Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Review: God of War III

I came to the God of War party a little later than some. When the second game of the series was building up buzz pre-release, I finally decided to pick up the original and see what all the fuss was about.

I distinctly remember my first time playing the game and that speaks louder than any other praise I can give it. GOW was more violent and more visceral than anything I had ever experienced and the polish and fun factor was through the roof.

I smiled with evil glee as I murdered a hydra with a broken ship mast. I was dumbfounded by a plot point that quite literally required me to roast an innocent man trapped in a cage. The puzzles teased my brain and the combat continued to wow me as I watched Kratos evolve from a character controlled by simple button mashing to a precise instrument of destruction guided by a surprisingly deep combo system.

Then came God of War II, pushing everything I loved about the first game even further and tightening up an already well-oiled machine of gameplay. Chains of Olympus for the PSP, too, remains one of the best games on the portable system.

It’s not often that a series manages to maintain such a high level of quality this far into its lifecycle, but still, my expectations for God of War III were set pretty damn high.

While not managing to improve on the formula by as large a margin as the first two games, GOIII is still a big leap forward for the franchise and one of the best reasons to pick up a controller.

All of the GOW games start off big and the third iteration manages to up the ante even further, beginning the game with a boss fight that spans a large portion of a moving Titan’s body. Yes, your tutorial is a boss fight. Big, right?

While the opening is undeniably epic, the second portion of the game finds Kratos slowing it down a notch. There’s seldom a moment when our hero isn’t killing something, but the second act of the game does throttle back noticeably, taking time to set up the story and reacquaint the player with the world. This is a bit jarring following such an explosive intro and is one of my few gripes with the title.

The remainder of the game is spent following the basic GOW formula, never straying too far from the tried and true, and that brings up a second knock against everyone’s favorite ash-covered Spartan.

Don’t get me wrong. The folks at Sony Santa Monica have improved the series in numerous ways, and I’ll get to some of those in a moment, but nothing (save the sheer size of everything) felt like they were willing to take too many chances.

Considering how much I enjoyed the end result, though, I can’t complain too much about what wasn’t there when I was so enthralled by what was.

Other than the early lull, and one more that occurs near the end of the game, the vast majority of GOWIII is a rip-roaring smorgasbord of platforming and action with some truly memorable moments peppered throughout.

The infamous quick time events make a return and, by shifting prompts to the outer edges of the screen, players are finally able to take part in these over-the-top acts of violence and watch them at the same time.

Like Chains of Olympus, the additional weapons and items Kratos earns throughout the story are actually fun to use, offering their own unique fighting styles, effects and magic. Even better, bad guys vulnerable to certain weapons and effects are thrown at the player in a nice mix, creating a legitimate reason to keep switching your playing style between fights and in the middle of a brawl as well.

The story does a nice job of tying the whole series together and, with the help of new character Pandora, manages to stir up old feelings in this new setting. Rather than rely on original motivations six years old at this point, the team wisely crafted a similar father/daughter scenario that’s fresh yet familiar.

While the final stretch of gameplay felt pitch-perfect, I felt the conclusion of the story was too preachy and left a bit to be desired. The story doesn’t faceplant in the final minutes, but it isn’t a homerun, either.

The musical score is as grand and sweeping as ever and one tune that follows you through the early stages of the game was the most hauntingly memorable of the franchise.

Graphically, the game is a powerhouse. I was surprised to see the gameplay graphics actually surpass those of the cutscenes but, in control or not, everything looks fantastic. The game’s camera follows the action surprisingly well with only a couple hiccups along the way and dozens of small touches, like blood actually clinging to Kratos’ body, help make the experience more immersive than ever before.

I enjoyed playing the game so much (everything but the music mini-game and one portion of a flying level) I restarted the campaign immediately on a harder difficulty. There’s four settings, multiple collectable items that alter gameplay, seven super difficult challenge rooms, a combat room where you can adjust everything from the number and type of bad guy to the abilities and weapons you have, and a whole slew of behind-the-scenes videos to keep the disc spinning for quite some time. In an age when games are often ignored for not having a multiplayer option, GOWIII manages to provide lots of bang for your buck.

Since the game’s length is getting so much attention, I figure I should at least weigh in on this topic. My initial playtime was twelve-and-a-half hours. I fought every bad guy thrown my way and did my best to find every hidden object in the game. I didn’t rush, but I didn’t dilly-dally either. My playthrough on hard mode actually took even longer, as a couple bosses proved to be quite the challenge.

In closing, God of War III is an epic experience that delivers on its promises to the player. Everything about the title is big and the gameplay itself is pushed further than ever.
As a fan of the series, I walked away feeling quite satisfied with the conclusion. It was loads of (bloody) fun to play, and that’s what matters most.

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