God of War Ragnarok review

Ragnarok is almost upon us, well, the game from Santa Monica Studio, that is, telling the continuing adventures of constantly angry Spartan Kratos and his son Atreus. Available on both PlayStation 5 and 4, Aussie legend Dylan Burns joins me on the virtual couch for a chat about Kratos’ latest outing with no longer a boy Atreus.

Gerard: So almost five years since the most recent God of War, Ragnarok is almost upon us and, man, I’ve got so many thoughts in my head that I’m just about to explode, Dylan, and I want to be very careful that I don’t spoil anything as there are some definitely spoilerific moments as the game progresses. 

As of writing, I’ve sunk in close to 20 hours into Ragnarok (main quest line, a few side quests, a bit of exploring) and I have to say the first hour has a few big set pieces that set the tone for the rest of the game. Combat feels like the first game and I’ve noticed more variety in enemy types this time around, too, which was a complaint from the first game. 

I’ve always been a fan of Christopher Judge’s Kratos, too:  His deep gravelly tones just fit the character so perfectly but  it’s clear that while GOW 2018 was mainly Kratos’ story, Ragnarok is definitely Atreus’ as he and his father make sense of the events from the first game and how Atreus fits into the grand scheme of things. Atreus is much more grown up now: He’s definitely no “Boy” anymore (and I think I’ve only heard Kratos mutter it once the entire time I’ve been playing. Anyway, what are your opening thoughts, Dylan? I want to discuss what we can in more depth so let’s get a discussion going. 

Dylan: Sony’s prestige titles have, in the last handful of titles, dealt with the handover between generations. In Uncharted, we saw an apparent end to Nathan Drake’s adventuring days, while in The Last of Us Part II we experienced a brutal account of the cycle of violence. Here, in Ragnarok, similar themes abound, with Atreus visibly older and struggling beneath the weight of his uncertain past and looming destiny. God of War Ragnarok is, I think, about trust, or more specifically, the lack of it. Pasts are murky and secrets abound, with promises made against the weight of secrecy, which in turn causes friction between the frustrated characters present. And let’s get something of a spoiler out the way here – Ragnarok is not about Kratos. It is about companionship, growing up and legacy. Throughout the campaign, there is a shift in perspective as you play across both Kratos and Atreus, taking on various companions in discrete jaunts that bring to mind the loyalty missions of Mass Effect 2. 

Indeed, it is not until far into the game that the overall picture of the plot starts to become clear, and even then there is the constant expectation of the rug being pulled out from underneath. I do agree that the game is bigger, but only in the sense that it required God of War to build on this – literally. Throughout the game, you will revisit areas from that title, both directly and as vista, standing on a cliff overlooking familiar areas now afflicted by Fimbulwinter, a consequence of Baldur’s demise and portent of Ragnarok itself. Of course, it wouldn’t be very interesting to play through an entire game of snow and ice, so it is established early that Fimbulwinter affects each realm differently. So, snow for Midgard yet earthquakes and greenhouse gases for Svartalfheim. And yes, this is a sumptuous feast for the eyes, especially with clearly upgraded motion capture of performances and meaty, impactful animations. It definitely has an exuding sense of Sony polish. How have you found the moment-to-moment game play, Gerard?

Gerard: I always enjoyed the visceral combat from the first game, where you could chain moves together – be it with your trusty axe or the iconic blades of chaos – culminating in a brutal finishing move that would often tear a foe in half. The familiar combat is here in Ragnarok and like the last game, Kratos can command his companion to attack enemies as well, often softening them with magic arrows. I set the game’s difficulty at what I would consider its “normal” setting but I have to admit I had to drop the difficulty down a bit during a particularly troublesome combat encounter. I was constantly left bloody and beaten so I think maybe the combat is a bit more unforgiving in more challenging difficulty settings. Combat aside, part of the charm of the last GOW game was the exploration: Searching down branching paths for hidden chests and sarcophagus that contain wonderful treasures that impart magical abilities for your armour and weapons. So it is with Ragnarok: Those magical chests abound and while some of the game’s elemental puzzles stumped me for a bit (especially one which requires magic to break through barriers) I stuck with it and was rewarded handsomely. You mentioned standing on cliffs overlooking familiar vistas and I’ve been blown away by the visuals of the game as it has progressed: The vibrant colours of Vannaheim are a stark contrast to the snowy plains of Midgard. I’m also impressed by the scale of the world: There is a lot more verticality this time around. Back to is the RPG-like progression where you upgrade skill trees and unlock abilities. How have you found that aspect this time around, Dylan?

Dylan:  Honestly, I felt all that half of the systems in the last game were unneeded and only served hardcore players – those who wanted to track down and beat all the Valkyries. So to see that they’ve effectively doubled down on this aspect in Ragnarok is a bit of a let down. After so many hours, I’m still confused about relic slots and charms and what not. There are special moves that I unlocked only hours in that I’ve never used because I don’t know the combinations required and thus they are not built into muscle memory. But, you know, all that is there if you really want to customise. Different sets of armour that buff health or luck or runic (whatever that is). As for upgrade trees, I often find myself with about 10k unspent XP and just unlock everything available and forget about it. 

Like you, I found the combat a real challenge and, due to mainlining for review, quite exhausting. Although nothing wrong with it, per se, I still feel that this aspect of the game is not for me, and so I bumped it down to Easy. I much preferred the exploration and puzzles and must say that the game employs almost perfect pacing in this regard. The moment one aspect feels a bit too heavy, it’s followed by fifteen minutes of exploration or looting or a massive, level-spanning machine puzzle. If you are a hardcore player, well there are some goddamn hard fights here, thankfully mostly optional. Go for it, I don’t have the time!

One thing I did want to touch on is the choices made in representing Norse gods. Odin’s West Wing actor cameo was quite a distraction for me, yet I am quite into Thor as a grumparse giant-killer with perhaps more depth to him – especially considering how friendly his daughter is. He must have a soft side. There is a lot of dialogue here with a lot of characters and I found myself rolling my eyes a bit at the convenience of them all sitting down for a meal and a ten minute chat about the next move. I dunno – I guess there’s no easier way to do things, but quite often a character’s actions juxtapose their somewhat fast change from, say, foe to ally, with almost dual personalities between their early and late game states. Again, this might be due to me playing it so intensely in a short period. And I must admit that each companion is fleshed out a lot on their side missions, which can take many hours if you explore deeply for every chest, secret and collectible. The constant dialogue reminded me of the excellent job done in the recent Guardians of the Galaxy game.

Gerard: I kind of like the customisation with the levelling up system and have to admit I was quite pedantic in selecting armour and stats that would make my Kratos the most powerful he could be, depending on the circumstances. I still died a few times at the hands of stronger foes but I still strove to equip Kratos and his companions with the right tools for the job. Talking of Thor and Odin, I was pleasantly surprised with Thor as he wasn’t what I was expecting, but like you it seems I found Odin a little jarring. I agree that playing for a review like we have hasn’t allowed me enough time to go through at my own pace nor perhaps contemplate enough the nuances of the relationships in play here. I have still explored a fair bit while keeping to the main storyline but I would have liked to have explored some of the words a little deeper, gone off the beaten track a little more. One character I am pleased to see the return of is Freya and her character development, especially after the events of the previous GOW and how things ended there, and I think this is clearly down to the wonderful voice and motion capture work. These characters seem more alive and human than before.

Make no mistake, though, this is a deep, deep narrative that spans many locations and contains a lot of moving parts and if I had one criticism it would be that it was almost overwhelming at times, given the layers of complexity and nuance of Kratos and Atreus’ evolving relationship. 

Dylan: This is a big, big game. Character shifts will lock you into a couple of hours and usually an entire new area or realm, and this happens constantly after the opening five or so hours. There is a lot of weight put on your engagement with intense combat encounters and I have to say that my interest did wane towards the latter parts. There’s only so many hours I can spam R1 and R2 before yearning for retirement from finger duty. But again, I am aware that many will be super keen for 30 hours of this, so I am just speaking for myself.

However, I was drawn into the way that almost every character, no matter how seemingly minor, was given enough time and interaction to really deepen their histories and motivations. Some of these were actually more interesting than Kratos himself, who, while definitely still an imposing physical presence for the entire time, has taken a passenger’s role in this adventure.

As to my main complaint of bloated menus, buffs, and upgrades, at least it’s possible to mostly ignore the RPG and upgrade stuff if you just play on easy, which makes my criticism of what is quite a messy user interface somewhat soluble inside the larger experience. It is, however, quite laughable to have a brand new weapon show up three-quarters through with its own brand new tech tree. Almost as if there’s an entire team focused on a spreadsheet regarding player engagement and excitement with the skill menu. Better introduce a new thrill right there! How about more charm slots? Why not?!

Gerard: Kratos is very much a secondary figure to Atreus in this latest outing and I think that is the natural progression of the series, given Kratos’ history. You can only focus on an angry Spartan for so long! Yes, some of the incessant combat grows weary after a while and it’s long but for me it’s the deep character development that is keeping me wanting to keep going, wanting to see what the end game is.  Ragnarok is a natural progression of the events from 2018 GOW, offering familiar combat and experiences while broadening things on a much grander scale, both in terms of narrative and character and world building. Final thoughts, Dylan?

Dylan: It is, in all senses, more God of War. Santa Monica Studio has taken the expansive foundations of that title and built Howl’s Castle atop it, offering more of everything without perhaps taking enough of an editing sweep during the renovation. It’s cliched to say, but if you loved 2018’s offering, then nothing is going to stop you from absolutely devouring what is here. That sense of scope and quality that we have come to enjoy from Sony’s flagship titles is certainly abundant here. It is generous beyond what is necessary, with entire swathes of game play that would have taken months of work that you breeze through in moments. I think I would have enjoyed a narrower experience, but again I do feel a bit on the peripheral now with the expectation of engagement and challenge in such titles, and as such I think it will hit with resounding approval from the fan base.

GAME REVIEW: GOD OF WAR PC: “It’s good, boy.”

A new year and another PS4 console game has made the jump to PC, with Santa Monica Studio’s God of War now available to PC gamers – and what a beauty it is.

When the game came out on console in 2018 it quickly became the poster child for how a talented development team could make games on Sony’s console sing and on PC the graphical fidelity has been turned all the way up to 11 – and it looks bloody fantastic.

I’ve completed God of War – or Dad of Boy as some like to call it – twice on the PlayStation 4 I liked it so much. The PC version will be my third play through. To this day, it is still one of my most beloved games of the last console generation. I just loved the intricately detailed narrative and the development of a character that has been a PlayStation staple since the days of the PlayStation 2.

Inspired by Norse mythology, the 2018 tale chronicles the journey of gruff Kratos and his son Atreus as they honour the wishes of Kratos’ second wife Faye to scatter her ashes from the highest peak of the nine realms. It’s a journey of discovery as Kratos learns to be a father to his son and Atreus learns more about himself and of his father’s “interesting” history.

God of War is the third high-profile PlayStation game to come to PC, with Day’s Gone and Horizon Zero Dawn already having been launched on the PC previously. There has been internet chatter that porting Sony titles to PC isn’t a good thing but it is: It means more plays get to experience great console games. Microsoft has done it for years without an uproar.

Sony says the PC version offers unlocked framerates, “enhanced” graphics (higher resolution shadows, improved screen space reflections, GTAO and SSDO, and “much more”), Nvidia DLSS and Nvidia Reflex, built-in support for DualShock 4 and DualSense controllers and ultrawide 21:9 support.

While Santa Monica Studio, the makers of God of War, oversaw the PC version, it was ported by Jetpack Interactive, a relatively unknown developer to me, but have no fear: Jetpack has done an outstanding job in porting this game to PC. It’s a straight copy: It doesn’t have new cutscenes or new missions. This is the same great game that appeared on the PlayStation 4 in 2018.

Where the PC version shines is the ability to customise things, especially graphical options, to suit the rig you have. God of War comes with four graphic presets: Low, Original (around the equivalent of settings on the PS4 version), High and Ultra. You can, of course, also run a mix of settings using the Custom option.

I started playing the game prior to Christmas and there were two updates in that time: One prior to launch and one post-launch, which seemed to have dramatically stablised the frame rates.

I played the game on an Alienware M15 R6 gaming laptop (Intel i7 CPU, 16Gb memory, RTX3080 laptop GPU) – a highly capable laptop – and on my desktop PC (i5 10600K @4.1 Ghz, 16Gb memory, 8Gb AMD RX580 GPU).

I spend a fair few hours wandering the game world of Midgard, battling Dragr, large trolls, undead people & floating tentacled things and loved the hell out of it. I also found that the optimised settings from Digital Foundry’s Alex Battaglia (timestamped in the linked video at around 16 minutes, 08 seconds) are worth their weight in gold, giving more consistent results especially with the RX580 given how highly detailed the world and characters are.

Alex Battaglia’s optimised settings (captured from my desktop PC).

I was surprised at the performance of the M15 R6’s laptop RTX3080, to be honest, as I was getting noticeable stutter from time to time but I do understand the 3080 I had is running a lower TDP (how much power it consumes under load) for the 3080 at 125W so this would have likely had something to do with that. That said, frame rates sitting in the mid to high 60s much of the time running the high preset.

Given the current state of modern GPUs in terms of pricing and availability, I really wanted to see how God of War fared on an ageing but perhaps more commonplace GPU, which is why I wanted to see how it ran on the old but trusty RX580 with its 8Gb of VRAM, a highly capable card but lacking modern finery like ray tracing & DLSS.

I was pleasantly surprised at how well the game played on my RX580 paired with my PC’s i5 10600K (running at 4.10Ghz). I didn’t notice any noticeable stutter or slowdown during game play nor cut scenes.

It seems a good CPU is the key to good performance here, and using Alex’s optimised settings – with ultra textures – I was averaging around high 40sFPS, dipping to mid 40s during heavy combat.

At times, I was getting over 60 frames per second during exploration and outside of combat encounters but it’s clear the RX580 is the handicap here. I’d achieve far higher frame rates and visual fidelity with a more modern GPU, something I hope to upgrade this year, stock and prices dependent.

Dropping textures to high, garnered a more consistent frame rate for my setup, sitting above 50FPS pretty much most of the time, even during combat heavy sequences. I could have played the game on the low graphics preset, of course, which would have given more frames but, frankly, I wasn’t going to do that, given the degradation in visual quality.

The game also has a stunning photo mode and all the images in this review were captured using the mode. The high level of detail, especially in character models, is really apparent in the photo mode.

Also – and I’m not sure whether my eyes were playing tricks on me – but I swear in some places while playing the PC version, I noticed details I didn’t remember seeing across my PlayStation play through. I’m sure it’s my eyes playing tricks but the PC version is a looker, make no mistake.

Simply put, God of War PC is a spectacular port of one of the PlayStation’s most celebrated franchises and being able to play it on PC is a win-win for all gamers.

I mean, Microsoft has made many of its best games available on both PC and Xbox series consoles day one (Halo Infinite and Forza Horizons 5, for example) so Sony making God of War available to PC gamers means more gamers get to experience fantastic gaming experiences and that has got to be good for gaming in general, right?

A huge thanks to PlayStation NZ PR for the early copy of the game.

God of War: All hail to the king

At its heart, God of War on the PlayStation 4 is a road trip featuring an angry God trying to bond with his son and forget his past, and a son who wants to be a warrior like his father but doesn’t know how.

As road trips go, this is a helluva ride, as Kratos and his young son Atreus trek to a formidable mountain to bury the ashes of the warrior’s recently deceased wife, but as fathers go, Kratos has a bit to learn and is, quite frankly, a bit of a dick to Atreus.

During an early hunting trip when Atreus misses a shot at a deer and tells Kratos he’s sorry, the bearded God simply replies: “Don’t be sorry. Be better.” Several times, Atreus frequently calls Kratos “Sir”, rather than father or dad.

Not that Kratos doesn’t try to work on his relationship with Atreus: There are  moments when Kratos wants to connect with his son – a comforting hand on the boy’s shoulder, a word of encouragement – but Kratos is clearly unsure of what it means to be a good, caring father so those fleeting moments are brief and his gruffness returns.

As the journey to the highest mountain in the realm progresses, Kratos tries to be a father by telling (rather bad) stories to Atreus as they row a canoe across a giant lake and it’s clear that the relationship between the two evolves and ever changes (Kratos becomes a little softer at times, Atreus pushes back a little) .

Kratos and the relationship with Atreus isn’t the only major change here: The scenery, too, is different, moving from Ancient Greece to Midgard, home of Norse mythos and the mighty vikings. The change in location is welcome and it’s littered with lush forests, ice-covered mountains and deep caverns and, of course, it’s all steeped in Norse legend.

Combat is dramatically changed from previous games in the series but, in my opinion, for the better. Kratos no longer has the blades of chaos that he swings from chains wrapped around his bandaged forearms (although, as if a nod to the past, he still wears the bloodied bandages) , instead he has the leviathan axe, a mystical weapon forged by two dwarfs who also created the mighty hammer of Thor. The axe can be hurled at enemies  then snapped back to Kratos like a boomerang, adding a new dimension to the combat.

The combat is still as bloody as ever, with brutal finishing moves that will cleave an enemy in half, and Atreus is  on hand to unleashing a barrage of arrows on foes as well as choke them with his bow’s string.. The combat feels satisfying and visceral although, at times it seems like it takes cheap shots by throwing in smaller enemies to the mix as you battle larger foes.  I’m not really that keen on being attacked from behind while I’m trying to avoid the fiery breath of a soul eater!

Beginning its life on the PlayStation 2,  the God of War series has always been about spectacle and Kratos’ place in the world, and this new GOW has spectacle aplenty but in previous games, Kratos was often dwarfed by his surroundings (remember the opening fight in GOW3 on the earth mother Gaia? The camera pulls back and you see Kratos is miniscule compared to his surroundings), now, Kratos is given real stature in the world,  real gravitas.

He’s now no longer dwarfed by the world as dramatically. Shifting the camera to behind Kratos’ shoulders as he moves, too, helps with this scale and shows you just how big he is. He dwarfs Atreus, who is wiry and small.

Kratos can upgrade everything from his armour and skills  to his weapons  using items found in the game world and a currency called hacksilver, and you can also upgrade Atreus’ kit as well. Quick time button presses are here but they don’t overstay their welcome, and now when you open chests you do’t have to mash buttons furiously like you used to do. The environmental puzzles won’t have you scratching your head and have you stumped for ages, either, but are clever enough that you’ll murmur a quiet “Ahhh …” when you solve one.

If you’re playing on a PS4 Pro, like I am, you’re in for a treat: God of War looks fantastic, even on my 1080p HD 55-inch TV, with amazing attention to detail and jaw-dropping vistas, and the game is bursting with colour and vibrancy.

The game world is filled with small details: Glowing particles float in the air from fires, muscles twitch underneath Krato’s skin as he moves, his beard is flecked with grey hairs, bark hangs from tree trunks. This is the best looking God of War ever without a doubt.

PlayStation 4 Pro can also chose either performance mode, which will give a better frame rate, or resolution mode, which will output at a resolution of 2160p checkerboarded. I played most of the game on the resolution mode as I like things to look purdy and the frame rate stays pretty rock solid. You’ll can also select a less intrusive UI (user interface), which means less screen clutter but personally, I like to see how much health my enemies have left.

The PS4 might not be the most powerful console in the world, but you know what? God of War is proof of what can be done when a publisher establishes a development studio like Santa Monica Studio then backs it and allows it the creative freedom to go wild and do what it does best. God of War is the result.

Ultimately, Santa Monica Studio has brought us a tale featuring a boy and a man trying to get to know each other in some pretty trying circumstances but, my word, what an adventure it is.

Simply put, God of War is one of the best games I’ve played this generation. Pure and simple.

Thanks to PlayStation NZ for an advanced copy of God of War, which is out on PlayStation 4 on April 20.