This year’s God of War joins dubious company such as Sonic The Hedgehog (2006), Bomberman (2014), Thief (2014) and Sim City (2013) by needing to add a year in brackets to the end of the name so it’s clear which game we’re talking about thanks to its decision to eschew any kind of subtitle. The good news is that, unlike those games, it’s actually really good. Even better still is that it actually earns the value of being a new beginning, a fresh start for the series, that such a nomenclature decision implies.
Kratos’ rampage through ancient Greece was a hedonistic revel that seems – especially in hindsight, having completed this latest instalment – very of its time now. It’s probably made even more thematically appropriate that this game sees Kratos taking on the mantle and weight of being a parent by viewing it through the lens of having grown out of stuff like mini-games where you have to hammer all the buttons on the Playstation controller to ‘hammer’ an entire hareem in one sitting. In almost every sense, this God of War is a true ‘mature’ game. It earns that label by tackling complex subjects and emotions as well as complex battles and not by resorting to using sex as titillation, or worse, a reward. As the audience for gaming has grown up, so too have their games.
Oddly enough, this is far from the first game to explore the various themes of fatherhood lately. GTA V’s Michael’s struggles to identify with and, to not put too blunt a point on it, love his children is a key part of his story throughout the game and the driving force of several missions. Assassin’s Creed Origins not only sees protagonist Bayek have to suffer through the loss of his child, but that same kind of loss is a theme that plays through many of the game’s enemies as well and serves to somewhat humanise them – even as you ultimately stab them in the throat. Geralt of Rivia, meanwhile, spends much of the Witcher 3 chasing after his adopted daughter Ciri to save her from the Wild Hunt – and in the process learning to live with his role as a father figure to her and what that means for both their futures.
The game’s main theme of parenthood applies to more characters than just Kratos and Atreus, but the game itself circles around their relationship like the Midgard Serpent itself.
What God of War does with these themes that no game before it succeeds at, though, is making it a genuine and realistic experience through the eyes of a father. Even one as stoic and aloof as Kratos. Not to mention so fantastic and powerful that he spends much of his time in these games punching actual Gods to death. Throughout Kratos’ journey with his son, Atreus, he firstly must learn to connect with the boy in a way he clearly hasn’t before as they both mourn the death of Atreus’ mother. You as the player, through Kratos, must find time in between violent fights with demons, wolves and Gods, to handle your child’s illnesses, to guide him through a pretty special kind of puberty – Kratos must come to terms with the fact Atreus is not only becoming a man, but a God – and ultimately prepare him for life beyond his childhood.
That God of War succeeds at carrying such a rich narrative theme throughout, while still finding time to be a fantastic action game is a testament to Cory Barlog and his team at Sony Santa Monica. Narratively, this kind of genuinely emotional story telling and game direction is often exclusively the purview of low-budget indie games like That Dragon Cancer. What God of War demonstrates is that it’s far from impossible to tell this kind of story within the trappings of a AAA game. There’s open world – clear the map – style gameplay, RPG-style stats, skills and weapon upgrades and a really robust action combat system – and all of it still just works towards the goal of telling the game’s simple story of a father and son attempting to honour the wishes of a dead mother. And it all works very, very well.
Part of the reason you will feel so engaged with this game’s story is, undoubtedly, the master stroke of game design that is the game’s camera. That may sound like a bizarre banner to fly for any game, but trust me, it makes more difference than you’d possibly imagine without seeing it for yourself. Throughout the game – from the game’s launch menu to the very, very end when Kratos finally rests at the end of his adventure – the camera never cuts away from the action. If the game were a movie, it would all be filmed as one single shot in, effectively, one single scene. The mechanics of doing so are enormously easier in a game than in a film, but it achieves a similar effect all the same. You aren’t jumped around from setting to setting, or level to level – you start the journey and directly follow it to its very conclusion. Even if that means standing still in a lift for a minute or so while the game loads the next part of the level around you…
The decision to take the camera from being in a fixed position, meandering in the skies above Kratos through his Grecian adventures, to putting it right over his shoulder in this game also does wonders for truly bringing you into the physicality of the action. The game’s first fight with one of the Norse Pantheon feels like a true, brutal, brawl as the screen shakes with each pummel and Kratos is sent boundering around like a rag doll being toyed with by a rabid dog. Similarly, as you progress through the game and start to come across wonders like the Midgard Serpent – a snake so big it supposedly wraps around the entire world – or the dead and very truly giant Thamur, the scale at play seems even more wondrous when viewed from Kratos’ perspective, rather than from a lofty view above.
The scale of the game’s world and creatures in it, such as the Midgard Serpent comes to life thanks in large part to the game’s direction with the camera. It also doesn’t hurt that the game is insanely well detailed and gorgeous, even without a PS4 Pro to power it.
All of this glowing praise is not to say that God of War (2018) does not have issues worth mentioning, of course. In fact, as strong as it otherwise is, the combat gameplay probably features the majority of any such complaints. Firstly, while the totally-not-at-all-based-off-Thor axe throwing combat is a fun mechanic – and it’s hard to overstate just how much better it’s made by having to press a button to manually recall the axe after throwing it, nor how satisfying that noisy clattering as it flies back into your hand with a likewise satisfying thud is – it’s let down by the game’s fairly terrible targeting system. Pressing the right analog stick will lock you onto an enemy… so long as you’re already looking at it. And if that enemy moves too much? No more lock-on. If you want to target another enemy you must move the camera manually and toggle the lock-on again. It becomes such a mess to attempt doing so that you almost certainly will stop trying. Later in the game, when you receive the game’s second weapon it becomes hard to bother coming back to the Axe because that weapon brings with it a much wider range and the ability to button mash your way through your enemies without having to worry too much about where the hell they actually are.
This dual weapon mechanic also introduces the game’s other identifiable combat weakness. Each weapon also has an elemental nature to its attacks. Ice for the axe – which is also used for some great puzzle gameplay throughout – and fire for the later weapon. Some enemies can only be affected by one weapon or the other, while some will take greater damage from one kind of element than the other. Bosses – and in particular the game’s final boss – will eventually require you to switch between your weapons during battle to use the right one for the given situation and this is where the flaw in this mechanic comes in. Switching between the weapons, particularly in combat, is just a pain. Switching to the axe at any point is made slightly easier by being able to press the ‘recall’ button, which will bring it to Kratos’ hand whether it’s currently stuck in a demon’s face or chilling on Kratos’ back. The other weapon requires somewhat more dexterous input during combat to use the d-pad to switch to it, while also being careful to ensure that you don’t accidentally press the wrong button to disarm Kratos entirely and fight bare handed. An option that’s afforded to you for certain combat situations but rarely is the choice you actually want.
Atreus joins the combat by getting in the mix himself and slowing down/annoying enemies while you deal with others or by pressing R2 to fire arrows at whatever enemy you’re currently fighting. It takes some getting used to the idea to even remember to use Atreus’ arrows during combat. It doesn’t help that there’s a section of the game where Kratos must fight on alone – and it probably comes just as you were getting to the point of remembering to fully utilise the boy in action and forces you to eventually have to remember all over again later on. It’s a solid mechanic, but it only really adds to a somewhat weighty pile of combat mechanics that takes long enough to master that what you’ll end up hoping for most is that any of these new found multi-tasking abilities will be directly applicable to the sequel so you can make best use of them there.
One final criticism comes against the enemies you’ll fight throughout the game. Most of the various demons, witches, floaty tentacle monster things, etc, are just not really that interesting as enemies. They come at you as nothing more than colourful canon fodder to mow through and rarely seem to have any thematic tie to the settings in the game nor the game’s overall themes. They are an entirely functional piece of the game’s design and nothing more. The game’s mini-boss trolls exemplify this most of all. While each troll is given a name to go with its health bar, they’re all ultimately the exact same enemy. The only one that even puts up a remotely different style of fight is Hel’s Keeper – and frankly, the fact that it is a troll all the same is a truly disappointing part of what should otherwise be a great moment in the game.
Unfortunately, it’s tough to say much better of the Gods you fight within the game. Without giving too much away, it’s worth knowing that this game is very much set up as the first game in a series and as such your interaction with this mythology’s pantheon is somewhat limited. There are, of course, much fewer Norse Gods than Greek Gods to brutally murder to begin with, so with future games in mind, it’s really to be expected. Just don’t expect to be going up against Odin just yet – and don’t expect too much out of the Aesir you do get to fight either. The fights are genuinely unique fights throughout the game, but often just aren’t that much fun to hammer through. Harder game modes than I was willing to try out would also likely end up seeing these points as serious hurdles to overcome to continue the game and, unfortunately, most of it simply comes from having to endure their length more than anything else. Gods rightly shouldn’t be so simple to kill, but each phase tends to linger just a little too long to be truly comfortable.
Perhaps you can chalk it up as “too much of a good thing”, but the game’s trolls inevitably outwear their welcome. Even just another enemy type to occasionally take their place would have worked wonders to improve the boss fights in the game.
Flaws aside, though, what really makes God of War such an unmissable game is the narrative and emotional heart of the game. The fact it’s such a robust action game on top is simply what justifies the use of the IP. What will truly catch you thinking of the game while you’re away from your console, what will drive you to come back to see it through to its conclusion, is that it somehow manages the somewhat impossible task of making you give even the slightest bit of a shit about Kratos as a character.
Even for fans of the original God of War series, it’s hard to truly find anything endearing or relateable in the Ghost of Sparta as he murders and fucks his way through Grecian legend. His backstory ultimately exists only as justification for his slaughter. This time around, his backstory is that slaughter, and how he needs to not only be better than that for his son’s sake, but ensure that his son is better than that for everyone’s sake. No matter whether Atreus’ character ends up endearing to you by the end of the game (though it’d take a pretty firm heart to avoid it), it’s impossible to not find Kratos’ struggles as a father even more compelling than whether or not he’ll be able to punch this latest God to death.
It’s worth giving Christopher Judge, best known for playing Teal’C on Stargate and now Kratos in this game, an honourable mention as a major component in what gives Kratos such depth. Not only in voice, but in his motion capture acting of the character. Small moments like Kratos’ initial hesitance to physically embrace his child are what truly sell the character’s struggle in this role and are why you inevitably end up rooting for him and Atreus to make it work.
It’s the ability to tell this game’s story, in such a way that only adds to the ultimate gameplay of the game and puts everything together as a single, well orchestrated, piece that makes God of War (2018) such a must-play title. This is the kind of game that we who call ourselves ‘gamers’ are truly in this hobby for. It takes Hollywood on at their game and demonstrates why games deserve to stand on their own as valuable entertainment culture. There have been other games that do the same, of course. From the small, focused indie titles to AAA blockbusters such as Red Dead Redemption or Grand Theft Auto. Games like Assassin’s Creed, Tomb Raider and Uncharted, all push forward with what such a single player, narrative-led AAA game can do, and all continue to grow up in the same way God of War has. To step up and use a game to tell a story, not to simply use a story to make a game complete.
God of War (2018) will not be the last such game to weave such a well crafted tale through a solid frame of robust gameplay – in fact, Spider-Man (2018) and Red Dead Redemption 2 (finally 2018) will almost certainly do the same and rightly challenge it for what will likely be a highly contested trophy as ‘Game of the Year’. But, either way, it still takes its place among its own kind of Pantheon – a truly special kind of game that has a meaning beyond the confines of the action itself. Like that moment at the end of Red Dead Redemption, this game defines itself by the decisions its story takes and, just like that moment with John Marston, that’s ultimately what we’ll always carry with us for having played the game. To miss out on having that be a part of yourself is to miss out on what will surely be one of gaming’s true cultural touchstones. If you already don’t know what I’m referring to when it comes to Red Dead Redemption, take that as even greater reason to not miss out on what God of War offers you.
Kratos' latest murderous rampage comes with a surprising amount of heart and storycraft. It's a solid action game, but as an overall package it's elevated into an essential, immense entertainment experience unique to video gaming.