God Of War

PlaySta­tion’s big brute shows his softer side in an ad­ven­ture that’s equal parts epic and emo­tional

EDGE - - GAMES - De­vel­oper Pub­lisher For­mat Ori­gin Re­lease Santa Mon­ica Stu­dio SIE PS4 US April 20

PS4

Anger is easy. Give a Greek god two mas­sive blades, a tragic back­story and a thirst for re­venge, and the rest al­most takes care of it­self. The Kratos of the early 2000s would rip heads from bod­ies and roast peo­ple alive with­out a sec­ond thought. Fast­for­ward to 2018’s God Of War, and we find our­selves in con­trol of a Kratos strug­gling to keep his bru­tal in­stincts in check for the sake of his young son. Anger is easy – ex­er­cis­ing some re­straint, it turns out, is a lot harder.

And that, cre­ative di­rec­tor Cory Bar­log says, was the point. “Ev­ery­thing about this game was the hard way,” he tells us. “We were kind of hit­ting the same note over and over again. We thought we’d nailed a for­mula, and we per­haps be­came a lit­tle fear­ful of mov­ing be­yond that.” It was time for God Of War to grow up. And, while much has changed in the lat­est it­er­a­tion, there’s a ring of fa­mil­iar­ity to ev­ery­thing we play.

Atreus, for in­stance, is un­doubt­edly his fa­ther’s son. Kratos’ boy is a crea­ture of in­stinct, a brief deer-hunt­ing ex­cur­sion an il­lu­mi­nat­ing in­sight into the pair’s nascent re­la­tion­ship. When Atreus fires an ea­ger ar­row at an an­i­mal and scares it off, Kratos barks an­grily at him – but soft­ens vis­i­bly af­ter Atreus’ apology, and replies, “Do not be sorry. Be bet­ter.” It’s cu­ri­ous to watch the Ghost Of Sparta re­learn how to in­ter­act on a hu­man level, and the hunt leads to some in­ti­mate scenes in which you, as Kratos, help steady your son’s bow, and later his hand as he de­liv­ers the killing blow to the beast.

This early tableau sets up the cen­tral theme of God Of War: you are train­ing Atreus to be­come a man. He even has his own skill tree, will­ingly charg­ing into bat­tle be­side Kratos to serve as both backup fire and, oc­ca­sion­ally, mon­ster bait. Hit­ting Square has him fire ar­rows into the en­emy your retic­ule is on, deal­ing mod­est dam­age and, more im­por­tantly, draw­ing at­ten­tion away from Kratos. In a fight against a fire troll, we at­tempt to use Atreus to aim for its weak points – two glow­ing spots on its arm and leg – but he’s rarely po­si­tioned at the right an­gle to strike ex­actly where we’d like.

Ini­tially, it’s ir­ri­tat­ing, but it’s less a pre­ci­sion at­tack than a tac­ti­cal boon. But as we learn to be­come more aware of Atreus’ move­ments around the bat­tle­field, there’s po­ten­tial for more par­tic­u­lar po­si­tion­ing to be­come a niche layer of strat­egy – es­pe­cially when we un­lock a skill that lets Atreus stun en­e­mies close by. But, in the fam­ily tra­di­tion, Atreus’ hot-head­ed­ness can lead to trou­ble. He’ll some­times be scooped up by ma­raud­ers, mean­ing you’ll have to in­ter­fere. It’s oc­ca­sional enough not to be dis­rup­tive, and lends a new kind of ten­sion to fights be­yond sim­ply fear­ing for your own safety.

Be as­sured, how­ever – God Of War is no Nordic pic­nic, thanks to a va­ri­ety of en­e­mies such as tele­port­ing Revenants, long-range fire­ball-cast­ers and ice-re­sis­tant foes. Kratos’ chain blades are gone, re­placed by the fros­tim­bued Le­viathan Axe that he can wield, aim, throw and re­call. Once you find your rhythm, scraps with mul­ti­ple en­emy types are dy­namic. We lob the axe at an en­emy fir­ing pro­jec­tiles, move to melee the frost-re­sis­tant guy flank­ing – then dodge side­ways and press Tri­an­gle to re­call the axe back through Pro­jec­tile Guy, fin­ish­ing him off and tearing through a fresh line of grunts in the process. Hurl­ing it into an en­emy to freeze them in place and then punch them into shards; up­grad­ing it so catch­ing it with per­fect tim­ing means our next throw ex­plodes on contact to deal AOE dam­age – in any sit­u­a­tion, the axe feels fan­tas­tic. And doesn’t Santa Mon­ica Stu­dio just know it. It’s used in ev­ery en­vi­ron­men­tal puz­zle we come across, freez­ing gates in place, hit­ting out-of-reach runes to break mag­i­cal seals on chests and align­ing the rings of a giant puz­zle.

The meth­ods may have changed, then, but the re­sults feel fa­mil­iar: combo-led com­bat, in­ven­tive en­vi­ron­men­tal puz­zles and, yes, some good old-fash­ioned head-stomp­ing. It’s the game’s first boss fight against The Stranger that re­ally stands out. Nor­mally, se­ries open­ings pit Kratos against gi­gan­tic be­ings, ham­mer­ing home the sense of scale. The Stranger is a weedy, kooky bloke who knocks on Kratos’ front door and po­litely re­quests fisticuffs. Even­tu­ally, how­ever, it be­comes clear that he pos­sesses su­per­hu­man strength, lead­ing to a largely au­to­mated, but vis­ually spec­tac­u­lar, show­down.

It’s scale shown not via an over­head cam­era, but in a more the­matic sense: through “the cir­cum­vent­ing of ex­pec­ta­tions,” Bar­log says. “God Of War has al­ways had that sense of the James Bond, or In­di­ana Jones, opener,” he says. “We got caught up in the idea of con­stantly top­ping our­selves – so much so that we lost a bit of the ‘why’, and the con­text, be­cause we were just like, ‘Big­ger! Big­ger!’ So I said, ‘We’re throw­ing all of that out.’” In this mo­ment – made vul­ner­a­ble by his des­per­a­tion to pro­tect his son, and brute strength of­ten in­ef­fec­tual ver­sus this elu­sive be­ing – the mus­cle-bound god we’re con­trol­ling feels very small in­deed.

In an­other sense, Kratos feels big­ger than ever. He now has sev­eral sides to him, his pre­vi­ously one-di­men­sional rage cast in new lights: a re­sult of grief for a lost loved one, worry for his son, frus­tra­tion at the dif­fi­cult re­spon­si­bil­ity of rais­ing a child – and a fear that Atreus might grow up to make the same mis­takes he did. Just a cou­ple of hours in, God

Of War deals with some timely is­sues: what it is to be a good fa­ther, to set an ex­am­ple, and to be a man. A fa­ther of a young son him­self, it’s no co­in­ci­dence that Bar­log’s game touches upon th­ese themes. “It made me think, what is the con­cept of mas­culin­ity?” he says. “How do you share with your child what it is to be strong and vul­ner­a­ble, and emo­tional avail­abil­ity be­ing an im­por­tant part of the hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence?”

In the age of an­gry young men, God Of War’s evo­lu­tion is not just a state­ment of cre­ative in­tent, but also a philo­soph­i­cal one. Bar­log felt duty-bound to progress the se­ries in a way that would be mean­ing­ful to the young modern au­di­ence sat in front of it. “As a fa­ther, I felt very re­spon­si­ble,” he says. “As a cre­ative, I also feel like we are mir­rors of the world around us. We are, in a way, role mod­els, the way that par­ents are role mod­els. We model be­hav­iour, and we’re say­ing, ‘This is what I want my best self to be’, and that’s what I re­flect back to my son.”

It makes sense that God Of War has been treated with such re­spect and care, re­main­ing recog­nis­ably epic while also grace­fully step­ping into a new, more ma­ture era of sto­ry­telling in games. The se­ries is, af­ter all, Bar­log’s baby, and he wants it to rep­re­sent the changes in his own out­look on the world. “The work that I do, I want that to model that,” he con­tin­ues. “Kratos says, ‘Don’t be sorry, be bet­ter’ – I think we are tack­ling this theme of, what does it mean to be bet­ter? It doesn’t al­ways mean that you suc­ceed. It means that you as­pire – that strug­gle, that will­ing­ness to not give up, means you don’t have to win ev­ery time. It means you just have to be con­scious.”

God Of War deals with what it is to be a good fa­ther, to set an ex­am­ple, and to be a man

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