At a Sony product event last month, SCE Santa Monica Director of Product Development John Hight stood quietly in front of a demo station located in the back of the publisher's rented New York City space.
The game he's demoing is paused, but the font and style of the menus betray what it is -- it's unmistakably God of War III. Admittedly, half of the reason I even decided to leave my blogger cave was because Sony promised it would be showing off some of new God of War III material. I play dumb.
"So what's this you've got here?"
Hight plays modest. It's, as expected, God of War III. He explains that they really don't have too much to show off today, that they only brought a small new demo area. My heart sinks. I put on pants this morning for a small demo? Hight hits start on his DualShock 3 and he begins the short demo; I wasn't really prepared for what came next.
Full disclosure: I'm what you'd call a God of War "fanboy." While I admit that the games have their flaws, that first experience battling the Hydra on the Aegean Sea still stands as one of the most epic and unexpected moments in gaming. With God of War II, Sony did it again -- the opening sequence battling the Colossus in the City of Rhodes was a breathtaking way to kick off the game's action. When you've delivered some of the most awe-inspiring battles and action sequences in your given genre, where do you go from there? What Hight was about to show me would deliver, exceeding expectations for a next-gen God of War experience.
The demo begins in the middle of a sequence, with no cut-scene and little context given. Kratos stands in what appears to be a forest, and Hight points out the impressive visual touches hinted at in the E3 demo: dynamic shadows that dance across the environment, leaves being kicked up by wind, and grass that is stamped down with Kratos' every footstep. The ground rocks and shakes; in the distance, a battle appears to be in progress. Hight explains that everything I'm seeing in both the foreground and the background is fully modeled, rendered in real time. Unlike previous titles, there's no trickery here; the team's taking advantage of the PlayStation 3 hardware to bring everything to life.
Up until this point, despite how gorgeous the game looks, it's very standard God of War action. Kratos tears through skeleton soldiers with moves and combat we've seen before, the chained blades twirling and slamming down on enemies like it's old hat. But it soon becomes obvious that this forest environment is more than meets the eye, the shaking and undulating environment more than a mere rumbling of earth -- Kratos is fighting on the body of the Titan Gaia as she climbs Mount Olympus.
Suddenly, the ground shakes more violently than before. It cracks, and from it erupts a huge boss, a crab-like creature, dripping with water. If Hight knows what its name is, he's not telling me, but he describes it as a "little boss composed of water and crab [and] crustacean parts." "Little" is an understatement, as this thing stands tall among the series' biggest baddies. It nips and swipes at Kratos, its patterns not entirely unlike that of the series' other massive creatures. It is impressive in its size and detail, but it's what we've come to expect from a typical God of War battle. Then, it happens.
The camera pulls out in real time to reveal that this battle isn't just taking place on any old part of Gaia, but on her arm. It's here that you can really see the scope of these Titans, and what the technology that God of War III uses is capable of. It happens so quickly -- with the player still in complete control over the ant-like Kratos -- as the Titan swings her arm up and over as she climbs Mount Olympus. Kratos hangs on for his life, using his blades to dig into Gaia's arm. Now we're in vertical combat, the battle with the crab creature raging on. And again, it happens.
The camera swings around and out as Gaia moves her arm again, obviously annoyed by the flies battling on it. She smashes the creature against the side of Mount Olympus, pressing down on it as it writhes in pain. But the battle continues, Kratos hammering the beast with his chains. In true God of War fashion, the end of this battle is a dramatic, quicktime event death; Kratos hops on the creature's face, ripping its yapping jaw apart and sending the lower half crashing to the ground. Hight pauses the game; the demo is over. I'm speechless.
At this point you might be thinking, "Sounds neat, I guess. You need to calm down, fanboy." Maybe you're right. But it has to be said that seeing is believing. We've been told about this Titan gameplay from the start, but it's nearly impossible to adequately describe what it looks like when woven into the fast-paced action of God of War. Few games, if any at all, have been able to render so much on as epic a scale as what Sony Santa Monica will be delivering with God of War.
"The technology we employ is called 'soft body collision,' so we can literally build the entire level on top of the character model," Hight explains. "Our characters are environments in their own right." He says he doesn't think any other game is doing anything like it; I agree. It's like nothing I've ever seen. As for this particular creature, Hight calls it a "mini boss," despite it being bigger and more vicious than most enemies you'd fight in most games. Period. He also hints that the game's opening number -- the Hydra battle of God of War III, if you will -- is even more epic in scale.
Unfortunately, it's unclear whether Sony will actually show gamers this gameplay in action before the game launches in March. "We wanted to keep the Titans under wraps, because we think they're pretty special," Hight tells me. "They'll make a big difference in the gameplay."
Hight let me play the demo, handing me the controller, and I can confirm that it felt as good as it looked. But despite it being completely playable, don't expect another God of War demo to display this impressive technology. "We probably won't put this particular sequence in consumer's hands; we already have a pretty long demo," he says. "[We] kind of want to focus on finishing the game."
God of War III, Hight tells me, is "done." The game's currently in beta, with all of the content in place; now they're just "fine-tuning the details, making sure it's smooth." The wait is almost over -- God of War III ships this March.