I owe the most humblest of apologies to Santa Monica studios for believing this instalment in the God of War series to be a remake. Seriously, I had this game relegated to the same level as Halo’s Anniversary Collection and Final Fantasy XII’s HD remaster. Only now, having spent over a week playing the game do I fully realise how wrong I was.
Not only is this a brand new adventure for Kratos, this is without a doubt one of the top contenders for Game of the Year and an absolute cherry on top of the Playstation cake.
Somehow, this feels fresh and new while retaining all the great qualities that a God of War action-game should have, from Kratos himself – although now sporting a rather impressive beard – all the way through to a completely remade combat system that makes God of War’s Playstation 4 debut an absolute must play for anyone who owns the console. Picking up a good decade or so after Kratos’ last outing, our anti-hero has headed north from Greece and finds himself existing in the colder climates of what we can safely assume is some Scandinavian country. Yep, our Spartan warrior has made it to the land of Norse mythology, and somehow this transition feels as organic and natural as possible. A father once more, Kratos’ journey sees he and his son, Atreus, embark upon a quest to scatter his recently deceased wife’s ashes from the highest peak in the realm – her final wish.
Father and son head off out into the world so that our Godly fighter and his progeny can test their abilities on a hunt. What becomes apparent very quickly in God of War is how heavy the combat feels. Each swing of the new Leviathan Axe feels weighty and powerful, even if your difficulty setting means it only does minimal damage. The swings are mapped to the shoulder buttons on the controller as opposed to the face buttons as in previous games, and although the switch took a few moments getting used to it never feels wrong. Each blow really gives you a sense of control and you always feel commanding and strong in each encounter as a result. Even the opening boss fight, which can be a real slog without any skills to speak of, has a terrific power to it, both in the character development and in the bloody and brutal combat we come to expect from a God of War title.
Soon Atreus and Kratos’ journey is more a fight for survival, as all manner of hell literally and figuratively comes down upon them as they try to achieve their overarching goal of scattering the ashes of Atreus’ mother. Atreus himself is a non-player character, a companion for the journey and believe me, I was dreading this. I’ve played far too many games, with way too many escort missions to be thrilled by the concept ‘protect x from xyz.’ Thankfully, the young Atreus is nowhere near as useless as you’d come to expect. In fact, he’s arguably the best in game companion there has ever been in a video game. I’m even including Sypro’s firefly friends and Link’s fairies in that category. Atreus, apart from a small portion later in the game, rules.
In many ways Kratos’ journey gives off a strange aura at the start, almost like the game couldn’t decide if this WAS one long escort quest or not. Particularly through the opening hours players are left concerned that you have to drag your son around with you everywhere. Unlike the best escort-mission games, such as The Last of Us and Bioshock: Infinite you don’t get the immediate emotional hook you need here. Atreus is very much the new character, with Kratos the familiar face – even if he is essentially an extra in the TV show Vikings now.
However, Atreus soon proves himself useful. For want of better phrasing, Kratos is the brawn and Atreus is the brain. Whatever relationship existed between the two before we were introduced to them was clearly distant and strained with our Greek warrior often away for long periods of time. The story begins with Kratos clearly unsure how to interact with his son, torn between his desire to protect him and give him the ability to protect himself.
This sets the game up perfectly for some really nice moments between the two, and some real powerful revelations later on. The much lauded new camera helps with this too. You really feel like you’re with Kratos when everything happens. There’s no disconnect from his character this time, you’re not avatar and player you’re just him. Embracing this closer viewpoint sounds difficult on paper, but when it’s mixed with meaty combat and some quick time events, it feels amazing. Without spoiling the game I can’t say too much, but the villain of the piece is well established early on and the recurring fights that occur throughout NEVER disappoint.
That said, this isn’t a shallow third-person brawler. No, the world around Kratos is new, untouched land with infinite possibilities. Here, the pantheon of Gods and Giants is pretty much a full roster. Plenty for Kratos to rip his way through on his way to scatter his wife’s ashes. Most of the lore is in side quests, all of which feel vastly different from ‘fetch-style’ encounters, even though the puzzles all use similar systems to gate things. However, there’s never an obstacle that feels the same as one you’ve already solved. The pacing and spread of these events is fairly well done too. You rarely find yourself wishing for puzzles to just go away and let you progress the story and although the pacing isn’t perfect, it’s certainly not worth complaining about.
What I found to be the best thing about God of War wasn’t the brutal combat or the endearing father-son journey. It wasn’t even the RPG elements that have been integrated into the game such as gear levels and customisable armour and weapons. These are all done very well and I personally felt the game had a flicker of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt in these elements.
No, the best thing about the game is the sense of discovery, the unraveling of the Norse lore – or at least, Santa Monica’s interpretation of the lore. What’s more, is that it’s all been done through the medium of Atreus and his efforts to be useful to Kratos, telling the stories that his mother told him. This also adds minor character development to Kratos’ wife, who we never actually see, but who comes across as a wise and caring mother to Atreus – the perfect opposite of the brutal Spartan. While her character can be described as underdeveloped, the rest of the cast and characters you never get to see still feature heavily. Odin is often mentioned and referred to but never appears in the game. This is of course because you don’t spend your first day in this mythology and get to meet the top dog. Similarly, Kratos didn’t start his rampage through the Greek Pantheon with Zeus. Instead, you get minor characters such as Baldur, Freya and Mimir who take centre stage. Mimir, by the by, is the best character in the game and is an absolute fountain of lore once you meet him. It’s a really well crafted character and a well-written interaction between the strong-but-silent Kratos, the inquisitive Atreus and Mimir – the smartest man alive.
So, there’s plenty of blood and brutality in the combat for your knuckle-headed violence lovers, there’s an emotional connection to develop for the true escapists and there’s a ton of interesting interpretations on lore for the intellectuals. But is there something here for gamers? I’m taking, through-and-through 21st-century game lovers. The sort of people who queue outside stores at midnight for Call of Duty, who brag about kill streaks online and love the sort of films that Michael Bay is renown for. Honestly, no. For a game that’s part of a franchise that was designed as one big ‘anything you can do, we can do as well’ this is surprisingly deep, and for that I love it. Gamers who plough through the main story are likely to find a lack of connection to the actions they are performing for a reason other than gratuitous violence, and the campaign would be fewer than 20 hours long if you said ‘go’ and just did all the main quests. God of War is a WORLD to indulge in, not a game in the traditional sense, and you have to decide quite early on if you want to be part of this epic search for hidden clues and traces of the Norse gods, or if you’re just in this to see Kratos smash a bunch of mythical monsters and gods into pulp.
That said, God of War is undoubtably a refreshing blast of fresh air in a year that so far has been a very weak breeze of releases. We had to wait until April to see something that really made an impact in the market, and once more it’s a Playstation exclusive.
I like God of War so much. It’s everything I want in life. It picks apart a really fun section of a mythology I’m familiar with by throwing a character I grew up playing as into a beautiful series of landscapes that feel so organic. Who knew that a Spartan fighting in Viking territory would just work? Not I. It does though, and that’s the genius of this in a nutshell. It’s a wonderful single player experience that gamers can take at their own pace, without any sort of interaction from the outside world. It’s an escapist fantasy that touches on just enough familiarity to give you a fun anchor point while also giving you the freedom to unleash literal chaos upon the world should you wish.
In the modern gaming climate there may be cries of ‘There’s no multiplayer’ or ‘What do you mean I can’t change the camera?’ It doesn’t need either of those things, as God of War is a giant, hulking success. It does nothing brand new, and won’t go down in history as an innovative moment when we’re all dead and everyone’s looking at seminal moments in gaming history, but what God of War really is, is the optimum refinement of everything gaming has done before. The only logical step forward from here, is to enter the gaming unknown and come up with something game-changing. I for one am already looking forward to the next instalment.