Is it confidence, or arrogance? Sony has every reason to be confident in the charms of the next game in its series of blockbuster mythological action games - they sell, they're slick as all hell and Santa Monica Studio clearly knows what it's doing. But this is taking things a bit far.
As part of a major tour for European press to showcase Sony's bulging PS3 line-up, we've been invited to see God of War III for the very first time, under embargo until the first day of E3 (which is probably when you're reading this). But to our shock, there's no hands-on, no big reveal - we're offered the same presentation that US press, including our American correspondent, got three months ago. Everything we see is already plastered all over the magazine stands at the airport - not to mention the internet.
So why this return visit? Because, frankly, you still want to read about God of War III, and we still want to write about it. And that's because God of War III is a sensation. It's an absolute rock star of a game, a cocksure, strutting frontman. It might not be all that clever or original, but its mojo's most definitely working. It's got it, it knows that it's got it, it knows that you know, and that you're powerless to resist.
Seeing the 15-minute live gameplay demonstration in the flesh is like hearing Led Zeppelin in their swaggering prime. It's a miniature epic, composed entirely of the videogame equivalents of ecstatic guitar solos, pounding drums, Palaeolithic riffs and a man in a blouse wailing like he's just discovered original sin. It's completely ridiculous and it doesn't care. Confidence or arrogance? Still not sure about that, but we're down the front, waving our arms in the air regardless.
Our hero, Kratos the terminally angry and violent Son of Zeus, is out to kill his father for revenge. So are the Titans, who want to rule the world again. That's all the set-up you need for a colossal war in heaven that's the backdrop for everything you do in God of War III, a permanent, spectacular cataclysm going on in the skies and the distance - "think D-day or the movie Cloverfield" in terms of atmosphere, says game director Stig Asmussen in a rare display of understatement.
"Kratos is interacting with the Titans in a way, to get to his goal," says Asmussen. "But there could possibly be points where Kratos is wondering if he's doing the right thing working with the Titans, and vice versa. The Titans might wonder if Kratos is actually the right tool to get their job done. That's where so many interest levels in the story come."
Worryingly perhaps, Asmussen - the third helmsman of the God of War team, after David Jaffe and Cory Barlog moved on - declares his intention to "get inside Kratos' head" in this game. We're not sure we want to go in Kratos' head, imagining it's not much more than a roaring furnace of rage and bloodlust. But Asmussen insists he's "a very complicated character" and wants to show us "what makes him tick". Aren't they messing with the purity of a great videogame anti-hero here? Isn't that risky?
"It might be," says Todd Papy, the quiet and serious lead designer who's the thread linking all three games together. "But if we don't do it... one of the things we got panned on is that he's so wooden. We're trying to better ourselves as storytellers and game-makers, and I think if we did another wooden Kratos it would have been universally panned. We have to take a risk."
"There are some things that are happening in his head that are a major point to the big picture, and those things need to come out, people need to understand those things," adds Asmussen. "He's a man of few words - but I would say that like Snake Plissken in Escape from New York, underneath all that he's a pretty complex guy. And he's not stupid by any means, Kratos can't be stupid to do the things that he does."
Asmussen may be emphasising a story with a "profound and relevant message", but he's not worried about taking liberties with the games' ancient but lurid source material, the Greek myths. "I've got a really, like, basic understanding of mythology," he says. "I've read enough of it to know that the gods are just f***ing with man." This, we suspect, is as deep as Kratos' feelings will really run at the end of the day.
Enough talk of inner lives - on with the outer slaughter. This is now accomplished on the back of Titans, which serve as gigantic, moving levels-within-levels; using new weapons the Cestus (a pair of giant, stone, lion-headed gauntlets) and a fire bow; against up to 50 enemies at a time, who will fight as organised forces under commanders; and occasionally by mounting and controlling creatures like the Cyclops (lumbering "tank") and Harpy (airborne "helicopter"). And it's unstintingly bloody too, Kratos merrily (well, not merrily, it's not really his style) disembowelling Centaurs and ripping Cyclops' eyes out of their sockets in disgustingly glutinous detail.
Santa Monica Studio is aware that previous weapons have ended up second-stringers to Kratos' trusty Blades of Athena, so it's aiming to build equally balanced and rich move-sets for all of the new items, as well as creating moves that take advantage of the newly thronged battlefield. The fire bow sends panicked and flaming enemies cannonballing into each other, spreading fire like a virus. The up-close-and-personal Cestus clears the space around Kratos with thunderous ground-pounds.
The way Kratos creatively scythes through the hordes is reminiscent of what we've seen of the Barbarian in Blizzard's Diablo III. We won't be able to tell the quality of the new weapons until hands-on time, but the Cestus certainly packs a mighty punch on-screen, dealing hammer-blows with a smacking, slow, heavy rhythm, the John Bonham to the whirling blades' Jimmy Page.
Best of all, the weapons can all be hot-swapped, even in the middle of a combo, giving the player great freedom of expression in this medium of mythological murder. "What we're trying to do is make it so it's all very fluid," says Papy. "Making sure that the way the enemies react to those different weapons and the way Kratos reacts to those different weapons, everything feels very different, but yet there's that hint of 'if I push my normal combo, I'm going to get something that's somewhat similar, does roughly the same amount of damage'. It really just depends on how the player wants to fight."
In the demo, Kratos is in a race to kill the sun god Helios, screaming around in his chariot, before the fire Titan he's already fighting manages to do it. He rampages through a few waves of enemies - the dramatic camera, always one of God of War's strong-points, zooming in lasciviously for the hideously bloody confrontations with Centaur commanders. He faces down a Chimera mini-boss, a truly fantastic creation, a monstrous but magnificent blend of lion, goat and snake. The game's literary grasp of the myths may be light, but the visualisation of it in the art is vivid and powerful.
Chimera dispatched, Kratos shoots down Helios' chariot with a Ballista and heads for the crash site while an unimaginably huge Titan strides overhead. He rides Harpies, agitating them with his bow to flock them together into an air-bridge across a chasm. He sticks his blades into a Cyclops' brain, using them like joysticks to command the monster to smash Helios' defenders into paste. He approaches the wounded Helios and rips his head off.
Helios' holy noggin will actually be a key item in the game - Kratos heads into a pitch-black cavern next and uses the head as a torch, discovering and blinding enemies before he kills them in a stroboscopic flash of combos. The final bit of gameplay we see is when our snarling hero somehow acquires a set of wings and leaps into an "Icarus ascent" - a high-speed travel mode that will cover lots of ground quickly. It's essentially an old-school twitch mini-game, Kratos racing up a tunnel dodging hazards, but very spectacular.
That's a redundant thing to write. The whole thing is very spectacular. God of War III is an astounding-looking game, rich in detail, animated with fluid abandon, saturated with rich colour and picked out in pin-sharp lighting and powerful effects. It's blindingly fast, and yet every frame looks like it was painstakingly composed by hand. It will surely be a PS3 showboat to surpass Killzone 2 when it launches.
But what impresses most about this demo is the sheer amount of incident. God of War may be a simple brawler at heart, but Santa Monica Studio's total commitment to variety and moment-to-moment showmanship elevates it. The entire thing is set-piece. It's clearly not about bang for your buck in these parts - it's just about bang, and to hell with the bucks. "For example, we hired a designer in June last year, he finished his first level in February," says Papy. "He spent roughly six months on a level, one level, and that's roughly 45 minutes of the game. Most studios won't spend that time. We have that luxury."
God of War III looks luxurious alright, a hedonistic indulgence of a game, expensive, dumb, beautiful and bad for you in the best possible way. For Sony, though, it's no indulgence - it's clearly some of the best money it will spend this generation. That's confidence, and it's justified.
God of War III is due out exclusively for PlayStation 3 in March 2010.