When Sony first announced a brand new, next-gen God of War at E3 2016, I was deeply skeptical. After seven God of War games, did we really need another one? Haven't we plumbed the depths of Greek mythology at this point? Didn't the series protagonist, Kratos, die at the end of God of War III? Yet, one by one, my fears were assuaged as I saw more and more of the highly anticipated PlayStation 4 exclusive game. From its stunning graphics to its Norse mythology-filled setting to its storytelling focused on forcing its meaty, morose, murdery leading man to reckon with fatherhood and identity, God of War has managed to surpass expectations at every turn. If you, like I did, harbored any doubts as to whether the new God of War game would be a worthy entry in the vaunted franchise, you can breathe a sigh of relief. It's very good—possibly great even—and my biggest complaint was that after spending approximately two-and-a-half hours playing it, the demo ended and I had to emerge from the darkened hallways of Santa Monica Studio and experience sweet, horrible sunlight once more.
God of More
In God of War, Kratos is no longer a daddy; he is a father. Having left his violent past behind in Greece, Kratos leads a quieter existence, in the Norse hinterlands, where he lives with his son Atreus. A stranger in a strange land, Kratos is somber, reflective, and more than a little uncomfortable in his new role as a family man. Although Kratos can easily heft a massive tree trunk over his shoulder or fearlessly fight off swarms of undead warriors, he cannot bring himself to place a tender, fatherly hand on his son during a moment of emotional distress. Now Kratos is no longer a one-dimensional rage avatar, serving merely as a means for players to execute brutal, bloody combos and battle massive bosses who cannot be contained by a single screen. He finally has something much more important to fight for beyond the notion of exacting revenge on any and all who have crossed him.
With a bullheaded confidence, outsized anger, and a knack for getting into trouble, Atreus is undoubtedly his father's son. Yet unlike Kratos, Atreus feels like a twig that could snap at any moment. He is young, untested, and feeble, especially when compared with his mythically muscled dad. Together they must learn from one another if they are to survive the myriad challenges ahead. While Kratos is able to train his son in the finer points of the martial arts or the proper way to hunt a wild boar, Atreus is able to read runes, glyphs, and provide his father with insight into the written history of their homeland.
It feels authentic, uneasy, and endearing in a way that was, frankly, wholly unexpected from the God of War franchise. What may seem like a small addition to the series' lore is a staggering piece of character development for the surly protagonist, and an evolution that drew me into the game’s narrative in a way that none of its predecessors managed to do. Although he is covered in rippling, battle-scarred muscles and able to rend enemies asunder with his bare hands, Kratos may prove no match for his greatest challenge yet: fatherhood.
There's subtle artistry at work behind the scenes, too, in order to get you the characters to resonate with you, the player, in a meaningful way. God of War engineering lead Jeet Shroff explained to me that one of the biggest weapons in their narrative arsenal is the game's "no-cut" camera, which takes you between cut scenes and gameplay without any interruption or reality-breaking load times whatsoever.
“All those moments—the rendering, the sound hitting perfectly, the visuals hitting, the interactions coming from a gameplay point of view—are about the introduction of the ‘no-cut camera’ and how impactful that is in seamlessly leading you through the experience you just had into very intimate moments and then back out into the next experience you might have," Shroff said. "Bringing the camera in close for a game like ours has allowed us to tell this story in a very intimate way. It’s one of those games that doesn’t shy away from the big sort of action or the more intimate vulnerability of these characters. That helps tremendously in how the player perceives and feels these moments."
More Than an Escort Misssion
Not everyone was excited by the addition of Atreus to God of War. When the game was first announced, many took to the internet to snark about Atreus' uncanny resemblance to Game of Thrones naughtiest child, Olly, or complain about how this would be little more than a glorified escort mission. Thankfully, that couldn't be further from the truth. More than anything, Atreus is a companion character, providing the player with support, helping to orient you when you're lost, assisting in combat, and providing invaluable aid in solving the game's many puzzles.
"We knew out of the gate—being fans of games ourselves and AI in general—that we didn’t want to have to manage this character," Shroff said. "How do we tackle that? Being able to ensure that Atreus always had a purpose was key. Making sure that Atreus never did something that you didn’t want him to do was key. With the 'son button,’ and having a dedicated button for him so that you could command him to do things helped us figure out behaviorally what needed to be autonomous and what needed to be player-driven."
During my playthrough, I never found myself lamenting Atreus' presence; rather, I learned to integrate him into the flow of my gameplay, calling for a well-timed arrow volley to distract enemies so I could flank them and unleash hell with the Leviathan Axe (the magical weapon replacing Kratos' iconic Chains of Olympus). It was all part of a larger commitment to providing players with an unprecedented sense of choice and freedom, according to Shroff.
"Player choice is a key theme in this game," Shroff said. "From a gameplay point of view, that’s what we were really striving for: put it in the hands of the player. Camera? Put it in the hands of the player. A new weapon? Allow it to be thrown? Allow it to be switched to bare hands? Put all those choices in the hands of the player. With Atreus, it was very similar. If you wanted to do something that ended up being this sort of extension of Kratos, let the player decide when they want to tactically unleash Atreus. Then autonomously, all the things that complement what Kratos does, what the player is choosing—that is what Atreus does. Like following up on an attack, keeping a combo alive, getting you to understand that what you’re doing can be continued."
Game designers take note: this is the proper way to integrate a companion character. Atreus never once detracted from my gameplay experience or felt like a burden. Instead, he felt like an indispensable part of the team that I never knew Kratos needed...until now.
Building a Better God
While Kratos is already a certified badass when you begin God of War, there's always room for improvement. Over the course of the game, you will earn experience points from defeating enemies, completing quests, and conquering various challenges that you can invest in one of several skill trees to improve Kratos' and Atreus' abilities. Whether you want to give Kratos a powerful cleave attack capable of slashing multiple enemies with a powerful blow or you want to give Atreus the ability to stun opponents so that Kratos can land a finishing blow, God of War gives you tons of customization options and ways to match your characters' abilities to your gameplay style. It gives the game a sense of RPG-style character progression, which incentivizes you to defeat every enemy and complete every side quest possible so you can earn enough experience to unlock new powers, passive abilities, and unique ways to kick butt and take names in the frozen wilds.
The characters aren't the only things you can improve in God of War, though. You'll be able to improve Kratos and Atreus' weapons and armor to enhance their stats using scavenged resources that you find throughout the world. Additionally, you can find magical runes that you can insert into your weapons and armor to imbue them with special abilities. God of War is a game that is positively lousy with collectibles, many of which lie in wait off the beaten path. It's a game that greatly rewards exploration, both narratively and mechanically, so don't be afraid to explore every nook and cranny in order to maximize your potential.
The highlight of the God of War series has always been its frenetic, combo-based combat system that lets you carve a bloody swath through all manner of monster, myths, and murderous miscreants. This time around is no different, offering players a robust combat system that will make you feel as though you can defeat any enemy who crosses your path. It's easy to learn, but difficult to master, providing a surprising amount of depth and rewarding players who learn how to use the game's vast array of skills and maneuvers against their foes. For example, one can mindlessly button mash their way to victory up to a certain point, but you'll find yourself scrambling for health power-ups with an alarming alacrity. If you learn how to properly parry, dodge enemy attacks, and use Atreus' ranged arrow volleys to help you continue and chain combos, you will emerge victorious more quickly and feel like you're living up to the game's title. You'll need every skill in your arsenal too if you want to defeat the hordes of enemies (each with different, annoying ways to murder you) that the game throws your way.
With the game's intimate third-person, over-the-shoulder camera, the action feels fast, furious, and visceral as you get up close and way too personal with undead warriors, massive club-wielding trolls, and poison-spewing wraiths who want to turn you into a fine, red mist. Even during my first few hours with the game, God of War threw tons of different enemies at Kratos and Atreus, forcing me constantly stay on the move and alter my strategy mid-encounter in order to beat them. Once you begin to master the game's various abilities—i.e. throwing your Leviathan Axe at a distant fireball hurling enemy, blocking another warrior's axe strike, then telekinetically recalling your axe to do it all over again—you will be able to masterfully overcome any challenge the game throws your way. There's something particularly satisfying once you tap into the rhythm of blocking, parrying, and riposting to slice and dice your way through scores of baddies without incurring so much as a scratch.
While combat flows seamlessly during the course of the game, the combat system truly shines during the game's boss fights. Gone--at least from my playthrough--are the series' infamous quick-time events; they have been replaced by dynamic, challenging boss battles that put your knowledge of the game's combo system to the test. While this may seem like sacrilege to some diehard devotees of the series, it is a necessary and welcome evolution in what has traditionally been the franchise's showstopping moments. Ultimately, it feels like a more satisfying way to execute these types of boss battles as it rewards players who spend time learning the game's combat system rather than the "on rails" feeling that is endemic to most quick-time events. Regardless, it still feels incredibly fun to lay a mythological smackdown on a boss that can't be contained by a single screen.
The Final Verdict
After two years of fervent speculation and patient anticipation, God of War is more than delivering on the hype surrounding its release. If the first few hours are any indication, God of War is a strong, early contender for game of the year lists thanks to its winning combination of thoughtful storytelling, addictive gameplay, and drool-worthy visuals. With a campaign estimated to be between 25 and 30 hours, according to Shroff, this is just the tip of God of War's Norse iceberg. Considering that there's still so much more than has been teased by the game's trailers, I am champing at the bit to play more, and April 20th cannot get here soon enough.
God of War is available on April 20, 2o18.
Images: Sony / Santa Monica Studio
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