At several points during God of War, Santa Monica Studio presented itself with opportunities to fall back on old habits – habits, mind you, that have made the decade-plus-old franchise one of Sony’s most prestigious. But in resisting familiarity, God of War’s PS4 debut is at the same time a fitting reboot and a memorable new chapter in the story of the angriest man/god in gaming.
God of War is a reboot, but purely in a technical sense. Gameplay has been completely overhauled, with greater combat depth, weapon and armour upgrades that cater to your play style, and the addition of an AI partner that is surprisingly useful in battle. The most radical and talked-about change though is the shift from a fixed-camera perspective to a third-person over-the-shoulder view.
For many fans, this might at first seem like a move away from what makes God of War unique, but it’s surprising how seamless the transition really is. At no point does this perspective make combat feel less fluid; if anything, the brutality of it all is now more in-your-face and that’s great. The camera perspective also frequently shifts between gameplay and cutscene, and the cinematography on display here is unlike anything else in gaming.
God of War games have always prided themselves on enemy variety, and that applies here as well. There are various enemy classes and subclasses, each with their strengths and weaknesses and they also vary in the kind of attacks they are vulnerable/immune to. You’re constantly kept on your feet, adjusting attack patterns, and and how you control your AI partner, to match the enemy in front of you.
The God of War games on PS2 won plaudits for the sheer scale of their levels, and with God of War 3 on PS3, it sometimes felt like Santa Monica was trying to build on that scale just for the sake of it. God of War (this game), in that respect, seems more comfortable in its own skin, and doesn’t feel the need to constantly throw gigantic enemies and levels your way. Everything has been crafted meticulously and it plays like a dream.
That’s not to say that this game doesn’t feature grand levels and enemies. Now, however, they appear when they serve a purpose, because there’s so much more happening in the game to engage the player. The first of these has to do with the game’s aforementioned AI partner – Kratos’ son Atreus. As much as God of War is about annihilating beasts of all shapes and sizes, it also tells a more personal story than the series has before. The father-son relationship builds subtly through the game and it shows a more human side to Kratos without being at odds with the killing machine from previous games. There is a maturity in the storytelling here that we haven’t seen in any of the previous games.
God of War is not as much of a reboot in terms of the story. The focus here is Norse mythology. Sure, Kratos is now older and with no Greek gods left to kil, but there is still a strong connection to the previous games. This isn’t a new version of Kratos or a brand new origin story, and that’s great. Sony could have called this God of War 4 because it feels like a natural progression in those regards.
There’s not much that can be said about the game’s bosses without venturing into spoiler territory, but there is a distinct change in approach in how Santa Monica has designed and approached bosses in God of War. They have character and boss battles are no longer just a battle of skill but also play on the emotions of both Kratos and the player.
With the open-endedness to the game world, God of War now also introduces several side quests and activities that you and Atreus can take on by travelling around the world hub. The one thing from past games that we wish Santa Monica had kept to a minimum this time was backtracking. Several areas and items are locked away earlier in the game till you gain the skills or abilities needed to access them, and so you’ll have to backtrack a fair bit to get these, although you can also do this once you’re done with the story.
God of War is a fairly lengthy game, and while there are several truly explosive, adrenaline-pumping moments dotted across the campaign, there are also the inevitable lulls in the action. But the game cleverly uses this time to build the Kratos-Atreus relationship and to let you take in the sights of the beautiful game world that Santa Monica has created. God of War may well be the best looking PS4 game yet. Playing on a standard PS4, you’ll be hard pressed to find a pixel out of place, while the lighting, texture work and art rival the very best on any platform. On the PS4 Pro, there’s a performance mode option that has an unlocked frame rate. While this isn’t a locked 60 which would be ideal it is much smoother than the base hardware in our testing. We only wish these quieter moments didn’t involve revisiting older areas repeatedly, even if the story justifies it.
A special mention is also deserved for the game’s sound design and music, as well as the voice acting and writing. The score beautifully amplifies the action on screen, while the banter between Kratos and Atreus as well as NPCs goes a long way towards keeping you immersed even through the game’s quieter moments.
After the somewhat uninspiring (by the series’ lofty standards) God of War: Ascension, God of War on PS4 is an emphatic new high for a franchise that has become synonymous with the PlayStation brand. It’s a series that Sony needs to keep pushing the envelope, and this game does just that. Moreover, the game’s conclusion sets the stage for an exciting sequel, while leaving many other avenues open for Santa Monica to explore. God of War is a far cry from the games we’ve played on PS2, PSP and PS3, and yet this is the quintessential God of War experience.