The nadir of God of War III comes about 20 minutes in, when you’ve scaled halfway up Mount Olympus on the back of the Titan, Gaia, in your mutual quest to rid the world of Zeus and his fellow Olympians. By this point, you’ll have disemboweled a centaur, climbed out of Gaia’s vine-covered innards through a hole in her skull and murdered Poseidon by digging your thumbs into his eyes – a gruesome feat which you view from the sea god’s own perspective. That’s when it hits you: This is just more God of War, but on the PS3.

Oddly enough, you experience pretty much the same realization at each of the game’s many high points: Holy sh*t, this is more God of War, but on the PS3.

Perhaps it’s because the opening of God of War III blends so seamlessly with the finale of its predecessor that it feels like the intervening three years never happened. More likely, it’s a case of impossibly high expectations. It’s not enough that God of War III plays virtually identically to the other titles in the series, only with better graphics and bigger set pieces. God of War 1 & 2 set the bar so high that we actually expect it to exceed our expectations – an absurd proposition if there ever was one. Either way, it’s no slight against it to say God of War III is merely as awesome as you imagined it would be (and occasionally a bit more).

In the third and final installment of the God of War series, Kratos sets out to finish the job he started in God of War II: Laying waste to Mount Olympus and ending the reign of the Olympians once and for all. Armed with the same Blade of Olympus with which Zeus slew him in the previous game, Kratos now has the ability to kill a god, and it’s a power he clearly relishes using. Many of the most prominent members are represented, and each confers to Kratos a new ability upon his untimely demise. There’s Poseidon, whose trident allows Kratos to breathe underwater; Hades, whose sharp hooks let him cleanly rip the souls from his victims’ bodies; Hermes, whose boots give Kratos a decidedly Prince of Persia-esque wall-run ability; and perhaps most shocking of all, Helios, whose screaming head you literally tear from his body and use as a magic lantern for the rest of the game. Hera even makes an appearance as a sort of ragged, perpetually drunk divorcé – perhaps not the most faithful interpretation of ancient Greek texts, but certainly one of the most colorful.

But aside from Kratos and his perpetual scowl, God of War III is not a character-driven game. Instead, it’s dictated by its environments, and in the final game in the trilogy, they’re more spectacular than ever. After scaling Mount Olympus with a pack of Titans in the game’s prologue, you’re swiftly sent back down to Hades, where the damned souls of the River Styx rob you of most of your health and magic bars. It’s a bitter intro to the game’s first chapter, but the scenery more than makes up for it: Everywhere you go, newly dead souls rain screaming from the skies. There’s a dynamic quality in these worlds that you rarely find in videogames. The city of Olympia, for example, changes radically each time you kill a god: Poseidon’s death causes a great flood that swallows the valley below the city, while Helios’ demise causes black clouds to blot out the sun. You continue to revisit a few of the same areas over the course of the game, and it’s incredible to watch how your surroundings become darker and more foreboding as you become more powerful.

The environments in God of War III are practically (or, in one case, literally) characters in themselves. Daedalus’ labyrinth doesn’t contain a minotaur in God of War III – by now you’ve killed dozens of the beasts, anyway – but it does include some of the most challenging platforming the series has featured to date. Hades palace, meanwhile, is built around a giant iron statue of the god of the underworld beside the suspended coffin of Persephone, his beloved and queen. To progress through that level, you must drive the coffin into the statue’s chest, perhaps the closest to “poetic” that a game about a bloodthirsty psychopath can get.

And there are the levels that truly are characters – in God of War III‘s case, the Titans. Kronos returns to the series after being banished to the hellish netherworld of Tartarus, only to attempt to exact his revenge on Kratos. It’s one of the most jaw-dropping boss battles of any videogame, ever: One moment you’re pinched between Kronos’ thumb and forefinger, frantically trying to escape his crushing grip, and the next moment you’re driving an onyx stake through his chin before drving the Blade of Olympus squarely into his forehead. If you don’t find yourself cackling with glee at some point in the course of this 15 minute sequence, then you may as well stop playing games, because you’re pretty much immune to pleasure.

Simply put, God of War III is not one of those games that does one thing well and one thing only. It’s a game that sets out for perfection throughout the course of its eight or nine hours of gameplay and very nearly achieves it. On a purely technical level, it’s one of the most impressive games the PS3 has to offer: It shifts perspectives effortlessly across a number of highly detailed environments without so much as a hiccup and with almost nonexistent load times to interrupt the experience. But in a broader sense, God of War III serves as an example of how to deliver astonishingly varied gameplay in a cohesive package. The God of War trilogy may be over, but something tells me Kratos’ reign will go unchallenged for a long, long time.

Bottom Line: God of War III is more God of War on the PS3. And when a series is this consistently excellent, why mess with the formula?

Recommendation: Buy it. God of War III‘s gameplay and presentation are so solid that you’ll quickly forgive it for only being as good as one of the best PS2 games ever released.

Score: [rating=5]

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