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“God of War” is a triumph. I thought I’d get that part out of the way right from the jump. This is a title that fans of the series, and video games in general should and will dive into the moment it’s available April 20.
But the fact that a new “God of War” game is fantastic, isn’t exactly big news. Sony’s Santa Monica Studio, the team behind the latest entry in the series, deftly steered the franchise through its first over-the-top trilogy and off-shoots with seeming ease.
The story of Kratos, a Spartan demigod and his quest for vengeance against the Greek gods who used him as a puppet in their twisted games, was always about making the player feel bigger, badder and more powerful through gory violence, massive set pieces and, yes, the occasional virtual sex act for the purpose of taking down the gods of Olympus.
Which is what makes “God of War,” so impressive. Rather than a mindless killing machine, Santa Monica Studio has completely reinvented the character of Kratos, crafting a more cerebral character. This is a story of a man who has cast aside is former life as a living buzz saw in favor of a simpler and more fulfilling existence, which is exactly what Santa Monica Studio has done for this franchise.
A man remade
“God of War” at its most basic is the story of a father and son learning how to live together. Kratos’s wife, the mother of his young son Atreus, has died, and now it’s just the two of them. A god of war and a kid. Unlike previous “God of War” titles, though, the latest game takes place among the realm of the Norse gods.
Which means that Kratos, who understood the gods and traditions of the Greeks, is completely out of his depth. So, while Atreus depends on Kratos to fight back against the monsters of Midgard, Kratos needs his son to do everything from explaining what giants are to reading runes.
This isn’t Kratos’s first rodeo at parenthood, though. He previously had a wife and daughter until Ares, the former god of war, tricked Kratos into slaying them in a fit of rage. From then on, he was forced to wear the ashes of his wife and child giving him his ghostly white coloring.
Couple that with the fact that Kratos has relied on his rage and military mind to survive for so long you can understand why he might not be the best father figure. But Kratos clearly loves Atreus, and knowing that they are now alone in the world, does whatever he can to protect and care for him.
There’s a scene early in the game when Atreus misses a shot at a deer he and Kratos are hunting. Kratos instantly flies into a rage, but before losing his temper, calms himself and grunts at Atreus to find the fleeing deer. As the story progresses, Kratos’s temperament toward his son continues to soften, at points he even goes as far as complimenting Atreus’s abilities.
The loss of his wife, the sense that he’s trying to overcome his nature to become a better father, his willingness to help others at Atreus’s insistence, all of this makes you actually feel for Kratos. In one scene Kratos is being provoked by an enemy, but holds back even after the stranger punches Kratos in the face. If this was the old Kratos, he would have bisected the man where he stood. Instead, he tries to hold back, and reluctantly fights back when it’s absolutely necessary.
A character who used to feel more like a living blade with a serious temper than a true character, has become a man that evokes genuine emotion in the player. You mourn Kratos’s loss and recognize how difficult it is for him to be a father. You even feel a swell of hope and pride when you see him defend Atreus with his life.
Even the side conversations between characters as you traverse Midgard help round out the narrative and pull you deeper into the world Santa Monica Studio has crafted.
I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the stellar acting by Christopher Judge and the rest of the cast. The acting always felt smooth and realistic, and the flow of conversations carried a weight that was missing from the original trilogy.
The fact that any of that comes across is a testament to the creative team behind “God of War.” It also reminds me of a conversation I had with Creative Director Cory Barlog who explained that the original “God of War” trilogy felt as though the teams were college students trying to stick it to the man and go all out with as much gore and violence as possible.
This new “God of War,” though, was created by fathers and mothers who have experienced more of the world and brought their sensibilities to bear in order to add a true sense of depth and development to the game’s characters.
It’s also further proof of the continuing evolution of games as a medium. What was once considered the pinnacle of gaming, a title about a demigod who kills the gods of Olympus in increasingly inventive ways, would now be thought of as an old hat and shallow. The original “God of War” trilogy wasn’t the kind of story-driven, character-centric series gamers now expect. But this “God of War” is all of that and more.
He’s still the god of war
Of course, just because “God of War” has added depth and rounded out its headliners as fully-formed characters doesn’t mean it’s any less about brutal combat. Kratos no longer dual-wields his chain blades, but instead uses his Leviathan Axe and a shield. Atreus is no slouch either, using his bow to distract and take out all manner of elves, trolls, draugers and other creatures.
My biggest fear about adding Atreus to the mix was that “God of War” would turn into one long escort quest in which you have to keep your son safe as you battle trolls the size of buses. Thankfully, that’s not the case. Atreus is an adept fighter and more than capable of holding his own.
Like previous “God of War” titles, you’ll upgrade Kratos’s abilities as you progress through the game. But this time you’ll have to upgrade your axe, shield, and Atreus’s bow and quiver to unlock the ability to improve your skills. The interface is admittedly a bit overwhelming at first, but quickly become clear as you begin upgrading your items and abilities.
Combat is, as always, frenetic, but requires a good amount of planning. Every enemy has their own quirks that you can exploit to defeat them and avoid taking too much damage, as long as you pay attention to their movements. There were instances, though, when the game’s camera made it hard to find enemies, but those were few and far between. The Leviathan Axe also has a sense of heft that makes slamming it into enemies’ heads feel all the more satisfying. Even the way Kratos moves his empty hand as he rears back to swing the axe evokes the sense of enormous strength the demigod wields.
And while the world of Midgard initially feels small and more grounded than previous “God of War” titles, it’s only a trick to ensure you’re first encounter with a massive set piece is that much more striking.
Technically, “God of War” is breathtaking. Its world is stunning and comes to life thanks to small details like leaves falling from trees and then the way in which things like snow deforms as you trek through it. More impressive is the fact that you can traverse the game world without having to deal with any load screens. The only time you’ll see any hint of loading is when walking through specific doorways, but even then it’s just for a second.
As far as the game’s mythology goes, I didn’t know much about the Norse gods before playing “God of War,” but the game does a wonderful job of explaining who they are and how they fit into the culture of the region. There are plenty of bits of information about the Norse myths scattered about the world that you can find to fill in the gaps the game leaves, which pushes you to locate every secret area possible.
Should you get it?
“God of War” is that rare game that manages to reinvent itself while still maintaining what made its predecessors such delights to play. It brings to life a Kratos who is introspective, intelligent and, dare I say, caring, while still letting you tear through hordes of monsters and enemies.
The world itself is an incredible achievement that feels full of life and history, while the side characters are quirky and interesting without ever getting stale. Like I said, “God of War” is a triumph, and well worth your time. Now grab your axe and get chopping.
What’s hot: A reinvented Kratos who’s still as hardcore as you remembered; Fluid, frenetic combat; Atreus is a worthwhile asset you’ll love having around; Dazzling game world
What’s not: Upgrade menu can feel overwhelming at first
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Email Daniel Howley at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley.