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God of War (2018) review

2018 has seen a cavalcade of commendable games. Whether it’s the wondrous web-swinging of Spider-Man or the deep, branching narrative of Detroit: Become Human, players have been bombarded with great games on a near-weekly basis this year. However, there is one game in particular that has managed to take each of its components and turn them into a truly excellent experience.


Story

Enter Kratos, the antihero archetype with a better handle on his weapons than his temper. His previous adventures have seen him destroy a gathering of Gods from Greek mythology, including some that he holds dear. In his 2018 iteration, he is pointing his blade towards the Gods of Norse mythology. He still bears his red, meandering tattoo and thunderous expression, but he is stoic, grizzled, and more mature this time around. It is clear he is battle-worn and wiser from his earlier experiences. The game opens with him kneeling solemnly at a handprint-marked tree before chopping it down and taking the dismembered log to a cabin with a concealed corpse waiting for him outside. He is venturing out to Jotunheim, land of the giants, accompanied by his son Atreus, to spread the ashes of his second wife, Faye, the person responsible for the handprint. Atreus is oblivious to his father’s pernicious past and the latter’s behaviour is nothing short of cold towards the former, referring to him only as ‘boy’ in the early stages and seeming impatient with his failings and his indifference towards combat. Along the way, Kratos encounters a mysterious stranger, hell-bent on destruction and claiming to know who (or what) Kratos is. What ensues is a story that explores familial relationships, loss, stoicism, and keeping secrets.


Gameplay

The combat found in God of War is visceral and gratifying from the get-go. Kratos’ primary weapon is the Leviathan axe, which can be swung and thrown to attack enemies and solve puzzles. However, what really makes this weapon interesting is Kratos’ ability to recall the axe at will, with a thud and a satisfying shake of the Kratos with the Leviathan axe

screen emphasising the weapon’s weight and the control the Ghost of Sparta has over it. Players have the option to confront enemies with the father’s furious fists, striking down blows upon them with great power, but these are not as effective as melee weapons, and they don’t feel as good to wield either. Further weapon options are available at later stages of the game, providing a familiar experience to some players, but these lack the added mechanics of the axe. These extra weapons are best used against certain enemy types and serve to appease those who prefer Kratos’ ‘kill now, ask questions later’ gameplay style from previous titles.

All of Kratos’ weapons have light and heavy attacks which are activated using the R1 and R2 buttons respectively. Atreus can also be called upon during a fight, with his archery skills coming in handy to stun and distract enemies, buying his father time in tricky situations and giving him the opportunity to cause further damage. The strength of an enemy’s attack is indicated through coloured rings that appear when the strike is imminent. Yellow rings indicate a moderate attack and red rings warn of a more harmful attack. Rings are also used after successful hits to perform an instant kill on smaller enemies and stronger assaults on larger enemies.


There is a lot of down time to be found between fights in this instalment, which allows for cutscenes, exposition through dialogue and some impressive puzzles to be solved by the player. This adds a new dimension which hasn’t been seen before in the God of War franchise. Rather than hacking and slashing their way through a wall of enemies, players must be more thoughtful about their approach throughout an environment. The father and son have to tackle tasks which involve using the abilities Atreus possesses with his arrows, using the axe to disable structures which emit poison and applying items found later in the game to reach hitherto inaccessible areas and chests, which contain additional upgrades and skills. This encourages the replaying of different stages with the opportunity to gain new abilities and deepen the gameplay experience.


Enemies have their own health bars and levels, which are displayed above their heads. These are used to give the player an idea of how difficult it will be to fight them. The game includes the option of an ‘immersive mode’, which removes all Heads Up Display elements, except tutorial prompts. This reviewer chose to play the game with this mode activated and it helped in getting lost in the game, but caused more difficult encounters to feel more arduous, since it isn’t clear how much effort is required to prevail. Kratos also has his own health bar, which can be slightly regenerated through green crystals found on the floor, which are stepped on to activate. A similar, red crystal can also be found to increase Kratos’ ‘Spartan Rage’ meter. Once this meter is filled, pressing both the L3 and R3 buttons simultaneously will bring forth his ‘Spartan Rage’. The screen glows a blood-red haze and Kratos becomes invulnerable for a time. All attacks are replaced by a plethora of punches which cannot be dodged or evaded by enemies.


Controls

Controls feel great for the most part. Kratos’ movements and attacks carry weight, which add more impact during gameplay. The downside to God of War’s controls stems from its camera placement. The game’s camera is placed slightly too close to Kratos’ back, reducing visibility and making distance hard to distinguish. This can make fights frustrating when it’s difficult to view oncoming attacks from behind. The game compensates for this by having the screen glow in the general direction of an off-screen attack and it’s evident that this decision was made to consider Kratos’ mind-set, rather than view his massacres from afar, like in earlier God of War games. It would serve better to simply draw the camera further from Kratos to broaden the player’s view. Something similar to the camera angles found in the Dark Souls series of games would suit this title better, while still creating this empathetic effect.


Mechanics

During the game, Atreus and his father find chests that contain upgrades for their weapons and abilities. These are implemented in the game through levelling systems and skill trees. Each weapon has its own level and certain upgrades are only attainable after growing

The skill tree for the Leviathan axe the corresponding weapon up to the appropriate level. The sheer amount of different upgrades available to Kratos’, Atreus and their weapons can appear overly complex to some, but allows the player a great amount of freedom to chop and change upgrades to achieve the best advantage in combat.


Level Design

This title uses a spider formation for its levels, with linear levels surrounding a central hub area. There are multiple Norse realms to be found in God of War, including Midgard, the starting area and Kratos’ current dwelling, Alfheim, the realm of elves and Helheim, the realm of the dead. (uk.ign.com, 2018) Each one follows a similar structure based around this hub area and the linear structure of the outer areas result in an intuitive pathway for players to follow. The regions found in the game also utilise vertical design as a representation of the protagonist’s current state, in a similar way to Spec Ops: The Line. Climbing mountains and rock faces and bringing Kratos and his son closer to the heavens makes the player feel more enlightened and more powerful along this journey.


Graphics

Visually, the game is simply stunning. The beautiful, sun-kissed landscapes and sweeping, snowy vistas are a treat for the eyes and these environments alone could be enough to encourage players to continue along this voyage. It’s also obvious that great care and attention has been put into Kratos’ look, making him identifiable to those familiar with the series, while also demonstrating the challenges he’s faced and the toll they’ve taken on him. He sports a full beard and a more exhausted look, divorced from his usual goatee and painted-on grimace.


Storytelling

One thing that the game truly excels at is the way it tells a story through its medium, even though it adopts techniques from different ones. From the moment the menu loads, the camera is seamlessly following the action, save for opening menus and loading screens if and when Kratos dies in combat. The game even goes so far as to include a dream-like area to traverse while fast-travelling to a new area to work around loading screens. This means that theoretically, if the player keeps Kratos alive and doesn’t open a menu, the entire game is one extremely long, interactive movie filmed in one shot. Unfortunately, this does fall short, since menus are non-diegetic, meaning that it feels like they exist outside of the game’s world. This breaks the immersion it works so hard to create, especially when the otherworldly nature of mythology could allow for menus to appear as illusory or a seamless transition could be added for the opening of menus. Despite this small gripe, the other elements only serve to emphasise the terrific directing by Cory Balrog. The game even handles tone well, providing the occasional comic relief in between more intense combat sessions, breaking up the action nicely without taking anything away from the experience. The auditory aspects of God of War are also incredibly successful in their execution. Bear McCreary, of The Walking Dead and 10 Cloverfield Lane fame, Incorporates Gregorian chanting, pounding percussion and orchestral ominousness to evoke an ancient and epic feel to the whole game.


Mythology & Characters

God of War delves deep into Norse mythology, exploring multiple different characters. Most information regarding these characters is given to the player through a character called Mimir, a man who claims to be the smartest man alive, telling stories and anecdotes while Kratos and his boy travel to their next destination. These stories break up the set pieces well and his dry witticisms add a funny dimension to the dialogue and bring the character and world to life. Some of the characters the trio encounter during the game include Freya, nicknamed ‘The Witch of the Woods’, Sindri, a mysophobic dwarf who upgrades Kratos’ weapons, and Brok, his foul-mouthed brother, who also forges weapons. The two brothers engage in a bitter rivalry for the better part of the game, disputing the other’s skills. A character known as ‘The World Serpent’ also makes a few appearances in the game, believed to be a creature so big, his body circumvents the planet. Marvel fans will also recognise a few characters, especially in the game’s final act, when the true identity of one character is revealed to be a well-known figure in Norse mythology. Such a rich exploration into the lore of the world really makes the player feel like they are a part of something better than Kratos, rather than having the entire world revolve around Kratos. That grounded approach is more believable from a narrative standpoint and should be praised and encouraged in gaming.


Conclusion

After achieving the third-highest aggregate score on the Playstation 4 and the highest Metascore for an original PS4 title, God of War has given credence to the notion that video games are art. In spite of its issues, it tells a compelling story in an interesting manner and combines its elements effortlessly to create a game greater than the sum of its parts and an experience no gamer should be without. This game deserves nothing less than a 9/10

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