Be warned, spoilers abound.
In between dissertation writing sessions, I recently managed to eke out enough time to play through God of War III. I purchased my Ultimate Edition copy the day it came out, and I just couldn't hold off any longer. I consider the first two God of War games to be the best action games of their kind and I was dying to see how the series wrapped up.
Sadly, the outcome is, "Not altogether successfully." To say that God of War III is the worst of the four God of War games released so far may be true, but it's also somewhat misleading. It does several things marvelously well—indeed, many better than the other games. The scope of some of the battles is daunting and magnificent. In particular, the opening portion set atop a climbing Gaia establishes the game's scale, and a later battle with Cronos is particularly amazing given that the last third of the first God of War took place primarily on this guy's back.
The graphics, sound effects, and music, of course, are all spectacular and high watermarks for the series. Even the normally uneven voice acting is greatly improved, thanks largely to terrific performances by Rip Torn as Hephaestus, Clancy Brown as Hades, Adrienne Barbeau as Hera, and even a surprising turn from Kevin Sorbo as a very, very different kind of Hercules. It's rare when the supporting cast in a video game elevates the material, but this is such a case.
The level design—perhaps the boldest and most enjoyable aspect of the series—is still very good, but it lacks a certain amount of intricacy found in previous titles. It feels like there is far more backtracking than in the previous games (certainly noticeable given the eight-hour length), and supposedly "puzzling" areas like the box-laden Labyrinth feel smaller in scope and challenge than the temple holding Pandora's Box in the first game and the Fates' area in God of War II. There are still many switch-based puzzles, and while puzzles were never the highlight of these action-intensive titles, they feel particularly stale this time around. Open door A, proceed to area B, jump around the walls, proceed to area C. Despite the repeated environments, you're never really compelled to stop and savor them, and that's a shame. If there's anything a finale like this needs, it's moments to reflect on the supposed gravity of everything that is occurring.
Somehow, despite the rousing opening moments, God of War III manages to almost fully deflate by the end of the game, and not simply because of another lame battle with Zeus. A hand-holding section with a teenaged Pandora invokes an unfavorable comparison with games like ICO, and the whole last chapter is rather annoyingly repetitive to boot. Not to spoil the ending, but I also find it somewhat funny that recent games as different as God of War III and Silent Hill: Shattered Memories both include the same lame "interactive narrative" device in their closing moments. I don't think a muted stumble in the dark is really how gamers want to spend their last moments in an epic struggle with the Gods.
And therein lies one of the larger problems with the game: It has scope of battle in spades, but not scope of narrative. Certainly, few play the God of War games for their story, but in any third chapter in a trilogy, narrative closure and key climactic moments have a lot to do with how both gameplay and level design work to absorb and satisfy the player. I wasn't particularly absorbed or satisfied.
Kratos has steadily become an unlikeable, hopelessly grumpy turd throughout the series, but his actions and motivations in God of War III are absolutely puzzling. He'll wittingly murder most of the human population—likely including several children—or sacrifice a helpless slave girl without blinking an eye, but he acts softly towards Pandora because she somehow reminds him of his little daughter? Really?
And how this all plays out during the closing moments is mystifying, if not altogether cheesy and aggravating. Are we supposed to believe that a character as narrow-minded and irredeemable as Kratos is really supposed to be finding some kind of inner-courage and "hope" to battle Zeus? Please. Even more pathetically, a key secret about Kratos' first encounter with Pandora's Box—a consequence that has seemingly screwed up the entire world due to Kratos' selfishness—is revealed during the ending cinematic and the guy doesn't even react.
Between the weak ending and the banal level design, the last portion of God of War III is symptomatic of a struggle for new ideas. The violence, the over-the-top sexuality, the boss battles... all of it is overdone to an extreme in God of War III, as if Sony was really making a statement about pulling out all the stops... but I'm not sure it actually made the game better. Uncharted 2 was a successful blockbuster sequel, in part, because Naughty Dog had respect for its characters, storytelling, and mature audience. This respect no doubt influenced the design team's regard for making sure that every stage of the game was compelling, interesting, and crystal clear in terms of narrative motivation.
By comparison, God of War III is like a teenage boy's resolution to an adult series. It's still extremely entertaining and very much worth experiencing; just don't expect anything in the way of the kind of maturity or depth promised by God of War II, Chains of Olympus, or the final game's inflated development time and budget.
Speaking of immaturity, something should be said about the arguably sexist content in God of War III. The first two games had hollow, sexpot female characters (almost like ancient Greek groupies), but they were like so much background noise compared to the stronger female characters present: Gaia, Athena, and so on. The appearance of Kratos' daughter in Chains of Olympus provided one of the rare moments of pathos in the series, and the villain of that game, Persephone, was a strong female as well.
By contrast, every female character in God of War III is either an empty-headed stereotype or used by Kratos as a tool. Hera is presented as a bitter, senseless hag. Pandora is portrayed as a preening and naive teenager whose place in the game is only to impart some belated fortune cookie wisdom. Athena is both clueless and surprisingly malevolent (this isn't satisfactorily explained given her role in the previous two games). Even the mighty Gaia turns out to present little challenge for a tiny man with two blades. The less said about Aphrodite (this game's raison d'etre for the sex mini-game), the better. Arguably, some of this can be explained away by the nature of the mythology to which the game refers, but God of War has never been a series that follows mythology to the letter.
Normally, I don't consider myself so sensitive to these kinds of things, particularly in a pulpy action game, but I'd be less bothered if it weren't so blatant. In God of War III, the men all hold the real power, sexual and otherwise, and if not for the presence of Pandora, the game's attitude towards females would be borderline misogynistic. Perhaps the most telling point about all of this for me was viewing the "Making Of" videos upon completion. One of them shows the motion capture process, particularly during the sex minigame with Aphrodite. As the actress in question approaches the male standing in for Kratos, her expression becomes more and more one of detachment and disbelief. Also telling was a rather tactless joke by the game's motion capture director, who jests that he'd like to "direct" two of the female actresses from the bed they had set up in the studio. I guess tastelessness breeds tastelessness.
Still, while I admit the game has left a bitter taste in my mouth, I would offer that it is worth experiencing. God of War III has many problems, yes. It's no Metal Gear Solid 4. But I recommend playing it, if only to experience what are still some of the best battle mechanics and level design around.