I'm willing to agree that God of War III is just "God of War HD," provided that "HD" stands for "Holy Shit."
Oh, God of War III's basic combat is very similar to the first games, you'll find no argument here. You're still spinning around like a murder carousel with two swords on chains, mowing down hordes of mythological creatures. It looks better than it ever has before (or indeed, better than most any other game on the market), but the basic idea is essentially unchanged. That said, the concept has aged really well -- a rarity in this industry -- especially accounting for all those other games that have tried to ape God of War's combat flow with varying degrees of success.
It's where and how that combat is used that really makes God of War III special. Even though it's the same as always "Square-button for light attacks, Triangle for heavy" inputs, you can't even feign disinterest when you're using those combinations of attacks to rip a skyscraper-sized Titan's fingernail off to keep it from squishing you.
Speaking of: Oh crap, the Titans! Fighting gods is okay, but it's not a huge step forward for the genre. But when Gaia and her Titans turn on you in the game's opening minutes, and you have to switch to murdering these ambulatory mountains throughout, it becomes like ... a "David and Goliath" situation (except, thankfully, David in this case is a chain-sword toting, living action figure). That's a really clichéd way to express the scale of battle in God of War III, but it's better than the series of disbelieving grunts I managed to eke out while I was playing.
I'm not a huge graphics guy, but I was in constant awe of just how good God of War III looks. When Kratos pulls off some of his devastating, room-clearing attacks, sending sparks and smoke and fire and blood in every direction ... well, you've been told you've got godlike abilities throughout the series, but this is the first time you really feel it.
On the rare occasions that the game pulls away from the slice-'em-up action and fantastic boss fights, it's still effortlessly successful. There are segments where Kratos uses Icarus' wings to soar or descend through chaos, avoiding bits of rubble and fire, that are as exciting as anything you'll play this year. What's evident is that God of War III doesn't lean on these moments -- it doesn't need to. The game is that good of an experience, top to bottom.
The only glaring issue I see with God of War III is the muddled morality of its protagonist. I get that Kratos is launching a one-man war against the gods that wronged him, but there's a lot of collateral damage along the way. I understand that "Special K" is ticked about being tricked into murdering his wife and daughter, but not all of the gods he's decapitating and de-limbing really deserve this fate, right? It's like these gods were all on the same email thread, and it probably occurred to some of them to reply to say that betraying a giant murderous Spartan didn't sound like such a hot idea, but then they just got busy doing godlike stuff and forgot to respond. I get it. It's lazy. But to get murdered for it?
The revenge story could have worked with different presentation, but by God of War III we're so far removed from Kratos' original tragedy that it's hard to not see him as just a common thug. This narrative flaw doesn't ruin the game -- it's hardly a distraction in the frenzied midst of battle. But the amazing action sequences could have had a lot more residual impact if I'd been sold on Kratos' mission of vengeance rather than thinking about what a creep he was after eviscerating everything.
More problematic for God of War III is that much of the "collateral damage" I referred to manifests as an unsettling streak of violence against women. Not just violence against women, but against (human) women that have been sexualized and made to appear defenseless. This thread may have been present in the previous entries in the series, but, for me, it was especially notable this time around. I've killed countless e-people, in all manner of disturbing ways, so I can't condemn God of War III too harshly, but there were times when I was nauseated enough by Kratos' actions that I was momentarily distracted from having fun. Maybe this is Santa Monica Studio's intention, but if there is a "lesson" here, I certainly didn't get it.
While this was an issue for me, I can't imagine it's the sort that's going to make too many put down the controller. It is, after all, just one misstep in what is still one of the most astounding action experiences of the console generation.
God of War III is billed as the final chapter in Kratos' story, and it's a shame, because this is the iteration that took me from liking the series to loving it. On the other hand, I'm not sure I would have had the same reaction if the game hadn't been the world-destroying, everything-and-the-kitchen-sink, leave-nothing-for-the-swim-back adventure it was. The series has always been fun, but this is the God of War you have to play.
Editor's note: This review is based on early PS3 review code provided by SCEA.