The God of War is old now, both literally and narratively. It was 13 years ago that Sony first introduced Kratos, a bloodthirsty slice of Greek mythology who would go on to be a PlayStation hack-and-slash icon.
Thirteen years later, Sony reinvents its star and its franchise. The first God of War game on the PlayStation 4 changes everything from setting to gameplay style to the mindset and intentions of its transformed hero. And that only adds to this game’s lure: God of War is an absolute marvel of a game, a visual feast filled with immersive gameplay that is one of the must-play titles of 2018.
It’s slightly jarring at the outset, mostly because you’d never expect a God of War game to start like this. For the last 13 years, this was a series all about action and brawling. Even its best stories were mostly vehicles that got Kratos started on treks of destruction, as the Spartan faced off against a succession of Greek quests.
Not so in the 2018 game. Time has passed since the first four God of War games, and now Kratos is older, living a quiet life with a son, Atreus, in a setting far from Greek mythology, in the Norse wildlands. The game opens in stunning fashion, far more emotion and drama in its first half-hour than the entire franchise has had up until this point. Kratos’ wife has died, and she leaves husband and son with a mission: She wants her ashes spread from a mountain.
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That sets Kratos and Atreus off on the game’s core quest and opens the door for the title to explore things it never has before. The Norse lands of Midgard are a stunning backdrop to one of the most beautiful games you’ve ever played, filled with thoroughly well-imagined visuals. The God of War himself has never looked quite this alive either, the fur on his armor and his very musculature teeming with realistic texture. When Kratos and Atreus view the world from various vistas, it’s something at which you’ll marvel.
Kratos is no longer a mere violent star. This Kratos is in many ways like Wolverine from 2017’s “Logan” film, a man who’s learning to contain his rage. Old Kratos is a complicated figure, still strong and otherworldly powerful, but no longer using that strength at every single turn.
He’s a teacher and mentor to young Atreus, no longer just a killing machine in a story that isn’t simply about him. The relationship between Kratos and Atreus is what takes center stage, allowing for a new exploration of an old hero. It’s a savvy decision by Sony that prevents the new game from hitting old beats, and it allows you to view Kratos’ actions in a new lens. You’ll eventually slay many as Kratos in this game, but when Atreus takes a life, you see those kills through a new lens.
The story unfolds with greater depth than previous God of War tales, and with plenty of fun. Atreus is not mere plot device; he’s also his father’s sidekick, enhancing combat in ways you won’t expect from a God of War title. He can fire arrows to distract enemies, and eventually he’ll be able to summon creatures into the fray too.
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His inclusion is part of a fully revamped gameplay and battling system, one unlike anything you’ve seen in this franchise. Traditionally, God of War battling has been straightforward: Kratos once battled with the Blades of Chaos, and really, somewhat thoughtful button-mashing would be enough to get you to victory.
Not so here. A new over-the-shoulder camera angle limits your ability to observe all the action. In some games, that’s a shortcoming, but not here, where it only deepens the immersion: Especially once you turn off some of the extra HUD indicators, you find yourself reacting to enemies, feeling the directions from which they’re attacking, sensing when Kratos is near death.
There’s tremendous depth to the combat, too, from start to finish. Kratos opens the game with a new weapon, a Leviathan axe that, much like Thor’s hammer, can be thrown and recalled to its owner.
It’s a joy to use, facilitating all kinds of creative battling maneuvers. Fling it at an enemy, fight hand-to-hand with another enemy, then recall your axe later. Melee fight with it, as you would with any other axe. Or launch it at one enemy, run somewhere else, then recall it and watch it return to you while also decimating a series of baddies. The possibilities are endless, and the controls are spot-on responsive, permitting everything to happen easily and fluidly.
The combat blossoms even further the deeper you go into the game. There are a host of upgrade trees, each introducing new mechanics and continually varying the action.
Little touches keep the game continually fun, too; you can upgrade and purchase new armor for Kratos and make tweaks to Atreus’ arrows as well. God of War is always adding something entertaining to its formula, keeping gameplay from ever stagnating. Even the light puzzling finds smart ways to use Kratos’ Leviathan axe; the moments where you must problem-solve in God of War are far more enjoyable than similar moments from the franchise’s early days.
It’s all part of that rarest of video game franchises, one that manages to save itself from any sort of stagnation at all. Truth is, the classic God of War formula needed an update.
It got that and much more.
Reviewed on Sony PlayStation 4 Pro
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