Game Description: God of War III is a single player action game, exclusive to the PlayStation 3, and the final installment of the God of War trilogy. Containing signature and addictive God of War gameplay — a combination of over-the-top action combat, exploration and puzzle-solving — along with an engrossing mythologically inspired storyline and a selection of new weapons and a new weapons system, it is a fitting conclusion to the much praised God of War franchise.
HIGH: The battle with Hades.
LOW: The underwhelming Labyrinth.
WTF: Kevin Sorbo makes a cameo, but no Lucy Lawless?
The God of War franchise is the best at what they do. Excellent level design, the best action to be found this side of the Parthenon, flawless controls, epic bosses, the list goes on. Naturally God of War III, the series's first foray on the PlayStation 3, has some lofty expectations attached to it. The end result is certainly a worthy entry into the series, but does it really deliver the kind of spellbinding finale we were teased with? The cliffhanger ending of God of War II left the player with the tantalizing thought of a no-holds-barred killing spree through Mount Olympus, and for the most part that's what we got.
Much like God of War II, the player is socked in the face with the massive scale of the environment from the beginning. Let me try to paint the picture; the adventure begins with the player climbing Olympus on the back of the Titan Gaia while doing battle with the Greek god Poseidon along the way. Let me repeat, this is the first level. No other franchise delivers this kind of experience quite like God of War, and at the very beginning it was clear that they had again brought their best in this regard.
However, the game's scale drastically shrinks as the game goes on. With the exception of the awe-inducing battle with Cronos, nothing approaching the "whoa" factor of the opening level is seen again, and the later portions of the game actually feel somewhat lackluster compared to those in the previous iterations of the series. The Labyrinth simply doesn't measure up to Pandora's Temple or the lair of The Sisters of Fate, and the final battle with Zeus felt flat compared to the fight against Ares in the first God of War.
As I've explained elsewhere, I am a sucker for great boss battles, and given the presence of so many godly antagonists I was expecting something fantastic for each one. Sadly, only a few of the gods get their due as far as bosses go, while several others are simply footnotes or even minor annoyances along the way. Still, the ones that do stand out really do, especially Hades and Cronos. Thankfully, the battle mechanics are still as strong and bloody as ever.
One of the greatest aspects of the God of War series has been how well it handles, and God of War III is no exception. Never at any point did I feel that the controls failed me in any way. All of my deaths were of my own lack of skill and not a failure by the game. This sentiment is woefully absent from many games, and the fact that the God of War franchise has earned it so consistently is very much a feather in their collective cap. On top of that, the weapon design in God of War III feels more balanced than in the previous games, as I consistently found myself switching back and forth between implements of destruction, whereas in God of War I & II I usually stuck with the good ol' chain blades for my dismemberment needs.
Speaking of dismemberment, I'd normally save this kind of statement for the end of the review, but I'll say it here for emphasis: this game is not for kids. God of War III surpasses its own previously-established limits as far as violent finishers go, and again the beginning of the game shows the player exactly what he is in for. I'm about as desensitized to game violence as one can get, having committed all sorts of virtual atrocities over my years of gaming. However, the grisly execution of Poseidon made even me cringe, and things only get gorier from there.
That was the violence, so what about the sex? Of course, no God of War III review would be complete without mentioning Aphrodite's....gameplay segment. (I'm talking about a sex minigame, just in case you missed the innuendo.) Basically, it's "press button to fuck". Beyond Aphrodite, women tend to get the short end of the stick as far as character importance goes. This is something Matthew touched on back when this review would have been timely, but his observations hold true—Aphrodite is essentially a porn star, Hera is a useless hag, Pandora is a helpless child, and so forth. I'm by no means an expert in Greek mythology, as everything I know I learned from Xena: Warrior Princess, so it is possible that all of this can be attributed to loyalty to the source material. Even still, it's this kind of content that perpetuates the stereotype of games being a teenage boy's wet dream.
I'm not going to take my cues from Fox News and rant about how any of this is wrong or destroying our morals, though. If extreme violence and sexuality can be in TV or film, they can certainly be in games too. What I am going to say is this: players (and young players' parents) should know exactly what they're getting into. I am more than used to gaming violence, but some of the acts of brutality did get under my skin a little. No. Kids. Allowed.
Here's where I usually start wrapping things up and going into the obligatory closing paragraph, but I can't quite sign off until I mention the giant ash-covered elephant in the room—Kratos himself. Over the course of the God of War series, Kratos has gone from being somewhat relatable to a complete and total dick, and this descent stands out in God of War III. A far cry from the battle-weary warrior seeking redemption from the first game, Kratos brutally murders every single god, man, woman, child, and puppy in his path, sometimes for no reason whatsoever, and then after all that, Kratos suddenly cares about Pandora?
I'm sorry, but I don't buy it. Kratos is as bad as bad gets, and the series seemingly forgets his original motivation of forgiveness until the very end of God of War III. From the end of the first game up to that point, everything is about revenge, and then suddenly Kratos cares about saving a girl instead of killing Zeus? What of all the malarkey about "the power of hope" and Kratos "finding the hope to keep fighting"? Huh? I'm not going to pretend that God of War III demands a great story (something I've been admittedly nitpicky about in the past) to go along with it, but compared to the first game it really does feel like the writing has been phoned in here.
Does God of War deliver on the promise of a spectacular finish to one of gaming's top franchises? The game certainly earns its passing grade and a "You're a winner" ribbon that it can go home and show mom and dad, but it feels like it should have been more. The production values here are second to none, but they are wasted on a lackluster narrative. The strength of the game's opening sequences and some of the bosses really stuck with me, but some of the later levels just felt kind of...bleh. As far as being the show-stopper that blows the rest of the series away, it falls short.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via rental and reviewed on the PS3. Approximately 8 hours of play was devoted to completing the game once.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains: blood and gore, intense violence, nudity, strong language and strong sexual content. This game has been rated M by the ESRB, and with good reason. Keep the kids away.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: All spoken lines can be subtitled and there are no significant audio cues.
Be warned, spoilers abound.
In between dissertation writing sessions, I recently managed to eke out enough time to play through God of War III. I purchased my Ultimate Edition copy the day it came out, and I just couldn't hold off any longer. I consider the first two God of War games to be the best action games of their kind and I was dying to see how the series wrapped up.
Sadly, the outcome is, "Not altogether successfully." To say that God of War III is the worst of the four God of War games released so far may be true, but it's also somewhat misleading. It does several things marvelously well—indeed, many better than the other games. The scope of some of the battles is daunting and magnificent. In particular, the opening portion set atop a climbing Gaia establishes the game's scale, and a later battle with Cronos is particularly amazing given that the last third of the first God of War took place primarily on this guy's back.
The graphics, sound effects, and music, of course, are all spectacular and high watermarks for the series. Even the normally uneven voice acting is greatly improved, thanks largely to terrific performances by Rip Torn as Hephaestus, Clancy Brown as Hades, Adrienne Barbeau as Hera, and even a surprising turn from Kevin Sorbo as a very, very different kind of Hercules. It's rare when the supporting cast in a video game elevates the material, but this is such a case.
The level design—perhaps the boldest and most enjoyable aspect of the series—is still very good, but it lacks a certain amount of intricacy found in previous titles. It feels like there is far more backtracking than in the previous games (certainly noticeable given the eight-hour length), and supposedly "puzzling" areas like the box-laden Labyrinth feel smaller in scope and challenge than the temple holding Pandora's Box in the first game and the Fates' area in God of War II. There are still many switch-based puzzles, and while puzzles were never the highlight of these action-intensive titles, they feel particularly stale this time around. Open door A, proceed to area B, jump around the walls, proceed to area C. Despite the repeated environments, you're never really compelled to stop and savor them, and that's a shame. If there's anything a finale like this needs, it's moments to reflect on the supposed gravity of everything that is occurring.
Somehow, despite the rousing opening moments, God of War III manages to almost fully deflate by the end of the game, and not simply because of another lame battle with Zeus. A hand-holding section with a teenaged Pandora invokes an unfavorable comparison with games like ICO, and the whole last chapter is rather annoyingly repetitive to boot. Not to spoil the ending, but I also find it somewhat funny that recent games as different as God of War III and Silent Hill: Shattered Memories both include the same lame "interactive narrative" device in their closing moments. I don't think a muted stumble in the dark is really how gamers want to spend their last moments in an epic struggle with the Gods.
And therein lies one of the larger problems with the game: It has scope of battle in spades, but not scope of narrative. Certainly, few play the God of War games for their story, but in any third chapter in a trilogy, narrative closure and key climactic moments have a lot to do with how both gameplay and level design work to absorb and satisfy the player. I wasn't particularly absorbed or satisfied.
Kratos has steadily become an unlikeable, hopelessly grumpy turd throughout the series, but his actions and motivations in God of War III are absolutely puzzling. He'll wittingly murder most of the human population—likely including several children—or sacrifice a helpless slave girl without blinking an eye, but he acts softly towards Pandora because she somehow reminds him of his little daughter? Really?
And how this all plays out during the closing moments is mystifying, if not altogether cheesy and aggravating. Are we supposed to believe that a character as narrow-minded and irredeemable as Kratos is really supposed to be finding some kind of inner-courage and "hope" to battle Zeus? Please. Even more pathetically, a key secret about Kratos' first encounter with Pandora's Box—a consequence that has seemingly screwed up the entire world due to Kratos' selfishness—is revealed during the ending cinematic and the guy doesn't even react.
Between the weak ending and the banal level design, the last portion of God of War III is symptomatic of a struggle for new ideas. The violence, the over-the-top sexuality, the boss battles... all of it is overdone to an extreme in God of War III, as if Sony was really making a statement about pulling out all the stops... but I'm not sure it actually made the game better. Uncharted 2 was a successful blockbuster sequel, in part, because Naughty Dog had respect for its characters, storytelling, and mature audience. This respect no doubt influenced the design team's regard for making sure that every stage of the game was compelling, interesting, and crystal clear in terms of narrative motivation.
By comparison, God of War III is like a teenage boy's resolution to an adult series. It's still extremely entertaining and very much worth experiencing; just don't expect anything in the way of the kind of maturity or depth promised by God of War II, Chains of Olympus, or the final game's inflated development time and budget.
Speaking of immaturity, something should be said about the arguably sexist content in God of War III. The first two games had hollow, sexpot female characters (almost like ancient Greek groupies), but they were like so much background noise compared to the stronger female characters present: Gaia, Athena, and so on. The appearance of Kratos' daughter in Chains of Olympus provided one of the rare moments of pathos in the series, and the villain of that game, Persephone, was a strong female as well.
By contrast, every female character in God of War III is either an empty-headed stereotype or used by Kratos as a tool. Hera is presented as a bitter, senseless hag. Pandora is portrayed as a preening and naive teenager whose place in the game is only to impart some belated fortune cookie wisdom. Athena is both clueless and surprisingly malevolent (this isn't satisfactorily explained given her role in the previous two games). Even the mighty Gaia turns out to present little challenge for a tiny man with two blades. The less said about Aphrodite (this game's raison d'etre for the sex mini-game), the better. Arguably, some of this can be explained away by the nature of the mythology to which the game refers, but God of War has never been a series that follows mythology to the letter.
Normally, I don't consider myself so sensitive to these kinds of things, particularly in a pulpy action game, but I'd be less bothered if it weren't so blatant. In God of War III, the men all hold the real power, sexual and otherwise, and if not for the presence of Pandora, the game's attitude towards females would be borderline misogynistic. Perhaps the most telling point about all of this for me was viewing the "Making Of" videos upon completion. One of them shows the motion capture process, particularly during the sex minigame with Aphrodite. As the actress in question approaches the male standing in for Kratos, her expression becomes more and more one of detachment and disbelief. Also telling was a rather tactless joke by the game's motion capture director, who jests that he'd like to "direct" two of the female actresses from the bed they had set up in the studio. I guess tastelessness breeds tastelessness.
Still, while I admit the game has left a bitter taste in my mouth, I would offer that it is worth experiencing. God of War III has many problems, yes. It's no Metal Gear Solid 4. But I recommend playing it, if only to experience what are still some of the best battle mechanics and level design around.