God Of War is not the God Of War of old.
That’s to say that veterans who enjoyed the original series, in which they controlled a homicidal maniac who pirouetted his way through scores of enemies with the ease of knifing through hot butter, should expect a sharp gear-change.
It’s also to say that the entire structure one would expect from a God Of War game has been dumped dramatically; nearly every single entry in this franchise has begun with an epic boss battle lasting at least ten minutes, after which the plot is allowed to kick in. God Of War starts with harvesting wood and then a hunting lesson.
Most important of all, it’s to say that players aren’t, and never should, feel as invincible as they did in the games leading up to this one. God Of War is no longer Devil May Cry for players who can’t be bothered to learn the combos. This is a game that takes a degree of skill and commitment to complete; button-mashing will not save you.
Trial and error are major factors here, not least because in some of the boss battles – and mini-boss battles – God Of War offers no help at all until the umpteenth reload. Not only that, players will come across opponents who can kill them with one blow; there are some confrontations that put Kratos in Dark Souls territory.
But God Of War doesn’t punish players the same way the Souls games do; indeed, one of the quickest ways to refill the health bar is to walk into the jaws of death and wait for the game to reload. At least on easy to medium difficulty. Mercifully, reload times are very quick.
God Of War, then, marks a sea-change for the series, and not just in terms of its mechanics, structure and HUD in which action is now shot from over Kratos’ shoulder.
One of the main new developments is the attempt to humanise the Ghost Of Sparta. Kratos is no longer the bellowing coil of rage he was in earlier installments. He’s slightly more contained, bruised and, dare we say it, vulnerable here, in part because he now has a son.
The game’s story sees Kratos in the northern realm of Midgard, having forsaken Greece after the events of the last game. His wife, Freya, has recently passed away leaving Kratos to care for his son, Atreus, alone. To say the two don’t get on is an understatement. Atreus is desperate for his father’s approval, but receives little in the way of encouragement; instead most of their early exchanges see Kratos chiding and criticising Atreus, his face a frowning mask of disappointment.
However, as the two spend more time together, it’s revealed to the player than Kratos isn’t displeased with his son, he’s terrified that his shortcomings as a parent will result in Atreus becoming a monster, much like his father. On their journey to scatter Freya’s ashes from the highest peak in all the realms, the pair encounter further complications when Kratos comes to the attention of some Norse gods, who don’t take kindly to outsiders.
God Of War’s tale, then, is one of familial bonding much in the same vein, if not in the same manner as the relationship at the centre of The Last Of Us. It’s a story well told, for the most part – even if Atreus is an annoying brat at times – and while one could never describe Kratos as ‘warming’ to his son and vice versa, by the story’s end, the pair are on a more solid footing brought about through the trials they’ve faced and the revelations they’ve experienced.
The game isn’t as linear as its predecessors; once Kratos and Atreus have made their way from home to the Lake Of Nine, the God Of War goes widescreen, offering players the ability to jump between realms in search of items to aid the pair’s journey.
The Lake serves as a kind of central hub from which players can travel beyond Midgard using the Bifrost Bridge, although some realms remain locked throughout. The game’s world is huge; while the main quest anchors the proceedings, players can explore the map unearthing hidden treasures, caverns, creatures, and puzzles. There are also a ton of side-quests available, each bringing its own reward to Kratos in the form of weapon and equipment enhancements and XP. Best of all, none of this feels like busy-work at all.
Naturally, Kratos and Atreus will encounter enemies on their travels – some appear as burning humanoids, some are the size of a small building – and its here the game lives up to the series’ savage reputation. Combat isn’t a button-mashing affair, but it can be satisfying. Kratos’s primary weapon is the Leviathan Axe, a weighty cleaver that when thrown can return to his hand with a satisfying ‘smack’. Over time the axe – and Kratos’s shield and armour – can be improved and augmented using runes or in-game currency. On top of that, there’s a rather decent leveling system that opens up an array of new attacks, fleshing out Kratos’s lethality in combat.
Atreus also gets in on the action; while the lad has trouble hitting a stationary deer with an arrow in the game’s early moments, by the end he becomes the most useful spamming attack the player has. His arrow volleys are an invaluable asset in combat, by turns wounding and distracting opponents to give Kratos breathing room or an exposed flank to hit.
The game is helped in no small part by the gorgeous world the developer’s have set it in, and the game’s fantastic visual fidelity. Players will encounter snow-capped mountains, green forests where sun rays dance off snow, ornate temples with swirling elvish accoutrements, abyss-like caverns filled with craggy rocks and every part of the world is presented in staggering detail.
The characters also benefit from this care and attention; Kratos’ bearded and weather-beaten face, is intricately detailed, with every scar and line evident from near distance.
Amazingly, the game’s story unfolds in a single take. While the camera hugs Kratos’s back for the most part, when he enters a boat, or scales a cliff, the camera widens its gaze. During a cutscene it unhooks from behind him and pans around the vista, showing every glorious aspect. The only time the player sees a loading screen is in the beginning and during the brief moment when death forces them to reload a scene.
While the game is bursting with ideas and activities, there’s a dip in quality in the final third. A section involving a ship is quite unsatisfying and the race towards the final antagonist, which takes place in some kind of celestial elevator, sees the developer recycling encounters from earlier in the game. One of these, which involves a pair of Dark Elves, is teeth-grindingly annoying.
God Of War Review – Verdict
But next to the game’s accomplishments, these complaints seem churlish. God Of War is an objectively good game and an essential part of any PS4 owners collection. It’s rare to see a developer take so many chances with a property so beloved and so popular and see them pay off with such aplomb. This is as brave and bold as blockbusters come, and it makes a convincing case to be numbered among 2018’s best releases.