You can tell a lot about how confident a publisher is in a game by how it handles reviews. Much like movie studios that don’t hold pre-release screenings for movies they think suck, sometimes when a game publisher thinks it has a stinker on its hands it holds review copies until release day so it’s harder to warn people that a game is bad before they buy it. By the same logic, when a publisher is confident, they give reviewers a lot of time with a game prior to release.
Sony gave us review copies for the new God of War about two weeks prior to release. I can’t even remember the last time we got review copies this early. And yeah, to just cut to the chase, Sony has every right to be confident: God of War is excellent, the kind of big budget exclusive that used to define consoles but that we don’t see much of these days.
It is very much what Sony and developer Santa Monica Studio said it would be: A modern, more serious take on Sony’s exclusive character action series. After slaying the entire Greek pantheon of gods in previous games, the Spartan warrior Kratos retires to a cabin in the woods up North. He has a son named Atreus and a recently deceased wife, and soon enough finds reason to beef with Norse gods like Thor and Odin.
Instead of chopping up minotaurs with the swords he used in previous games, this time Kratos is swinging a magical axe at draugrs, dragons, trolls, and other creatures from Norse mythology. After throwing the axe, Kratos can pull it back into his hand from a distance, which not only looks cool, but changes how he fights.
You probably know all of this if you watched trailers and other pre-release coverage of God of War, but it’s a little harder to explain why the end result is such an achievement. To help me with that task, I’ve exchanged a few emails with Matthew Gault, who does most of the video game writing at Motherboard these days. Our exchange is published below.
From the first trailer it was clear to me that God of War was going to be a game about fatherhood, much like The Last of Us. Kratos and his son Atreus have a complicated relationship, we’d grow to love them both, one of them would die or something, and God of War would attempt to make us cry. That is basically what it turned out to be, and I approached God of War already sick of dad games, but it somehow totally won me over.
I’m going to kick this off by forcing you to answer the hard question: How the hell did Santa Monica and Sony pull this off?
It’s the relationship between Kratos and Atreus. That’s the core of both the story and gameplay of God of War. There’s a moment when the two come across a dragon attacking another character and Atreus talks Kratos into doing the right thing and helping. They argue, but Atreus manages to pull a tender, human moment out of the Ghost of Sparta. Then there’s a huge boss fight, Kratos brutalizes this creature of epic myth, and Atreus cheers him on the entire time. It feels great.
It’s weird to say this, but I feel like Sony is taking a Nintendo-style approach to their flagship games and only releasing them when they’re polished to perfection. It’s been eight years since Kratos murdered Zeus and left the world in chaos. The franchise is so beloved by so many that I feel there’s an inordinate amount of pressure to not fuck things up. They didn’t. God of War is great.
It’s gone from a Devil May Cry-style beat ‘em up to a slower game about exploration, and backtracking to blow open new paths with new abilities. The combat is slower, more strategic, and harder. It’s different from the previous games, and I think better. I’m wondering how other fans are going to react. Have you seen this #notmygodofwar thing floating around?
I did not see that hashtag, but I did search for it on Twitter right now, and thanks for ruining my day. I don’t know what these chuckleheads are complaining about because they haven’t even played the game yet, but if all they want is something exactly like the older games but with better graphics, they will be disappointed.
Kratos used to be nothing but a vengeful meathead. Now he’s a character who’s actually conflicted about his place in the world and evolves over time. Like you said, old God of War played a lot like the Japanese third-person action games where players chain attacks together to stylishly take down enemies. That is still technically what the new God of War is, but by moving the camera from a far, fixed position, to a close over-the-shoulder angle, it now feels more like Resident Evil 4: I’m not just trying to hit the most enemies at the same time, I’m prioritizing threats from all directions, some of which I can’t see because I don’t have a full view of the spaces I’m fighting in. This makes the fights feel much more dangerous and surprising. (137) add
The axe, also, is such an interesting weapon. I can throw it and retrieve from distance, essentially turning the game into a shooter. I can use it to freeze an enemy, then take on the rest with my bare hands. I can also just jump into the fray and start thrashing like crazy, which is when it feels most like old God of War. Or I can mix all of these strategies together, which is when God of War sings because there’s so much room to improvise. It feels way more like I’m actually fighting and reacting to what enemies are doing rather than dialing in combos like a robot. (112) add
Resident Evil 4 is the game I kept thinking about while playing God of War. It’s not just the camera angle and combat. It’s the world, which mostly made up of a lot of narrow paths, but keeps changing scenery and is filled with details and little hidden areas. Resident Evil 4 also had players escorting a character the entire game. Escort missions and AI companions in video games in general are often bad. But it worked in Resident Evil 4. In many ways, God of War hinges on Atreus. He’s the key to the story and the biggest change to how you play. Do you think he works? (113) add
I love Atreus. He’s my favorite part of the game and a big part of what makes this game special for me. You’re right, most video game companions are a terrible chore. But Atreus is Kratos’ kid and he’s just as good at killing as dad. In combat, he’s fantastic. The little guy kills enemies, stuns monsters, and finds health. I love him so much that I prioritize upgrading his skills and equipment. In my current game, I’ve maxed out his quiver and almost maxed out his skill tree. I’ve been counting and, after 15 hours or so, I’ve only had to help him in combat three times. (108) add
In the story, he’s essential. Without giving anything away, the core tension of the game’s story comes from Kratos knowing more than both Atreus and the player. The player knows just enough to know that things feel as if they’re barreling towards tragedy.
There was a great moment in a side quest where we found a thief who’d been stabbed in the back. The thief’s spirit explained that his son had done it because he wanted to be the leader of their gang. Atreus was shocked that someone would kill their own father and the camera panned to an uncomfortable looking Kratos.
Atreus also talks a lot, which sounds like it could be annoying, but he’s a constant joy. Dialogue doesn’t repeat and he draws Kratos out of his shell and comments about things in the game world. He breaks up the silence and I often felt like having Atreus around made me feel like I was playing the game with a son or little brother.
My only complaint is that the game feels sluggish on a normal PlayStation 4. This is the first console game I’ve played that reminded me of the pain of getting a new, graphically intensive game running on a PC. I tweaked the settings, turning off motion blur was big, but I just couldn’t get God of War running in a way I liked on my PlayStation 4. So I bought a Pro.
I’m playing a pre-release copy of the game so it’s possible that patches are coming that’ll smooth out the kinks, but the difference in this game running on a Pro and a baseline system feels pretty dramatic. Even with supersampling turned on, the game just runs better on the new system. The frame rate difference feels huge to me, and I’m not playing on a 4K TV. But I spent the first two or so hours with God of War tweaking settings on two different systems. That’s not fun and pretty weird for a console game.
God of War also makes my completionist brain itch. Every area is full of secrets and collectibles. There’s chests, lore pillars, and 51 ravens floating around. I don’t know what I get for killing all the ravens, but the quest to eliminate them calls to me. It’s a distraction from the main game and I’m trying to ignore it, but having checkboxes in the menu system telling me that I’ve left something unfinished is driving me nuts. Especially because, at about 15 hours in, there’s no reliable fast travel system.
Well, yes. As I’ve elaborated in a separate rant, I don’t like that this game has a whole loot system, where Kratos is able to buy gear, upgrade it, socket it with different abilities, sell this gear back, etc. It’s not BAD, but it does require me to spend a lot of time in menus, comparing stats and overthinking what I want to sell and buy. It’s not a system I can ignore because, later in the game, if I don’t have the right gear I’m going to get my ass handed to me.. I just want to kill dragons and see the next part of the story, and this is a distraction. (113) add
My other issue with God of War is that it takes at least a couple of hours before it gets good. Kratos gives a terrible first impression. He’s the grumpiest, least fun character I’ve seen on screen. He’s a god with no sense of humor, a black hole where chill goes to die. Atreus too, at first seems like an annoying kid and not much else.
And while the ability to throw and magically pull the axe back into your hand is incredibly fun from the very beginning, it’s not until much later that I realized how deep the combat system gets.
Everything opens up and becomes great later, I just hope that people stick through those first two hours because this is one of the best games of the year and one of the best games Sony has put out on the PlayStation 4. Before release, I thought this was going to be a solid but entirely predictable game, much like when Microsoft bought Gears of War 4 to the current generation of consoles. I was wrong. God of War surprised me throughout in the best way possible and I can’t recommend it enough.