God of War

Review: God Of War

Even though the initial announcement at E3 2016 was met with unanimous enthusiasm (for good reason) I was skeptical after eight games that never really shook up the formula and featured a one-dimensional character hell-bent on destroying everything in his path. It would be hard to win me over after riding the same horse for so many iterations of God of War. Trading in the warmth of Greece, we move to Midgard, the home of the Norse gods and myths.

The original series a chaotic bloodbath from start to finish, we follow up with the God of War years later, now much older and more reserved in his actions. This isn’t the same man we left to die years ago, but a man who sought out a new shot at life. Releasing on April 20, Sony Santa Monica will shed everything we thought we knew of the series and pull back the curtain on what is as of now, the best game of 2018.  By removing everything that made the original series stale, Sony Santa Monica and Cory Barlog used their own personal experiences to help shape the direction of the series, there is now a more personal story being told here and something the series was lacking: heart.

Kratos survives at the end of God of War III and moves far away from Greece. He meets someone new and they have a son, Atreus. For a while, things seem to be different for the domesticated Spartan: he is a father, a husband, and no longer fueled by rage. The soft reboot begins as Kratos and Atreus are dealing with the death of the only person that connects them, Kratos’ wife and Atreus’ mother. We see Kratos light the pyre for his fallen love as the game begins and with his son in tow, must release her cremated ashes atop the highest peak in Midgar.

Everything in the new God of War is excellent. There’s so much work done to move away from the mindlessness of previous games to a nuanced experience. The camera is over-the-shoulder, pulling us in to see and feel things from a new perspective, the combat is visceral with more emphasis on the characters. This is a game about a family dealing with the death of a loved one. This game is about two strangers that have little in common and their relationship. It is a relationship I’m well aware of having been through one myself at a point in my life, and Kratos and Atreus do things that I see myself doing or have done in the past.

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Finding complexity and depth to a character who at one point, was little more than a red-hot fire full of rage, was going to be a hard sell for me, I wasn’t sure how well this could be pulled off after the way Kratos was for years. Switching actors to Christopher Judge of Stargate SG-1 fame, was another controversial move in the lead-up to release – spending time with the new actor chosen to play the Greek demigod during my review, I see the reasons why he was selected for this. Judge brings a stoic air to Kratos, and newcomer Sunny Suljic steals the show as Atreus, the two play off each other and convey so much with their expressions, how they move and what they feel, I find myself paying attention to their body language as much as their words, a sign that these actors cared immensely for their characters.

The new faces found within Midgard, including both good and bad, are all complex characters with self-serving motivations that intertwine with the Spartan and his son in fascinating ways that transform over the course of the journey. Seemingly one-dimensional characters that are introduced soon turn out to be fleshed out and functional pieces of something larger at play.

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Years of being literally chained to the Blades of Chaos, Kratos sheds his weapon in favour of the Leviathan Axe, a magical axe capable of being tossed and recalled at the whim of the owner. Being a seasoned warrior means Kratos is skilled at hand-to-hand combat, and can decimate any opponent in his way by punching and kicking and throwing his weight into them to overpower anything that dares go against the seasoned warrior. Combat is now intimate and barreling into an enemy encounter will likely get you killed, instead, learning to time attacks, dodge and counter prove successful. Learning how to juggle enemies between light and heavy attacks prepares you for the more advanced runic attacks – abilities that modify how Kratos deals with enemies. There is a ton of diversity that truly allows you to make your own version of Kratos, who punishes the enemy according to your playstyle.

Atreus is the best addition to combat in God of War. Other Sony franchises like The Last of Us do the companion mechanic well, but, Atreus compliments his father, unlike any other game, has done before. Being the son of a demigod, we see hints of Kratos in Atreus, there are moments in the game where Kratos sees this and tries to guide him away from the same path of anger.  One particular moment at the beginning of the game sees Atreus slashing away at a troll that attacked earlier, screaming “You’re nothing to me!” These small details hint at bits of previous games, where Zeus now dead, is pulverized by a frantic Kratos – the parallels between the two are not to be downplayed.

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Facing off against enemies, Atreus begins off rather weak, but constantly grows and improves, often saving my hide when going against stronger enemies. Moments where Kratos drives home his son isn’t ready, and to be better, isn’t about being stronger, it’s about being better than the sins of the father.

For as good as this family is in battle, it’s away from the chaos that things really pick up the pace. God of War uses no camera cuts and no loading screens, and from interviews, the decision was an experiment that worked out well. The choice of never leaving Kratos’ side brings an intimate gravitas to everything unfolding, we aren’t merely watching things happen to these characters, but we’re actively experiencing things just as they are. These techniques help push the plot forward, and during cutscenes, the camera does enough work to convey as much as what is being said and what is happening on screen. The world around our protagonist isn’t an empty shell that serves as a beautiful backdrop, instead, the scenery is a series of places we’ll venture to and get the chance to explore.

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Still, what Sony Santa Monica decided to keep are the wonderful hidden items to find and unlock, including chests that enhance your health and Spartan Rage, and some excellent puzzles reminiscent of the older games, and the balance between combat and puzzle solving is perfect.

Curiously, I wonder why the developers decided to reboot the series instead of simply starting something fresh with someone new. Then you play this game and see why there really couldn’t be any other way for this to work, the bridging of old and new is necessary.

Going in, I knew I could expect a solid action game that would provide me a dozen hours of fun. I didn’t expect to be hit with so much thought and care from the developers, who turned one of the most hated protagonists in gaming at one point, into a multidimensional human full of complexities. Sony Santa Monica pulls off absolutely everything masterfully and shows us that Kratos is not only at war with the outside world but within himself and how to deal with his son, a child who loves his father but doesn’t feel loved. With rewarding gameplay, a soundtrack that beautifully compliments the intimate moments as well as the chaotic ones, this is hands down one of the greatest games of this generation.

EDITORs CHOICE

[A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for review purposes]