We first beheld the trailer for the new God of War game back in January, but last week we were lucky enough to get some hands-on time with the new installment in the franchise, and to play through the first two and a half hours (give or take) of God of War, which is the eighth title in the PlayStation cornerstone franchise, and the first in five years.
Right off the bat, this is a different God of War. As glimpsed in the trailers, Kratos is now older, bearded, and most importantly, attempting to raise a young son named Atreus on the outskirts of a dangerous world. This game is a radical departure from all of the other franchise installment, beginning with Kratos now wielding an axe instead of his iconic chained blades, and stretching all the way to the fact that this time around, we’re moving into a world steeped in Norse mythology, rather than the deeply-seated Greek mythology in which Kratos has always existed.
Don’t worry; there’s still plenty of hacking and slashing as you move around this breathtakingly luxurious world. You’ll kill lots of beasts and people and monsters, and your son will be right beside you, shooting an arrow into whatever you point at and tell him to. You can aim and chuck your axe, and then recall it, and it will hit enemies coming and going. It’s a great little twist to play a Kratos that feels a lot like a version of Thor in his old age … and somehow appropriate.
Through the first hours of the game, you will be getting a lot of cutscenes and quicktime events involving Kratos and Atreus, and these pack far more of an emotional punch than you might be expecting. For a franchise with a murdered family at the center of it, God of War has always been strangely lacking in emotion and gravitas. This installment gives it to you right off the bat, and makes you feel it. And for the first time, pains have been taken to make it really feel earned. Maybe that’s got a lot to do with the new voice of Kratos, Christopher Judge.
After you get through the opening salvos of learning how to harness your new fighting abilities, you’ll start learning how to upgrade and customize Kratos using gear upgrades and runic magic. You’ll meet new allies and new enemies, and you’ll find yourself begging Kratos to just give Atreus a hug, dammit!
Another intriguing aspect of the game — which is exceedingly story-heavy — is the opening screen options for playing the game. I selected “balanced experience,” but there is a “Give Me A Story” mode which claims to be light on actual gameplay so you can just enjoy the experience of the story at the heart of God of War, and two more hardcore options if you just prefer to jump in and start wailing on demons with a big axe. I mean, it’s all appealing in very different ways.
We had a chance to speak with Jeet Shroff, the Gameplay Engineer Lead on God of War, about the struggles of reinventing and reimagining the game from the ground up.
“For me personally, [my mission for this game] was definitely the same kind of vision that [director] Cory [Barlog] had, which was: evolve. Take God of War as we know it, and do something different. I didn’t know exactly what that would mean, in terms of the drastic nature of how different we made it, but I think that was definitely something that I remember wanting to be, ‘Oh, how would I reimagine this? How would I change it and perfectly align with what the studio’s already trying to do at that time?’ I think primarily at that time, I was speaking from being a fan and a player, and I think both the player base, as well as just the studio itself, and the team itself, was ready for that sort of drastic departure from what we know God of War to be — or what we knew God of War to be, [and move toward] this kind of re-imagined universe.”
Shroff explained that the team’s methodology was the “deconstruct everything” and then rebuild it by keeping in mind what fans and players have always loved most about the game. In his mind, that’s the fluidity of combat, and the fun of hacking and slashing waves of enemies. Bringing God of War into the current generation of gaming and lending it the gravitas and emotion they hoped to instill in the game involved making it more intimate, while still retaining fluidity. That involves bringing the camera a lot closer and changing up Kratos’ weapons, but retaining the all-important fluidity.
The camera changes were massive when developing the way the new God of War feels, looks, and plays, and Shroff kept returning to talking about how the camera placement changed everything. “Combat experience [in the franchise] has always been very seamless and fluid and responsive,” he explained.
“I think, moving the kind of direction we did move to, those were challenges because camera being so up close, responsiveness inherently meant all the glitches and pops and twitches that you wouldn’t have seen in the previous games, because the camera was so far away and you could just get away with not having to worry about that, all of those were now visible. We have to kind of rethink how we’re gonna approach maintaining that responsiveness in our feel, in terms of combat, without losing the visual fidelity and making sure all the animations still blended well.”
The look of the new game is beyond gorgeous, especially when played in full definition on a Pro rig, obviously, and the quicktime events are absolutely seamless (and plentiful). God of War III, if you recall, opens with Kratos dangling off a rock giant and fighting legendary enemies in multiple positions. There are plenty of incredible, massive moments early in God of War where you’ll keep moving the controller for a few seconds before you realize a quicktime event has taken over. These moments aren’t quite as epic in scope (at least in the early going), but they definitely pack much more of an emotional wallop.
The new mechanics take very little time to master, and never feel out of place or awkward. But the most welcome change is making you feel the gravity and emotion of what has become of this hack-and-slash hero … and what will become of him and his son. We’re definitely looking forward to seeing this game in full, and we anticipate fans of the series, as well as newcomers, will welcome the evolution of the franchise with open arms.
God of War will release worldwide for the PlayStation 4 on April 20, 2018. The PlayStation 4 Pro limited edition God of War-branded bundle will also be released on that date.