Last week I got to travel to Sony Santa Monica’s studio, and play the opening hours of God of War. I wasn’t sure what to expect other than something decidedly different than past games, but I wound up walking away quite impressed. In fact, I’d go as far to say that this is by far the most interesting and most satisfying the series has ever felt.
The biggest change, and the clear elephant in the room for those worried about the upcoming sequel, is the change of perspective. The camera is now close to Kratos, and the combat has a much different feel because of it. Kratos’ signature blades are also gone (at least in the beginning), as players are armed with a Leviathan Axe instead. This new weapon winds up being far more versatile than previous games due to the ability to either use it up-close or throw it from a distance.
It takes a few combat encounters for players to really grasp the nuance of God of War‘s combat. It’s much more than simply mashing R1 and R2 to unleash weak and strong attacks, respectively. Once I started taking advantage of the Leviathan Ax’s versatility, I started having a lot of fun. The ax stays where the player throws it, and can be recalled at any point. That meant that I could purposefully miss an enemy, let a few seemingly make a line between myself and the ax, and then recall it to cause massive damage. There’s a flexibility to the combat that allows players to turn mistakes into an advantage, and it made every single combat encounter seem interesting rather than mindless.
Father Touch My Hands
The other big change is that Kratos has a son named Atreus who is central to both gameplay and the story. I didn’t realize it early on, but Atreus is actually the most interesting part of combat encounters. Not only could I command him to shoot arrows at enemies (causing a stun) by pressing the square button, but with careful positioning he could be used to draw the attention of dangerous foes. Since he doesn’t have a life bar to worry about, using your son as a diversion is a hugely beneficial tactic (especially in boss fights).
However, it’d be a disservice to just talk about Atreus as a gameplay function. He’s largely the reason why I’m interested in God of War‘s story, as the relationship between Kratos and Atreus is incredibly interesting. While Kratos doesn’t appear to be winning any father of the year awards, having a son has seemingly changed the Spartan warrior. Rather than pushing everyone away, he’s trying to open up his heart in certain ways. There are several impactful scenes early on where Kratos can be seen trying to comfort his son, but being unable to truly find the words or feelings to relate accordingly. It’s a struggle, and fatherhood might be the most difficult obstacle that Kratos has seen in the past decade.
While the personal relationship that’s being explored may be most intriguing, the story in general is quite interesting as well. This is largely due to how many questions that are raised early on. How the heck did Kratos find himself in the gorgeous Scandinavian world? Why did the mother of Atreus want her ashes spread on top of a mountain? These are just a few of the intriguing plot lines that are started early on, and I can’t wait to learn more about it. For the first time ever, I find myself caring about these characters rather than just being along for the ultra-violent ride.
Of course, there are plenty of series staples that reappear in the new God of War. There are still hidden chests to loot, graphic kills to unleash, and gigantic boss battles to take on. A lot has changed, but Santa Monica Studio has done a great job in staying true to how the series has always felt. Even in the heat of combat, there’s a sense of controlled chaos that harkens back to Kratos’ PS2 origins. It’s certainly different, but it still feels like God of War on a base level.
Perhaps my favorite moment of the opening hours I got to see was the first major boss encounter. I found myself battling a mysterious Norse God that somehow knew my concealed past, and the nearly 20-minute fight saw the surrounding environment get utterly trashed. It also served to point out that Kratos has gotten slightly weaker (or at least a bit rusty) in his age, even if he’s still largely a one man killing machine. The battle served to highlight a lot of what was great about this new iteration: the gameplay and storytelling all goes hand-in-hand.
God of War isn’t just Santa Monica Studio doing something different for the sake of variety (although the series did clearly need a shake up after how dull Ascension seemed). Everything from its gameplay to storytelling has been changed for the better. By doing so, Sony has given one of its biggest franchises new life.
Disclosure: Travel and accommodation was provided by Sony for the trip.