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.