God Of War is an eagerly awaited title on the PS4. Not just because it’s a big budget first party offering from the talented Sony Santa Monica studio, or because it’s another game in a relatively long series that stretches back over 13 years, but because as fans we’ve had no idea what to expect. The angriest man in videogames returns older, calmer and with a son in tow, and snippets of gameplay coupled with dashes of cutscenes haven’t really given gamers a clear picture of what to expect. The eagerness is built up of equal parts excitement and trepidation – this could be awful with an attempt to make it more mature, and we’ll be seeing the death of another high profile franchise like so many others recently. Fear not though, there’s a masterpiece here in structure, design and execution that reinvents the series whilst managing to retain what makes it special, and never resorts to filling time with escort missions.
An indeterminate number of years have passed since God Of War III, and Kratos has relocated from Greece to Norway, met a girl, settled into a homestead and had a son. The years look to have been good to him, and for a man that’s notoriously hard to read, we’ll assume he’s been happy with his lot (there are no Gods out to kill, trick, punish or pleasure him, so it’s a quiet life). However, the story kicks off with the funeral of his partner, and the need to scatter her ashes from the highest mountain in the realm to fulfil her wishes. Not a problem for Kratos, but he’ll have to take his son along for the journey, and that’s something he’s reluctant to do. The opening 20 minutes set the tone – the boy is a burden, a distraction and a disappointment in everything he does – and there’s no way they are ready for the difficult journey to the peak. Until trouble comes looking for them that is.
In true God Of War style, nothing is as it seems as the story unfolds, yet it’s not a convoluted yarn designed to confuse or obscure truths. It keeps a simple premise at its heart with it being about the developing bond between Kratos and Atreus as various events and reveals affect their relationship. It doesn’t matter if there are 12 foot trolls attacking with solid clubs of stone, or flying Dark Elves throwing spears; the combat is an aside to delivering what is arguably the most well rounded and detailed Father/Son story in gaming. The previous main instalments of the series were focussed on Kratos’ anger at the way he was manipulated by his own father and what he had to go through with his first family. This is about a different kind of rage within him, a struggle between the loss of someone dear (again) and the constant reminder of her in Atreus, as well as a mirror of himself and what he has fought to free himself of. Yes, it gets deep, but then only if you’re looking for it. The pacing of the story is so well judged that it’s easily absorbed and nicely layered with the new Norse mythology so that there’s no real head scratching on what’s going on or why. Don’t think this is all touchy feely though – there’s a great big axe on hand and it gets some use.
Visceral, fluid combat and quick time events have always been a staple of the games, and God Of War embraces what works and what’s changed in the decade since the original was developed, and as such pretty much ditches the QTEs. They exist only as part of defeating enemies that are stunned and usually just need the one button press to trigger. Flowing fighting remains and has been tweaked to move the controls from the face buttons to the shoulders, and whilst that sounds an odd change it’s actually perfect. Kratos’ move set is more varied than before and shifting the controls stops players from needing 12 fingers to pull off all the moves whilst swinging the free camera around. That’s right, fixed views are also a thing of the past, as is linear progression, we’re in a whole new almost open world here. I say almost because it feels open but I suspect there is some clever loading of sections happening behind in game activities. It feels very Soul Reaver-esque in the world design, and traversal to new areas will be familiar to those who’ve put in the hours with Rocksteady’s Batman games where gadgets and abilities open up previously inaccessible routes. That said, it’s distinct in the way the presentation works and things open up, and surprises and awes with some of the mechanisms, like the axe.
Sure to become a staple in other games after the introduction here, the axe is just superb. We’ve had games that use weapons as tools, but I can’t think of one that has as much variety as this does. I definitely can’t think of a game where you feel like Thor every time the axe gets thrown through an enemy, then returns to your fist at the press of a button, landing in your palm with a wholly satisfying thunk. It cleaves enemies, triggers switches, is imbued with frost abilities to freeze foes and items, and is critical to the majority of the environmental puzzles. Each different use is drip fed through gameplay and lets you get to grips with what it can do whilst subtly guiding towards more complex uses. There are moments of genuine delight at several stages where you figure out a new way of using it – it’s that feeling of “Can I do that? Yes I can!” discovery that makes you think it’s all been done by you, but the developers have ensured that by the time you reach those points you’ll make all the connections to the breadcrumbs they’ve scattered throughout. If you don’t you can always go off and do something else, there’s lots to explore and a plethora of abandoned rowing boats to ferry you around.
The most significant change in God Of War is the freedom the landscape allows for exploration, back-tracking and feeling like a freeform adventure where you are choosing the path. It runs the risk of damaging the pacing and narrative by allowing players to diverge from the main story arc and pick side quests or collectables to go after, but pulls some neat tricks to keep it all coherent. Conversation between the boy and father is natural and well scripted for when they’re rowing from place to place. If you decide to land the boat the dialogue is benched until the next ride, and it picks up exactly where it left off. It works to establish the changing relationship between the two, as well as expanding on the Norse world with useful info on the gods and major players. You’ll meet a couple on your travels, and not necessarily the best known, yet they shouldn’t feel alien after all the swatting up you’re given. There’s also the interaction between Kratos and Atreus during battles where the latter is there to weakly assist in the beginning, and grows to a more useful role over time. He’s not directly controllable as such, though you can influence what he shoots and when to help manage the onslaught of enemies. If you think of Elizabeth in Bioshock Infinite, Atreus fills that role of a useful AI companion who knows what they should do and when, and you don’t have to babysit them.
Helping establish that tangible world that Kratos and Atreus are journeying through is the impeccable environment design and seriously gorgeous setting. There are a mix of styles depending on which area you are in and each comes with at least one wow moment. Whether it’s the way light reflects of surfaces, the scale of the structures, or even the way snow reacts as you battle to a destination; the visuals are superb. The PS4 Pro really adds a benefit or two here with the option to chose inbuilt supersampling that boosts the framerate, or add an extra degree of fidelity by checkerboarding to 4K. I played through with the both options toggling on and off and found the performance option to deliver the better gameplay experience, but hell does the 4K look amazing. Sound design is top notch as well with everything from the incidental score to the understated but powerful performance from Christopher Judge being delivered to your ears in perfect 7.1 audio if you’ve got the setup. These are AAA production values at their finest.
If you remove the story and accept that it’s a pretty game, does it still deliver enough to warrant the price tag? It is a touch higher than the normal RRP after all. The answer there is simply yes. With taking away the linear story progression and creating the semi-open world, the God Of War becomes the Collector Of Everything, and there are just too many to list. Some are the usual case of scouring the environment, some are side quest driven, and some are clearly end game content that are only possible once weapons and armour are maxed out. Crafting, upgrading and resource management all come to fruition through the course of the 20+ hour story, and persist afterwards too so you can continue to explore well beyond the ending of the tale. It’s testament to the map design and how well it’s constructed (and how densely filled it is) that I’m finding new areas some 10 hours after finishing the main quest path.
It should be pretty obvious if you’ve reached this end paragraph that I’ve a lot of time for God Of War. Without doubt it’s the best game I’ve played this year, and could go on to be the a contender for my game of the year. It’s pitched perfectly to new and returning fans so it doesn’t seem impenetrable to one and a cash grab to the other; there’s a depth to it that suits the maturing of the medium and the main character; it keeps on giving back as you work your way through Midgard; and there’s more to discover after the credits roll. It’s a belter of a single player experience that should be in every PlayStation owners library. Let your rage loose and help Kratos teach those Norse gods how it should be done.
God Of War is out now exclusively on PlayStation 4.