Hands-on: God of War 3

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Revenge is a dish best served cold, and there are few chefs better at preparing it than Kratos, the protagonist of the God of War series. Roughly a year ago, I talked about how his blend of bravado, skill-tempered power and pure rage helped him stand alone as Sony’s Computer Entertainment’s alpha dog and helped craft a franchise that aimed to reshape the concept of scale in game design. With the full power of the PS3 behind God of War 3, Kratos’ debut (and possibly lone appearance) on the system needed to be something special.

A few days ago, Sony gave us and others a big taste of Kratos’ vengeance … and it was good. WARNING: I talk a lot about the first 30 minutes of the game, especially some but not all highlights of what I saw … if you find that to be spoiler-worthy, be careful if you choose to read on.

As was the case in God of War 2, this third installment doesn’t waste any time throwing the Spartan into chaos. He’s riding the back of the Titan Gaia, who’s climbing up Mount Olympus with her brethren in an all-out assault against the gods. Zeus doesn’t like that, so he rallies the gods for battle. We get a good look at Hades, Poseidon, Hermes (at least I think that’s him) and Helios. I got sort of an odd Mega Man vibe from looking at these gods, each of them designed with looks and characteristics that display their immortal specialties. Hades, for instance, is the god of the underworld, rocking red skin and spikes that come out of his body. He’s also the only god whose face is unseen — instead, he wears a brutish helmet.

But your immediate problem is Poseidon, god of the sea, who promptly introduces himself by leaping headfirst off Mount Olympus and darting through one of the Titans before hitting the water. Moments later, horse-like sea serpents (I know that’s confusing, but that’s what I saw) bolt from the water and start attacking the Titans.

This is where Kratos comes in, as well as your first visual introduction to the “Titan gameplay” concept that’s the hallmark of the game. A lot of the action happens on the Titans, who are in essence living levels. Kratos’ first action takes place on Gaia’s arm, as he fights off grunts and creatures while working his way toward one of the sea serpents, which has managed to grab onto Gaia and halt her progress.

At E3, game director Stig Asmussen said the team was aiming for a combination of D-Day and the movie Cloverfield, and that’s what I saw. While I was paying attention to the fact that Kratos moves and attacks as smoothly and viciously as he did in the past, I also noticed how the ground was consistently moving and shifting. I saw other Titans in the background climbing up the mountainside, fighting off their own assailants. They managed to turn Mount Olympus into a war zone, and the whole experience reminded me of the perpetual havoc that surrounded Kratos during the God of War 2 opening sequence, where he had to fight off an animated Colossus of Rhodes.

Of course, this is on a much bigger scale. The first major example of this as it pertains to gameplay is when Kratos run into his first seahorse serpent. In all respects, it’s a boss battle, with Kratos having to evade this thing’s combination of claws (used to dig into Gaia’s earthen skin), water-based breath attack and other unpleasantness to chase it off. The highlight of this encounter was the second phase of the fight, when Gaia loses her grip on the mountain, which causes your field of play to flip upside down. This forces Kratos to hang from the ceiling, in a way, and continue his fight with Poseidon’s creature. Through the magic of quicktime and some quick thinking, Kratos eventually kills this thing by hurling a sliced-off claw into its heart and then shoulder-ramming it in for good measure.

Anyone who’s played the past GOW games won’t really miss a beat in terms of combat. I made some use of the new moves, especially where I get to grab a grunt, use him as a shield and charge through enemies like a battering ram. I also noticed a slight difference in where the button prompts pop up during some of the quicktime sequences — they arrive in the quadrant of the screen that corresponds to the button needed. If you need to press triangle, you’ll see it at the top of the screen. For circle, it’s on the right. I found this especially helpful for being able to keep my eyes on the action unfolding in front of me as opposed to having to look away for a split-second to see what I needed to press. Of course, if your peripheral vision is shot, this won’t help you at all.

I finally reached Poseidon himself after fighting off more creatures and walking through some structures on and inside Gaia, where I also got a good look at her heart. My reflexes also got some work, as there were plenty of instances where I needed to hit R1 to unleash the grappling-hook action of Kratos’ blades to either swing to a location or save myself from a stupid death. I even ran into a small “move the block” puzzle.

As far as Poseidon goes, I faced him in what I call his “battle mode” — a giant, watery version of himself, sporting his classic trident and generally basking in his own awesomeness. It’s fitting, since this battle sets the stage for many of the game’s more promising battle elements. You’ll spend some time warding off his attack combos, but the battle changes when Gaia decides to grab Poseidon and slam him into the mountainside. Some timing is involved, as you have to swing to Gaia’s arm to engage the pinned-down sea deity, who tries to end you by either zapping you with electricity from his trident (and jolting Gaia’s arm in the process) or by simply trying to pimp-slap you into oblivion with his left hand. This can be blocked, however, with the timely block-and-counter with the Golden Fleece, which Kratos got from GOW2.

I eventually defeated Poseidon, knocking him free from his watery avatar and leaving him in a crumpled heap. However, that wasn’t the payoff. The thing newcomers need to know about Kratos and his appeal is that he probably among the most brutal, feral boss-killers of all time. Whether it’s slamming a door on some poor SOB’s head 20 times, impaling another hero on a giant hook after drowning him or spearing a monster through the mouth with a bridge, few games offer the kind of what’s-my-name, “oh, (expletive)” death moments like the GOW series.

Poseidon’s end was no different … and I’m not going to spoil all of it here. Put simply, Kratos beats the fallen god to death, and you can see the beating happen through Poseidon’s eyes, so there’s blurred vision, swinging camera angles and even the sight of Poseidon’s hand reaching out. The finish, however, is particularly nasty, and I can’t think of one person who executed it who didn’t at least let a “whoa” slip out. I’d have kept going, but that’s all Sony would allow any of us to see. It was plenty.

The 30 to 40 minutes of time I spent with the game (more if you factor in that I played the demo again) confirmed what a lot of people already thought — that this iteration of Kratos’ journey will attempt be far greater than its predecessors. Actually, it has to. I was pretty happy with what I got to see, though I ease my optimism knowing that I only played a small piece of the game.

But it was one hell of a piece.