Reviewed on: Playstation 4. Copy supplied by publisher.
Before we get stuck into things, I want to take a moment to establish some subjective context as I sat down to begin playing God of War. If I’m being truly honest, I was beginning to fall a little out of love with video games. That’s not to say I had completely lost interest in them, I just found myself not being as enthralled as I once was. I still enjoyed a round of PUBG with mates, or appreciated an indie darling, but for me the AAA gaming space had fallen by the wayside.
AAA single player games, with a few exceptions, have been either been overloaded with microtransactions and “live service” rubbish or stepping away from assertive storytelling, opting for a big open world, loading the game up with busy work and leaving players to find their own paths. The latter isn’t necessarily bad, I’ve had fun causing havoc in Far Cry 5, but I’ve lost count of the amount of times playing Breath of the Wild I wished I could just ignore all this experimenting with cooking and could get back to tackling the task at hand.
I was yearning for a game with a compelling narrative, in a map that was ripe for exploring but still maintained a sense of direction and purpose. A game with intricate, flexible mechanics driving progression, but not so complicated they got in the way of enjoying the ride. A game that was always upping the ante so as not to grow stale, to compel me to prioritise making time to play it ahead of my other life commitments.
This was a really long winded way to say that in God of War, I found that game. Or to put it another way, God of War made me rediscover my love of gaming.
God of War is essentially God of War 4, a continuation of the story of Kratos, the rage-filled Spartan warrior turned Greek god of war. Although rage-filled may not be the best way to describe Kratos as we see him in God of War, as we are seeing him now many years after his quest for vengeance against the Olympians brought about the destruction of Greece, and he’s had some time to think. He’s traveled to Scandinavia, he’s settled down with a woman and had a son, and he’s realised his uncontrollable rage was a destructive force that went too far. He wants to live like a man again, rather than the god he has become.
This is where God of War has a strong opening departure from the earlier games in the series. Where the original titles were about the angry Kratos being wronged by the gods and going on a quest to destory them, we instead see Kratos dealing with the passing of the woman he loves. Her last wish was for her ashes to be spread from the highest peak in all the realms, so Kratos and his son, Atreus, embark on a journey of bonding and grief.
Their journey is not without perils, as with the move to Scandinavia comes the wrath of all new gods, Norse ones to be precise. Yes, it seems in God of War’s universe Greek mythology and Norse mythology coexist, and Kratos is quite the fish out of water. I won’t go into details as to which gods are involved and why, but suffice it to say they’re very interested as to who Kratos is and where he’s from.
The story of God of War is one that is arguably a little cliche, where an emotionally closed off father is forced to bond with his son due to the death of the mother. It’s a set up we’ve seen in many different forms of media a million times before. But when considering ways to evolve a character who has often been criticised for being one-note (that note being angry), this premise is a compelling way to have Kratos confront his flaws. Kratos is now tasked with molding Atreus, and he’s determined to not have Atreus make the same mistakes he did. Conversely, Atreus is unaware of these mistakes, and he just wants to be strong like his father. Seeing these two ideals clash, as well as the desire to see what happens next and whether or not the truth eventually comes out, makes for an incredibly compelling, personal story.
The wider narrative isn’t quite as compelling, but interesting nonetheless. The main villain of the piece has a smaller role than I would have liked, disappearing for a large portion of the game before returning to have a rushed arc. There’s also some really obvious padding in the third act, involving some pretty lazy goal-post moving, but the strength of Kratos and Atreus’ relationship/development far outweigh these issues.
And no spoilers, but there’s a low moment for Kratos in the second half of the game that was one of the most exciting, heart-stopping sequences I’ve seen in a game for a good few years.
But enough about the story, let’s move on to the amazing gameplay.
This new God of War shakes up the style of the series in many significant ways. Gone are the computer controlled, cinematic camera angles; replaced by an over-the-shoulder player controlled one. In fact, the game takes place in one continuous shot, with the camera never cutting away from Kratos’ perspective in the story. There are a couple of fade to whites, but from gamepay to cutscenes, the transitions are seamless, and it looks pretty darn great. I stopped noticing it as the game went on, but the technique certainly gave a fantastic sense of flow to events.
Gone too are the platforming sections, opting more for more Uncharted-esque climbing areas. The Uncharted influence goes beyond there as well, with Kratos and Atreus often engaging in witty quips with each other as they traverse the environment. Don’t worry though, Kratos is not Nathan Drake, but he can dish out a solid burn when he wants to.
But possibly most significant is Kratos’ new choice in weapon, the Leviathan Axe. In comparison to the sweeping range of the Blades of Chaos from his Greek days, the Leviathan Axe is a much more up-close-and-personal weapon. At first I was a little underwhelmed by it, as hitting people with an axe just didn’t seem as cool as sweeping through hoards of enemies with swords on chains. It wasn’t very God of War-like. But as time went on and I unlocked more and more abilities to use with it, the Leviathan Axe won me over.
As you unlock new moves, the fluidity of God of War’s combat comes back. As well as basic hits and combos, the axe can be thrown and recalled like Thor’s hammer, or thrown to freeze an enemy in place with frost powers. But once the axe is out of his hands, Kratos can then use his fists to start wailing on people, building up a stun meter which when filled allows him to execute one of his brutal finishing moves. Or he can, you know, recall the axe midway through punches and cleave the guy in half.
So yeah, old Kratos isn’t completely gone.
What’s even more impressive, is that the game never stops giving you more variations of combat right up until the end. As the game progresses there are so many more moves and weapons unlocked to spend experience points on, each one offering a new tactic to employ in the next skirmish. It kept things incredibly varied and engaging throughout, adding more depth to the mechanics without ever being overwhelming.
In fact, that’s something I’d say about the entire game: it’s deep, but not overwhelming. Take the stats and upgrades systems, which are a new addition not seen in previous games. Kratos and Atreus can be outfitted with new sets of armour, each boasting benefits or penalties in a variety of traits. These traits range from standards like Strength, Defense and Vitality, to more nuanced like Runic (effectiveness of magic weapon enhancements), Luck (the likelihood of a stat bonus triggering) and Cooldown (reducing the wait time to reuse special moves). You can also collect enchantments to apply to armour sets that boost these traits, as well as upgrade armour at blacksmiths, and you can customise your load out however you see fit.
And while this system allowed me to put focus on my own playstyle, it never felt overbearingly necessary to muck around with it on an intricate level, and thus it didn’t get in the way of going through the game. I never struggled because I was spec’d poorly, and I could always tweak things if I really wanted a boost. Or I could just focus up and get good. It was incredibly refreshing to see.
God of War also takes a significant departure from the previous entries in the series by having a more open world and the addition of side quests. The world is isn’t open like say Far Cry 5 or Grand Theft Auto, it has an element of linearity to it in that you can only go one way to progress the narrative and areas are locked off until you need to go to them. But once an area is opened up, it can be returned to at any point and often there will be more things to discover once you’ve gain new abilities and find new puzzles. Side quests are also given out by secondary characters, often rewarding you with better gear to take on your journey or giving a better insight into the game’s lore.
My one issue with the side quests was that it kind of didn’t make sense for Kratos to go off and do them. He isn’t the kind of guy to do things that aren’t important to his goal, so I just didn’t think it fit the character for him to do favours for other people. He even says on many occasions that he doesn’t want to waste his time with these errands, but then does them anyway at the player’s behest. This is a really minor nitpick from me, being from a performing arts background and caring about emulating a character in a game, but it nagged me a bit. But thankfully God of War allows you to still explore post the main story, and it makes more sense for Kratos to embark on these errands at that point in the game, so I was able to enjoy them more.
Combining these extra quests, the puzzles, the lengthy story, and plethora of challenge realms and bosses, God of War is a game that keeps on giving. Much like its predecessors, its easy to pick up but challenging to master. It seizes your attention with an intriguing narrative, amazing visuals, and meaty combat and then just builds and builds upon itself right up to the end. Sure I had some criticisms, but those faults are minuscule compared to the incredible game they are found within.
God of War is definitely my front runner for 2018’s Game of the Year. I might even go so far as to say it’s the best game of this console generation.