Why God of War is a “special” gaming experience – Hands-on preview
Age has not wearied Kratos and Sony Santa Monica has done an incredible job reinventing God of War for the PS4 generation.
I had my doubts. Over the course of seven games, the God of War series had proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that its cinematic, linear, fixed camera brawling action was the most sublime form of interactive entertainment. So when God of War was announced for the PS4 as an open-world action-adventure with a free-roaming camera and deeper RPG mechanics, I was sure it would lose something in the transition. Surely it couldn’t retain the same depth of combat or the same cinematic transitions that gave scale to each encounter. Surely it would just feel like a Tomb Raider or Uncharted clone. Surely, it would lose its soul.
I was wrong.
Having just played through the opening three-hours of the game, I’m satisfied that Sony Santa Monica has solved my biggest concerns in reimagining one of my (and gaming’s) favourite gameplay experiences. The combat feels just as cathartic in the instinctive, seamless way it lets you link combos together against multiple opponents at once – right down to the gory finishing moves. And the game intelligently and dramatically links between cinematic moments and gameplay, dodge rolling the issue created by relenting camera control by masterfully introducing micro-cutscenes mid-battle and during exploration.
This is not the first thing you will think of when Kratos’ iconic, perpetually pissed off voice grovels out of your speakers. You’ll think about the visuals. God of War will most definitely enter the conversation of “best looking game ever”. I could go on for pages about the detail in the bark, the subtleties in the animations and the ways that the frigid, isolated, Norse atmosphere is evoked. Or the way the space between gameplay and story has been extinguished from existence. It’s all truly gorgeous, heightened at every turn by the aforementioned cinematography.
But Sony Santa Monica’s class shines brightest when dealing with Kratos’ son, Atreus. When the story begins, Kratos is a world away from the Mediterranean battleground of his previous games, hiding from his past in the freezing wilds of Scandinavia. For reasons unrevealed in my playtime, the duo needs to venture to a sacred mountain following the death of the boy’s mother. However, Kratos does not believe his son to be ready for the perilous journey.
As they mourn together, we watch not only the boy struggle to live up to his father’s (very high) standards, but also Kratos’ inability to give in to the love he clearly feels for his son for fear of making him soft. Exploring the forest together, learning how to hunt and kill for the first time, and dealing with the rise of mythical foes around their hidden little cabin, is delicately handled. It makes for a special kind of game. As a father of three myself, I was so happy to see how the subtle animations in the characters’ faces and body language, and the excellent dialogue of the boy, emulated my own life experiences.
Yes, I’m only three hours in, but at this early stage I can’t help but feel I will have a connection to this story unlike one I have experienced before in a video game. God of War threatens to make me really analyse the way I approach challenges with my son in the real world! Only with the slight deviation in that, I won’t be dealing with a backdrop of aggressive, building-sized hell-spawns on the way (I hope).
Dealing with such monstrosities is just as fun as I remember it from the earlier games. Within half an hour of picking up the controller, you’ll be facing off against the screen-filling, super-powerful kind of foe for which God of War is famous. And within 90 minutes you’ll face off against another god-like being in a battle of such scale it makes Dragon Ball look limp-fisted. I don’t want to wreck these experiences too much as they’re thrilling in the way they surprise you with twists and turns. What I will say is that both fights involved learning and adapting to combat patterns, and expertly timing both attacking and defensive (countering included) moves.
You can control Atreus in battles to an extent – I used him to distract an enemy with arrow shots so I could get a better opening – but it felt a little out of place at best, redundant at worst. Watching your son stay immune to contact with a fast-moving, car-sized club while he peppers off arrows is hard to swallow despite the setting. While relatively easy to control, the use of Atreus in combat appears to be the only weakness in the gameplay during the early period of the game.
Perhaps the skill tree will evolve this gameplay aspect deeper into the game as you level-up Kratos, as well as discover new weapons and runes (to apply to weapons). And considering the coming-of-age tale that centres the story here, I would hope that his son would also grow in abilities and usefulness in battle as the story progresses, too.
Walking away from my hands-on time with God of War I couldn’t shake the feeling that the game was going to be something special. There’s still a lot for me to see, especially in regards to how the combat grows through the game, what role the young boy plays in the gameplay and how the open (or more open) nature of the world design rewards and encourages exploration. But I’m already fully immersed in this story and this world, and fully expectant that God of War will not only be a new chapter for a beloved series, but a new standard for the humble brawler.