Titan smashes through half the temple, making it fall apart before your eyes, and partially revealing GOW3’s dynamic lighting system, or when using your Blades Of Chaos in the caves, with the flames lighting up the walls, floors and ceilings around you. Sadly, these moments are too few and far in between.

This demo is of course just an old build from last year’s E3, and things have come on leaps and bounds since then. It’s just a shame that Sony couldn’t have shown off a more up to date version of the game, and we at IQGamer would have liked to see how much progress has been made in the flesh, as small internet videos and compressed screenshots make it hard to ascertain just how much has actually changed technically rather than artistically.

Of course with the game finally going gold, and due out in stores in a matter of weeks, we won’t have to wait long to see the results of Santa Monica Studio’s hard work, and in the processes seeing if they’ve crafted another PlayStation 3 technical success story.

Under the graphical surface though, lies the same old God Of War that many have come to love, and in which I’m still not yet sold on. The combat still ranges on you mixing various moves and specials together, changing weapons to deal with different enemy types and varying boss encounters, whilst having to dodge and counter numerous attacks and obstacles. These are the parts that for me require a good amount of skill and mastery to them, the part which most attracts me to the game, and provides the most fun. However there is also a whole lot of button mashing to be done, with even the smallest of enemies taking a seemingly huge amount of hits before dying, which is not only unrealistic, but also turns the game into one long combo fest.

With the demo, you start off with Kratos about to breach into a mountainside temple fending off Zeus’s skeletal army along with various undead warriors from the underworld looking to have your head on a plate. Your first encounter against the skeletal foes reveals no surprises; it’s a simple case of playing and feeling much like GOW2. However as you progress through a few doors, going through the caves into the main temple area, and killing a few more enemies, you start to notice some of the subtle, but effective changes which have taken place.

Disposing of your foes is effectively the same as in GOW2, using the square and triangle buttons for light and heavy attacks, vertical and horizontal respectively, whilst using the circle button from grabbing hold of enemies before spilling their guts out. Holding L1 acts as your defence, whilst holding it down and pushing square or triangle has you do some more powerful special attacks. Lastly R1 is used for opening doors, chests, and for other specific context sensitive operations.

This is all pretty standard stuff seen in the last two games, and is all I was using for most of the demo. However there are important changes to the combat system. The most significant of these is the ability to change weapons on the fly, even during combos if you’re quick enough. This is done by simply pushing down on any of the four directions on the d-pad, which one depends on how many weapons you have available to you. Doing this creates more openings for using strategy against bosses and large groups of enemies, rather than button mashing a few normal and special attacks together. It also makes taking on the larger foes a much more manageable affair without lowering the difficulty level.

In addition to this, the demo showcases a new method of attack along with a brand new weapon. By holding square whilst in a group of enemies you can pick one of them up and use them as a battering ram against the others, after which pushing circle with see Kratos discarding his living weapon by smashing their face in a fury of blood and guts up against the nearest wall.

The new weapon first seen in this demo is called the Cestus Gauntlets, two bulky metal gloves that look like the head of a Lion. Using them is a slower, prepared affair, but one which allows you to smash through the defence of most large enemies in the demo, allowing an opening for some serious combo damage if you quickly switch back to your standard Blades Of Chaos afterwards.

This is perhaps the best part about the ability to switch between weapons on the fly, is that it allows you to try things out using a different tact if normal button mashing isn’t working for you. There is also a lot a of skill and timing involved, especially as you will have to quickly let go of the left stick to switch weapons using the d-pad, whilst moving around and avoiding taking damage.

When fighting against larger enemies and bosses, you may remember the various QTE sequences that come up in order for Kratos to be able to finally finish them off. Well, in GOW3 these no longer just appear above the enemies directly, but now appear in all four corners of the screen, each relating to a face button on the controller. Essentially, you no longer have to look out for the symbols of the face buttons on the pad, but rather what position they can be found in. So for example if an icon appears at the top of the screen, you hit triangle, or on the right side, you hit circle. It makes things easier and the combat during the QTE’s more fluid.

Lastly, the fire bow first given to you in GOW2 is no longer a limited use weapon; instead it occupies the yellow bar below your health meter, and becomes exhausted after about ten shots or so. When depleted, the bar quickly fills up again when not in use, which means it’s now possible to run around the larger enemies firing off flaming arrows whilst evading attack, briefly going back to normal attacks after the ten shots waiting for the bar to fill up again. Once this occurs it’s a simple matter of firing off more arrows and repeating the entire process until the QTE icon appears on screen to enable a finisher. This, like with the instantly switchable weapons, makes boss encounters and tough foes easier to take down.

The various gameplay improvements definitely seem to make GOW3 a better game than its predecessors, and we can certainly see how it might become a bit more fun for those who didn’t feel quite so taken in by the first two. However, the erratic framerate and unfinished visuals don’t really help matters in this regard, and is the main offence that I took to when first playing it at the EG Expo in London. Hopefully Sony can sort this out, as if they were to at least achieve a near constant 60fps, with only a few dips in heavy action-packed areas, it would make all the difference. It definitely did with Platinum Games Bayonetta, in which the gimped 30fps PS3 version felt sluggish and visually much less impressive as a result.

To be honest whilst I’m still not completely sold on the title, it could potentially turn out to be an awesome experience if those niggling graphical issues were taken care of - a game like this needs 60fps as much as a good 3D beat’em up - and if the final game looks as good as in the latest press screenshots, whilst maintaining 60fps and playing as solidly as it did in the demo, we could be looking at another superb must have PS3 exclusive.

We’ll be taking a close look at God Of War 3 when hits stores on the March 19th, bringing you our trademark in-depth technical analysis and the definitive verdict on whether it lives up to all the hype.

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