Friday, 28 May 2010

God of War III: a classic example of style over substance.

*This review is to be read by people who have completed the game and maybe the first two games. There be spoilers ahead, is what I am trying to say.

Without a shadow of a doubt, God of War III is a beast of a video game. Sony Santa Monica Studios have clearly outdone themselves by creating the gaming equivalent of a cyclops monster, that can be likened to one of the many specimens the God of War series has been gleefully throwing at you since 2005. You know the type. Lumbering towards you at an accelerated rate, gigantic in size, foaming at the mouth and roaring at you angrily. It stares at you with singular vision through one big eye whilst attempting to reduce your manly composition into mush by means of a big old stick, and all running at a cool 1080 frames per second.

The thing is with monsters is that whilst they are, for lack of a better word cool to look at; a manifestation of repulsive and/or attractive elements that linger and affect the dark places and recesses located somewhere within the psychological spider web of the human mind, they are ultimately destined to be destroyed by a heroic champion of some sort. What I am trying to say, is that we, like Kratos, or any hero of Greek antiquity for that matter have to face this monster that Sony Santa Monica Studios has created. Since its release in March, God of War III has been heralded as a masterpiece by some of gaming's most respected critics. There are set pieces in this game that have to be seen to be believed, a final twist in the narrative that forces the player to view Kratos, surely one of the greatest antiheroes of recent times, in a completely different light. Whilst God of War III is by no means a bad game, it is nowhere near the quality of the original God of War or even the mongrelish sequel that was released in 2007 and it is my labour today to explain why.

My main problem with God of War III is that there is a distinct lack of imagination on display that seems to infect vital aspects of the game from narrative, to pacing, to tone, down to level and general aesthetic design. You may not think so immediately, certainly judging by the spectacle of the game's opening twenty minutes. The God of War series has always managed to do introductions. From the hydra fight in the first game to the Colossus fight in the second. It is a simple template, a tightly choreographed fight against an enemy of grand scale. Such is the spectacle of the obligatory God of War prologue, that we can argue that each title fails to match the spectacle throughout the main body of the game. This is definitely and disappointingly the case with God of War III. Save perhaps from an excessively gory fight with Cronus in the second act, though this feels more like one big QTE. The third act is devoid of any kind of set piece of comparable scope, the final fight with Zeus is a damn squib compared to the fight in God of War II. As a result, completing God of War III is ultimately an unsatisfying experience. But maybe this is what the game designers are trying to convey through the whole revenge plot. Or maybe not.

As far as the story goes, you goal is to kill Zeus. As was your goal in the second game. A goal you would have accomplished had you not accidentally killed Athena. God of War III begins with Kratos on the back of Gaia, an army of titans climbing Mount Olympus to wipe out the gods. After the stellar opening, however, you are quickly dismissed by the titans and so find yourself swimming the river Styx robbed of all your power (again) and still full of rage against Olympus as well as the titans. Since Kratos is lacking in any guiding force, Athena comes back in ethereal jedi garb to help you stop Zeus, which sort of defeats the point of having her killed at the end of God of War II. Essentially it is another flippant video game plot, annoyingly made complex compared to the simple but effective plot of the original.

The main body of the game simply treads water with lack lustre level design. There is the obligatory trip to Hades and the occurence of Daedalus's labyrinth, which is reminscent of cult horror movie Cube. The game is built around the premise that Olympus is connected to hades via a great big chain. A chain you are often called to climb or fly between using your icarus wings. In the first two games, you would often have moments in which you would walk into the distance and the camera would pan back until Kratos was but a spec, usually to the melody of the game's genuinely brilliant soundtrack. These kind of moments, as you head into the Desert of Lost Souls in the first game or walked along the chain towards the Steeds of Time in the second game, are absent from the third game. Whilst the game earnestly attempts to convey a sense of scale, you never fully grasp the sense that you are indeed scaling Mount Olympus, to kill Zeus. Instead, you feel you are doing generic fetch quests whilst fending off the remaining famous figures of greek mythology foolish enough to pick a fight with you. Despite the processing power of the Playstation 3 there is sadly never a sense in God of War III that you are actually going anywhere, but then you could argue that this is the whole point since the whole world is going to hell in a hand basket since Kratos is all pissed off and everything.

That said, the game is certainly not short of 'moments', moving from boss fight to boss fight each punctuated with a horrific finisher. The fight against Hades for example, involves you sawing of his tit and love handle, two pieces of meat he desperately attempts to regain through lame force powers!? Another scene includes you ripping off one of Cronus' fingernails, whilst the long awaited fight with Hercules ends with mashing the character's face into a bloody pulp. Gore is one of the staples of the series. It is only with the power of the PS3 that the series' trademark usage of the 'ole ultra violence becomes a bit tasteless. It is as if the game is moving on to one shock moment of gratuitous violence to the next via a sex mini-game with the goddess Aphrodite. Believe me, I feel a bit of a softie for saying all this, but moments in this game had me thinking that I was too old for all of this juvenile ultra violence. Which is something I'd never thought I'd say about a God of War game. But then again, this could be the point of the game designers... Oh never mind.

Fortunately the overall combat is massively improved from the first two games. Not that it was ever broken. Regardless decisions have been made to make the whole process of monster twatting more fluid and accessible. You can now switch weapons on the fly with the D-pad, with each weapon holding a magic power. In previous God of War games, new weapons were always secondary to Kratos's trademark blades. In God of War III however, I did find myself using the Nemean Cestus as much as I could. The combat grapple insures that you can always get back into the fight without worrying about loosing your combo. A new move in which you grab a hapless undead minion and piledrive your way through the horde is brilliant. The combat works, as it always has done and if you play God of War simply as a monster twatting game, you won't find anything else wanting and perhaps this is the best way to play the game.

There are occassional moments of brilliance. As is already known, the game's introduction is a feast for the senses, let down only by the sight of Gaia's giant wooden mammaries. The payoff of this scene, after the heart stopping scene in which you are launched into the watery deity by Gaia's clenched fist, has you witness the death of Poseidon from his own perspective. It is an ingenius way of portraying the brutality of Kratos, the absolute bastard you've been made to play as. The ending, when you finally kill Zeus in first person is also well done. On top of a cliff in a world plunged into chaos, you as Kratos mercilessly beats the God of Thunder to death prompted by the series iconic pulsing circle button. The clever thing with the scene is that it is that there is no prompt to stop punching, save for the blood that covers the screen, it is then that the player makes the choice to stop pressing the circle button and so bring Kratos' epic quest for revenge to an end. But these are the only two shifts in perspective, at the beginning and the end. The game would have been made more interesting if it made more use of these kind of scenes. Imagine if you could actually play as one of the gods, like Hermes trying in vain to flee from Kratos? There would be no objective of course, just the looming sense of futility. Violence with substance, which I remember from the first game at least. These kind of possibilities would have put God of War III above the generic action adventures that the series has inspired.

Which brings us to the game’s ending. Essentially they attempt to make Kratos into a bonafide good guy. This had been developing throughout the course of the game, his insistence that he would not allow Pandora the child to die, even though his wrathful sense of revenge causes him to kill her anyway. The game makes a point that Zeus was made mad ever since Kratos opened Pandora’s box in the second game, so by killing Zeus, Kratos is actually doing everybody a big favour. Like putting down a rabid dog. That said, Kratos unwittingly causes mass genocide in the opening twenty minutes alone! How many women and children get wiped out when the death of Poseidon causes a giant tidal wave to wash away most of the world at the foot of Olympus? I always admired God of War for giving the player control of a character who wasn’t necessarily a bastion of moral principle. It was as if Sony Santa Monica realised that most gamers when given the chance are dicks and so created a character who would be the king of dicks, who would make all other dicks shrink in comparison. Thus, you have a definitive badass, a particularly heinous warrior, a Spartan unstoppable and ruthless in the pursuit of his labours. You almost feel sorry for the hapless minotaur as your force him to gargle on cold steel. God of War III seems unsure of how to portray their lead character. The ending reeks of Hollywood sentimentality. Against the wishes of Athena, who seeks to use the power of hope invested within Kratos to restore a new rule, Kratos sacrifices himself, setting free the latent hope that was stored inside him into this chaotic world that is now at least free from the rule of Olympus. I guess it could be open to interpretation, either Kratos chooses once and for all not to be manipulated by a higher power or for all of his sins, he chooses to end his life thereby in one grand redemptive act of creation. But the whole thing just does not sit well with me. It all feels confusing and horribly contrived. Then you sit through the end credits and find out that Kratos may not be dead at all! Well I guess death has never stopped him in the past. But what now? Will some other religion utilise him in a fight against evil. Maybe Horus, will use him to get back at Anubis. Maybe God will pick him up and send him down to Hell and teach Satan a lesson. But then again, maybe Kratos should stay away from the whole Dante’s Inferno vibe.

In conclusion, it may seem petty to attack a better than average video game in such a way, particularly a sequel, but then video gaming is the only medium where sequels do seem to improve upon their forbears. As a fan of the first two God of War games, I found myself disappointed after concluding the third instalment. Despite all its graphical presentation, its epic set pieces, God of War III is ultimately marred by inconsistency in the story and level design. Although it is sometimes brilliant and competent in the art of monster slaying, the game is derivative and lacking imagination. It is probably best that this is the last entry in the God of War series (discounting the PSP titles). Maybe Sony can move on to create another genuine masterpiece like it has done many times before.

*Hoping to have a more comprehensive video review soonish...