GAME REVIEW: God of War
Maxwell Alexander on 'a shining beacon of single player experiences'
Title: God of War
Platforms: PS4 (tested)
Release date: April 20, 2018
Rating: PEGI 18
Few AAA games star such a polarising lead character as the God of War series’ Kratos.
The Ghost of Sparta has, after all, been murdering Greek Gods, Titans and the general population of Greece for over a decade, dating right back to the first game on PS2, with little more than his thirst for revenge as motive. Kratos, as such, has very few redeeming qualities other than being very good at killing whatever is put in front of him and has often been criticised for being one note.
Jump forward many years in the game, to after the events of God of War 3 and Kratos has exiled himself from his homeland of Greece, desperate to leave his guilt and destruction behind him.
This isn't the only thing Kratos has left behind, however, as God of War stands to reinvent itself completely by trading in the series staple setting of Greek mythology for one steeped in Norse mythology. A whole new list of Gods for our deity hitman to tackle you might think. But time has changed our grizzled anti-hero and this new entry in the series is less about revenge and more about loss and responsibility.
The bloodthirsty God of War is now a father, living out in the snowy mountains, trying to take care of his son and fulfill his recently deceased wife's last wish – one that sees father and son travel across the nine realms and all its dangers to achieve. A far more sombre experience and opening than what we have become used to with past entries, but one that carries just as much weight, if not more, as we see Kratos try to get to grips with his new role as mentor and council for his young son Atreus.
Kratos’ relationship with Atreus consistently steals the show as we witness the bond between the two grow from cold, distant and often at times, militarian father figure to one of great love and sincerity. Touching moments such as when Kratos goes to comfort Atreus with a gentle arm around his shoulder after killing a deer they had just been hunting, only to pull it away at the last second show his anxiety with affection.
Seeing Atreus grow under his now present dad is incredibly rewarding and reaps incredibly satisfying pay offs towards the end. It isn't a one-way street however and with Kratos not being from these lands he heavily relies on Atreus to translate runes and fill him on history surrounding the area making him just as invaluable to his father as Kratos is to his son in combat.
But Atreus isn’t just here to serve a narrative. He is also here as part of a massive revamp in the way the game plays. God of War marks an end to its fixed camera angles of previous entries in favour of a tight, over-the-shoulder camera that adds a weighty personal feel to combat. Fights are less about button mashing and more about taking your time to figure out your opponents weaknesses and making sure you don't get overrun by mobs of enemies. Something that Atreus helps to avoid.
As I mentioned before, Atreus isn't just here to serve the story but also to help his dad out in fights as well. Atreus will distract, stun and damage enemies with his bow and arrow, giving you time and space to make your next move. A certain amount of control over Atreus is allowed to the player through the square button (which is essentially the Atreus action button), letting you command to fire off arrows at will. An ability which is especially useful when trying to get out of sticky situations against some of the harder enemies later in the game.
Thankfully Atreus can’t actually die during combat but can be stunned for a few seconds, meaning players won't get bogged down with trying to defend the AI constantly. Which is good because you won’t want to be taken away from the action for too long as controlling Kratos in battle is as an empowering experience as you can get in a video game. Kratos feels like an absolute powerhouse as he tears through Drawger and Ogres alike, thanks in no small part to his new weapon, the Leviathan Axe.
Gone are the series favourites, the Blades of Chaos. A decision that might have been met with a certain level of anger among long-term fans of the series, were it not for how incredibly fun Kratos’ new axe is to swing. A weapon very different in nature from the chaotic swirling of blades on chains that cut and maimed anything in your vicinity, good or bad. The axe is just as devastating, only it's a far more harnessed power that gives players a lot more control over what they are striking. Something that brilliantly mirrors the new mood of the games lead character as he takes more consideration for his actions.
It's this control which makes the Leviathan axe one of the most satisfying weapons to use in gaming. Not only are you able to use light and heavy attacks to string combos together, along with your shield, but Kratos can also launch his axe at enemies too. Throwing your axe at a distant enemy and being able to carry on battering your nearby foes, bare fisted, only to recall and dislodge your axe from said enemy at a push of a button and carry on your attack, with axe in hand is extremely fun to do.
I can’t stress how incredibly satisfying throwing this axe feels, and when you recall and catch it there is a fantastic bit of feedback in the controller that feels like the axe has just flown into your right hand. The axe will stay fixed to enemies and the scenery until you press triangle to call it back and if there are enemies between you and the axe, it will cut through them to get back to your hand, not too dissimilar to Thor’s Hammer.
Even after beating the game this action has still not worn off its novelty. This isn't the only weapon in your inventory though and players can expect to make use of Kratos’ new retractable shield to parry enemies and, when the going gets tough, you can unleash your Spartan Rage that increases your strength and makes you impervious to damage for a short period of time, after you filled up your rage metre through battle.
As the game progresses, players will be able to level up and customize the axe, Kratos and Atreus to suit your own play style. Adding runes to the axe will give some flashy magical ice abilities or let you unleash devastating combos that can really change the tide in battle. It gives the game a certain RPG feel that lets you really make Kratos your own.
These upgrades can be made with the help from one of the two famous Hulder Brothers, Brok and Sindri – two Dwarven blacksmiths that offer not only upgrades but some much-needed comic relief for the story and some great dialogue with the main characters.
These are just two of God of War's many fascinating and memorable characters you'll meet along the way. Characters that help or impede Kratos and Atreus on their journey in equal measure, many offering their own side quests as the game opens up into its semi open world map and one in particular that brilliantly changes the dynamic between Kratos and Atreus later on in the game.
It's a shame then that some of the area bosses didn't feel quite as memorable, with a few of them being merely a change of skin on a standard enemy. Granted, they come with some new abilities and a larger health bar, but I would have liked to see some more imaginative models and not the same recycled Troll fights we get subjected to quite a lot throughout the journey.
That's not say all boss battles are bad. The fights against a the handful of gods you meet in the game are extremely intense and the first fight in particular feels like it was pulled straight out of a superhero movie. In fact these fights against the gods are arguably some of the biggest highlights of the game as we see Kratos look his most vulnerable against them.
The world of God of War is nothing short of breathtaking and oozing in Norse lore at every turn. From the ruins of an abandoned Dwarven Kings' stronghold to the very depths of Helheim and the ghouls that reside there, each realm and locale is nothing short of draw dropping in its scale and lush beauty. This is really one of the best-looking games we have seen on console to date and has given us, undoubtedly, one of the best beards in gaming. The level of detail on the character models and scenery is almost distracting and really sucks you in. Even little things like your codex being written form Atreus’ perspective, as a sort of diary, really highlights the level detail and polish put into this game.
Every area is a joy to explore and vastly different in appearance from the last. One of the areas you spend most of your time is the Lake of the Nine, a massive birth of water that slowly reveals new areas to explore as the game progresses. Each area that you explore is packed full of puzzles and challenges that offer time worthy rewards, be that a new upgrade or some form of lore about the world. Shrines left behind by the giants that once roamed the land are a particular highlight and paint a dark picture of the ruthlessness of Odin and his murderous son Thor.
These stories are elaborated on when you take to the waters in your canoe and the main characters converse about tales and experiences that happened in this world. Often I found myself staying in the boat and not getting off to progress in the game, just so I could catch the end one of these stories.
Puzzles are challenging but not so elaborate that they slow the pace of the game down. Most rely on your axe to solve them, again showcasing why the Leviathan axe is such a dynamic weapon. Others require certain items that you receive later in the game and can backtrack to claim at a later date.
The team at Sony Santa Monica studios have a real respect for your time and make sure that everything you do is rewarding and keep momentum as you play. Rarely did I feel like I was partaking in some trivial task that didn't have some purpose to further the overall experience. An incredible feat given the game's 30- to 40-hour campaign. Everything has a purpose and the dialogue between the characters gives each area and activity weight.
Even after beating the game, there is still plenty do, such as collectibles and challenge maps. Realms such as Muspelheim offer tough challenges where players are tasked with taking out enemies a certain way to progress or Niflheim and its rogue-like map that is ever changing but full of great loot and upgrades. Perhaps the standout post game missions are the Valkyries that are hidden throughout the nine realms and offer the games greatest challenge from a combat perspective.
Few games out there are quite as well thought out and beautifully executed as this game is. Corey Barlog and his team at Sony Santa Monica have triumphantly brought God of War into a new era of storytelling in games. How it handles Kratos’ redemption both as a hero we can believe in and a character in general is tremendous.
In an age where more and more publishers focus multiplayer/ service based game, God of War stands tall as a shining beacon of single player experiences. While this game is by no means perfect, some slightly disappointing boss battles will attest to that, is a without doubt a masterpiece!