The last time we saw Kratos, the bald and bladed antihero star of the God of War series, he was aggressively working out some family issues. God of War II ended on a cliffhanger, with Kratos climbing up Mount Olympus with a whole mess of titans, eager to beat the smack out of the gods. This set high expectations for the next chapter in the series. While Sony has teased the upcoming game in trailers and in print, there really is no substitute to seeing a game in action with your own eyes, which is what we were able to do this week at a press event officially unveiling the game. Besides getting a look at another trailer, we were able to see a live demo of the game and talk with some of the team working on it. Does it live up to our gory expectations? It's getting there.
The event kicked off with game director Stig Asmussen taking the stage and serving as emcee for the event. Asmussen has been a part of the team since the original game, serving as lead and environmental artist on GOW and GOWII, and has now been handed the hookblades for the latest adventure. The game's direction is obviously to kick gameplay, story, and technological ass on the PlayStation 3. The team is pushing to make the game big in scale, mayhem, and bloody eye-candy and rich with gameplay.
But, while talk is nice, the proof is always in the game, and Asmussen didn't waste too much time in cutting to a trailer of Kratos in motion. The surly warrior is shown racing through a forest and tearing through hordes of skeletal warriors. His brutal assault highlights one of the new moves in the game--grabbing enemies and using them as a battering ram. The assault looks effective and painful. When a cyclops joins the fray, Kratos improvises and hops onto the monster's back, using it as a not entirely willing mount. Kratos doesn't seem to be too concerned with how the cyclops feels as he forcibly guides it through mobs of foes by stabbing and hacking at it. As the trailer winds down, the landscape goes wobbly as Kratos struggles with the cyclops and leaps off of it onto a passing harpy. The camera pulls back to show that the "forest" he's been fighting on is actually the back of a titan that is climbing to Mount Olympus. The trailer doesn't leave much to the imagination when it comes to what to expect next: an epic and bloody battle.
Before diving into the demo, Asmussen hit on four elements in the game that will shape GOW III's gameplay. The first is the "titan" gameplay, which, as you'd expect, is being expanded on quite a bit thanks to the PS3 hardware's muscle. As hinted at in the trailer, some levels in the game will be set on moving titans, which means they'll likely change up depending on what the titan is doing. This seems like Shadow of the Colossus on steroids, with level orientation shifting from horizontal to vertical as you progress. When you consider that these levels are set to span acres of land, this bit of gameplay could be a mixed blessing for the angry bald demigod.
The second gameplay element, the ability to mount enemies, ought to be an interesting addition to Kratos' repertoire of moves. Besides the obvious benefits of using a cyclops to clear some space when dealing with mobs of foes, you'll be able to make use of harpies to fly to new areas or dive-bomb enemies. Unfortunately, your unwilling mounts don't have too long of a life span, because Kratos "directs" them where he needs them to go by assorted stabbings, throttlings, and painful contortions. On the plus side, it sounds like there should be plenty to choose from and each has unique attacks and abilities.
The third gameplay element is the new weapon system, which has evolved out of user feedback from the first two games. Given that most players favored Kratos' hookblades, despite some very cool alternate weapons, the team is working to ensure that the weapons you gain in GOWIII offer the same feel, albeit with different effects. The only one on display in the trailer was the cestus--the metal ringed lion gauntlets. The powerful weapon is a close-range melee weapon that changes up Kratos' moves a bit, offering faster but shorter dodges and some wicked area-of-effect attacks perfect for slamming mobs of enemies away. One interesting aspect of the new system is the ability to switch between weapons on the fly during combos, which should make for some unholy chains.
Finally, GOWIII's overall scale for battle has necessitated the addition of new grabs, attacks, and other actions designed to deal with mobs of enemies. One example was the battering ram move, which lets you use one enemy to deal with mobs. This bit of gameplay appears to have evolved out of a need to figure out a way to deal with the hordes of enemies you'll be facing, which is considerably more than what Kratos had to deal with in the last game.
As before, the gameplay talk segued into actual gameplay as Asmussen queued up a live demo of the game. The demo was set in a massive stone keep cut into the side of Mount Olympus. Kratos is seen emerging from a cave and taking in the view of a battle between Helios and a volcanic titan that disturbed a group of harpies hanging out. Asmussen explained that the goal of the level was to find a mystic door in the keep that led to a secret path into Olympus, but there were some things to be tended to before that could happen. With an agenda set, Kratos is shown jumping the gap between the cave exit using his Icarus wings. Once he lands, enemies start to crawl out of the woodwork to murder him. The mob is soon large enough to warrant some battering ram action with an unlucky foe. While the mob regroups, Kratos is seen using his fire bow to ignite enemies, who catch their neighbors on fire, which helps clear the area. Unfortunately, a set of doors on one end of the level opens and a new mob, led by a centaur, comes out.
Asmussen pointed out that enemies will behave differently when a commander is on the battlefield, as evidenced by the aggressive behavior of the new enemies. This portion of the battle required some multitasking, as Kratos had to contend with the centaur's attacks as well as the more frequent rushes by his soldiers. While the enemies could be dealt with by using Kratos' standard attacks, as well as the battering ram technique, the centaur's spear jabs had to be countered, minigame style. With proper timing, Kratos could counterblock the spear and get in a healthy amount of stabbing. Once the centaur had taken enough damage, the familiar circle-button prompt appeared over his head, signaling the opening to initiate a finishing move. The finishers seem to work about the same. A series of button prompts will pop up, and if they're hit in time, they'll reward you with some painful and horribly bloody killing animation. In the centaur's case, it meant gutting him like a tauntaun, which resulted in a spray of guts and a whole lot of intestines.
With that particular area cleared, Kratos' attention is focused on the titan battling Helios. Besides the fact that the massive behemoth's attempt to swat the god and his chariot away were causing it to smash chunks of the keep around Kratos, the angry hero needed to look out for his massive partner in crime. A conveniently placed ballista appeared to offer the perfect opportunity to do just that. However, as Kratos begins to aim it, a part of the screen, which just appeared to be a part of the foreground environment, shifts and walks toward our hero. As the shadow moves into the foreground, the GOWIII interpretation of a chimera, a snake-lion-goat hybrid, comes into view, kicking off a new fight.
For this confrontation, Kratos shifted to the cestus and proceeded to pound the hell out of the creature. The chimera's attacks were specific to which form was taking the lead. At the start of the fight, the creature's snake aspect was causing trouble and assaulting Kratos with venom. Once it had been damaged enough, the finisher prompt came up and resulted in a painful head slicing. However, rather than end the chimera there, the finisher let Kratos murder the creature's snake half. With the snake dead, the chimera shifted to its lion attacks, shooting fire. After some careful dodging and face pounding, Kratos performed a finish and killed off the lion part of the chimera, which caused it to shift to its goat form. While you'd think goat attacks would be a lot less of a problem than lion and snake attacks, this was not the case. The goat attacks were powerful and painful-looking rushes that did a whole lot of damage to Kratos. But a little dedication, a lot of rage, and some mystic weapons allowed the Kratos to stomp the chimera and perform a wicked finisher. (We'll now be adding "having your horns ripped off and stabbed into your eyes" to our list of ways we wouldn't like to die.) Kratos returns to the ballista and wings Helios just enough to let the titan catch him and pitch him like a baseball to another part of the level.
With Helios out of its hair, the titan continues its ascent, allowing the spooked harpies to come back and loiter. The featured creatures offer the perfect way to cross the massive gap between the area where Kratos stands and the path to where Helios fell. In order to line them up, Kratos uses the fire arrow to stir them up, then proceeds to jump from harpy to harpy to reach the other side, killing them as he's done with them. When he's finally close enough to drop, he uses a harpy to dive-bomb the mob of enemies waiting for him. The attack is very effective, since apparently harpies explode on impact with the ground. Once the new mob is dealt with, Kratos begins climbing up part of the ruins to reach the area where Helios is lying in a heap. The journey showed off a new, faster shimmy mechanic, which appeared to be handy for avoiding debris and jets of flame.
As Kratos reaches the top of the path and finds Helios, the wounded god summons some skeletal help. This time out, the mix of enemies is more than just run-of-the-mill skeleton warriors. The new enemies carry shields that block Kratos' attacks. Fortunately, a well-meaning cyclops bursts onto the scene offering Kratos something to ride, and, more importantly, offers the use of its club, which it flails as Kratos steers it. The creature's blind flailing smashes the troublesome shields held by the skeletons. Once all the shields are smashed, Kratos pops out the cyclops' eyeball and finishes off the skeletons, leaving Helios with no protection. You can pretty much guess what goes down. After a very brief exchange of words, and some prompted pressing of R1 and L1 on the Dual Shock controller, Kratos is the proud owner of a slightly battered, but magical, god head. As we noted earlier, Helios is a sun god, which means he's pretty glowy, even in death, which made his head the perfect tool for discovering the hidden door to Olympus. Asmussen noted that the head will reveal assorted secrets in the game when used in specific places that you're tipped off to by controller vibration. Kratos was shown using the head to uncover the mystic door and enter an underground cavern.
Once Kratos was inside the dark cavern, the head also served as a handy lantern, lighting Kratos' path and stunning enemies that it shined on, setting them up for brutal combos. The interesting twist was, like with the medusa head in the previous games, the head worked only when "used" and held out in front of Kratos. So, once enemies were stunned, the light would go away and darkness would fall as Kratos pummeled foes. The cavern opened up into an area that contained a launcher, which segued into a gameplay segment Asmussen dubbed "Icarus ascension." The action was basically a flight up through an increasingly complex series of gaps you have to steer toward as you hurtle up at high speed. At the end of the sequence, Kratos popped up into Olympus, dodging the fiery titan who was already there making trouble. The demo ended on a long look at Olympus, which you just know is going to get messed up bad by the time the game is over.
The demo left a good impression from a gameplay standpoint. The action was pretty much what you'd want out of a God of War game, only amped up and with a greater percentage of entrails. The camera seemed to be working out well and featured some extra motion to sell the general chaos of the action. The visuals were looking good but were obviously still a work-in-progress. The scale and speed were there for sure, but detail varied. Kratos looked impressive and had a ton of detail to him. Enemies and effects varied, with some looking impressive and others coming off a little flat. The environments were more consistent, thanks to the game's large sense of scale. We liked the smooth transition of the chimera from what looked like a background element into gameplay.
What we saw of God of War III covered all the bases we wanted to see. There were some nice, expansive set pieces to fight on, some stabbing of mythological creatures, punching, decapitation of mythological figures, stabbing, gore, angry ranting from Kratos, and stabbing, so much stabbing. The work-in-progress game didn't have the buckets of visual polish we expect the final version to have, but even so, it made a very good first impression in motion. As with all good demos, we were left wanting more. We're curious about how the story will play out, if the weapons and upgrade system will have any significant changes, and how titan gameplay is going to work. This is, of course, a good thing, since we'll be front and center at E3 to check out the demo and whatever else Sony has going on for the game. Even at this point, though, we feel pretty good about saying fans will be happy with what's coming. Look for more on God of War III in the coming months.