There couldn’t have been a greater summation of Kratos’ life-to-date than his first words and their accompanying subtitles in the upcoming God of War. “Angry Screams” has pretty much been Kratos’ approach to problem-solving for the past seven entries, but now Sony Santa Monica wants to tell a different story, in what it considers is a ‘new chapter’ in the timeline.
After playing God of War’s opening two hours, it’s clear the developer has held onto the franchise’s excellent violent and visceral combat, charismatic lead and beautiful look. However, it also manages to be unlike anything the series has seen before, and somehow manages to feel comfortably familiar.
If you’re new to the franchise, God of War doesn’t require prior experience with the series to enjoy what’s on offer. This may benefit series veterans, too. Personally, despite having loved the series since its inception, the plot became very dense and I lost track some time ago.
That doesn’t mean it scraps its history altogether. This is still Kratos, the God of War, and with him comes all the baggage that his chaos and destruction over the past 13 years has brought. There will be nods for those paying attention, such as chests previously containing red souls to improve Kratos’ weapons now contain XP and currency to spend in the new RPG elements. However, before we get to what feels familiar, let’s look at what’s new.
Until now, God of War was a balls-to-the-wall action title where Kratos mauled countless enemies – some larger than life – with myriad weapons across gorgeous locales. That absurdity has been switched for a more sombre affair, with the narrative taking centre stage and pacing massively scaled back for long stretches.
This doesn’t mean the game is any less excellent, it’s just very different.
For starters, we have a new over-the-shoulder camera angle, completely changing the dynamics of the whole game. It’s similar to that employed in Resident Evil 4, and means combat feels fresh, but also very challenging.
Where previously Kratos would take on dozens of enemies at a time and often deal with them with ease, now the focus is on smaller, more intense encounters with fewer, but highly skilled enemies.
Kratos’ weapon of choice is Leviathan, an axe that behaves very much like Thor’s hammer. Kratos can throw and recall the weapon; this helps when dealing with distant enemies, and can also be used to unlock new pathways, hold open doors and solve puzzles. Not long into a fight does it become apparent that God of War is most definitely for advanced players, requiring frequent use of pretty much every button on the PS4 pad.
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As a result, there were times that I dodge-rolled instead of guarded; other times where I forgot there was a block button altogether. There were moments when I threw Leviathan, when in fact I was asking Atreus – Kratos’ son – to hit an enemy with arrows and quite often forgot to recall Leviathan when moving from one enemy to the next. Thankfully, Kratos is quite good in a duel of fisticuffs to make up for my forgetfulness, but that doesn’t make the control scheme any less mentally taxing, especially in the early going.
After getting to grips with the controls, the combat comes to the fore, and it’s excellent. It has an air of a Namco brawler about it, with Kratos’ light attacks softening up enemies before delivering a heavy blow to launch them into the air, where you can follow up with a juggle combo.
There’s a great amount of enemy variety too, at least in this early stage. I dealt with Draugrs, both low-level and heavily armoured, Reavers, giant trolls, celestial witches and others. Each required a different tactic to take down and all incredibly tricky when outnumbering Kratos.
I was impressed by the level of challenge each fight offered, and this compensated for the pauses between combat. I feared that the slower pace in lieu of greater storytelling would lead to a less exciting adventure, but with every fight feeling like a climactic boss battle, my heart was in my throat for pretty much every fight.
This intensity of every fight meant that the game’s new reserved pacing worked much better. Taking a breather between each fight was well received; I almost needed time to let my heart rate settle in preparation for the next battle. The studio has done a great job of how it presents the combat and breaks it up with exploration sequences.
Despite being much closer to the action, the camera also keeps up surprisingly well – for the most part. Around Kratos is a threat indicator that warns of any baddies about to strike off-camera; the right stick swings the camera at a speed that’s fast but without being nauseating.
In particular, this allows for certain boss battles to be presented in a way that’s similar to fights seen in superhero movies. While I can’t discuss who Kratos battles, I can tell you an early boss fight felt as incredible as any that has come before in the series.
There were moments that would have been reduced to a Quick-Time-Event (QTE) sequence in a prior entry. Here, however, the control remains squarely in the player’s hands. This means I was free to continue dishing out punishment, or I was forced to dodge and counter all the way until the battle’s climax, which saw houses destroyed, trees fallen and entire areas of land split in two.
This epic encounter is aided by the new over-the-shoulder angle, which brings you much closer to the action. And while Kratos’ enemy lacks the scale of a god, it doesn’t matter because the superb camera work makes this early match feel like a proper clash of the titans.
Amongst all this praise, there is one caveat. While I’m excited by this new direction for God of War, I can’t help but feel that in Sony Santa Monica’s attempt to create something new, it’s designed an experience that feels like something from Naughty Dog’s playbook.
PlayStation’s great list of exclusive IP thrives because every game offers a different experience. We have The Last of Us’ apocalypse, Uncharted’s over-the-top adventure, Aloy’s wonderful open world in Horizon: Zero Dawn, not to mention the great coup of Spider-Man. Kratos always fit in nicely as the black sheep, and still does, but with this new father/son tale and perspective, some of what used to make God of War unique has been lost.
Again, I’m not saying that it isn’t still excellent; my time playing the game so far has been superb. It just isn’t what fans of God of War might be expecting. Personally, I grew to love this new direction, especially with the earlier titles being so replayable and also available on PS4 in the form of remasters. I can still have that experience should I desire, but this feels fresh and exciting.
Complex controls aside, I’m excited by the dawn of this new chapter in the God of War franchise. It may take fans of the series a little time to get used to, but once you settle in, slay a few Draugrs, chuckle at Kratos’ parenting skills and enjoy the first truly epic boss encounter, you’ll be hooked.