Content Type: Gaming Reviews
Date: April 24, 2018
The reinvention of Sony we started seeing in the tail-end of the last generation has continued unabated throughout the PlayStation 4’s lifecycle. The company’s first-party exclusives pushed the boundaries of what games can be (or at least how they’re perceived) and how they blend storytelling and gameplay. With The Last of Us in 2013, we saw Naughty Dog plant the seeds of Sony’s strategy as it exists today; with God of War, we see the current-gen fruits of that labour.
God of War was never really lauded for its storytelling or emotional impact. Kratos was a cool action guy in a cool action video game, characterised only by how angry he was. With this reboot, Sony Santa Monica have reimagined and reframed Kratos as the human he started out as. He’s still angry but measured and collected; that anger is tempered, both by necessity and the presence of his young son. It’s a game about fatherhood and moving on with parenting in the wake of a partner’s death. Kratos and Atreus cannot communicate how they feel to one another because they don’t understand one another. But they share pain and purpose, and watching their relationship evolve, break down and rebuild is special. It’s not the first time Kratos has been a father—the death of his first family is arguably the spark that ignited the entire series—but his struggles to teach and connect with Atreus are the backbone of their journey.
Exiling himself to the ice-cold mountains of Norse mythology, the Ghost of Sparta is in a land that he doesn’t understand—and makes no pretence about caring to learn. Atreus, however, has grown up in Midgard. Taught by his mother, he knows the animals and the languages, but the general absence of his father has left him dreadfully unprepared for the dangers of the world. The two clash in a way that is so clearly reminiscent of The Last of Us that it’s hard not to draw a line between Naughty Dog’s success and God of War’s development.
It’s a story of growth and peace-making, painful and personal in equal measure. And somehow, they still manage a breathless pace and consistent smattering of incredible setpieces; meeting the World Serpent, fighting a dragon from inside its mouth, punching a man through an actual mountain—this is still very much a God of War game. The writing is mostly spot-on, but some clumsy cliff-hanger teasing makes the ending feel more than a little cheap. It’s good that Sony are invested in seeing this rebirth of the series continue, but there are a few too many questions left unanswered here, and the ways it fails to address the series’ lineage are distracting.
In recontextualising Kratos, Santa Monica have also recontextualised the violence the series has indulged in. This is a Kratos who understands what the cycle of revenge can do to a person and kills only because he must. The excessive and sybaritic gore of previous games is still present, but it feels different and desperate. The Ghost of Sparta was driven by blood; the Exile in Midgard is driven to blood.
The other difference is a more immediately noticeable one: the camera. Ditching the locked angles of past games, the developers have fully committed to an over-the-shoulder third-person perspective. Moreover, the camera never cuts. Gameplay transitions seamlessly into cutscenes, with a handycam style similar to Metal Gear Solid V. The lack of camera cuts also means a lack of traditional loading screens, which has a tangible impact on gameplay and the world. Like Uncharted 4 and The Last of Us before it, God of War makes heavy use of environmental blocks and delays to slow the player down, giving itself a chance to load in new assets as you move from area to area. Likewise, fast travel temporarily transports Kratos to the ethereal “realm between realms”—a fancy name for a blue-tinted corridor. It’s a clever and technically impressive idea in concept, but the overall execution is less so.
God of War is also the second time a Sony-owned developer has transitioned from linear to open world. Following in the footsteps of Horizon: Zero Dawn, God of War lays Midgard and its parallel realms before you, each one unique in content, design and size. Some are dressed-up corridors, but the few expansive ones really are a spectacle. Midgard alone is more than enough to fill 40 hours; throw in the procedurally generated labyrinth of Niflheim and the challenge rooms of Muspelheim and there’s plenty to do. You can’t quite go to every realm of Norse mythology—I assume that’s where sequel potential lies—but this game certainly doesn’t lack variety.
The world is populated in a similar manner to other recent open worlds, though decidedly leaner and more focused in its content: a few side quests, some collectibles, and a couple of extra-tough endgame challenges. This isn’t a sprawling, 100-hour RPG experience like The Witcher 3, but it’s enough to provide a reprieve from the constant momentum of the main story. If anything, I found the collectibles and hidden items to be a little too much. My final time, in a 100% complete playthrough, was probably a hair over 60 hours, significantly more than any entry before it.
Lore and mythology are key to this game, and the devs have embraced that. As you traverse the world, conversations will shed light on the history of Midgard. Whenever you’re in the boat, Atreus or Mimir (a talking head attached to Kratos’ waist) will occasionally begin a new tale, stopping when you dock or enter combat. It’s a system that originated in Uncharted 4, but it’s refined and improved here. Characters will cut off naturally and pick back up with a quick summary, so it’s impossible to lose track of any given story. These smaller character interactions are some of the most impressive parts of God of War.
The way the mythology is presented won’t be anything particularly new to those already familiar with it, but the sheer breadth and scale of things included is impressive. I ultimately found myself wanting something closer to last year’s Hellblade, which blended Celtic and Norse mythology in an uncomfortable and cerebral package that bordered on horror.
In the end, the narrative side of God of War was the make-or-break element for a reimagining of this scale. Fortunately, Sony Santa Monica have pulled off something special with Kratos and Atreus. It stumbled in the back half, but it’s a largely uncompromising rollercoaster that had me binging harder than any game since Skyrim.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a God of War game without some combat. With the change in camera comes a change in controls, and the game now uses R1 and R2 for light and heavy attacks with a brand-new weapon. The Leviathan Axe is quite honestly the most satisfying video game weapon I’ve ever used. The forcefulness behind each hit and the perfect timing in throwing attacks adds a percussive rhythm to every fight. Factor in the runic attacks and there’s a lot to keep track of.
There’s an important line between combos and button mashing, and the balance of the game is such that you’ll need your wits about you in big fights. Enemies attack quickly and without pause, surrounding you for projectile attacks while others pin you down with grapples. Fortunately, you’re not alone in combat. Atreus is equipped with a bow that can shock and stun enemies, interrupting their attacks just long enough for you to get the beatdown on them.
The stun mechanic is where the gore of previous titles really shows itself. Fill up the stun bar by using particular attacks and an enemy will be knocked flat, giving you the chance to execute them in spectacular fashion. Freezing enemies is a similar tactic, and the game will frequently have you pinning an enemy in place with your axe while you punch another to death. It’s a different feel to a usual God of War fight, but it’s still got the visual flair that fans are used to.
The new combat has also brought new mechanics and systems, including gear and skill trees. Armour can be crafted or found in the world, and it is upgradeable and customisable with enchantments. The depth of the stats and customisation is surprising and somewhat overwhelming at first, but it’s a system that lends itself to builds and speccing for different encounters.
The rest of God of War will be spent exploring its world and solving puzzles, usually involving the axe. For example, a gate that is opened by pulling a chain that closes the moment you let go. By freezing the cogs in place with the axe, you can pass through before recalling your weapon. It overuses these mechanics occasionally, but that axe never gets any less satisfying.
And the time spent exploring that world is worthwhile because this is quite possibly the best-looking game I’ve ever played. The Norse realms are rendered in a fidelity that seems impossible. It’s the sort of thing that feels generation-defining, like The Last of Us did on the PlayStation 3. Lighting and texture detail are near-faultless, character models are realistic and lifelike, animations seamlessly blend between one another and the tiny environmental details really showcase the care that went into the game. God of War is a breath-taking game, and I am left wondering if anything else on this line of consoles will even come close to achieving the same scope and detail on display here. On PS4 Pro, there’s a choice between higher resolution or unlocked framerate. The latter is an inconsistent mess, unlikely to satisfy either crowd at all. On resolution mode, a beautiful game just looks better.
Norse mythology is big and loud, so the sound design had a lot to live up to as well. From the booming growls of the World Serpent to the myriad clangs as you recall the axe, God of War sounds fantastic. Voice acting is superb, too, but Atreus is a little too close to a modern adolescent to be fully believable. In reimagining Kratos, the developers also found a new voice for the character. Christopher Judge provides the perfect amount of depth and restraint to the role, and I couldn’t imagine anyone else playing him now. All is backed by a sublime score from Bear McCreary that incorporates native instruments and choir vocal elements. It’s exhilarating and beautiful. Simply put, God of War is a standard-setting audio and visual experience.
I had high hopes for God of War going in, but it smashed them. It isn’t just one of the best games on the PlayStation 4, it’s one of my favourite games of all time, and easily the best PlayStation exclusive since The Last of Us. It’s maybe the first game to truly nail pacing in an open world, and the ways Sony Santa Monica have reimagined this series are astonishing.