Game: God of War
Developer: Sony Santa Monica
Reviewed on: PS4 (Review code provided)
I’m sure you’re all aware by now, but God of War is a special game. Set after Kratos has run the riot act over everything ancient Greece has to throw at him, he’s put his rage to one side, and settled down in the land of the Norse gods to try and escape his past. You know how it is, you kill a few deities, find a little place in the countryside, have a kid and settle down. Except, it’s never quite that simple for the Ghost of Sparta, is it?
See, the thing is with Kratos is that he’s always been a bit one-note. A man with the volume knob stuck at 11, with his anger and rage taking precedent over everything else. The only way to get past your problems, in his world, is to stick a flaming blade through their chest, with enough vitriol coursing through his veins to justify every kill, be it a peon or those who inhabit Mount Olympus themselves. What Corey Barlog and the team at Santa Monica have done with the character of Kratos, along with the shift in mythology, is incredible at worst, and at its best, nothing short of miraculous.
This is achieved for the most part with the introduction of Atreus, or as Kratos affectionately calls him for the most part, “BOY”. It’s a somewhat typical mechanic and storytelling trope to use (throw in a child to get some emotion out), but it’s handled delicately, and it never feels cynical or trite. The immediate shift between Kratos uttering “Boy…” and screaming “ATREUS!” when he realises that his son is in legitimate danger is complimented excellently by softer moments where father and son have genuine heart to heart conversations, with the boy’s name being uttered softly. It’s a subtle insight into Kratos’ mindset, and how he’s developed as a person. It’s one of the game’s greatest strengths that the child has somehow melted the heart of the man who used to have flaming axes permanently attached to his skin.
An awful lot was made after the game’s reveal at E3 2016 of the switch to an over-the-shoulder camera perspective. Fortunately, this is one of the changes that has allowed the game to evolve just as much as its protagonist. A close camera allows for the gorgeous environments to wash over you in a way that simply wasn’t possible in the earlier games in the franchise. While there aren’t as many overwhelmingly huge battles as, say, God of War 3, there is a sense of scale that is rarely matched in video games.
The sense of scale is matched with a combat system that is as deep as the lake that acts as the game’s hub area. Multiple skill trees allow you to customise your attacks in a way that’s not been seen in earlier titles, and combined with the Leviathan Axe, it feels incredibly fresh. Atreus has his uses in combat too, firing arrows, or jumping on their back to stun them while you unleash your fury. Enemies mix it up a bit as well, with invulnerabilities to certain types of elemental attacks, meaning you need to switch to bare handed combat if you encounter an ice-powered opponent, or getting your ice attacks powered up to attack the fiery Draugr. It’s an idea that was explored with multiple weapons in GOW3 and Ascension, but there’s a different tact taken here, and it’s to the game’s benefit in a big way. In addition, you can also switch up Kratos and Atreus’ armour, with varying combat effects. There is an extensive gear and loot system. This hasn’t just been thrown in for the sake of it either, it’s been intricately thought out and implemented superbly, with each armour piece and attachment having unique abilities that are enhanced in a near-infinite series of ways with a series of enchantments with increasing levels of rarity, and by extension, effectiveness.
If you’re expecting an open-world God of War game, you’re not going to find it here. What you will find, however, is a series of expansive areas, with a central hub world that evolves as you make your way through the game. There is also an impressively crafted fast-travel system, which makes exploring Midgard and the other realms a breeze. If you’ve played the latest Tomb Raider titles, you’re in with an idea of what to expect. A central hub and multiple pathways through each area, with a treasure trove of hidden goodies. It’s a bit Metroid-y as well, with areas hidden behind doors locked until you acquire the relevant skill.
It would be remiss to ignore the technical achievement that SSM have produced with God of War. It is, quite simply, astonishing. Everything in the game has been designed perfectly, with the game running at a near-rock solid frame rate on the base PS4, and at a checkerboard 4k on the Pro. If you want, there’s a performance mode on the Pro, but this has a fluctuating frame rate that doesn’t quite lock on to the targeted 60. Personally, I preferred playing it at a solid 30 with supersampled visuals in 1080p – It is an absolutely breathtaking achievement in visual fidelity and art design.
An intensely personal and perfectly paced story, coupled with some brilliant twists on the combat and gameplay that really mix up the formula, God of War stands not only as a technical benchmark in what can be done on Sony’s platform. Whatever they’ve got hidden away in a drawer at Santa Monica, I don’t know, but it’s a secret sauce that rivals any recipe that your favourite Colonel can put together. It’s hard to find the relevant superlatives to explain just how good this game is, but it is a truly special game, and one that will undoubtedly top Game of the Year lists across the board later this year.