Sony has a lot riding on the fourth instalment in the God of War series. The first two PlayStation 2 releases were enormously popular, selling millions around the world, but by the time they came out PS2 had already vanquished Xbox, and indeed everyone else. By the time God of War III comes out, which may not even be this year, the story will be very different. Still, in the ongoing console battle between PS3 and Xbox 360, who better to fight Sony's corner than the, er, God of War?
Sitting down in Sony's Santa Monica studio to find out, it turns out the story, which picks up right where God of War II left things, has Kratos and an army of Titans out to eradicate the remaining gods Helios, Hermes, Hades and Zeus - a revenge story that sets up plenty of brutal battles with an onslaught of menacing enemies. "The biggest challenges in creating this sequel were living up to the high expectations fans have from the previous games and continuing to evolve this series," says lead combat designer Adam Puhl, by way of explanation. "We don't want people thinking, 'Oh well, it's the same game.'"
From a first look at playable code in high definition, the signs are positive. The work this team has put into the game is immediately evident from the bulging biceps of the Son of Zeus to the intricate, gory details as he eviscerates enemies, leaving entrails in his wake (always the best way to go). Factor in the additional development time that's still allocated and, simply put, this isn't your PS2 God of War.
"The challenges we continue to face are all the new tech that we're putting into the game, all that stuff with the Titans, and all the additional levels of detail and brutality that's in the game," explains Puhl. "At the same time, we're extending the gameplay system without extending the complexity of it. The game needs to stay accessible. It needs to stay where everybody can jump in and feel what it's like to play as Kratos."
The team uses Kratos as the starting point for everything, trying to represent that brutality, that visceral essence, in the combat and in all the fighting (although hopefully not in his extra-curricular shagging). Kratos has certainly never looked this real in gameplay. You can actually see the reflections in his Golden Fleece armor and his scars ripple on top of his muscular body as he gets stompy and wild out in the battlefield, running into crowds of hundreds of armed enemies without a care in the world.
For all the change though, the new PS3 Kratos was actually inspired by a concept painting done for God of War II. It was a painting of Kratos ripping a dead vulture in half, and when he was ripping it in half, he looked so violent it was almost bestial, according to the recollections of art director Ken Feldman.
"I saw that and I said, 'That's how I want Kratos to look in God of War III, that's the way I want the public to feel about who this character is,'" Feldman says. "That drove the way we wanted Kratos to be and that drove the way we sculpted our technology. We have dynamic maps and that's where we're able to blend between these things and really make him feel like he's actually in a battle. We didn't just want Kratos' muscle to bulge. We wanted the player to feel like they're in a battle."
Speaking of which, the new God of War is definitely more blood-soaked than any of its previous incarnations, and that's mostly thanks to the graphical power of the new console. The team used the Titan gameplay from God of War II as a starting-off point for this gory adventure. "If you look at the way Kratos obliterates enemies now, he stabs a guy and it creates a gash in the skin and when you're ripping a Cyclops' eye out, it has tendons trailing behind it," says Puhl, illustratively. "When you slice open a Centaur, its body actually opens up and the guts will spill out. These levels of detail help make the combat experience more realistic." Yes, lovely.
Kratos now has multiple options when it comes to eviscerating the rank-and-file. He can grab a grunt and run him against a wall, crush his skull to pieces, or use him like a bowling ball and throw him into a crowd of enemies. The developer has also updated the contact-sensitive moves. New weapons open up additional attacks. Kratos now has a Fire Bow to set enemies and surroundings ablaze, and he also has the Cestus, a set of chained gauntlets similar to the Gauntlet of Zeus from God of War: Chains of Olympus.
"The theory behind this is that we're trying to get inside of Kratos' head and show his rage and show his anger in these moves," says Puhl. He's cross, is he? "We want the player to really feel it when you're killing these enemies and understand where he's coming from."
The team is also crafting a living, moving world for Kratos to rip apart. The gameplay sequence I'm shown features Kratos standing on the towering Gaia's shoulder as she walks up the side of Mt. Olympus. To offer some Titan perspective, Medusa's Temple from God of War could fit in Gaia's palm on the PS3. But that's just the scale; there's also more depth.
"If Gaia's shoulder moves down, Kratos switches to a completely different stance," says Puhl. "Kratos is going to dig his blades in and go into a wall-climb and grunts are going to fall off of Gaia's arm and as she reacts, Kratos is going to react to all the things that are changing. There are all of these additional levels of detail that we get like depth-of-field and all of the additional tech pieces. If we had put all of that in God of War II, it wouldn't run any more."
Feldman also says that God of War III ups the ante when it comes to the enemies themselves. Since the audience wasn't going to be captivated by fighting grunts all the way through, the team set out to create bigger, badder, meaner, and fiercer creatures. "We've introduced new gameplay with these bosses," he says. "We're re-introducing the Cyclops as this almost tank-like thing that you can drive around and destroy. We're offering a more in-depth redesign of some of the things gamers may already be used to."
During the demonstration, Kratos uses his chain-swords to control a Cyclops like a remote-controlled tank and take to the skies hanging on a flying Harpy to cross a large pit. Gamers will be happy to know that God of War III actually puts more control into their hands. This Kratos is capable of feats never before imagined, and players will be able to pull off fatalities that make the Saw movies look like Disney films.
In other words, even at this early stage, God of War III doesn't disappoint your bloodthirsty American correspondent. It's setting Sony up for the kind of killer application that it's after. Now it's just a matter of waiting for the launch date.
God of War III is due for release exclusively on PlayStation 3 late this year or early next. Expect a firm date at E3.