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New God of War Game Shows You Can Teach an Old God New Tricks

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There’s a scene early into the new God of War video game where after the protagonist Kratos kills a troll, his son, Atreus, runs up with a knife and starts to slash the dead body yelling, “You are nothing to me.  I HATE YOU!” I smiled at the little nod to God of War III.  

But what happened next was even more surprising and pleasant, Kratos pulls his son away from the troll and tells his that the troll is already dead and we only kill for protection. It was at that point that I knew Santa Monica Studios wasn’t interested in the over-the-top violence, thin plot, and one note character traits of the old days.  Instead, they opted to make one of the most realistic and emotionally gripping stories of a father and son facing adversity, while also delivering on the violence and flair of the original games.

It’s been five years since players have seen Kratos on their screens, and even longer since a God of War game received universal praise. What started out as a revolutionary series soon stumbled into tedious monotony with God of War III.  By the time the final game came around, we were unsure if we would see PS4’s unofficial mascot decimating the Greek Pantheon ever again.  

After years of fighting, the team at Santa Monica Studios managed to get a green light. When the game was unveiled at E3 last year, no one was sure what to make of it. Kratos had a son. The setting was snowy and cold and set in Norse mythology as opposed to the Greek. Kratos was acting like a father. His dialogue was understated, and the camera was a more traditional over the shoulder, as opposed to fixed point. Oh, and Kratos carries an axe now.

A year later it is on the market, and none of the DNA has been changed. This is still God of War, just evolved.  This change to the structure was needed, even appreciated, but the most lasting and enduring change is Kratos.  This time he’s not out for revenge on his father, Zeus, or to behead the Norse Gods; he just wants to deliver his dead wife’s last wish — to be spread at the highest point of all the Realms.  At first, the nurturing, quiet, reasoned and loving father Kratos is jarring. But it soon grows and becomes the best iteration of Kratos put to screen. Him and his son feel like real people. They love each other and keep things from each other.

This isn’t to say that Kratos isn’t still a brute.  When confronted with a Draugr or a Nightmare, or a Revenant, Kratos becomes the old Kratos. Using his trusty Leviathan Axe, enemy blood flies around the screen. The hack-and-slash arcade combat of the original has been replaced with more personal and thoughtful combat.  The player now has to time their rolls to avoid being hit. Enemies now need some finessing to get around their shields and other blockades. Kratos’ son even comes into play with his own dedicated button, firing arrows at enemies at the player’s whim.

The combat is fast, frenetic and satisfying. The noises for the Axe hits make a crunchy sound, causing a giant squelch of blood to fly out, creating a satisfyingly visceral experience rarely seen in modern gaming.  One of the most satisfying parts of the combat comes in the form of a player being able to throw and call his axe back at the press of a button. However, the camera being so close to your character causes some problems.  When locked onto one enemy, you cannot see any other enemies on the screen. To remedy this, the developers added a little red arrow to tell you when an enemy is about to attack.

Another effective way that the game pulls you into its world is through the use of the camera. It never cuts. It’s always focused on something and then moves back. This Birdman-style camera allows for the story to feel like it is actually taking place. It also gives a sense that you are only going to know what the character knows.

After about 25 hours in the main campaign, I am confident in saying that God of War is a good game, maybe even a great game, but it has a few problems. The game can be a little buggy.  The framerate drops frequently, especially in areas of high enemy density. The writing can sometimes be poor.  And some of the menus are just plain bad. But for every misstep, the new God of War takes three giant leaps. The story as a whole is touching and warming, and the characters are endearing, and the combat is frenetic and fun, proving you can teach an old God new tricks.  

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