Wednesday, 27 October 2010

God of War III

Kratos is a very angry man, let’s get that out of the way now. He has been very angry with Zeus and the other gods of Greek mythology, not to mention having quite a thing against anything living or dead. So it is rather fitting that his games have been largely about pounding the proverbial out of anything and everything, with as much violence as possible.
    After two fantastic (and obviously violent) games on the PlayStation 2, Sony’s Santa Monica Studios finally set its sights on the latest behemoth: the PlayStation 3. The previous games were epic in every sense of the word, with stunning vistas, complex puzzles and some absolutely massive boss battles, all the while butchering everyone and everything from the tomes of Greek mythology.
    This third games picks up directly from the end of God of War II, with the promise of an epic battle alongside the colossal Titans as Kratos takes his quest for vengeance to the very peak of Mount Olympus, hell bent on killing Zeus and any other god that may stand in his way.
    Sounds exciting, does it not? It is at first, too. A sweeping battle with Poseidon kicks off the action, a massive water horse (complete with giant crab legs) pounds its way across the face of Mount Olympus, crushing both your enemies and titanic allies as your fight rages on. After a few moments, the action switches to another familiar staple of the series: the QTE scene. It’s a much-maligned facet of the gaming industry today, but one that is used fairly well throughout Santa Monica’s series and is no different here - other than turning the violence up to eleven.

    The violence has always been present in Kratos’ adventures: tearing wings from harpies, hacking off the heads of Hydras, pulling out the eyes of Cyclops and so on, but never has it been so vivid as it is here. Tearing out the eyes of a Cyclops, seeing the juices and the gore dripping and spurting from the socket, or tearing heads off beasts and seeing individual tendons rip away as more gore pours forth - this is a game that really deserves its 18 certificate.
    At heart though, this game plays no different to its predecessors. The control scheme is identical, with only a couple of minor additions as you unlock new items during the game. Make no mistake, this is not a game for newcomers, do not be fooled by the ‘catch-up’ sequence during the intro. We visit old areas from previous games, fight familiar enemies and hear the same music alongside Kratos’ usual angry growling and shouting.
    This familiarity is what makes the game such a disappointment. The potential shown at the end of God of War II (and the beginning of III) is never lived up to as the player is treated to almost exactly the same formula seen in both previous games, having to earn Kratos’ powers once again and work your way back through familiar block-pushing puzzles and time-limit arenas - all the while throwing in whatever Greek mythology figures that Kratos hasn’t already killed. Though they all find themselves dead enough within a short time.

    The two prequels (three, if you count the PSP’s Chains of Olympus) all flowed nicely with functional stories that made it possible to visit the expansive environments within the source material. God of War III does not continue this pattern, instead being a mishmash of seemingly random environs as you follow the flimsiest of plots that only seems to serve the purpose of bringing in names like Hercules, Hades, Hera and Pandora with no real reason other than to demonstrate that Santa Monica knows who these people were.

    With gameplay that keeps the player engaged and some nice visuals, the game plods along at a decent speed at least, running up around 5-6 hours of game time and also offering plenty of challenges for those who finish the game. It is just a shame that, after being a milestone in the hack ‘n’ slash genre for so long, God of War III shows just how far the rest of that genre has come, leaving Kratos to stew in his anger instead of unleashing it on a new generation.


Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Dante's Inferno

After Dead Space became a global hit, Visceral had the world at its feet. When EA announced that it was making a game based on the significant poem  ‘Inferno’ - part of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy - many scoffed, possibly with good reason, but when Visceral’s name was attached to the development some of those people relented, knowing it was in good hands.
    The decision to make a hack ‘n’ slash game from this poem was still met with criticism though, as many believed it needed to be deeper than basically mashing buttons for a few hours. Visceral ploughed through these criticisms and carried on with the idea, using God of War as the template. Problems began to arise there however, as it was putting Dante up against one of gaming’s biggest franchises of the past decade and, worse, ended up putting itself up against arguably the biggest part of said franchise: God of War III. This put Dante’s Inferno in a tough position before it had even been released.

    What becomes apparent upon playing the game is that Visceral did not just use God of War as a simple template, it copied the whole thing from control scheme to move set to game mechanics and design - not taking into account the problems within Sony’s franchise, instead copying all the best and worst bits of Kratos’ original PS2 adventure.
    The game itself starts well, throwing the player into a harsh world of violence during the Crusades. Dante finds himself  having to fight innocent prisoners (basically a small tutorial on the combat system) and, upon being stabbed in the back by an assassin, comes face to face with Death himself. This triggers a somewhat half-hearted attempt at a boss battle, with Death using his trademark scythe to attack Dante with preset routines and, in true God of War style, ends with a QTE scene (press the button shown on screen at the right time) as Dante steals the scythe and kills Death with it before heading home to his beloved Beatrice.
    Beatrice is a name you will hear a lot during this game, as upon returning home Dante finds her slain (and bare-breasted, for some reason) and her spirit is taken captive by Satan, prompting Dante’s quest into the Underworld.

    The original descent into Hell is impressive as a church building falls apart to reveal the fiery depths below, leading the player downward on ladders of flesh and bone to fight the various demons. This involves a lot of pressing a heavy or light attack button quite a lot, or using Dante’s Holy Cross - something not really explained at any point during the game - to despatch the legions of Hell. There is also the option to condemn or absolve the various creatures, as for some reason the Holy Cross has enabled Dante to judge the damned as he sees fit. It is a nice mechanic though and offers a reward in either good or evil points to spend on upgrades.
    During your stay in the hot climes of the Inferno, you will find yourself travelling through the Nine Circles of Hell, each circle coming with its own unique set of foul creatures - Lust and Gluttony are obviously the ones that come with the most interesting and disgusting creations - but these unique enemies are not the problem, the frequently-recycled standard creatures are the things you will bludgeon most often and you will quickly tire of them.

    Considering Visceral’s Dead Space is one of the best looking games to come out of this generation of consoles, it may come as a shock to learn that Dante’s Inferno is pretty weak in the visual department. The resolution is suitably high and the lighting effects are stunning at times, but the textures are bland and uninspiring along with some very average creature design on the standard beasts. The whole package feels almost as if Visceral had no real passion for this project and just put the work necessary into it and nothing more.
    There are no real puzzles to speak of throughout the game either, instead replaced by timed arenas and, in one inexplicably awful design choice, a series of challenge rooms that only serve to artificially lengthen the game time while simultaneously frustrating the player with challenges the game has never prepared you for.
    The story is also poorly told which is odd considering the source material, with the majority of the story revolving around Dante shouting a lot about wanting his Beatrice back and whining like a teenage boy about how unfair the situation is. The cross that Dante sews into his own chest is never fully explained either, yet serves as the main focus point for the game’s flashbacks into Dante’s sins, which usually revolve around sex and violence and incredibly unsubtle pot-shots at the Church.

    This all makes for a fairly unsatisfying experience as your journey through the fiery depths seems to be for nothing more than chasing a naked woman whilst repeatedly bludgeoning demons with a large blade. The story goes largely unnoticed until the last half hour of the game and even then it makes no sense as Visceral did not bother to tell you anything else in the previous five or six hours of game time.
    All in all, there is an irony present throughout a game based in Hell wherein the player is constantly killed unfairly and frustratingly, after being lead there by promises of something greater than they received.
    If you really want to spend time in the company of Dante and his beloved Beatrice, do yourself a favour and rent the anime movie instead - you will get twice the enjoyment, twice the story and none of the frustration, all wrapped up in 90 minutes.