E3 2009 Preview

God of War III Hands-on

All three God of War games thus far have been considered technical benchmarks for PlayStation platforms, as well as finely tuned titles with incredibly polished gameplay and deep, riveting storylines. From the 30-minute demo I played last week, it looks like God of War III won’t fall far from the tree.

As I began the demo, it was immediately apparent that the PlayStation 3 has done wonders for Kratos’ next adventure. The game’s start screen is a shot of Kratos, who, outside of appearing severely angry (as always), looks absolutely stunning. Each muscle is carefully defined and highlighted, each scar deep and lasting, each texture appropriately rendered – he’s truly a sight to behold. One neat thing to note is that, unlike many current developers, Sony Santa Monica opted solely for hand animation, avoiding motion capture entirely. As a result, animations are meticulous and exact, yet they don’t feel rough, blending together very fluidly.

Enough about presentation, though — how does the game actually feel? “It’s pretty much God of War,” says Lead Designer Todd Papy. Indeed, those familiar with any of the other games in the franchise will be able to hop in and immediately decimate foes with Kratos’ Blades of Athena. The controls retain the same fluidity and responsiveness as in earlier God of War games, and many gameplay mechanics remain unchanged.

The series’ signature quicktime events are back, and they’ve been given the current-gen polish they deserve. The prompts no longer appear in the center of the screen; instead, they’re placed on the left, right, top, and bottom to match the four face buttons on the controller. This small but significant shift allows for instant recognition of the button commands, and allows players to keep their eyes focused on the main action in the middle of the screen – and what horribly beautiful action it is. The finishing moves in God of War III are literally the most brutal, gut-wrenching maneuvers we’ve ever seen in a video game. Kratos jumps, swings, and slices without regard for life or limb, and some stunning results occur; blood flies onto Kratos and the environment, innards spill out onto the ground, and creatures fall to the floor, writhing in agony. It’s excessive, sure, but it’s wildly satisfying.

There are a few new additions to bring the game to “the next level” – without alienating fans, of course. From a player’s perspective, there are enough new mechanics in God of War III to keep it from feeling like a prettier God of War II. Using his makeshift “reins,” Kratos can jam his blades into Harpies to fly across gaps, or hijack Cyclopes to crush enemies under their hulking masses. SCEA Santa Monica has dubbed this feature ‘ridable creatures.’

Meanwhile, though the franchise has always been large in scope, the scale of God of War III is simply unprecedented. The massive Titans were “faked” in God of War II; the team created only certain body parts, and restricted the camera angles so the player could never tell. That’s no longer the case. Not only are the Titans rendered head to toe, they’re so large that entire levels take place on them. Additionally, massive set pieces are scattered liberally throughout this version of Ancient Greece, and they impress from both far away and up close.

In this latest God of War game, visuals contribute to gameplay, and vice versa. Not only are there a variety of cinematic camera angles placed throughout each environment, but also elements like dynamic lighting play a key role in certain scenarios. For example, while exploring a dark, damp cave, Kratos’ fiery blades lit up the environment, allowing him to see his surroundings – but only as he attacked. You literally have to fight to see, unless you utilize Helios’ radiating head as a fleshlight – erm, flashlight.

There’s plenty more in God of War III, including epic boss battles with the Gods of Olympus, but you’ll have to wait until March 2010 to experience it for yourself. That seems like a long way off, and indeed it is, but considering how polished and enjoyable the game already is, it will surely be worth the wait.