The latest return to Kratos’ life is a direct sequel to the original trilogy. Many outlets are calling it a reboot and, as far as gameplay and presentation is concerned, it is. This time around however, Kratos has a son to worry about. Atreus’ presence in the game gives rise to God of War handling a suddenly more personal adventure. It gives rise to teasingly vague conversations about what it means to be a god in this world. The poignancy of Kratos coming to terms with being a father and accessing any emotion other than anger never takes away from what God of War is all about.
All the meaty combat is still here, replete with unforgettable boss fights and the classic grunting and yelling we’ve come to expect from Kratos. Every axe swing is a reminder of his ferocity and how that unchecked rage must now be tempered for the sake of a young boy. It’s powerful stuff.
From the moment we press start on the main menu to begin our journey for the first time, the text fades away and, unbroken, the camera begins to do its thing. That is – never to leave Kratos. For the entirety of Kratos’ and Atreus’ adventure, the camera never cuts away. With the ridiculously high fidelity on show, for the whole story to be “filmed” in one shot is nothing short of a technical wonder. Of course, this means no loading screens and god only knows the sneaky moments Santa Monica squeezed in load times behind carefully timed cutscenes. What this means for the player, however is that they’re constantly with Kratos for all thirty or so hours of the game. It gives the great journey he and his son go on a real sense of length. It very subtly enforces a sense of “yeah ok, we’ve really come a long way”.
We soon learn that Kratos’ goal is to carry the ashes of Atreus’ mother (his presumed wife / partner) to the highest peak in all the realms. Players will know from the previous trilogy that this is the second love interest in Kratos’ life that he has brought a child into the world with. After the terrible events of Kratos’ past and just how incompatible his godhood is with familial affairs, the story holds back on just how Fae died and what kind of fate lies in wait for Atreus should history repeat itself. The more emotional beats of the story this time around will constantly remind players to think these kind of thoughts, adding significant weight to every conversation Kratos has with his son. Players of the last trilogy will be constantly wondering if Kratos’ history will repeat itself in this new realm of gods. It also helps that Kratos is wonderful to listen to with a voice of Vin Diesel plus (the actual voice actor is Christopher Judge). So rumbly.
As we progress through God of War’s story, we are constantly reminded of how Kratos is an outsider. The ferocious Ghost of Sparta is still a capable warrior in his old age but has become vulnerable to a degree, as he is unfamiliar with the world he is in. He seems to have cared little for Fae’s teachings and the role of fatherhood. Now that she is gone, Kratos has no option but to defer to a young boy in all things Norse mythology. A young boy he is seriously conflicted about.
Kratos is constantly asking Atreus for help with reading runic texts. A vital part of Norse culture is the power of language and the power words can shaping reality. This is a power that Kratos does not have and is a disadvantage he is unaccustomed to. This power is naturally the boy’s which makes the shaky relationship Kratos has with his son so necessary. This creates an uncertainty in the story as it’s never clear what will happen next, dependant on this two-person symbiosis needed for survival.
Normally, in videogames, stories are considered accomplished in how clever they are. Perhaps they have branching narrative and different endings. Perhaps the player has some kind of agency over what happens. God of War’s story is strictly linear. You’ll see the same things happen every time you play… But it’s still a bloody clever story. For those prepared to do the research and in game reading, everything the player experiences has some root in authentic Viking mythology. Best of all, it’s relentlessly unpredictable. Just when you think you know what will happen next, a new surprise will pop up that simultaneously leads to fresh new kinds of gameplay. New areas may be revealed or new ways to fight will have developed.
Side quests enjoy the same design complexity of story threads (so you should totally do them). There is no trade off in player experience should they choose to do an epic story quest or a little grind on the side. One that springs to mind involved Fafnir the dragon. It’s a name you may recognise from one of Hellblade’s little stories. This is because the legend of Fafnir and his cave of coveted gold is an official Viking story. Whether the player knows it or not, this kind of mythological authenticity is to be found in every corner of God of War’s new world. This creates a layer of believability on top of the already spectacular experience that is punctuated by an ever evolving combat system.
Two things Santa Monica Studio have always excelled at is offering a developing learning experience for the player and coming up with totally original ideas in the gaming sphere. They practically invented quick time events in real time gameplay. When we first discovered that in the original God of War, it blew us away as new methods for incorporating cinematic fight scenes into games suddenly became a thing. Amazingly, after all this time, it’s clear to see Santa Monica Studio is still sticking to this formula for success and have absolutely not run out of ideas.
Let’s break down these two things in the case of 2018’s God of War. The first – offering a developing learning experience for the player. In some small part this can be found in the game’s many puzzles. Many of them require abilities that Kratos will unlock as he progresses on his journey. The more abilities required for any puzzle, the more complex it will be. Santa Monica knows their game is all about storytelling momentum and frantic combat. So these puzzles are never too taxing on the mind but just clever enough to provide the player with a sense of satisfaction when they finally crack open that reward chest.
The biggest part of this unfolding learning experience is, without a doubt, found in the combat system. We see Kratos with his trusty Leviatan Axe but it’s not the only weapon he has. He’s also got his shield and his fists. Each of the three methods of attack have their own skill trees, the moves for which will weave between one another in combat, the more you unlock. Kratos may throw his axe into an enemy skull, freezing them. He may then sprint to the next foe, beat the crap out of them then return to the original enemy in a jumping attack, recalling the axe and slamming down on them. Then there’s integration of what Atreus can do, which doubles up on a new flavour of God of War’s original magic powers with ranged attacks. Without getting too wordy here, combat has a heck of a lot of complexity to offer players looking for it.
The second – coming up with totally original ideas in the gaming sphere. This is super tough for any games development studio. A dev may have grand and original ideas but to execute them in a functional way is something else altogether. If it were up to you, and you had to come up with the first concept of God of War 4, would you have come up with – Kratos has an A.I little boy following him everywhere? I doubt it. But Cory Barlog and his team at Santa Monica have absolutely pulled it off. Atreus’ A.I is not perfect. Sometimes (rarely) he gets stuck on walls but, for the most part he’s never a problem. Kratos never has to wait for him to catch up to go up a lift for example. The real originality in God of War is something I’ve already mentioned – the camera. In early design phases Barlog argued intensely with his team about camera positioning and debating how borderline impossible it would be to do the whole “one shot” thing. In the end it was decided the recalling of the Leviathan Axe only felt as weighty as it does today because of where the camera is behind Kratos. You’ll see what I mean when you play it. Calling that thing back for the first time had me squealing like a school girl in a Justin Bieber concert.
Overall, the gameplay loop of God of War is sheer perfection. Its central hub world offers as much in the way of side quests as you would expect from any triple A open world RPG. An open world RPG this certainly is. A bit of a departure from the previous trilogy’s experimentation with levelling up weapons. Although, on offer this time is an incredible scope for weapon and armour choice replete with all the stat buffs you’d expect. A well thought out economy of resources, buying, selling and crafting awaits you. An overly bloated inventory system is nowhere to be found, yet this still works perfectly.
The story will fool you over and over as it makes you think the game is nearly over when a new thing happens, ensuring a guaranteed extra few hours of play… That is – if something else doesn’t happen in the story you didn’t see coming. It makes you feel like you’re being spoiled by a real product of value. Learning, understanding and then executing is the core formula for fun in videogames and God of War nails this from start to finish and the story's surprises are the icing on the cake.
Graphics And Sound
Yet more videogame perfection sits in this segment of the review. God of War is honestly the most stunning game I have ever played. That means it looks better than Final Fantasy XV. It looks better than Horizon. It’s the best looking game on the market, PC power be damned. To top it all off, if you hypothetically never die in an entire, single session run-through of the game you’ll never once see a loading screen. Not once! It is for this reason that God of War is being hailed as a technical wonder. Everything from tree bark to Kratos’ beard is hypnotically detailed to the point where, even if the game wasn’t that good, I’d be insisting you played it just to look at it.
Take snow, for example. As Kratos and Atreus make their way up a snowy mountain, a few enemies get in the way and I hack them all into bits. The aftermath was how the snow displayed the flurry of footwork made by my enemies by all the imprints left behind. This isn’t simple boot marks on the floor, this is genuinely disturbed snow. Most games load out these details after a certain amount of time to save your machine from blowing up. Not God of War. I took the time to go a fair way back down the snowy pass and all the disturbed snow remained and so did my console. How the heck did Santa Monica Studio make this work?!
Then I kicked a pile of coins. I said to myself “bet these coins won’t go flying if I kicked them”. They did. None of the coins disappeared after the coin explosion animation. Each one convincingly bounced around and remained where they fell. That’s when I noticed the attention to sound design. The rattling of coins had an echo to them, given my claustrophobic environment of the time. This is all the more noticeable when exploring caves and speaking to Atreus as the acoustics shift, so too does the sound of hearing the two speak.
As for the music, Santa Monica stuck with three simple tones. The rumbly male voice choir we first heard at the E3 reveal. Yet these tones come in many forms. String instruments for emotional scenes, booming male voice choirs for dramatic stuff and female voice choirs for fancy environment reveals. Who would have thought three tones could go such a long way?
When we see reviews across the media, all of them spraying five stars at us, ten out of tens with statements like “Astonishingly beautiful” on the sides of bus stops, we get sceptical. Many of us start to think “hmm, is everyone just riding the hype train here and being blind to any issues the game has?”. Well, perhaps they are. So here’s an issue for you to make things a little more believable. On the standard PS4, your copy of God of War will struggle with horrendous frame rate issues, usually just after loading post-death. It lasts for around three seconds. Oh and Atreus’ A.I can go a bit squiffy here and there.
Aside from that, I had the most fun with God of War, possibly for the entirety of my time with the PS4 so far. That's really saying something. You absolutely do not have to have played the original trilogy to understand what’s going on. Although a quick look on Wikipedia won’t hurt. If you own a PS4, nay, even have the slightest appreciation for just what videogames can achieve with the right team at the helm, make sure you play this game before you die. That could be tomorrow. You may get hit by a bus. So get out there, grab yourself a copy and fill your eyeballs with the most beautiful world design you have ever seen. Fill your brain with delightfully complex ideas for combos and then make make them more complex with XP points. Just do your best not to be depressed after the credits roll, wondering what the hell to do with your life next.
+ Spectacular storytelling that has you guessing around every corner
– Occasional frame rate drops on a standard PS4
+ A perfect blend of the God of War feel with new open world RPG systems
– Atreus' A.I doesn't quite reach perfection
+ God of War's most satisfying combat yet