Version tested: PlayStation 3
Although I doubt you could count on Kratos to guide you through your Classics GCSE, it's hard to think of many other games that understand their source material as well as God of War. Sony's audience, like Homer's, is looking for the release that violent heroics can bring, an escape from drudgery into a vivid world where the emotions haven't been simplified so much as heightened.
Just look at the animations: whether it's opening a chest or opening someone's chest, Kratos puts everything into it. Shoulders quiver and shudder, knees buckle under the strain, there's audible grunting. He gives it his all, and, on the other side of the TV screen, so will you.
And so has Santa Monica Studios. With God of War III, fans of the series will find a game that's been refined and expanded. The basic approach, including the combat system, level flow and pacing of bosses and puzzles remains largely untouched. But everything's bigger, grander and more elaborate.
That said, the story of God of War III couldn't be simpler: the game is basically about climbing a mountain to kill the man that lives at the top. The fact that the mountain is Olympus, the man at the top is Zeus, and things kick off with a boot in the face that drops you all the way back down to Hades only adds to the enjoyment.
It's not BioShock, in other words, but such a loose framework has given the developer the chance to let rip with the detailing - and the detailing is beautiful stuff. True to the standards set by the previous instalments, this is a staggeringly good-looking game. Set-pieces are gigantic but artful, consumed with sweeping arcs of the camera and huge, intricate environments, while the sky overhead is latticed by flaming comets and boiling wreckage as heaven itself comes apart.
The animation is brutal, but never less than graceful: characters leap and dodge like murderous ballerinas, and bust into wet pieces as if there's an Olympic Gold available for Most Attractive Dismemberment. The locations take you from the brewing black pits of Hades, where bodies of the corrupted fall through the sky in a manner that provides a queasy spin on a certain seventies disco classic, to the rippling, art nouveau corridors of Poseidon's house. And if you can even notice the frame-rate amid this particle-heavy carnage, you'll realise that it never falters.
All this tech and artistry has been devoted to a very basic pleasure: kill absolutely everything on-screen. The thing you have to understand about Kratos, right, is that he can yank a person's head off. No, actually, the thing you have to understand is that he does this all the time: it's an enterprise he finds himself involved in sufficiently often that it probably doesn't even crop up in his Monday afternoon psychotherapy sessions any more.
So angry at the world that he's literally purple, God of War's vengeful Spartan is almost comically deadly. His has always been a world drawn entirely in black and white. OK, and red. It's a place with no need for an in-game morality system; early on in part III, crawling along a flaming ledge, Kratos spots a peasant, surrounded by flames and steep drops, waving for help with a button prompt floating overhead. The option to be nice? This is new. Not really - that prompt isn't to lift him to safely, but to mash his face against the wall. Good work.
That kind of casual capacity for butchery means that God of War III has to begin where most games end: it has to deliver on a level of ghoulishly thrilling spectacle other titles have the time to steadily build up towards, and it has to do this pretty much all of the time, without it ever getting dull. It has to be insistent rather than shrill, epic rather than merely bombastic. Santa Monica Studios has done that, and then some besides.
Where it begins, in fact, is where God of War II ended, with a failed assault on Mount Olympus: a twisty ramble up a pathway that turns out to be the arm of Gaia, the Titan, followed by a fight against a towering mini-boss crab with a horse's head. It's vibrant and vicious, topping the famous opening to the previous game: gore splashes through the air with each strike, the ground is constantly shuddering, attack formations shift unexpectedly, and, when the beast finally dies, it bows out with an astonishing showering of intestines and fireworks. Phew. That's the first two minutes done.
This explosive introduction revels in shifting perspectives to almost Mario Galaxy proportions, sending the hulking Kratos running up, underneath and over things, clinging to the brambles above him to negotiate sudden drops, or being flung across vast chasms and saving himself with a sudden chain-swing at the last moment. Meanwhile, the background tears up in blasts of colour and light as towering gods with designs straight out of Jack Kirby decimate the landscape.
Even before the credits, then, this is a game where something is always erupting, where around the next corner you're going to see something bigger, crazier, uglier, more beautiful, than what you saw around the last, whether it's a three-headed tiger leading an army of clanking skeletons straight at you, or a glimpse of the gigantic Chain of Balance that buckles the warring worlds of man and gods together.
Man and gods, eh? The wider narrative of God of War III is essentially a bickering domestic soap opera between characters the size of fjords. These hulking misfits provide the game with its regular bosses, as Kratos does a bloody-fingered re-editing of the classics which suggests that the real reason Christianity eventually took hold in Europe wasn't because it had a better after-life package, but because there was nobody else left upstairs.
It's a tantalising list of targets, each familiar name accompanied by an unlikely twist. Hercules, when he finally arrives, is a jealous meat-face, his hulking body covered in scar tissue. Helios is a flashy gadabout nipping around arrogantly in a shining chariot, and Hermes is a catty know-it-all whose backchat indicates that he could have had a lucrative future as a judge on televised talent shows if he hadn't run across a large purple man who really wanted to borrow his shoes.
Along with the grim designs and oddball characterisations, as ever with this series, each boss has a delightfully creative way of expiring, with multi-part fights playing out in some extremely queasy bursts of stage-management, whether you're piling somebody into a wall of spikes, ripping the fingernails off of a giant's hands, or sinking your hooks so deep into the bubbling flesh of a colossus that you tug out their very soul. Yuck.
And it's the final moments of an encounter in which the game twists the knife somewhat. An early boss-clubbing flips the perspective to the deity's viewpoint in his dying moments, as you pile on a final brutal lamping. It's a chance to see what manner of monster you're playing as, and it actually got through my skin a little, hardened as it is by years of headshots, disembowelments and off-the-chart Pringle consumption.
The game threaded in between the god-mashing lives by a handful of simple, entirely agreeable rules that should hardly need reiterating to series veterans. Rule one: all statues should eventually come to life eager for a fight. Rule two: every 30 minutes you should either get another power, a new weapon, or something really dazzling and huge to work over. Rule three: almost every one of life's problems can be solved by ripping several people's heads off.
Occasionally someone flings a puzzle your way. A minority of them are pretty limp (there's a truly ghastly Guitar Hero moment), but most are fairly clever this time around, riffing on the likes of Portal and Echochrome while making the mechanics seem new again, blending devious simplicity with an endless gift for conjuring pretty vistas. The best, however, are more than mere palate-cleansers - they're sharp and ingenious and peculiarly comic. Finally, the very best are physics brainteasers that involve kicking dogs around.
Most of the game, however, is still given over to fighting. God of War's combat may never have had as much depth as some of its competitors, but it makes up for it with freakish beauty and a devastating talent for creating just the right hit response. The handful of attacks for each weapon are very satisfying to use, and the feedback is horrible and delightful as heads rupture, limbs flail, and hot blood splashes onto polished marble floors.
There are new touches, like a battering ram move that you should definitely work out of your system before the next time you pick up your three-year-old to give them a friendly ride on your shoulders, but the series' classic combos are waiting for you like old friends. There are some truly brilliant weapons, too: different kinds of chains to smack people about with, one of which contains a brutal electrical kick, that good old flaming bow and arrow, metal boxing gloves and a super-powered torch called the Head of Helios. Because it's a head. And it belonged to Helios. (Guess how you get that.)
Powering up each weapon, via a method that remains largely unchanged from the original games, provides a welcome space for personal choice in an otherwise entirely scripted experience, but the real pleasure of the toys you're given is how accessible they are. God of War III makes it so easy to switch between them on the fly, sensible button configurations spread across the triggers and D-pad meaning you can mix things up and use all the equipment at your disposal with no fuss.
Even the most tentative player will soon be striking from a distance with arrows, stunning with a quick blast from Helios, before softening victims with the Chains of Exile, and then finishing them off with a single swipe from the Claws of Hades. Enemies provide additional scope for mayhem, each coming with their own gimmick, from sickle-handed wraiths you have to yank bodily out of the ground prior to a hammering, to centaurs just itching to be sliced down the middle.
And yes, the series remains bold in its use of QTEs, a mechanic that other games still implement awkwardly and often with a faint air of embarrassment. As with everything else in this game, it's a combination of focused use and shameless delight in brutality that sees Santa Monica Studios through. God of War III gets away with so many button prompts because they offer a change of pace from hammering away at light and heavy attacks, and because they allow some of the world's greatest game animators to really pile on the showmanship.
One very early example sees you pulling off a monster's claw, prising open its rib cage, and then goring it with its own talon. You're fighting on top of a giant stone woman at the time. Moments like that are probably worth the odd floating triangle symbol, especially when it means that all those regular boss fights you're going to slog through can be about crystal-clear cinematic unpleasantness rather than grinding attrition. Besides, any game that includes on-screen prompts telling you how to "agitate a harpy" can't be doing that much wrong.
Everything is enhanced by a camera that is spry and decisive: canny in its attempts to balance usability with spectacle, confident enough to zoom out when it wants to give you a sense of grandeur or ease in close to wriggle after you through impossibly tiny cracks in a mountain. Cinematic ambitions never get in the way of a willingness to frame the action as intelligibly as possible, while the game is happy to waste unexpected prettiness on anything at all, whether it's a humble trigger puzzle enriched by the face of a huge god frozen beneath your feet, or a block-pulling episode offered a touch of mysterious opulence by the towering form of a nearby tree that pulsates with a Titan's heartbeat.
The result of all this is a game that exists in an enviable goldilocks zone. God of War III is exactly the experience fans are expecting, most likely. It's polished but never impersonal, vast and explosive but never merely deafening. It's Scalextric adventuring, to be sure, but you'll rarely feel as confident to let a game lead you down the track, safe in the knowledge that it's only going to tug you towards fun.
Everything it does is big - even switching between menus results in a sound that resembles someone taking a blow torch to a brontosaurus - and most of the things it does are surprisingly clever, too, like turning a Titan's body into an ingenious finishing move or threading complex stages together so tightly that you almost never have to backtrack.
It's repetition with refinement, in other words - which sounds a lot like mythology, come to think of it. All those ancient stories have probably survived because they kept things simple and delivered what the audience was expecting, focusing on the characters, the emotions, the signature moves and the really huge fights.
God of War III is much the same: a technical marvel, but with all the clever stuff turned towards the aim of very basic gratification. There are no branching paths, no complex decisions, and no multiplayer modes, but this particular game is all the better for it, since the results are rich and focused rather than drawn-out and a little ragged. Ultimately, if you want to revel in old-school pleasures decked out in the very brightest new armour, this is about as good as it gets.
Oh, and in case I didn't make this entirely clear, it includes the absolute best dog-kicking puzzle you'll ever see.
9 / 10