God of War: Master of None?

god of war combat

An Action Game Checklist

God of War is many things. Let’s start by stating clearly that if you enjoy third-person action adventure games, then you will undoubtedly enjoy 2018’s God of War on PlayStation 4. If you created a tick box of the things needed for games in this popular genre, it would meet each and every box. Great visuals, check. Fluid combat, check. Brave and unstoppable playable character, check. Map full of icons and collectibles, branching unlock tree, upgradeable inventory items, side missions, boss fights, check, check, check, check, check.

God of War borrows from its many peers, and it borrows liberally. It tells a long and gripping tale of an old god who is a new father, a battle-tested veteran thrown into an unfamiliar world both literally and figuratively. It is a blood-soaked, action-packed blockbuster of a game— it is also a deeply personal story for both man and boy.

god of war 2018

The Ghost of Sparta

SIE Santa Monica Studio had a task ahead of them when it came to revitalising the mainline God of War franchise, eight years after it concluded with God of War III on PlayStation 3. The series had been hugely successful for Sony’s system dating back to its Clash of the Titans-inspired inception on PlayStation 2. From there, two further mainline entries followed, as well as countless spin-offs on mobile and portable devices, and a PS3 prequel, God of War: Ascension, in 2013. Compilation discs brought even the older games to fans on newer generations.

With seven unique games already out in the wild, the story of beleaguered Spartan god Kratos and his war against the entire Greek pantheon had reached its expiry point. SIE Santa Monica Studio knew they had to try something new if they were to put Kratos back in front of his fans.

In a 2019 interview (via Eurogamer), Sony Santa Monica’s Creative Director, Cory Barlog, explains, “Early in discussion, people were saying we had to get rid of Kratos. It was like, ‘he’s annoying, he’s done’ …they really did not like the character. They wanted a new character. It took a lot of convincing to make them think it was a good idea.”

The history of the series wasn’t the only hurdle in creating a new God of War game. The eighth generation of consoles had changed the landscape of action games from those early hack ’n slash days. Even genre stalwarts like Devil May Cry and Ninja Gaiden had struggled to find new directions as the market moved towards narrative-driven RPG-lite experiences following Uncharted’s enduring success.

god of war 3

Don’t Be Sorry, Be Better

It became clear that SIE Santa Monica had to change direction for Kratos’ next outing. Cory Barlog explains (via Venture Beat), “We had a lot of discussions in the beginning where we went into a conference room and just wrote every sort of load-bearing concept for the game on the wall. Every possible thing we could think of that represented the game, from Greek mythology to the Blades of Chaos to the double jump to platforming. All this stuff. We listed it out and we went through point by point and started talking about each one. If you remove this, does that make it not God of War?”

Removing the jump action alone was viewed as controversial by the dedicated fanbase, but Santa Monica had more than just changing Kratos’ movement in mind. The game aged the beloved god-killer, including a masculine hipster beard. The years represented by the prior games and by the intervening gap had taken their toll on the lead protagonist. Battle-weary Kratos was now a devoted husband and father, showing a vulnerable side arguably for the first time in franchise history. He was also a man outside of his own world. With the setting shifted to the rich Norse mythology and Kratos reborn as a grizzled veteran with young Atreus by his side, the dominoes were in place for a more story-centric outing for God of War’s debut on the PlayStation 4.

god of war banner

The Last of Gods

Barlog made it clear in a 2019 interview at the Games Dev Conference where the inspiration for the Kratos/Atreus relationship was born.

“There was a little part of me that said when I play [The Last of Us], it was this sort of…awakening moment for this industry. Now prior to the game, a lot of great games had been doing very dark and very intense subject matter…but they were the first ones to have a broad audience for this, to show me, to show everybody else in the industry that people wanted this kind of content.”

The Last of Us showed that even grizzled action heroes can care and that plucky young sidekicks can be more than frustrating escort missions. The parallels between the Joel/Ellie relationship in The Last of Us and Kratos’ connection to Atreus are apparent, even from the early stages. God of War deftly dodges the risk of having a game-long escort mission by making Atreus a crucial element of the gameplay— both in its story beats and in its combat.

As the game progresses, Atreus gains extra abilities for his bow that can be called upon by the player using the square button. Atreus is levelled up just like any of Kratos’ other abilities, and he regularly attacks enemies and finds health power-ups for the player, much like Ellie or BioShock Infinite’s Elizabeth.

god of war kratos and atreus

I’m Letting You Hold My Axe

God of War also sought to change the familiar combat, providing Kratos with a new weapon in his arsenal— the Leviathan Axe. Kratos’ axe actually draws its inspiration from its new setting, acting much like Thor’s Mjolnir hammer in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Once thrown, the axe can be magically recalled to Kratos’ hand at the push of a button. It’s the single most satisfying thing about God of War’s combat, and many reviewers and players have discussed at length how they would spend time just throwing and recalling the Leviathan Axe at will. Cory Barlog wasn’t immune to the appeal of the new weapon either.

“I’d just be throwing the axe. Can I clear this tree? Is there collision on those rocks up ahead? I really annoyed people, big time, by throwing the axe constantly. At one point they said, ‘We need to take this out, because it’s really getting on my nerves.’”

More than just the combat, Kratos’ axe became part of the overall design of the game, lending itself to more ranged encounters than Kratos was used to. It also became a part of the game’s core loot gathering and puzzle solving too. God of War didn’t have far to look for inspiration when deciding to make the shift from its hack ’n slash roots to a more grounded experience.

kratos with axe

A Place in History

The Uncharted series redefined how light platforming and environmental hazards are implemented in action games. Nathan Drake isn’t the springiest of protagonists and certainly has never pulled off a double-jump in his adventuring career. Uncharted swapped this traditional style of platforming for a more grounded approach with parkour style climbing and cover-based combat. The story and Drake’s personality always took centre stage.

Such was the success of Uncharted that when Crystal Dynamics were looking to reboot their famous franchise, 2013’s Tomb Raider felt like as much a nod to Uncharted as it did to Lara Croft’s roots. Much like Naughty Dog’s series, the Tomb Raider reboot focused on a more natural style of environment traversal, as well as a compelling narrative arc, survival elements, and an icon-strewn map borrowed from its open world counterparts. Horizon Zero Dawn released in 2017 and opened the explorable world up, finding a balance between the huge expanses of open world RPGs and the more linear environments of earlier action game mainstays.

God of War released in 2018 and feels like an amalgamation of these games and a natural successor in this evolutionary journey. There are no magical floating platforms for Kratos to leap around on— in fact, jumping is removed altogether. Instead, the Spartan God finds himself clambering handhold over handhold, scaling mountain cliffs and ancient architecture much like Mr. Drake and Miss Croft. And, of course, much of this architecture finds cause to crumble, shatter, or explode the moment Kratos climbs it.

god of war climbing

Build-a-God

God of War rewards the keen eye, scattering its environments with hidden treasures, unlocks, and puzzles. For the eagle-eyed explorer, every area is a distraction from Kratos and Atreus’ journey, and literally tens of hours can be spent scouring for wealth. These rewards aren’t superficial like the archaeological trinkets that fill Lara Croft’s pockets. Instead, every piece of equipment or currency found in God of War is for the purpose of levelling up skills or purchasing/crafting armours and enchantments. For the first time in series history, God of War includes role-playing elements allowing the player to boost stats to create the kind of Kratos they want to play. Customisation is minimal— you cannot change Kratos’ weapons or fighting styles— but there is plenty of room for creating optimal builds focusing on strength to build a melee-focused attack build or defence for more damage absorption, or runic and cooldown to focus on Kratos’ special abilities. These special abilities act as auto-combos and can be swapped out, as can Atreus’s animal summons.

This stat-based departure lands God of War firmly amongst other modern action games. The immense success of both The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild meant that third-person fantasy action games now strive to include RPG-lite stat systems in their menus. In 2017, Horizon Zero Dawn utilised a gear score for Aloy based on the weapons and armour found in the environments, whilst the Assassin’s Creed games began to implement these RPG-lite mechanics, starting with Assassin’s Creed: Origins also in 2017.

God of War is following suit by letting its players level up strength and defence and even luck, but it’s a fresh coat of paint for Kratos. Where the game dares to return to its roots are in its moments of immense beauty and scale as the camera— an impressive single-shot from start to finish— cinematically captures the enormous stature of mountainous ruins and cloud-grazing architecture and, of course, goliath beasts and creatures. Kratos would be lost without skyscraper-sized foes to vanquish, and God of War delivers on that promise in spades. The whole game is breath-taking to behold and joins contemporaries like The Last of Us Part II and Ghost of Tsushima in pushing the PlayStation 4 graphics processor to its maximum.

kratos and world serpent

God of All Trades

And “joining contemporaries” is where God of War sits in its own revitalisation. It is an astounding exercise in taking what works in other games and amalgamating them into a whole. Through storytelling and character craft, it tells a compelling yarn that is perhaps a little backloaded. The journey and the growth of its primary protagonists are its key selling point, deftly adapted from a similar beat told in The Last of Us years earlier. It whisks the franchise to an all-new setting, grounding it in the Norse mythology that brought fame to the Hellblade games and focusing on historical folklore with the same fervour as Assassin’s Creed: Origins. Its combat, a modernised take on earlier games, leans heavily on more grounded melee fighting from series like Assassin’s Creed, the Batman: Arkham games, or even a toned-down version of Bloodborne or Nioh (there’s no denying the appeal of that Leviathan Axe, though). God of War’s wall-climbing and loot scouring would be right at home in Uncharted. Perhaps its biggest departure from its roots, its RPG-lite mechanics and map full of icons, lean heavily on Tomb Raider and Horizon Zero Dawn

And so, if God of War is a unification of ideas and concepts realised elsewhere, its biggest strength lies in that it succeeds at all of these individual elements. Its universal acclaim comes not from a place of innovation, and we’re unlikely to see a slew of God-Of-War-Likes crop up in future years. What it instead achieves is the flawless blending of these ideas and wrapping them around an established canon to bring up to date a series so heavily entrenched in the past. Where it stumbles is in a failure to provide anything fresh and new, and so a recommendation— which this absolutely is— comes in the form of a double-edged sword. If you loved many of the games and series referenced here— The Last of Us, Uncharted, Tomb Raider, Horizon Zero Dawn, Assassin’s Creed: Origins, Bloodbornethen God of War (2018) is absolutely your kind of game and a can’t-miss entry in that genre. But if you have already played those games, then you will likely find little fresh ideas here. Instead, enjoy a Nordic celebration of what makes those favourites your favourites.

 

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