God of War kind of sneaked up on me. It's not a series that I have spent any time with before, not because I'm not a fan of the gameplay style but because for quite a while I didn't own a PlayStation. SCE Santa Monica seems to have been fully aware that, because of the enormous success of the PS4, quite a number of people would be coming to the series, like me, from a place of ignorance, having not played earlier entries. Consequently, this new entry acts as a soft reboot, an excellent starting place for new players.
It's a cliché to say that a reboot offers something for everyone, but in God of War
's case this really cannot be overstated. I have never seen a game use its history in such an intelligent and engaging way. Despite having not played earlier entries, my general perception was that they had a focus on violence, sex and over the top action. Although there were absolutely good narrative reasons for this, they still appeared to be very much products of their time.
This PS4 entry in the series not only acknowledges this but uses it to build a sensitively charged story that feels, at least to me, incredibly reflective and emotionally intelligent. This isn't just a case of 'Kratos feels bad about killing people.' It explores how the legacy of a parent's actions impact their relationships with their children and the wider world.
It deals with the complexities of motivation beyond the binary of 'right' and 'wrong.' That SCE Santa Monica has managed to achieve this, combined with one of the most engaging combat systems I have used in a game of this type before, is incredible. God of War
is one of the most polished and complete games I have played this generation, marred only by a few minor flaws.
Visually, God of War
is without peer on the PlayStation 4. I played the game on a PS4 Pro in 4K and frequently stopped playing to just look around and admire the view. Although my PS4 frequently sounded as if it was going to take off, I didn't experience any frame rate problems or visual issues. The game can be played in either 4K or 1080p on the PS4 Pro, adjusting between 'performance' mode and the more attractive visual fidelity option.
In performance mode, the game locks at 60 FPS and does feel smoother, particularly in areas of heated combat. On harder difficulty modes I can imagine that this would probably be the option to go for, but on the 'balanced' (medium) difficulty I selected, I just didn't want to give up the chance to see the world rendered in as high a resolution as possible and it truly is incredible.
Although the game is not quite 'open world' in the truest sense, there is enough scope for exploration that restrictions on movement, presumably for performance reasons, are not obvious and don't restrict feelings of freedom. During his journey with 'boy' (Atreus), Kratos shifts between worlds, each offering different environmental detail in keeping with the Norse mythology upon which the game's narrative is built. No area feels redundant, everywhere offering something of interest to find and additional lore to discover.
Despite the pseudo-open world approach, the core of God of War
is still very much the combat. I was initially disappointed with this aspect as I found the first third of the game to offer rather sluggish fighting. Fortunately, Kratos was just getting warmed up and through the extensive upgrade system, by the midpoint the fluidity of his actions had begun to return.
Combat feels heavier here than in games such as Bayonetta
. I never felt like I was juggling enemies or disposing of insignificant foes with one hit kills. In this respect God of War
certainly does feel more like a Souls
game. During the opening chapters the player can be killed by anything. Although weaker enemies do become less challenging following skill upgrades for Kratos, they're always a threat and never become simple fodder to be disposed of swiftly.
Although there initially appears to be a bewildering array of upgrade options and paths that players can choose to increase the strength of Kratos and his companion, by the end of the game I found I had unlocked pretty much all the skill options available. Upgrade options include move skill sets for Kratos' axe, other weapons and the various armour types that can be found, crafted and upgraded.
If I have any criticism about this process it is that it is rather complicated and time consuming to engage in. Significant performance gains can be found through these upgrades, so it is worthwhile taking the time to learn how the systems work. However, I do feel that this could have been presented in a more suitable way. Given the stripped back nature of all the other elements of the user interface, it seems strange to present the player with such complexity for what is a core part of the experience.
Regarding combat, only one other area was rather problematic. Encounters with larger opponents can be rather drawn out and a little formulaic. However, with the myriad tools as Kratos' disposal for combat, this is a minor point, battles can be as engaging as the player chooses them to be, dependent on the tactics utilised.
Another area in which the game excels is in the pacing of the journey. The 'not quite' open world nature of the environment provides ample opportunities for side missions; however these are not mandatory and can be attempted following the conclusion of the main story. Usually I like to get involved in additional quests from the outset, but the narrative of God of War
kept me pushing forward with the main story.
I realise that I have yet to detail what happens in the game, this is largely because I really think it is better to go in with as little information as possible. Broadly, the player, as Kratos, has been tasked with taking the ashes of his wife to the highest point in the realm. The journey does not take place alone as Kratos is partnered with his son, named Atreus, although generally referred to as 'BOY' throughout the game.
Overall the story details the changing relationship between Kratos, a previously absent father and his son. They are both trying to come to terms with not only the loss of a wife/mother, but also a change in the relationship dynamic as Atreus strives to be recognised by his father as being a man. This, combined with the baggage of Kratos' past, results in an exploration of the meaning of parenthood and growing up and the problems that exist between generations. I do not wish to go into further detail - it really is best experienced first-hand.
God of War
is a lengthy, polished and extremely engaging experience, the type of game that reminds me why I love this medium so much. Outside of Nintendo, few studios produce output of such a high quality as this. I can only hope that the positive response to the game will result in more
games of this calibre. Moreover, I am now excited to see where the Ghost of Sparta goes next.
+ Exceptionally well-designed narrative.
+ Deep and satisfying combat mechanics.
+ Simply looks incredible.
- Upgrade options could be streamlined.
- Some character performances are less convincing.
- Honestly, I've got nothing else.
SPOnG Score: 10/10