A Surprisingly Emotional Hands-On With The First Two Hours Of ‘God Of War’

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the God of War franchise didn’t really have anywhere to go. The proud PlayStation exclusive had really covered off all its bases – namely, satisfying hack and slash combat and little else – and felt like it had squeezed everything it could from the Greek mythology it was based on. God of War III and God of War: Ascension were viscerally over-the-top experiences, but didn’t leave a clear path forward for the franchise.

After playing the first few hours of the stoically retitled God of War, I can say with little doubt that the folks at Santa Monica Studios have not only crafted what seems to be a deceptively simple third-person action game, they’ve given the series a sense of narrative purpose. And yes: it was absolutely as easy as giving the titular war god Kratos some character beats which don’t involve shouting and cutting peoples’ heads off.

God of War takes place after the original series, with the action transplanted from the vaunted pantheons of the Greek gods into the snowy mountaintops and spruce wilderness of Norse mythology. So the legendary titans of Greek myth? Yeah, they’re huge trolls now. The game hinted in its first few hours that it will delve into some of the weirder aspects of Norse cosmology, but as it stands it’s just a new (and incredibly pretty) coat of paint. More on that later.

Basically, an older and marginally less shouty Kratos has ventured into the savage northern wilderness with his young son Atreus, on a quest to scatter Atreus’ mother’s ashes on the highest peak. It’s a nice simple journey narrative which cloisters something far more interesting: the emotional interplay between a father and a son. And that’s where the new God of War shines most brightly in its opening hours. The relationship between a father teaching his son to be a god while the son teaches him to be a human invites instant comparisons to the remarkably tender writing in something like The Last of Us – but I get the sense God of War has something different up its sleeve. I’m quite keen to find out what it is.

But that’s the story. You’re not here for that, necessarily – you want to know whether it feels nice and tactile to embed your axe in someone’s head. I’m happy to report that the answer to that question is largely yes.

Whereas previous games in the series were wedded to the somewhat outdated fixed-camera style of earlier beat-em-ups, God of War transplants the action to the over-the-shoulder perspective basically everything has now. You do lose some of the ultra-fast flow of the classics, but the combat feels more visceral and urgent now – and your more limited perspective makes battles more stressful and intense.

Rather than the bladed chains of the previous God of War games, Kratos now wields a suitably Nordic-looking axe named the Leviathan Axe. Rather than chaining together combos, the combat is more focused on developing your own kind of fluid dynamic as you move from enemy to enemy, unleashing special moves which you unlock through experience. And – crucially – you will be throwing the absolute hell out of the axe.

Yep. You will be throwing your axe a whole lot.

In the two or so hours I played, I threw the axe maybe one million times. You throw it for puzzles, you throw it to knock out enemies at range, you throw it because it feels good to throw. You press one button to throw, and a different button to recall it. The animations for both are impactful and satisfying – which is just as well, considering how often you will see them.

Initially I was baffled as to why you need to press two different buttons to complete the axe-throwing loop, but then I realised how crucial that is to the dynamic of battle. You might throw your axe, embedding it some hapless draugr, and then be set upon from behind by another enemy, forcing Kratos to take them on with his fists before he has a spare moment to recall the axe. It makes the combat far more interesting that it would be otherwise – and there are few things more satisfying that when Kratos recalls this axe and it carves a path through a line of enemies on its way back.

By the end of the demo I did feel a bit of mechanic fatigue settling into my muscle memory, though the game gave a tantalising glimpse of what I might be able to do in future. There’s a rudimentary RPG-ish system at play here with weapon upgrades and learned skills which will likely keep the combat relatively fresh as you hack, slash and punch your way through the story, but like many games of this type it’ll be up to the designers to keep iterating on the mechanics.

It probably goes without saying when it comes to first-party Sony titles, but yes: it looks and sounds gorgeous. As you would expect from a AAA game in 2018, it’s absolutely pushing the PS4 hardware to the limit, and it shines on the PS4 Pro. The environments are beautifully designed, and multiple branching paths encourage you to explore more and drink them in. There’s a collectible system here which seems purpose-built to ensure you see everything the designers spent so much time on, but there’s no indication as to what the rewards for the completionist might be. Suffice to say you’ll probably spend some time just enjoying the environments amongst the carnage.

It’s pretty clear this’ll be a must-have title for anyone currently rocking a PS4, and there’s no question the story is going to draw a lot of non-God of War players into the fray. Will the gameplay be able to keep us involved for its duration? We’ll see.

God of War will be released on PlayStation 4 on the 20th of April.

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