Hands-on: God of War III (well, the first boss battle at least)

A common refrain from many (including us!) about God of War III is: "It's God of War ... in HD." And, as our last preview attested, that's not such a bad thing. In fact, while the demo was impressive in its own right, the game's director tells us they've added depth of field, motion blur, and high dynamic range lighting to the finished product. Too technical, right? We'll just use our fallback word: awesome.

For this hands-on, we went all the way up to the first boss and beat him ... err, after several tries. It's none other than a certain God of the Sea, and he's pretty moody on account of Kratos and a bunch of Titans trying to scale Mount Olympus. In fact, there's a gathering of the gods up there and they're all pretty miffed: Zeus, Helios, Hermes, Poseidon, Hades, and a mysterious someone else. Based on this preview, they're going to do everything they can to try and make sure Kratos doesn't play king of the hill on their precious mountain.

Read on for our experience with the opening of God of War III up to, and including, the first boss battle. If you're hoping to go into this game spoiler-free next month, you might want to stop here; otherwise, press on!
When you boot the GoW III disc, you're greeted with Kratos' familiar face staring at you, just waiting to start the game, When you do, the camera zooms in, and he barks, "My vengeance ends now!" Things fade to black, then stodgy old Zeus narrates a scaled-down version of what's been happening on Mount Olympus and a majestic eagle soars gracefully towards the summit of the gods' domain. But, as it continues its lofty ascent, it's unceremoniously pulped into avian jelly by a plummeting boulder.

Soon, you'll see the aforementioned gods staring down the sheer face of Olympus, watching a wide range of Titans (one looks like the Thing, another is made out of blue electricity, another jagged rock, and then there's bosomy Gaia) scale upwards. One Titan tears out a massive chunk of the mountain and hurls it upwards, doing some damage to the godly parapets. This doesn't sit well with Poseidon, and he Supermans down the rock face, slamming into a Titan's chest and driving him into a deep pool far below. A pool that starts spiraling until massive tendrils of water take hold of the Titans, yanking them off the mountain.

After all that, the game finally begins and lets you take control of Kratos. Gaia has become ensnared by one of the waterry tentacles and she needs you to free her. So you'll battle your way up her arm, past the generic GoW minions that come up out of the ground, before finally learning what has her pinned by the wrist: it's a huge water horse with multiple crab legs and boulders inside. Apparently being the master of the ocean has some perks. You have to battle this thing several times while making your way over Gaia (and at one point, through her ... right past her heart) before you eventually come face to face with Poseidon, complete with a gigantic, electrified trident.

That's just the first boss battle, and where Sony stopped us. Oh, and yes, those first-person kills are brutal. The control scheme is identical to previous incarnations of the game with the same combos and the same Blades of Athena, although we had access to only one magical power. Kratos also has the Wings of Icarus but we weren't able to switch to anything else. Apparently he'll be stripped of some powers and abilities later in the game, but this Kratos was fairly robust. And steroidal.

Sony did tell us that the item system was changed, although we didn't get a chance to use it. A brief look shows that it's been much simplified into one giant wheel but, honestly, we never spent that much time in the items screen in the God of War games, anyway. The puzzle elements (move this, flip this switch, figure out how to open that) make a return, but the guts of these games have always been steeped in dealing as much damage as possible to your enemies while yelling "ZEUS!" every now and then.

Speaking of guts, there are plenty of those in the game as well! You might remember tearing Helios' head off if you played the demo, and in this first foray into the game you get to gut a centaur-looking creature and watch his entrails spill onto the ground. Just like Han Solo and the Tauntaun, except you don't have to stuff anyone inside. Just about the time you've forgotten about those guts, Kratos faces off against Poseidon, and there's even more gore waiting for you there, in extreme closeup no less. There's a really juicy squish and splatter when Kratos pulls a Roy Batty on Poseidon.

But if you strip away the updated graphics, this is still just God of War; however, like we we said, that's not a bad thing. This opening scene is so epic in scale that you'll find yourself wondering what the ending of the game is going to look like. From all the rumblings, it sounds like Sony isn't done with God of War yet. They're clear to say this is the end of "a trilogy" and we hope it can satisfy everything that the previous three games (gotta toss God of War: Chains of Olympus in there!) have led us to expect.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.