God of War III – “Grieve the Fallen God”
Three titles in, half a decade later, you can’t help but feel tired of the design schema behind “God of War”. Yes, few have treaded the same path with the perfectionism and production values that characterize the series, but the fact remains that there is really nothing else to explore here that wasn’t present in the very first title. Kratos’ brutally killing enemies with his swinging chains has become a cliché, one that each passing day sees repeated once again. Which is why it’s a surprise how good the third iteration starts out – after a lavish, artful intro (courtesy of Imaginary Forces), you’re quickly thrust into the back of a Titan to wage war with the Gods, in a memorable scene that gives a whole new dimension of scale to the now banal word ‘epic’. The score pumps hard and mighty, the enemies loom the size of tall skyscrapers, and Kratos, the ant, fights with all his might and fury, flying through the skies, raining death upon the Olympians – it’s a glorious piece of entertainment which takes Ueda’s colossi battles and skillfully amps the sheer intensity of the confrontation.
But, as is popularly said, the bigger they are, the harder they fall. The initial orgasmic climax of unfettered proportions soon dims itself to the menial repetition of the “God of War” template, slogging slowly along a wide diminuendo. By the time you finish the game, its flame has but withered to a small sparkle. In between, Stig Asmussen seems to have tried everything to keep the experience fresh, endlessly quoting other titles (from “echochrome” to “ICO” and even “Guitar Hero”) in a desperate attempt to grasp new ludic vocabulary. Even mixing representation perspectives was attempted in the hopes of adding variability to the repetitive action, with whole sequences hanging on the tip of a new, extremely visceral camera angle. Futile as these are in reformulating the tiresome core gameplay, they are so compellingly interwoven into the flow, that they end up keeping it afloat – at least entertaining enough so one does not shut down the console.
But let us not elude matter of fact, “God of War” isn’t just entertainment, it’s the finer crop of spectacle, even when it hits its most uninspired of low keys. The care in aesthetic polish is here taken to whole new heights, far beyond the expectable needs for a mainstream project; it’s the SONY brand at its best, investing heavily in symphonic compositions (by Gerard Marino et al) and art direction (Ken Feldman). Thus, “God of War III” ends up being a prime example of everything that is right with existing production philosophies… but also of everything that is absolutely wrong. Its stunning exterior architecture is but a decrepit hall for the hollow systems and semantics that lie underneath, purposefully directed at mass audiences dominated by the ubiquitous young male demographics. The excessive testosterone bravado, gruesome violence and escapist peplum go way beyond acceptable taste levels, undermining any possibilities of Kratos’ tragedy being taken seriously. Any literary density that would be desirable given its classical background is absent from the game’s narrative context, with the lack of care in voice acting and facial characterization (both on the cartoonish side of the scale) further evicting the experience to pulp terrain. This is what always impeded “God of War” from becoming a true classic – its designers never really aspired at greatness, always content with their cool, savage little comic-book fantasy. The crux here, as in all the medium, is how evocative the craftmanship is, and how easy it is to perceive all the possibilities for mature discourse and aesthetically provocative experiences, inside the confines of the game’s major coordinates. The actual artifact just ends up shamelessly stripped and devoid of any authorship or true aesthetic consideration, its creators delightfully shaping yet another pompous combat experience to be sold to countless mindless teenagers and youngsters. So let them rejoice, for they achieved meritorious success in their ventures, but let us mourn at the unfulfilled potential of this epic journey that now ends in shame.