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Review: God of War III takes violence to Olympian heights

In God of War III (Sony) chains are a prominent feature. Fitting, given that Kratos, the protagonist of Sony's video game trilogy, feels that his life has been bound by the whimsy of the Greek pantheon.

Kratos' main weapon is constructed of chains, and metal links decorate much of the game's environment, but the chains that are most critical are those held by the Kings of Justice and which stretch from the heights of Mount Olympus to the depths of the underworld.

The Ghost of Sparta – Kratos' moniker comes from the white ash that coats his skin – travels the lengths of those chains more than once as he works to finally enact vengeance on Zeus and the gods he believes have ruined his life.

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God of War III begins where the second game left off. Kratos is on the shoulder of Gaia as the Titans assault Mount Olympus. In Greek mythology, Gaia wasn't actually a Titan, but the God of War games, written by Marianne Krawczyk, have always been fast and loose with the canon.

Kratos, having just learned that Zeus is his father, is bent on killing the king of Olympus, and bringing about an end to his reign. The death of the Greek gods is something of a theme in the trilogy. In the first game, Kratos actually killed Ares, the god of war, and assumed his mantle. Athena, who set Kratos on his path of fury in the first place, was a victim in the second game.

More gods die in God of War III. In fact, nearly all of them do. (Aphrodite, goddess of beauty and love, survives. In suitable style.) During the approximately 12 to 15 hours you'll spend playing God of War III, you'll kill more than a half dozen gods, and most of those deaths are staged as boss battles.

Each boss you defeat nets Kratos one of the weapons or items he needs to find a way to kill Zeus. The most unnerving item – and the most useful – is the head of Helios, the sun god, which illuminates dark areas, reveals hidden objects and doors, and stuns enemies. When you employ it, the head utters a low-volume scream. A gruesome reminder that it was once attached to a body.

The deaths of the gods come quick. Less than an hour into the game, Kratos takes on Poseidon. At the end of that battle, God of War III crosses the line.

The god of the sea is down for the count. As Kratos moves in for the kill, the game switches from a third-person perspective behind Kratos, to Poseidon's first-person perspective. So gamers witness, through the eyes of the victim, someone being beaten to death by a raving, snarling fiend.

It is unsettling, to say the least.

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The perspective switches back to third-person just as Kratos drives his thumbs into Poseidon's eye sockets. But that simple perspective shift has a profound impact.

The God of War games are rated for mature audiences and while the first two games didn't shy from a visceral presentation of violence and a graphic portrayal of the gore that results, the representation of violence in God of War III is different.

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As Kratos has gone from being an unwitting pawn to the gods, to a character fully aware of his actions, we're no longer able to empathize with him. The violence he exacts on those around him – Hercules's face disintegrates from Kratos' vicious and unending punches, Kratos splits in half the head of Hades – becomes sadistic and perverse.

Those scenes will make some gamers queasy. That a video game can render brutal violence with such accuracy as to be disgusting is quite an accomplishment.

Mechanically, God of War III is much the same as its predecessors. Press one button for a quick attack and second button for a slower, more powerful attack. During more elaborate sequences, all that is required of players is that they press specific buttons as prompted by the game. While similar scenes were part of the first two games, there are too many of them here.

Coloured orbs are given off by the defeated enemies and destroyed objects and found in treasure chests. Kratos absorbs these orbs, which is how he recovers health and magic power and gains experience, which is used to make weapons more effective.

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Collecting and sacrificing special items improves Kratos' abilities. Gorgon's eyes increases maximum health, Phoenix feathers increase maximum magic power and minotaur horns increase the power of your items.

The clever level design reuses sections of Mount Olympus and the underworld without anything feeling repetitive. Kratos weaves through the realms of men and the gods, returning to areas already played, but from a different approach and with a different purpose.

Too bad that God of War III ends feebly.

After three games of intense and adrenal-fuelled gaming, during which players would end up breathless and sweating with the rigours of mashing buttons, in the final thirty minutes of God of War III players will find themselves simply sitting, and watching.

In that time, Kratos runs through some shadowy world created from his conscience and characters from the three games appear to explain what's going on. It was meant as a denouement, but in creating the final moments of the God of War trilogy, the developers forgot that they were creating not a tale in the oral tradition typical of mythology, but a piece of contemporary interactive entertainment.

In so doing, they nearly invalidated all that had come before.

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