We've all pulled the heads off things before, of course. Pretty much all videogames include pulling the heads off things (with the possible exception of Imagine Babies). But no other example springs to mind just now, because the only one worth remembering is Kratos' angry, barehanded decapitation of poor old chariot-riding Helios in God of War III. Helios is a fiery, antagonistic little pretty-boy, but once you've watched his skin stretched taught into tendrils and torn, like so much plasticine flesh in a George Romero movie, you can't help feel sorry for him.
His actual death is relatively insignificant to the God of War III demo we're playing at this week's Eurogamer Expo, but his head's quite useful - it can be used to shine light on secrets and startle skeletal enemies in dark caves. But even this is just one of many potentially throwaway ideas in a teaser rich with interactive possibility - whether it's in the timed trebuchet takedown of Helios' chariot, which originally set him up to lose his head, or using Harpies as movable platforms, or riding a Cyclops around battering the phalanx of guards protecting a wounded Titan.
Like its predecessors, God of War III injects so much spectacle into each slick confrontation that even the simplest skirmish lingers in the memory. Sony Santa Monica wields quick-time events with particular relish. Apart from pulling off Helios's head, Kratos scoops the eye out of a Cyclops and wrenches it free by a fistful of nerve endings; he topples a Centaur and spills its considerable guts all over the flagstones; and in a multi-part battle with a Chimera he first removes its tail, then gouges its bowels, and ultimately rips off a horn for the killing blow, thrust through the side of the mighty beast's dazzled head. Tap, tap, tap you go on the DualShock 3; were it any more involved, of course, you wouldn't get to stare at the grisly details.
Far from divorcing you from the action by stressing the superficial, however, there's a strong connection between player and spectacle. Before you've even begun the demo, Sony is simultaneously showing off and drawing you into the action: as you stare at Kratos' grumpy face on the ludicrously detailed title screen and hit the Start button, the camera merely pulls back and gives you control. Skeleton warriors round the bend on the mountain path that overlooks a war-ravaged cityscape, and you start hacking and slashing.
Next to the grander confrontations, and in the shadow of the massive, volcanic Titan clambering all over the city, you might imagine the core combat struggles for relevance, but hopefully it will be here that God of War III excels in depth. The Eurogamer Expo demo, which was first playable at the E3 trade show this summer, is a promising indicator: Kratos can switch between the Blades of Athena and the Cestus (giant slicey gauntlets) using d-pad directions, while the new fire bow is deployed with a shoulder button. Along with special moves through a bumper-button modifier, it's a good starter mix, allowing you to handle both individuals and groups at close quarters and distance, while there's clear scope for air combos too.
Sony hasn't spoken in huge depth about other tools, but by triple-jumping it's possible to deploy Icarus' wings from the game's predecessor, and the Golden Fleece is evident in screenshots. Given that previous games could only handle around 15 enemies on-screen and God of War III can manage 50, we can also speculate on attacks that accommodate larger parties - although some of the initial special attacks already go some way towards this, like a heavy special with the Cestus which spreads the gauntlets wide on chains and then brings them together in a devastating clap.
Weaker in execution are the platform and puzzle elements, which are neither that exotic to look at nor to navigate. Helios' head is used to locate a secret door, but it's the only bare surface within range anyway, and leaping to handholds, sidling along narrow ledges and waiting for repeating bursts of fire to subside so you don't get torched are all a bit - for want of a better phrase - last gen. No doubt we can expect more from GOWIII in these areas than we're seeing in this brief demo, but considering Sony Santa Monica's close relationship with Uncharted 2 developer Naughty Dog, it's surprising to see anything this basic make it anywhere near the game, let alone into such an otherwise-accomplished demo.
Whether the God of War studio matches the efforts of its illustrious counterparts in the technical department, meanwhile, is probably best left to our own illustrious counterparts at Digital Foundry to assess (DF's E3 analysis is a good starting point), but there's no question that the gameworld is slick, the frame-rate consistent and the sense of scale occasionally outstanding. The final ascent through an Icarus vent, climaxing in a mouth-watering head-to-head with the lava Titan that remains unsettled as the demo ends, hints at what Sony has in store, and like Uncharted 2 there's a self-conscious attention to detail, keeping the visual surprises in direct line with the gameplay to stress the absence of recorded cut sequences, that momentarily paralyses your critical faculties.
It's a heck of a marker, in fact, reminiscent of the colossus demo that preceded the generation-topping God of War II for the last PlayStation console. It's a bit early in PS3's projected 10-year lifecycle to be talking about topping anything, of course (Helios excepted), but in the increasingly fierce battle for multi-platform dollars, we'd be excited if we had Kratos in our corner - and if this demo, which has been showcased to the press since as early as April in a less polished format, is what Sony Santa Monica is happy to wear on its sleeve, it certainly bodes well for what it still has left up it. Expect it to turn heads at the Expo this week, whenever it's not tearing them off.
God of War III is due out exclusively for PlayStation 3 in March 2010.