God of War (PS4)

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That’s a tweet from me a month before the release of God of War. I couldn’t imagine Santa Monica Studio making me care about Kratos as a person after what I’d seen him do in the previous games. This is a man who killed his wife and child in cold blood with his only defense being that he didn’t realize it was them due to his rage. He thought he was murdering a different set of completely innocent people. Kratos then spent three games on a massive rage bender to get revenge against the Greek gods. He was a dick and not even a particularly nuanced one. There were no shades of gray with Kratos, unless you counted the ashes of his wife and child that covered his skin.

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Santa Monica Studio wanted a Kratos we could sympathize with this time around. It could have cheated by creating an entirely new character and simply calling him Kratos to bring in all those glorious franchise dollars. That’s not what it did. The Kratos of God of War (2018) is the same Kratos we saw in God of War 3. After defeating all the Greek gods, Kratos moved to Midgard to live among humans. He grew older and more grizzled, but he carries all the baggage you’d expect of a man who can genuinely claim that murdering his own father isn’t in his top three list of shittiest things he’s done. Thanks to a phenomenal performance by Christopher Judge, you can hear Kratos’ anguish in every terse word he exchanges with his son, Atreus. Kratos still isn’t all that talkative, but with few words, he manages to be grumpy, cruel, and occasionally sympathetic in a way that highlights the game’s consistently excellent writing. Kratos has changed, but it’s still Kratos.

God of War starts shortly after the death of Kratos’ wife and Atreus’ mother. They burn her body and set off on a journey to spread her ashes at the top of the highest mountain, as per her request. Kratos doesn’t think Atreus is ready to make such a perilous journey, however, after a visit from a being known only as The Stranger, he realizes they need to get going sooner rather than later.

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Compared to previous franchise entries, God of War has a modest and personal story which had me far more engaged than the mindless slaughter of Greek Gods. Broken down to its core story beats, the journey up the mountain isn’t all that exciting, but being with Kratos and Atreus every step of the way was surprisingly touching. It’s obvious that Kratos and Atreus will become closer the more time they spend together but that doesn’t diminish the impact of each slight change in their relationship. You also meet a few friendly (ish) faces along the way such as feuding dwarf siblings who add a bit of humor into the mix and a mysterious witch who knows all about Kratos’ past.

The final act is dragged down by excessive backtracking and a tendency to throw waves of enemies at you under contrived circumstances. As an example, you spend a significant portion of the game chasing a McGuffin. After finding the McGuffin, you go back to a portal to use it except it turns out you need McGuffin 2 before you can activate it. So you go back out again to get McGuffin 2, retreading much of the same ground. If there’d been a touch more editing, you could have gone after McGuffin and McGuffin 2 on the same trip. It’s a bit tiresome, especially because it comes so near the end of the game.

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Once you’ve left the homestead, God of War settles into a familiar pattern of fight, explore, solve, and repeat. Combat has changed substantially from previous entries largely due to the new zoomed-in, over the shoulder view. Light and heavy attacks are mapped to the shoulder buttons as is the block and parry button. The face buttons are used to dodge and roll, and call on Atreus to help you out. Kratos can also throw his axe which is a useful tool for dealing with aerial enemies given that Kratos can’t jump anymore. Even gods get bad knees as they age.

By far the most satisfying part of the axe throw is recalling it afterwards. The axe comes crashing back into your hand with a thud in much the same way as Thor’s hammer. If you time it right, you can make the axe do damage to enemies on the way back. This feels great the first time, the twenty-third time, and even the two-hundred and thirty-fifth time.

Kratos gradually acquires new skills through an XP system. There’s not much focus on combos. Instead, you can charge up attacks, attack directly from a sprint, and lock onto enemies for axe throws. You can also level up Atreus who does damage with arrows during combat and distracts enemies for you. Atreus can be knocked out for a few seconds at a time, but during my playthrough he never died. Atreus is genuinely useful and doesn’t need looking after; God of War never felt like an escort mission.

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Unfortunately, the combat didn’t became more enjoyable as I acquired new skills. You play most of the game with only one combo, so you end up repeating the same moves again and again. Once you have the ability to do charged heavy attacks and sprinting attacks, you’ve got most of what you need to beat the story. Stance switching is unlocked near the end of the skill tree, however by the time you have that, you’ll likely be settled into a routine already.

The biggest problem is the zoomed-in camera and restricted field of view. You can’t keep many enemies on screen at one time. The game attempts to cater for this by giving you a variety of different colored indicators depending on whether an enemy is approaching or attacking, or if a projectile is coming your way. It feels odd to dodge attacks based on a red arrow popping up instead of the old-fashioned way of seeing the attack coming towards you. Kratos can turn 180 degrees with a quick tap of the down button, however this feels like a concession to the problem of limited visibility rather than an adequate solution. The lack of a jump is also frustrating when so many enemies can fly or hover.

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None of this is to say that the combat can’t feel good or even great. In fact, I’d say the high points are better than those of the previous games. You don’t have a combo meter this time around, however maintaining a combo can be its own reward. Taking out a group of eight enemies without getting hit via a combination of parries, dodges, rage mode attacks, axe throws, fist beat downs, and runic abilities feels absolutely phenomenal. The four difficulty modes offer up completely different experiences, with enemies becoming more aggressive on harder settings and gaining the ability to level up during combat.

There’s an early boss fight that, in terms of spectacle, is one of the most impressive I’ve ever seen. I’m not going to say anything else about it, other than that you should experience the thrill of playing it. However, that fight is the exception not the rule. The final battle is especially disappointing. It reminded me of a superhero fight in a bad way, as two nearly indestructable beings attempt to hurt each other to little effect. It’s like watching Superman fight Zod. The effects can be impressive, but there’s a lack of tension.

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Way too many of the mini-boss encounters involve fighting the same two enemy types over and over again, with the only difference being the form of elemental damage they deal. One of these boss types is especially annoying as it was clearly meant to be fought using ranged attacks and throwing an axe at a weak spot again and again isn’t all that exciting.

All too often I found the combat frustrating or boring. This isn’t to do with difficulty. God of War is easy enough on normal mode which is mostly how I played the game. There were a couple of challenging encounters when I was underlevelled, however they tended to be down to an excessive use of area of effect attacks or extreme tracking that made it tricky to get out of the way in time.

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My frustration and occasional boredom didn’t so much arise from the challenge as it did the way I ended up fighting. I’ve already mentioned the colored indicators that warn you about oncoming enemies. This is also a problem even when face to face with enemies. A yellow glow around an enemy as he’s about to attack means the attack can be blocked but you’ll be stunned afterwards. The only way to avoid this is to execute a perfect parry. If there’s a red glow, then you can’t parry the attack at all and need to get the hell out of the way. You need to do this quickly as your roll has limited i-frames, if any.

These visual effects meant I paid more attention to color indicators than attack animations. Again, these colors feel like a concession not a solution. My preferred approach would be for the animation itself to be clearer about whether or not I can block the attack without being stunned. Attacks which can’t be blocked at all should be rare and rather obvious. Instead, most enemies are capable of attacking without Kratos (a literal God) being able to put up a defense at all.

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Between all these combat encounters, you solve a few basic puzzles which largely involve throwing your axe at runes. This description does it a disservice. I enjoyed most of the puzzles and they ramped up nicely from using the axe to hold a door open to using it to adjust the timings on large blocks of spikes coming down from the ceiling. These puzzles make up a large chunk of the game, especially if you do a lot of the side content where areas are locked off until you gained new abilities. It’s nothing particularly groundbreaking, but I’m a simple man and got a thrill from returning to old areas once I finally knew what those bloody green spheres did.

At certain points in the story, you can take a break and do side quests for the two dwarfs—Brok and Sindri—and go hunting for collectibles, materials, and money. These resources are used to buy, craft, or upgrade your three types of armor. You can also slot in enchantments and use special talismans for your axe for special abilities such as being able to pause time on successful dodges or get a longer parry window. All your gear combines to boost Kratos’ base stats. Most of these are fairly typical such as strength, runic, and defense, however the luck stat stands out as being atypical for the genre. Fortunately, it’s nothing too unbalanced, mainly serving as an XP boost which you won’t need all that much. By the end, you’ll have far more XP than you’ll ever need.

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The gear system is far more convoluted than it needs to be. Even comparing gear is unnecessarily cumbersome. If you compare old gear to new gear, the new gear nearly alwalys looks worse because the old gear has enchantments. You have to separately remove the enchantments to easily compare the two pieces. Likewise, it’s hard to tell how good a new piece of gear will be once you’ve upgraded it or whether you even can upgrade it at all with your current materials. You’re left at having to guess what the final stats will be. I barely noticed any difference no matter what gear I was wearing, so I’m confident in saying that if you don’t want to engage with this system then you can ignore it for the entirity of the main story. Just equip the stuff with the biggest numbers and you’ll be fine.

Your gear becomes more important for the endgame when you face a series of challenges that truly test your skills. There’re two entirely new realms to visit, with trials and procedurally generated dungeons to grind through for new rewards. You can also fight against a series of optional bosses that represent by far the biggest challenge in the game.

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I love how much content there is after completing the main game, however it’s sloppily presented and far more confusing than it needs to be. Do you want to upgrade your axe? Well, first you’d better get a new material. But where do you get that material? Eventually one of the dwarfs starts selling it, but you need another new material to pay for it. Where do you get that material? Well, first you can go into the mist and collect 1,000 of another new currency, which you can then use to open chests which in turn… you get the idea.

If you’ve played previous God of War games, you might be surprised at how long this one is. I completed the story in just under thirty hours although that included a fair few side quests. With all the end game content, there’s easily forty hours of fun here, compared to around ten hours in the previous games. Sure, there is some padding and forced walking sections, but the story is worth it and there’s a twist at the end that already has me anticipating the inevitable sequel.

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In previous God of War games and similar franchises such as Devil May Cry, I enjoyed doing multiple playthroughs on harder difficulties to try and master the combos and movesets. I won’t be doing that for God of War. That shouldn’t necessarily speak to a lack of quality on offer; it’s just a different experience. You spend a lot of time walking around talking to Artreus and, while the dialogue is generally excellent, it’s not gripping enough to warrant a second listen.

I don’t typically write much about graphics in reviews. You probably already know what God of War looks like and my ineloquent vocabulary can’t come close to describing it as well as video footage. That said, I do want to highlight the visuals here because God of War looks so spectacular that it enhances the experience of playing it. Going into Spartan Rage and smashing enemies like The Hulk feels incredible and that’s partly because of how good it looks. Likewise, grabbing a lump of rock from the ground and throwing it at the enemy or doing a melee kill when enemies are stunned is a feast for the eyes. It’s a shame the frame rate is capped at 30fps, but it’s stable and I rarely felt hampered by it.

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Not only does God of War look incredible, it manages to tell the entire story in one long cut. Of course, it’s only one cut if you never die, never pause the game, never change gear, etc., but that doesn’t negate how spectacular this can be to play through. There are times when you can’t quite believe what you’re seeing as Kratos transitions from a standard attack to climbing on top of a huge beast for a few more hits before another transition back to standard gameplay. Only once did I notice any visual difference that gave away that I was watching an in-engine cutscene as opposed to normal gameplay. Gorgeous graphics don’t make a game great, but I can’t deny I like to look at pretty things once in a while.

God of War is a technical achievement and a damn good game. It occasionally prioritizes visual flare and storytelling over compelling gameplay, but that just means it’s a different type of game from its predecessors. Whether it’s better or worse will depend on what you’re after. I enjoyed the story, the writing, and the characters. While I was disappointed with the combat at times, it still had incredible moments that made me feel like an actual god of war for the first time since this series began.

4/5

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