While everyone at E3 was busy Wiiing themselves with excitement on the most crowded stand in the history of the show, or pooh-poohing the PS3 line up along side it, most people seemed to neglect the presence of all the exciting "last gen" (can we say that yet?) stuff. It always works like this, of course, but God of War II was easily Sony's most impressive title; arguably it was one of the games of the show, yet few people seemed to care. It's tough work being an all powerful, head chopping deity with blades attached to your wrists when everyone else is running around in high def.
Not that God of War II's game director Cory Barlog should worry about the fickle business of attention grabbing. Last year's original let the vicious, breathless gameplay do all the talking, layered with the kind of production values and impressive technical trickery that wins game of the year awards (it was mine, for the record). Next year's sequel promises to go even further, with a stunning playable demo giving us a few hints of what to expect when it hits stores early in 2007.
Presenting the game in a somewhat quieter, saner part of the vast LA Convention Centre, Barlog isn't shy about admitting that the sequel is their latest "homage to [Ray] Harryhausen".
"We're going for a real Clash of the Titans feel, with enemies that hide in a pile of bones and reconstruct themselves," he says. The effect is as chilling and well-implemented as you'd expect from a game that routinely throws every mythical foe in the 'book' at you (and more besides). In the space of a few minutes Barlog and product manager Kevin Smith manage to cram in more wanton brutality than your average early '80s video nasty. We witness Kratos cheerfully hack a three-headed Cerberus to pieces (ripping the heads off like he's scrumping apples), yank the midget rider off a giant Cyclops and gouge the eyeball out of his socket and more. It's not for the weak of stomach, put it that way - and this is just the first portion of the game. Call us sick, depraved individuals, but we can't wait to play the finished version.
In terms of the game's timeline, it picks up "exactly where you left off," nods Barlog. "We didn't want to call it 'God of War II, because it's not really a sequel but a direct continuation [minor spoiler alert]. The start is where you've just killed Ares, so it's all one big story and it truly is an expansion. Kratos is now a god and has to deal with living with the Olympian gods, but he immediately gets killed and has to fight his way back."
Apparently "To end his continued torment, Kratos must journey to the far reaches of the earth and defeat untold horrors and alter that which no mortal, or god has ever changed, his fate." We're told to prepare for "a devastating mythological war to end all wars." To achieve those ends, Kratos is taken back to the event where it all goes wrong (not that much has ever gone 'right' for poor Kratos). "He has to go to the edge of the mythological world" and basically kill lots of gruesome beasts in a spectacular fashion. It's all a bit Sands of Time, but we can live with that.
At this point you're probably reasoning that it doesn't sound like much of a departure from the first game. You'd be right, but so long as you remember this is very much a "continuation" an "expansion", that's fine by us. "It got the same concept of levels folding in on each other, and we're still maintaining that cinematic feeling," says Barlog. "We're making the player go and fight at the edge of the world thousands of feet up, kind of keeping with the feeling that they have to live as the character rather than just watch it."
Once again, some cunning level design makes the game world somewhat more coherent than your average hack and slash opus. "We've got puzzles that span the entire level, and we're actually setting things up where sometimes you visit future levels early, you get a little bit of something and then later on you understand how it all connects up later." By way of example he says puzzles won't simply be of the 'pull lever, open door' variety, but often be comprised of several elements that require you to visit the entire level.
One thing that felt spot-on last time out was the control system and range of moves. "We really nailed the control scheme and the fighting and how Kratos interacts with the world. But we're building and expanding on what he can do," he continues. "You start off with all the powers you had in the last game, but you get new type of magic given to you by different benefactors. You have new people helping you out in your quest."
From the E3 demo itself you get a chance to try out a few of the new abilities, such as the Wind Bow, which you can now manoeuvre around with to allow you to strafe targets and rapidly return fire glowing arrows and run away where necessary. Usefully, Kratos can also now parry projectiles such as fireballs and Medusa beams by grabbing a Golden Fleece. In fact, this useful new ability also doubles up as a puzzle-solving device, allowing you to deflect those dastardly Medusa beams to open up the Medusa door - via the Track and Field-style button mashing mechanic so beloved of the original.
In addition we also got to see the new grapple swing move that lets Kratos negotiate the environment like a pumped up Lara Croft. Hitting R1 near identifiable glowing spots in the ceiling, Kratos fires out his blades and attaches them to the grapple points and can not only swing across large gaps, but slingshot himself around too. "We're trying to broaden [Kratos'] abilities," Barlog notes, but admitted the mooted Pegasus flying ability wasn't ready to show off just yet. "We're holding off on [showing] Pegasus until it's up to standard."
Meanwhile, the cast of characters you'll be familiar with from the first game will be making a comeback: "We won't be abandoning them," Barlog assures us, with a Minotaur, Flying Gryphon and more "Players will encounter some of the greatest Greek mythological beasts." So there. Barlog adds that there will be a greater focus on boss encounters this time around: "In last game we had three really big boss fights and we wanted to do five. This time we've started a lot earlier and lot more mini bosses," he promises. "Some you'll only have seen in cinematics in previous game, but there will definitely be more than first one."
Discussing character AI, Barlog states that "enemies will not only be aware of Kratos himself, but aware of each other". For example, he points to the first mini boss encounter where a Cyclops gains extra powers once a rider jumps on top of his back (actually, 'jump' is putting it mildly - the rider literally sinks his blades into the Cyclops' shoulders to haul himself up). "If he gets up there it completely changes his attack." Barlog compares it to "a bit like the way the Cerberus vomited up puppies in the first game - if you didn't take care of them first it was a lot tougher."
Size wise, Barlog says he's not sure whether God of War II will clock in longer than the first in the series: "Right now we don’t know how long it is, but what we do know is that every time you turn a corner we want you to see something new."
Another slight tweak mentioned during the presentation was the in-game reward system: "When you fight the Cyclops if you collect the eye that reveals an in-game reward if you collect enough. Previously it was just phoenix feathers, but this gives rewards you in a more coherent gameplay sense. Overall we think we've got a very friendly game." Try telling that to the three headed Cerberus, pal.
And at that point the time ran out and we were left to ponder on the demo itself. With precious little time to introduce more than a couple of the ideas mentioned by the game creators it's hard to draw too many conclusions from what we saw at the show. The gameplay still feels as fast and intuitive as before, and the team seems to be delivering on its promise to give the player something new and impressive around every corner.
One minute we're taking down a giant Cyclops and wrenching out his eye, the next we're slashing through waves of mouldy skeletons, ripping soldiers in half, using their arms against them, tearing wings off creatures and deflecting medusa rays. Elsewhere there's a very cool section with some wobbly platforms that you have to manipulate in order to send them crashing down to create a path to another section. Giving a hint of how the team plans to make the environment more interactive, it was both a good example of the direction of the puzzling and a fairly spectacular way of deforming the scenery.
Technically it looks every bit as impressive as it ever did, so there are no worries on that score, and if there are more bosses to encounter that's bound to up the cinematic ante even further. It's fair to assume that the general 'more of the same' approach of God of War II might not wow punters in the same way the second time around, but when you're addressing one of the most impressive looking games of the past few years, that's fair enough. With the game not due for release for another nine months, there's plenty of work for the team to do yet, but even now it's showing the kind of epic potential that frankly shames some of the next gen offerings being shown off not too far away.
God of War II will be released by Sony Computer Entertainment on the PS2 in February 2007.