To get a sense of just how big a leap Sony's Santa Monica Studio reckons it's made from God of War II on PlayStation 2 to the upcoming PlayStation 3 God of War III, simply recall the leap Kratos took off Mount Olympus in the first one.
"The depth of PlayStation 3 allowed us to dive deeper into the plot itself," says Steve Cash, senior producer, who's just gone through a live demonstration of the game. "The only real way I can describe it is for you to look at the first generation of PS2 games and then look at some of the [later] games. They're all using the same hardware, but people just got a lot better at using the hardware. They learned all the tricks and what the restraints were, and what the best ways to achieve the best results were. The difference in my mind is just astronomical."
Beyond the obvious graphical enhancements - the fidelity, rim shadowing techniques, texture resolution and the sheer number of joints in each character - that PS3's Cell processor has opened up for the team of over 100 in Santa Monica, the game's story and gameplay has also enjoyed a nice buffing.
"I know based on the things that I asked for in terms of design that this is a completely different God of War, because we never could do that on PlayStation 2," explains Stig Asmussen, God of War III's game director. "Just the level of detail and clarity that we are getting, and the fact that we can now use the memory that it takes to store all the animations to do things like right body turns, and that we can process enough characters on screen to bring this level of action to the gameplay..."
Anyone who's seen the God of War III trailer that debuted after this Sony event will take solace in the fact that Asmussen assures gamers everything was produced using in-game footage and gameplay. In essence, the leap to PS3 has enabled the team to bring the type of detailed action once allocated to cut-scenes into the gameplay experience itself.
"I've never seen anyone else work on this kind of scale," says Asmussen. "Because of that, we don't have anything to refer to. We want to design it so that it has a flow, and we won't have to drop hints. We also do extensive play testing."
Since the original God of War took off to become a blockbuster and its sequel grew to an even larger Hollywood epic scale, there's a much larger audience of gamers to hit. And with the demographics also expanding, the team's focus turned to crafting an experience that would appease core and casual fans.
"When we started off writing the script for God of War III, it was important for us to bridge the series," explains Asmussen. "Key moments and things that were relevant in the first two games are profound in this game. We are making a story that is a refresher course for fans of the series, but serves as an introduction for the new players."
During the gameplay demo, Kratos finds himself in the heat of an escalating battle between the gods and the Titans. While Kratos is on his own quest for vengeance, he sides with the Titans - hulking beasts that can be used to his advantage. A lava-spewing behemoth tears through enemies in the distance, and Kratos remains extremely resourceful when it comes to taking advantage of the world around him. He can tear into a Cyclops and ride the beast through battle (and then rip its eyeball out and gut it when it's served its purpose). Kratos can fly through the air by hopping from one winged Harpy to another. He can also glide up tunnels and from precipices using the Wings of Icarus.
These manoeuvres enable Kratos to rush head-on into armies of skeleton warriors and fight against mythical monsters like the Chimera, a three-headed mini-boss that's part snake, part lion and part goat. Players use the traditional quick-time event mini-game when slicing off the three heads.
"We can now zoom in a lot tighter on the action, so when you are in the middle of a battle sequence you can practically smell what's going on right up close," adds John Hight, director at Sony Santa Monica Studios and executive producer of God of War III. "Next to that, we're pulling out all the stops. The Titans themselves, which were alluded to and actually took part in parts of the game of God of War II, are now an integral part of the game. So there are entire sequences - levels from beginning to end, that will be played on the backs of the Titans.
Asmussen said that seeing massive battlefields with 50 to 100 enemies on them has become common with the current generation of systems. But while these spectacles look awesome within gameplay, the actual experience hasn't lived up to the promise.
"When you play these games it's very much doing the same thing against 50 guys that you used to do against five," explains Asmussen. "The combat really didn't evolve. So what we're doing is implementing a bunch of new grab moves and actions and attacks that you're able to do that actually do evolve when more creatures get on screen."
The one-on-one battles are also epic, as Kratos can now change weapons on the fly, allowing for more robust combo chains. In the demo, Kratos takes on a 15-foot tall Centaur captain. It's interesting to note that when on screen, the Centaur actually improves the fighting of his undead minions through new artificial intelligence, according to Chase. But that doesn't stop Kratos disemboweling him in the end. The god Helios, who looks so powerful riding his fiery chariot, doesn't fare much better. Kratos rips his head clear off after an epic battle and then uses it to find the door into the base of Mount Olympus.
But the adventure is just beginning, not just for God of War III, but - Santa Monica Studio would have us believe - for the gameplay landscape on PS3.
"One of boss levels from God of War II is now able to fit in the hand of one of our Titan characters," concludes Cash. "From a technology standpoint, that is huge. I imagine that as we start heading into the later years of PlayStation 3, the stuff you are seeing with God of War III just pales in comparison with the kinds of things we will be able to do."
God of War III is due out exclusively for PlayStation 3 late this year or early next.