Developer: SIE Santa Monica Studio
Rebooting an entire franchise can be a scary and daunting proposition, especially one as beloved and infamous as God of War. Over many generations and across a number of PlayStation platforms, quite a few gamers have enjoyed many, many hours of Kratos? rage-fueled, action-packed adventures. There were likely others that maybe felt that the experience had become too gratuitous and repetitive, and end up tapping out after a few releases. Wherever your point of view, Sony and Santa Monica Studio?s decision to essentially start over with new God of War was probably not an easy one. Even the most steadfast of fans however will probably agree that the 13 year old series did need a solid Spartan kick in the ass for current generation audiences if Sony were to bring the series back. So after pouring bucket loads of blood, sweat and tears in this fresh new God of War for the PS4 we can definitely say they?ve accomplished what they set out to do.
God of War 2018 marks a new beginning for the series and a new beginning for the game?s now grizzled and older protagonist. In an unknown period of time after the events of the original God of War titles (which were set largely in ancient Greece), Kratos has settled down in the Nordic region of Midgard as a hunter, a husband, and father — well, to the best of his abilities at least. In a long passed period of his life, as a Spartan warrior, Kratos had a wife and a daughter, but in the new God of War timeline that too is ancient history. In his current life, his wife Faye has passed away and he and his young son Atreus prepare for a potentially harrowing expedition to deliver her ashes to the top of the highest snowy mountain summit overlooking their lands, as per her wishes. From the time that players assume control of Kratos the intense adventure essentially never lets up, and never cuts away from his journey, both literally and figuratively. The Norse setting and mythology is new and fresh for the series and provides a lot of opportunity to expand the God of War lore, so it too was a risk worth taking.
No one in Kratos? current life knows of his previous status as the God of War, or his true background, or any of the world-changing actions he has taken over his lifetime. The new Kratos is still a rough and gruff character, though one that can exhibit a sliver of patience and has found a way to contain most of his previous levels of rage. His interactions with common folk and his son Atreus are more grumpy ?get off my lawn? and strict Dad-like than warrior and god killer, although it doesn’t take long for some of the rage to seep out during his adventure — usually for very good reasons as one may expect. With Atreus frequently by Kratos? side, and the many conversations between them, there is ample opportunity to learn more and the man and his relationship with his son. Needless to say, Kratos wasn’t around for much of Atreus? life and deferred most of the parenting to his wife Faye, so the parent-child interactions are not particularly comfortable or cordial to start. Their journey is long however, so players get to see the relationship evolve over time.
There?s a lot going on in the new God of War that?s worth talking about, with the most important probably being the shift in the type of genre that the 2018 title occupies. Whereas the original series was strictly a high intensity action title with a fixed camera (and some light puzzle solving here and there), the new game fall very much into the ?action RPG? category. Open world elements, an overworld map, skill trees, unlockable abilities, upgradeable tiered gear, optional quests and goals, XP, Hacksilver currency and the list goes on. The experience is extremely dynamic as compared to previous installments as players can build out Kratos and Atreus to support their play style whether it be strategic and defensive, or offensive and deadly powerful — and everything in between.
The elephant in the room is obviously Kratos? son Atreus, since he is a supporting, non-player character and historically gamers have had not-great experiences with gameplay built around A.I. partners. The industry has evolved thankfully, and Nadine and Chloe from Uncharted: The Lost Legacy and Joel and Ellie from The Last Of Us have shown us that this type of arrangement can work really well when done right. Atreus is unique in that while he is mostly autonomous, he can be called upon in very specific ways by Kratos to target/distract enemies or interact with objects or perform actions depending on the situation at hand. He has his own gear, abilities and skill tree too, so he can be leveled up in tandem with his dad. Atreus can very occasionally get into trouble on his own and require a quick helping hand by Kratos, though it?s something more common in the highest difficulty setting. Santa Monica Studio made sure that players never feel that they need to babysit the kid and that he serves an actual purpose instead of just being an entity that needs escorting or a burden. The voice actor for Atreus does a fine job, even if some of the conversations and comments don’t quite flow as naturally as they could have.
Another huge change in the new God of War is the gameplay, controls and combat. Kratos is no longer locked into a certain point of view and can free rotate the camera around all throughout the game. Instead of having the ability to freely jump, players have context sensitive action buttons which serve many uses including jumping, interacting, climbing, picking up/opening items and so forth. There?s not a single time I really missed the ability to jump on demand to be honest, and the laundry list of abilities available to Kratos and son throughout the game far outweigh that omission. Kratos? main weapon in God of War is the handy-dandy, deadly Leviathan Axe — which is incredibly enjoyable to use even right at the start of the game. It?s a weapon and a tool, can be utilized for close up hack and slash combat and as a ranged weapon too. The ability to throw the axe with precision and then manually recall it like a boomerang (or more accurately, like a Star Wars Jedi, force-pulling a lightsaber) is an absolute game changer. ?Very satisfying? in an apt description for using the axe, which is more or less a well-designed swiss army knife all throughout the game. Like his armor and gear, the axe can be enhanced with new pommels and attack gems, not to mention abilities tied to the level-based skill tree. Kratos is also rocking a shield, which while not upgradeable in terms of gear, also gains defensive and offensive abilities as time goes on. Oh and Kratos is very capable of taking down enemies without any weapon in hand at all as he has some serious MMA skills that would put any pro UFC fighter to shame. The aforementioned chest/wrist/waist armor and equipment, which can range from ?common? to ?epic? in nature, can be found, crafted, upgraded, enhanced and switched up on demand — depending on the situation.
Atreus begins the game equipped with a Talon hunting bow which he quickly learns how to utilize as a weapon and tool of his own. He can fire off a burst of shots at enemies that are targeted by the player, or just freely assist Kratos as he sees fit depending on the circumstances. The bow can be upgraded, and yes it too has a skill tree and magic abilities that unlock as he gains experience. The boy himself has a piece of armor that can be upgraded with better gear as well. There?s a lot of customization and depth in God of War and it?s likely to inspire players to spend some time experimenting in order to settle on what may be the best strategy for them. With all the options and information presented to the player there?s not really (relatively speaking) a ton of inventory management to worry about. The menu and interface generally does quite well in organizing everything in a mostly intuitive way once players become familiar with it.
The new God of War setting and environment brings with it a lot of gorgeous new locations and set pieces (both realistic and surreal) for the game to take players through, which of course comes with a new cast of friendly and not-so-friendly characters. On the good team are a pair of helpful blacksmith dwarfs, a witch, and a plethora of seemingly approachable entities of all sorts. The baddies, which are also based on Norse mythology, primarily range from the more humanoid undead Draugrs and tricksy dark elves, to trolls, large ogres, flying poisonous jellyfish-like Nightmares, wolves and elemental beasties of many varieties. And gods of course. There?s also a handy in-game Bestiary which fills out with information and tips for dealing with the creatures Kratos encounters. God of War keeps you on your toes in terms of enemy encounters, and more than a few require more strategy other than just old-timey hacking and slashing. Saving up special abilities or utilizing Atreus appropriately is important for the more difficult, boss-like battles. Kratos, with the help from his son, can string together some rather fulfilling and satisfying, epic-sized combos and sequences. There are some small button pressing/mashing commands here and there although nothing like the QTE minigames of old.
Other than areas that Kratos and son do battle within, there are some moderately large open world-style hub areas in which Kratos and Atreus can hop in a boat and explore. These locations provide opportunities to backtrack to open up new areas, find more loot and quests, and pick up more experience and abilities. Players can definitely just charge through the story bits and ignore the optional side quests, though the game does a good job providing incentives to slow down and enjoy the world, solve a couple puzzles and track down some treasure/gear. There?s also some pretty interesting conversations between Kratos and his son to be had during these random moments, both serious and on the lighter side. There?s a lot of voiceover work in God of War and Christopher Judge (who replaced Terrence Carson), does fine work with the character. He sounds a little different than original/younger Kratos and seemingly has more emotional range which this more mature Kratos required. Atreus is voiced by an actual 10 year old voice actor and he?s usually up to the task to spite a couple of somewhat awkward sounding transitions and lines. WIth the general lack of background music during non-action scenes, there?s plenty of ambient effects and chatter between the pair, so it really needed to be of high quality. When that music does kick in though, there?s no mistaking Bear McCreary?s efforts at providing an interesting and relevant selection of tracks for the game.
God of War is one of the, if not the best looking titles of the generation. With a majority of my review time spent on the PS4 Pro with a 4K HDR display (with ?favor resolution? setting primarily), I made sure to also put more than a few hours into the stock experience and I was never not impressed at the visuals. I?d say that Horizon: Zero Dawn possibly still holds the crown due to scale and overall environmental interactivity, but God of War is certainly up there with stunning animation, super detailed texture work and exhilarating set pieces and scripted sequences. HDR support is phenomenal and the range of different lighting profiles and particle effects going on while exploring or in battle can be a sight to behold. God of War was designed to mimic a “continuous shot/long take” in film, meaning the virtual camera never breaks away from Kratos from start to finish and there are no pre-rendered cutscenes of any sort. All story scenes are acted out in real time, in-engine, which provides for more intimacy and urgency during character interactions. It?s an impactful feat, especially once you notice that?s the style the designers were going for. Also worth noting is that while the game is relatively violent and M-rated by the ESRB, it?s not as gooey and gratuitous as previous installments (which may have turned off some players who thought it was too bloody and over-the-top).
Something else worth being appreciative of is the amount of configuration and control that players have over the UI. It?s possible to essentially ditch most of the HUD if preferred (known as ?Immersive Mode?) or just turn on and off specific indicators at will. There will be a game update that allows users to lightly tap the touchpad to bring up the interface on demand and otherwise go HUD-less in-game. It?s Santa Monica Studio’s extreme attention to detail that really makes the new God of War as polished as it is.
With a compelling story, satisfying new gameplay systems and mechanics, and a challenging, enjoyable journey we applaud Sony for taking a risk and deciding to reinvent their storied God of War franchise for the PS4. Kratos? new beginning is full of heart, loaded with action and is easily one of the best games of this generation.
Note: SIEA provided us with a God of War PS4 code for review purposes.