Title: God of War
Developer: SIE Santa Monica Studio
My playtime: 50 hours
My rating: 9/10
I should start this review with a disclaimer: this is, in fact, the first and only God of War game I have played. To be honest, the previous episodes completely passed me by. I must have been too busy playing Assassin’s Creed! But the first thing that drew me to this 2018 game was some beautiful artwork and a huge feature article in my gaming magazine back in Autumn 2017. For me, the world and how it’s rendered is one of the most important features of a game, so I was immediately attracted to these stunning blue- and green-toned visuals. And it turns out that the concept art was telling the truth about what awaits in the game itself.
Although not a true open world (which is my preferred setting for my gaming deckchair), it still excels in its epic scope. Around almost every corner, through every canyon and behind every door is wow moment, the kind where you lift your fingers off the controls and leave only your right thumb rotating its joystick just so you can fully take in the scene. In amongst the stream of expletives uttered as I managed to die on a regular basis, the most common exclamation I made was “Oh, wow!” or “Oh my god, look at that!” Apart from the colour and the lighting, I think the real artistry lies in the height and the depth, especially, of each location. There’s a real sense of impressive scope, even in the relatively small areas of the world. You get to feel really small, which is a feeling that I always crave (living, as I do, in such a cramped and flat environment). Each area or realm creates real feeling and atmosphere. The battering winds, disrepair and unending jagged sea ice of Helheim give you a sense of the cold despair. The ethereal beauty and dusky nature of Alfheim give a sense of the endangered enlightenment.
And, yes, as I hinted above, I did die. A LOT. I’m not an amazing gamer; it can take me a while to get used to the feel of a game, and I’m especially slow at combat controls. I tend to take things far too seriously, and my mind and body go into a panic-freeze funk when the enemies approach. I will eventually develop a cool head in a game after a few hours of play, but God of War is not forgiving for gamers like me, even on the “normal” mode. There’s a really tough boss fight almost immediately, and possibly one of the steepest learning curves I’ve experienced in a game. But I would say the weapons you get to wield are fair compensation for the amount and deftness of wielding you have to do. The Leviathan Axe is definitely one of the coolest and most useful weapons in a game ever. And they really do make you utilise the full range of its awesomeness. This is the kind of game where experimenting really pays off in trying to solve puzzles or collect everything. My main tip for this game would be: look up and chuck that axe at everything!
Don’t get me wrong, this is not just an axe-chucking, beasty-slashing hack fest. There is that layer to the game (I mean, you can’t be a god of war and not decapitate a fiend or two), but it’s so much more complex than that. It’s so much more of a story than that. This game is really about a relationship, one between between a father and a son who aren’t particularly comfortable in each other’s company. Kratos is certainly not the most loving or encouraging of fathers. He spends most of the time calling Atreus “BOY!” in that marvellous Christopher Judge voice, and criticising him and generally being huffy and intolerant. But as the game plays out, there’s an evolution to their relationship that you cannot help but become completely invested in. Yeah, yeah, the game is gritty and violent, but it’s also funny and sweet, and every little interaction between the characters really means something. God of War is a very satisfying experience both as a gamer and as a human.
And, I have to add, as a story lover. I frequently went out paddling on the lake just to hear stories from Norse mythology. At first, it feels like these stories are just a bit of audio filler as you travel around the lake, but actually, they are really important to understand the context of the game. And in fact, nothing you do, see or hear in God of War can be classed as “filler”; all these environmental embellishments are critical to gaining the fullest and most rewarding experience of the game. Side quests, for example, are always optional, but here, they are central to Kratos and Atreus’s complex and developing relationship. You won’t get the intricacies and the nuances if you skip anything, or if you fail to notice the little gestures that pass between characters. Even when using the mystic gateways to fast-travel, you’ll hear stories or snippets of speculation that are crucial to understanding what’s going on. Every bit of content is all part of the story, which makes everything unmissable.
Apart from the total immersion of the story, the real standout feature of this game, for me, was the progression, something that has been well mastered here. Like I said, it’s not a huge world, but everywhere in it, they tease you with collectibles and puzzles that you can’t solve just yet because you don’t have the right equipment. Gah! It’s infuriating and excruciating! But it’s also incredibly motivating. And it adds yet another layer to the story-telling because each piece of equipment is acquired as part of the narrative. It also makes good use of a small world because it means you go back to each area a bunch of times with something new to do or discover (and a chance to spot more of those pesky eyes of Odin!). Everything is done at an appropriate time in the narrative, which makes the progression utterly satisfying and the game far less aimless than an open-world affair, where the player has more control over their own progression. It just all feels seamless without being contrived, because you still have control over where you go in the world (unlike something force-fed, like Unchartered, where you don’t get to revisit any location). And levelling up and upgrading gear is the same: you feel like you’re in control, but everything happens at an appropriate time and rate. It’s an extraordinary balance between the gamer owning their game, and the developer curating the gameplay.
And, you get to upgrade not only Kratos’s gear but also Atreus’s gear, and for me, the small boy with a bow was butt-savingly amazing in combat when my brain did its panic-freeze thing, so he’s well worth upgrading.
There are two areas of God of War that made me decide on 9/10 instead of the perfect score. Firstly, the game was too dang short! The world is pretty small, even if you do go to all the other realms, so I’d say 50–80 hours is the limit. Although I enjoyed the main story, and it’s probably one of the best main storylines I’ve played, there are only a handful of side quests, and I like to get lost in days’ worth of side quests to stall progressing through the main quests. Really, it was so good, I just wanted more! Secondly, the skill tree is entirely combat-focused, and there are quite a lot of skills to earn for each weapon. This may sound great for a gamer with excellent combat skills, but I just found it totally overwhelming. The number of button combinations you have to learn off by heart to use these skills is staggering, and most of the time, I just couldn’t get it to work because I couldn’t master the intricacies of the timings while in the heat of a battle. And anyway, in the end, I managed to play through the whole game with just the basic moveset and maybe a couple of special moves that I did manage to get the hang of, so these abundant skills for each weapon aren’t even necessary. Good news for me, but it does make earning new skills a bit pointless.
In the grand scheme of things, however, these personal niggles of mine didn’t in any way damage my enjoyment of the game. It is epic and seamless and really artfully woven. This is a real standout for me so far this year, and probably so far in my gaming history. It’s one of those above-and-beyond games where the quality of the experience lies in the details that have been so carefully placed. It’s a game, and it’s a real work of art. And you get to be BFFs with the World Serpent. What’s not to love?