God of War III - PS3
The short review would be: more God of War, but bigger.
Normally this would be a criticism, but in this case it isn't. God of War and God of War 2 were magnificent achievements: the biggest, bloodiest blockbuster action games of a console generation, wringing so much magic out of the ageing PS2 hardware that they made many early Xbox 360 games look miserable. The core combat gameplay was fairly simple but hugely satisfying, with each new weapon and magic attack giving you more options to deal out death to the hordes of undead soldiers and mythical beasts that constantly assailed you.
The pacing was relentless, the set-pieces awe-inspiring. Sony's Santa Monica team knew how to work with vast scale and intricate detail, creating a legendary ancient world so compelling, so well-stocked with fabulous creatures and impressive architecture, that even the splattering blood and gore seemed like art.
So we'll forgive God of War III if its focus is simply to take all this good stuff, and make it even bigger, better and - most of all - bloodier. God of War III is the sort of game that can begin with our Spartan anti-hero, Kratos, fighting on a titan's back as it climbs up Mt. Olympus to battle the gods, without a shred of fear that it's not going to be able to top this later on. And this confidence is justified, time and time again, as Kratos takes his revenge spree from the depths of Hades through cities, temples, gardens and palaces, right to the home of Zeus himself.
Spoiling the details would be spoiling the fun, but when we say that the boss battles in God of War 3 feature demigods, titans and deities, and that It features the most incredible, jaw-dropping, "they surely can't do that" set-pieces we've ever seen, that should give you some idea of what we're talking about. One sequence in particular seems to be saying to Sony's Shadow of the Colossus, "now this is what you call colossal".
The fighting, meanwhile, is as good as ever. Kratos has a new variation on his trademark chain-blades, the Blades of Exile, and these still provide him with a versatile arsenal of wide-area clearance moves and brutal directed attacks, while additional chain-based weapons you'll encounter later on up the destructive potential and add secondary damage to the mix. Our personal favourite? A pair of brutal boxing gloves, which make battering gorgons, giants and minotaurs a pugilist's delight.
The joy of God of War is that it makes you feel like the ultimate bad-ass even when you're just mashing the square button to take down a mass of armoured skeletons, but it's in the bigger creature battles that the combat system shows off its true potential, with a devastating combo for just about every situation, and a good balance of offensive and defensive moves.
God of War has also always been more inventive than some people give it credit for, padding out the ultra-violence with interesting puzzles and environments to explore. Even the most time-worn block-shifting and lever-pulling become more engaging when given Kratos' bloodthirsty spin. God of War III has some of the best yet, with a fantastic section that revolves around Escher-like shifts of perspective, and a conundrum involving vicious dogs and portals that is sure to give you a grim chuckle or two. And what other series would have you light your way through stygian depths with a sun god's severed head, or have you running up walls with the aid of Hermes' own winged sandals?
Technically, God of War III is another knockout blow from Sony, featuring some of the most dazzling scenery and lush effects we've seen on the current crop of consoles. Kratos himself is rendered in, well, maybe not beautiful, but certainly impressive detail. One grumble would be that some of the skin textures have a rubbery look that spoils the excellent work being done by the lighting and surface effects elsewhere. So much of God of War III's visual work is flawless, that this one flaw seems all the more pronounced.
Otherwise, there's only one concern and it's probably not one that everyone will share. God of War has always been brutal, and Kratos has always been very much an anti-hero, but there are times when God of War III veers worryingly into sadism and even misogyny. I'm not sure how you're meant to feel about pressing someone's eyes out using the thumbsticks or crushing a screaming girl beneath a huge windlass (though this last sight is mercifully unshown).
In fact, there's an argument that you're supposed to find the extremes of Kratos' violence unsettling. All the same, we can't help wondering whether this game and Dante's Inferno show developers trying to outdo each other on the gore stakes for nothing more than adolescent shock effect. Let's be clear: this is adult entertainment, but be advised that you might find some elements disturbing.
That aside, there's no doubt in our minds that this is the best hack-and-slash action game of the current generation. Sure, we were worried that Bayonetta would have God of War III licked, but while the saucy pistol-packing witch has the more skill-intensive fighting scheme, she just can't match God Kratos for grim atmosphere or epic vision. And while Darksiders triumphed by putting Zelda's adventure gameplay together with God of War's bloodletting, it's not quite as thrilling a second-by-second play. Don't even try to bring up Devil May Cry 4.
Still, comparisons be damned. Above all else, God of War III is the fitting conclusion to one of the greatest series in modern gaming, and while we doubt we've seen the last of God of War, the current saga sure goes out on a high.