God of War review: Greeks of quality
The journey Norse is an unusually thoughtful and technically impressive entry that revitalises the God of War series.
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While I love the guy and respect his place in the PlayStation-exclusive pantheon, let's be real here: original trilogy Kratos was a rage-filled asshole. And that's an appraisal direct from the horse's mouth – Todd Papy, Director of the last major outing, 2013's God of War: Ascension. In that adventure Papy and his team desperately tried to layer emotional depth onto our favourite demigod, but, ultimately, Kratos' list of motivations remained as spartan as his heritage – vengeance and murder were still his go-tos. Today, Santa Monica Studios is taking another shot at crafting a more human and relatable Kratos. Their thought process in a nutshell: Papy should've just made Kratos a pappy.
Despite being the least qualified person to head a family since Charlie Manson, the Ghost of Sparta now has a son in God of War, a sequel that self-identifies as a “fresh beginning” rather than a reboot. Having a sickly whelp in tow is definitely a new look for our walking fortress of solitude, and the radical paradigm shifts in the formula don't end there.
Game Director Cory Barlog – whose résumé includes lead animating the original GoW and directing its follow up – has opted to secretly replant our hero into the backyard of the Norse gods. Unbeknownst to Odin, Freya, Thor and the rest of Team Viking, this Greek immigrant has moved in, shacked up with a local huntress named Faye, grown a hipster beard, put his signature Blades of Chaos weapons in storage, and sired a boy named Atreus.
What happens next is kept vague. Faye dies and Kratos, a largely absentee father, returns to handle the funeral arrangements with his 10-year old offspring. At the game's start they're barely more than strangers to one another, and, even though the boy is green, a perilous journey to sprinkle Faye's ashes onto a mountaintop begins.
Confession: when this game was first revealed, I thought Atreus had annoyance written all over him. Those fancy glyphs tattooed on his neck and wrists may as well have read “dead weight” and “dead meat” in my mind. Now, as I watch the credits after 20 odd hours, I've grown to love him and honestly think I couldn't have reached this point without his help. He's a fully-formed and interesting character who's the best thing to happen to this series since the removal of that “mash circle to open a chest” mechanic. Fact is, as I redeploy into the sheer Dark Souls-esque madness that is Give Me God of War difficulty, it will be Atreus' skillset and gear that I'll prioritise. He's that bloody useful.
First of all, he's a welcome set of extra eyes in a sequel that's shifted away from fixed-camera antics which used to give you a full view of the battlefield. Now you've got a traditional third-person view which makes for a big old blindspot; a combination of incoming attack markers and verbal warnings from your boy are the only thing standing between you and some new speedholes in your pancreas. Better yet, junior is a crackshot with his bow and a small quiver of cool-down arrows. You need only put an enemy in the centre of your vision and tap square to have them fired upon, and more surgical strikes against mini-boss weak-points and environmental puzzles can be achieved by holding L2. Throw in shock and light ammo variations, plus a limited ability to melee foes, and Atreus grows from a mere means to interrupt enemies into a potent killer.
Daddy has a new bag of tricks, too. Using the d-pad, Kratos' offensive options can be cycled between unarmed, his new axe, and a mysterious third option that rocks up mid-game and shan't be spoiled here. Clobbering people with your fists lacks range, but your blows add to a special meter beneath your enemy's health bar. Once full, you're given the option to rip their bloody head off with a click of R3, which makes the reward well worth the risk. Adjust enough attitudes and you'll build up your Spartan Rage meter, too, at which point the fisticuffs go up to 11.
Combat with Kratos always feels meaty and visceral
Much like Atreus, I had to warm to the axe but it didn't take long to fall head over heels. How can you not love an axe with a Mjolnir-like ability to be thrown and recalled to your hand with a tap of triangle (typically flying through the backs of bad guy heads as it returns to sender). Spamming it to freeze enemies as a projectile isn't very sustainable, however, as the axe's role is very much close-range combos dealt with R1 light attacks and R2 knock-backs. Even at his most un-upgraded, combat with Kratos always feels meaty and visceral. It only gets better when you level him up and unlock a dozen or so unique skills for each of his disciplines.
This is the deepest skill customisation and equipment upgrade system the series has ever seen. What we have here is more reminiscent of the Darksiders series than GoW – loot of varying quality grades can be crafted from collected materials, and everything you swing or wear can be slotted with multiple perk and stat-enhancing jewels. All the choicest materials and trinkets you'll need have to be earned through puzzles and hidden items that are crammed into every nook and cranny out there. There's also a bunch of optional combat challenges against seriously swole enemies who'll one-shot your arse, even on the lowest difficulty.
Most of the upgrading and fancy-pants armour-chasing can be largely ignored on the lowest two difficulties, but fretting over your gear on the deep-end difficulties is imperative to survival. I've aced every single Give Me God of War difficulty in the series, but this one is something else. It's not just an enemy health and damage output increase – they're rocking new behaviours that demand expert crowd-control skills. Fail to cull the flock just right and your foes will regen health and enter berserker states. It's not pretty.
What is pretty, though, are the flawless, gobsmacking 4K visuals in this game. Intricately detailed, this is an artistic feast that's constantly serving up new and exotic courses. The production values are easily on par with the best work of Naughty Dog and Guerilla Games, plus the blinkers have come right off to offer a semi-open world. The jump button has been replaced with a more contextual solution – so you're still on a tighter leash than most games in the genre – that said, and in the context of this franchise, there's much more latitude and side-quests on offer this time. The sizeable playground of Midgard is but one of nine dimensional planes you'll visit, though a number of these remain unavailable [*cough* DLC *cough*].
When I heard of the switch to traditional third-person I had a concern: the nature of a fixed-camera system allowed Santa Monica Studios to use smart techniques in order to deliver epic-scale environments and over-the-top moments you simply couldn't see in other games. This new camera never pans out to show Kratos scaling the navel hair of some mountain-sized giant he'll kill in ten minutes via Ant-Man-like brain surgery, but Santa Monica still knows how to deliver scale and blockbuster wow-factor. The boss fights you'll get are fewer and much less cataclysmic than before, but they're some of the best I've played in recent memory. There's some stunning choreography and classy camera work on display here, not to mention an increase in interactivity that beats the hell out of the old QTEs.
The tumultuous Kratos-Atreus arc is the most moving and memorable father-son tale that's ever been attempted in our medium
Speaking of the old ways, there are a few changes that may catch the purists off guard. Tonally, this is a huge diversion from what's gone before. This is an intelligently written story of a deity trying to make his son into a better God (while keeping his true nature a secret from him) and a son in turn trying to Miyagi his old man into becoming a better human. Also, there's a complex rogue's gallery of Norse Gods who offer their own dysfunction and intrigue, most of which centres on the themes of setting impossible expectations, and the dangers of being over-protective or outright distant to loved ones. Being a dad myself, this game resonated with me a great deal. I think the tumultuous Kratos-Atreus arc is the most moving and memorable father-son tale that's ever been attempted in our medium. Kudos, Santa Monica Studios.
The sombre narrative is so good that I didn't mind the franchise hallmarks that had to be stripped away in order to eliminate dissonance. For example, the gore has been dialled back from a dismember-fest and decapitate-a-thon to violence levels that wont give Atreus PTSD and a complex about his dad – he is, after all, a kid who has difficulty killing a deer for meat. (Likewise, and obviously, you can expect no hidden orgy mini-game for Kratos.)
Basically, God of War has matured. It's in all ways evolved beyond the juvenile excesses that earned it a spotlight way back in 2005, but in doing so it's lost next to none of its swashbuckling addictiveness and wow-factor. Bring on your DLC and sequels. I'm axing for more already.
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