Preview: God of War III

“We want to define this generation with this game,” says Game Director Stig Asmussen of God of War III, currently in development at Sony’s Santa Monica studios.

Asmussen sets the bar high for the upcoming PlayStation 3 title — matching the expectations of gamers and long-time fans of the series — noting that “it’s kind of what the [God of War] team always does.”

He would know — Asmussen has been on board since the genesis of the series, as a lead environmental artist on the original title, and then taking the reigns as art director for the 2007 sequel. Along with a mixed team of God of War veterans and fresh talent bringing new ideas to the series, Asmussen is sure they’ll be delivering a game he confidently calls “groundbreaking.”

After seeing a 30-minute demo of God of War III in action earlier this week, Asmussen’s aplomb no longer comes across as pure arrogance — it may simply be a matter of fact.

Without getting into much spoiler territory for those who have foolishly slept on the series, God of War III picks up immediately where God of War II left off. Clinging to the back of the colossal Titan Gaia, Kratos scales Mount Olympus, driven by vengeance, intent on stopping at nothing to see the god Zeus dead. By doing so, Kratos reignites the legendary war between the gods and the long-dormant Titans, a conflict that threatens to bring down all of Olympus in its wake.

This war, Asmussen tells us, is the fabric of God of War — the game’s mood and atmosphere. This epic battle is constantly raging through God of War III, whether Kratos is getting blood-spattered in the battlefield, or solving a puzzle away from battle. It’s constantly there, a macabre backdrop of smoke and explosions, death and destruction.

“Take D-Day, the Battle of Normandy,” Asmussen explains, “combine it with the movie Cloverfield, and put Kratos smack dab in the middle of it.”

He stops short of revealing too much about the game’s plot, which he describes as the “final chapter in the trilogy,” one that flows nicely from the previous titles. Those familiar with Kratos’ previous adventures should have a leg up — we’re told that “key moments” from previous games will be “profoundly important” in the new game — but it’s not required.

“We’re making a story that should be a refresher course for fans of the series, but will also serve as a history lesson for any newcomers,” he assures us.

Despite the third-person action title’s violent and physical nature, the game’s narrative has always been astonishingly solid and deep. God of War III will be no different, with even more of a focus on getting inside the head of Kratos; Asmussen says we should expect it to be a “violent emotional struggle as well.” Perhaps getting ahead of himself, he also promises an epic narrative payoff.

“There’s going to be a truth revealed at the end of this game that I believe is going to be profound and relevant to everybody who plays the game,” Asmussen teases.

The furious battle that serves as the backdrop for the game won’t be the only thing that’s epic in scale for God of War III. Recall that we mentioned earlier that Kratos is riding on the back of a Titan, and now keep this in mind: the size of the Titans can be measured in acres, with some of them taller than Chicago’s Sears Tower. To put it into perspective, Medusa’s Lair from God of War II could literally fit in the palm of one of these creatures. Simply put, they’re massive, living, breathing, moving and functioning creatures that act as the basis for the game’s playable areas.

Imagine Team ICO’s Shadow of the Colossus, if you will, only on a much, much larger scale. We’re talking about moving levels — almost indistinguishable from traditional God of War environments — that can change in real time, depending on the position of the beast. In the game’s trailer, we see an example of this, with Kratos running through a dense forest, only pausing to battle undead soldiers and best an enormous Cyclops. Mid-battle, the forest shifts at an angle, leaving Kratos and his enemies to stumble backwards as the environment moves. The camera then pulls back to reveal that the forest is nestled on the back of a gigantic, moving Titan.

The God of War team is no stranger to enormous sets and creatures, but they say it’s the power of the PlayStation 3 that allows them to render these living beasts as moving levels.

“A lot of [what we did with the PlayStation 2] was coming up with creative solutions,” Asmussen tells us. “Smoke and mirrors, if you want to call it that. But on the PS3, early on during this project, we looked at the system and kind of got an understanding of the power that we were dealing with. We were able to make a real commitment that this time we’re going to do these characters for real. They’re truly living, breathing spectacles that I believe are going to change how people look at games.”

This so-called “Titan Gameplay” has changed how the team designs levels, using the technology to put combat, puzzle, and platforming elements right on these moving levels. The word “scale” is used a lot in the industry these days, but God of War III changes the very definition — it’s guaranteed you’ve seen nothing like this in any game to date.

Once the live demo of the game is fired up, we not only see the scale in action, but some of the new tricks the team has up its sleeve. The first and most obvious difference are the game’s visuals, which bring Kratos to life in striking high definition like you’ve never seen him before. This is “Kratos 3.0,” says Asmussen, impressively rendered by the PS3. Terms like “high-res shaders” and “blended normal maps” are thrown around, but it simply means the character model looks better than ever. Up close you can see wrinkles and scars on his skin; the muscles in his face and body stretch and flex as he moves. He looks more chiseled and worn — and wouldn’t you after what he’s been through? — but he’s still distinctly the character we’ve come to know.

The demo sees Kratos entering an area tentatively known as the “Fortified City,” a stone keep that hugs the side of Mount Olympus. It’s also home to a potential path to the gates of its palace, a hidden path called the Door of Eos, the goddess of dawn. At this point, the war is in full swing. A fiery Titan peeks over the mountains of the city, swatting at the chariot of the god of the sun, Helios. A flock of harpies flees the scene, scared off by the battle between the giant and the god.

Kratos enters the city, and is surrounded by a small army of undead soldiers. What we see at first is typical God of War, with Kratos tearing through enemies with Athena’s Blades. There are some old combos and moves that will be recognizable to fans, like the ability to grab enemies and then beat them, or tear them apart. There’s also a new move out of a grab — the ability to hold the square button and use an enemy as a battering ram. Smashing through a crowd of grunts, Kratos makes a path that eventually leads straight into a stone wall. By pressing circle, you can then dispatch the enemy in the typical violent God of War fashion — continually smashing his head against the wall until his body is limp and lifeless.

God of War III also features a new weapon system, one based around the fact that in the past, many players would default to the blades, previously the game’s most useful weapon. The goal here was to design weapons that were just as efficient as the blades, ones that featured a full range of combos and attacks on par with Kratos’ default weapon. We’re shown one example, massive lionhead gauntlets called the Cestus. Like large stone boxing gloves, Kratos can pummel enemies with a wide range of brutal and impressive attacks.

You’ll be able to switch between the weapons on the fly with ease, mixing up Cestus and Athena’s Blades combos at the push of a button. Asmussen likens the switching to “stance shifting,” noting that the same button combinations can be used with both weapons, each resulting in a different combination. This can also be mixed with another weapon Kratos has in his arsenal, the Fire Bow. Like it sounds, the bow shoots arrows of fire, which will cause enemies to burst into flames. We saw the fire propagate as well, catching other enemies on fire as they were nearby, until an entire group was scorched by the flames.

At one point in the battle, a Centaur General emerges, and the A.I. of the lumbering undead soldiers noticeably changes. They become more confident, more aggressive, led into the battle by their superior. They’re no match for Kratos, who tears through them with his new set of moves, making use of the battering ram to clear out the large crowds that surround it. The one-on-one battle with the Centaur comes to a shocking, yet predictable and satisfying conclusion — a quick time sequence that has Kratos slicing the creature’s belly down the middle before pulling out its intestines.

“We’re not doing gore just to do gore,” Asmussen says of the game’s violence, far more vivid in high definition than anything we’ve seen previously in the series. “Some of the stuff is pretty over-the-top, so it’s going to draw some emotions from people. But we really think it fits within his character, and it’s not just gore for gore’s sake.”

And there’s plenty of gore, too. At one point, we see Kratos battle one of the game’s new creatures, called the Chimera. This new beast is a strange snake/lion/goat hybrid, and Kratos must fight his way through each of its three forms. The first form, the snake, has Kratos hacking off the slithering limbs. By the battle’s end, Kratos is wrestling the Chimera to the ground, pinning its head down as he struggles to break off one of its horns. Once cracked, Kratos then aggressively jams the horn directly into its face, blood streaming out of its head before it’s put out of its misery.

The Cyclops that Kratos battles in the demo doesn’t get off so easily, showcasing another of the game’s main features — rideable creatures. Once worn down, Kratos is able to mount the Cyclops’ back. He jams his blades into its shoulders as it screams out in pain, flailing its arms in all directions. At this point, the player has full control over the monster, his attacks a direct reaction to the pain induced by Kratos’ blades. The Cyclops is able to take out enemies behind otherwise impenetrable shields, the creature’s club sending soldiers flying in all directions. Eventually, the Cyclops is no longer useful. Kratos hops around to its front, peeling its eyelid back before pulling its eyeball out. Up close you can see the vein stretch and tear, leaving the creature’s eye socket vacant.

Kratos can also ride the harpies to reach new areas, as we see once he clears an area to make way for their return. After stirring them with the fire bow, they flock in a formation over a large chasm. We see Kratos jump to grab a single harpy’s feet, using his blades to stab it into obedience. He jumps from one harpy to another, splitting the former in half as he moves to another. When Kratos reaches his destination, he causes the harpy to dive-bomb down into a crowd of enemies, killing it in the process. 

Once again, Kratos will be using the body parts of his foes to his advantage. After an interactive sequence that has Kratos (quite literally) tearing Helios’ head from his body, he then has a new and useful tool. When held up, Helios’ head shines a light to reveal secrets, indicated both visually and by the rumbling of the DualShock 3. In the case of this demo, Kratos finds the Door of Eos, which opens up to reveal a cavern.

Holding the head lights up the darkness; it shows the way, revealing paths and blinding enemies as it approaches. The undead soldiers cringe in the light, temporarily stunned by the head, and then take on a glow of their own, leaving Kratos the opportunity to launch into an attack. When the glow wears off (or the enemies are dead), Kratos pulls the head out again to continue on his journey.

Although we didn’t see any in the demo, we’re told that puzzle elements of previous games will be making a return, as will basic platforming. The shimmying and climbing will all be present, with what appear to be significantly upgraded animations and a camera system that’s more flexible. Complaints of ill-placed camera angles in particularly tricker sections of the game should be addressed in God of War III.

Kratos has a new method of travel, called Icarus Ascension. Using the Icarus Wings he obtained in God of War II, we see Kratos travel up a massive vent, with air pushing him upwards. The camera shifts below Kratos, and the player is given full flight controls as he speeds through the tunnel, shifting to avoid beams and finding paths as pieces of the structure crumble before him. Channels like this will be spread all over Mount Olympus, to be looked at like highways for traveling, and will appear more than once through the game.

For most fans of the series, their demands are simple when it comes to God of War III — more of what they loved with more polish and high-definition graphics on the PlayStation 3. As Asmussen puts it, they didn’t “tinker with what’s not broken.” With that said, the new additions and scale of God of War III are as impressive as they are expected. Simply put, there’s no room for error — the team has to deliver an amazing experience, and there’s nothing to indicate that they won’t. 

Sony is mum on the release date for God of War III, leaving that announcement for this year’s E3. As for the future of the series beyond a game that’s said to be the final chapter in a trilogy, Asmussen can’t comment. 

“I don’t know about the future of God of War,” he says. “I just know what’s going to happen in God of War III. That’s what we’re focused on right now.”

Nick Chester