Very rarely am I sucked into the hype machine, often remaining sceptical or decidedly unimpressed unless something awe-inspiring happens. Be that extraordinary visuals, a captivating story, or simply, a game in which through sheer polish and exemplary development becomes something much greater than it ever was before.
With God Of War 3 I was unimpressed from the very beginning. The initial teaser trailers didn’t look particularly great from a graphical point of view, and the gameplay seemed to be more of the same, something I never really took to when playing the first game some five years ago. My hands-on with the E3 demo both at the Eurogamer Expo and on PSN, completely failed to change my mind.
The final game, however, is a different beast altogether, delivered with such finesse and a sense of grandeur that it can only be described as one of the most intense, and visually alluring games yet to come out of a Western development studio. GoW3 is not only one of the most graphically impressive videogames I have ever seen, blending in both great art and benchmark technology. But it’s also the first time I have thoroughly enjoyed a God Of War title, being one of the most epic thrill-rides to grace the current generation of videogames consoles. It isn’t a perfect game however, and suffers from at least one gameplay quirk that threatens to break an otherwise awesomely fun, massively epic adventure.
This particular issue has to do with the control scheme, or more specifically, with how the game has you double jumping into a glide when leaping of the edge of a platform or ledge. More on this later on in the review but suffice to say that it isn’t enough to bring down the game, especially after a few hours of play in which you should have the mechanic mostly oiled down to a tee.
Other than that reasonably minor issue - seeing as you spend most of your time fighting hordes of Zeus’s minions rather than attempting to become the Greek equivalent of Lara Croft - the rest of God Of War 3 provides players with a solid and absolutely epic experience. One which presents you with more enemies and larger than life set pieces. If you thought the scenery destroying, screen-filling bosses of Bayonetta were impressive, think again, as God OF War 3 ups the ante even further along into chaos.
The beginning of the game alone is focused purely on a huge boss battle between a giant stone Titan (Gaia) and the ocean god Poseidon, with Ktatos having to jump back and forth between Mount Olympus, which the Titan is climbing, and Gaia, where the main battle takes place. All through this encounter you have to fend off waves of Zeus’s minions, before having to scale up the giant Titan to begin the final assault against the ravenous ocean god. All of this plays out like a blood soaked version of Shadow Of The Colossus, featuring huge characters making up what can only be described as an actual level itself, along with some of the most intense and downright impressive QTE action sequences in the entire game.
It’s a pretty incredible opening, which not only showcases the enormous sense of scale and epic gravitas the game provides, but also its insanely good looking graphical prowess, which stands right up there against both Uncharted 2 and Killzone 2 for one of the best looking games this generation. Indeed GoW3’s recipe for success is not only making things look great, but also making every large encounter feeling very much like one giant endgame.
In terms of actual gameplay, not much has changed from the demo we played both at Eurogamer last year and the PSN download we locked horns with last month. However, the execution is far slicker, and the visual upgrade creates a smoother more responsive game outshining the demo in every single way. Whereas the demo ran mostly at 30fps during any combat or action scenes, the final game hits 60fps for the majority of its encounters, and only drops down to the 30fpos mark in the biggest of battles. In most heavy scenes through the game, 45fps is commonplace, and is still smooth enough to keep the controls responsive and the visuals suitably polished.
Like in the first two GoW games, the combat still hinges 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. But you now have the ability to change weapons on the fly, integrating different moves from different weapons all into the same combination attack. In addition a few new moves have been added making it easier and more enjoyable to take on the increased amount of enemies at any one time.
Whereas before there would have been a dozen or so enemies, now comes two or three times that, followed up with some of the largest bosses to feature in the series so far. At the same time the game gives you all the tools you need to deal with such adversaries. Which is a good thing too; as there are bloody loads of them to deal with, many of which are twice your size and capable of slicing you to pieces given the chance.
Thankfully, having the ability to change weapons mid-combo effectively allows you to take down larger foes without taking a massively long time to do so. For example, Kratos can use the Cestus Gauntlets to break through an enemies shield, before switching back to his trademark Blades of Chaos to finish them off with some prolonged combos and special attacks. You can of course, simply, just continue to use the Gauntlets for the entire battle, seeing as they are so powerful, but you then run the risk of being overwhelmed by many weaker enemies as a result.
This change makes the game feel far more varied as a result, especially when it throws at you bosses or creatures, which require specific weapons in order to defeat them. You will find that the game transcends its initial button bashing nature by making you think about what you’re doing, and how you go about doing it. It makes a great change from the grating nature of continuously pounding the ‘square’ and ‘triangle’ buttons in the hope of success, whilst also allowing you to experiment beyond using basic magic or shooting the odd arrow here and there.
Special weapons also have regenerative abilities now. Whereas in GoW 2 they would expire after a certain amount of usage, they now occupy the yellow bar below your health meter, which refills itself within a few seconds or so of you not using a special weapon. This means that weapons such as the Bow of Apollo, can be used continuously through the game, and can always be counted on for additional support knowing that it will regenerate a few seconds after being used. Occasionally you will find that it is pretty easy to exploit this trait by simply firing off ten shots or so, dodging any attacks while the yellow bar fills up for a few seconds, before once again repeating the process. This even works on bosses, though not all, and attempting to kill them this way takes ages compared to using the multitude of weapons at your disposal. However, it does make things easier for less confident players without compromising the challenge and integrity of the game.
To top off the game’s already polished combat system, GoW3 also speeds up the previously slow heavy attacks, now allowing them to be used in combos as a starter, or even mid way through. Using them in all situations is no longer a death sentence, but now becomes just another way of dealing with the increasing amounts of enemies being thrown your way. The result is that the overall game is far more fluid than any of the previous instalments, something more akin in some ways to Japanese style hack’n’slash titles like Bayonetta or Devil May Cry without loosing its trademark feel in the process.
Of course, GoW3 isn’t about all the gut wrenching and killing that comes with being a fallen god with a taste for revenge. There are a number of slower, more sedate parts throughout the game, with lesser amounts of enemies and more controlled aggression directed your way. These sections are home to the series trademark puzzle solving elements in addition to upgrading your skills through finding abilities, as well as gaining new weapons and magic.
Unlike GoW2, the puzzles in GoW3 are smaller in size and are altogether much simpler. They rely on the same box-pushing, lever pulling scenarios present in the last game, but are at the same time slightly easier to figure out, with solutions being down to common sense logic rather than anything cryptic or obscure. They also seem to span across one or two large rooms at the most compared to the long and sprawling puzzles laid out in the second game.
I didn’t find any of these to be problematic, instead feeling that they made the whole experience a far more interesting one. You could say that they made the sense of adventure surrounding the Greek mythology and architecture quite captivating at times, whilst also breaking up the button mashing nature inherent in other parts of the game. For once, during an action-based game, I actually really enjoyed and appreciated these thinking man’s moments, with only a few times in which I remained stumped – even then it was only for a few short minutes.
In addition to throwing a puzzle or two at you, the game also features some rather frustrating platforming sections, let down by the overly picky jumping system. Basically, most of the jumps in these platform sections need almost complete precision in order to be tackled successfully, relying on both your timing of the glide and double jump moves, while also giving you no leeway for any mistakes.
Jumping and gliding in itself isn’t particularly difficult. However, in GoW3 you seemingly can only perform the higher jump when there is solid ground below you, and not as you are throwing yourself off a ledge in order to leap across any pitfalls below. At the same time, having you glide by holding down the ‘cross’ button in the same button press required for the double jump feels particularly unnatural, being different from pretty much every game released that relied on such a technique.
This aspect of the game does much to potentially spoil the experience, and I often found myself frustrated at my repeated failed attempts to progress in these sections. Had the jumping and gliding mechanics been a little easier or more conventional in their execution then I wouldn’t have has many problems, and these parts of the game would have been another highlight. As it stands, they serve only to disappoint and take away some of the finely polished nature of the rest of the game.
The rest of the game doesn’t suffer from these problems, and is of course pretty awesome as a result. In my humble opinion it could well be described as the western equivalent to Platinum Games Bayonetta. GoW3 has all the tried and tested gameplay of its prequels down to a fine art, an art made even finer by the changes to the combat system and the epic scale of pretty much most things in the game. Everything from the boss encounters to the puzzles are extremely well done. And if it weren’t for that stupid jumping mechanic, there wouldn’t be much left to criticise at all, except for the fact that Kratos, as a lead character, is nothing more than a rancid, vile jock, who is in desperate need to be put out of his misery.
Even though I haven’t played through all of God of War 1&2, I would have at least expected his character to have developed from the mindless rage he displayed in the last two games. Instead, we simply see more of the same, with only a small glimmer of redemption later in the game. Even then, his anger and rage still shine through more than any other trait, making it hard to feel anything for him, except maybe disgust or distain.
Visually, God of War 3 succeeds on two levels, both artistically and technically. The art design whilst being a mixture of dark and uninviting colours, is never drab or unappealing, and in some scenes has a distinctly hand painted look residing over it. The backgrounds are a perfect example of this, in which the lush, hand-painted sky and distant horizon blends in perfectly with the painted textures of the environments and characters.
Technically, God of War 3 stops short of perfection, but still manages to define just what we should be expecting from these current-gen gaming consoles. Textures are incredibly detailed, clean, and extremely clear. And whilst they aren’t all as detailed as the ones found in Uncharted 2, they represent the art style chosen for the game almost perfectly. The lighting and showing system is another showstopper. It’s all completely dynamic, reacting with everything from the characters and the environments. Shadows move and lighting is cut off when something passes through it; Kratos’s weapons, when used, casts a short lasting glow which lights up the surrounding environments and enemies, with metallic objects reflecting the light back out into their surroundings.
The Anti-Aliasing on show is also something which needs to be seen to be believed. There’s no doubt in my mind that Santa Monica Studio’s implementation is the most accomplished form of AA in any console game to date. Much of GoW3 has very little, to next to no jaggies whatsoever, sans on a few distant background objects and scenery. Everything remains nice and sharp despite the high levels of AA on offer, and the areas which do suffer from jaggies, have much smoother edges than in other games which have little in the way of AA.
For me though, the real triumph isn’t the glossy visuals, the epic scale, or even the gameplay, but how they all come together to form a complete package which in the face of a few small flaws, easily stands up there with Uncharted 2 and Killzone 2 as one of the defining titles on Sony’s machine. From the moment I laid eyes on that opening battle scene between the Titan and the giant God fighting it out over Mount Olympus, I was convinced. Then, just a few hours later, most of the things that I was unsure about from playing the last two games had been alleviated. Almost completely, with the exception of the game’s platform sections being the only blemish on an otherwise superbly crafted experience.
God Of War 3 might not be wholly original, or particularly different from previous instalments, but it is a far more polished affair, and one which does enough to rise above from being just a great game, becoming instead a genre defining one. It is a title which I was expecting nothing more than a rehash of previous games, and although arguably that is exactly what it is, it’s done with so much flair and attention to detail that it certainly doesn’t always feel that way. In that respect, God Of War 3 is exemplary, blending an established formula with some new found refinement and polish, both of which go a long way to making this pinnacle of the genre.