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God Of War preview: First Impressions

The God Of War series is about to be reincarnated, with about a month to go to its April 20th release. From developers Santa Monica Studio and creative director Cory Barlog, this new instalment has our hero Kratos living in the brutal Norse wilds, in hiding after completing his vengeance against the God of Olympus. But peace is not something sticks with Kratos, and now he must teach his son, Atreus, to survive in the wild too, and together, complete a very personal quest.

The developers tout an epic and emotional single-player journey, with Kratos and son headed to the highest peak in the land to scatter his mother’s ashes. Of course, it’s not a new God Of War without some tweaks to the God Of War formula we know and love. Beyond the improved graphics that really bring the Norse environments to life, the new God Of War bring a new camera angle, a new weapon and characters to the series. There’s still tonnes of little hidden items you’ll get to hunt for in this semi-open world, but the developers have done well enough to make sure you never get lost. 

We got a chance to go hands-on with the beginning bits of the game at a preview event last week, so here are our impressions. 

The Title

The PlayStation4 Pro God of War Limited Edition Console.
The PlayStation4 Pro God of War Limited Edition Console.

This new episode in the God Of War saga is titled … God Of War, sans numbers or subtitles, marking a sort of clean restart for the series. At first glance it may appear like they couldn’t choose something more unoriginal (without mentioning the amount of untold confusion this has the potential to cause), but going back to their foundational epithet seems to be a conscious choice, and perhaps holds a great amount of significance for the franchise. It signals that they are going back to ground zero, a fundamental reset, but also conveys to us the cool confidence they have in their legacy and the strength of their current offering to pull off such a move.

Primal War

There is something innately satisfying about God Of War, not just this game but something which pumps through all the entries in the God Of War series. Whatever it is that harkens to our primal instincts, this version of God Of War puts proudly on full display. Whether the sickening thud of skulls being fist-crushed, or being thrust eye-to-eye with innocent animals drawing their last breath, or merely pressing up against Kratos’ intense scowls, this game, more than the previous iterations, forces us to confront raw emotions and heart-wrenching scenarios. If beating things up is your cup of tea, this God Of War isn’t going to disappoint.

There have been many such additions to this game that lend to it a forceful nature. Adding hyper-realistic humans to the mix of fantastical bosses is one such bold move. Yet, among all of these new implementations, the one that perhaps stands out the most is the basic fatherly need to protect your only child, the sole reason you keep persevering, from demonic harm.

There is something viscerally palpable about all of what God Of War does, even in the way a chest is satisfyingly wrenched open, but especially for this title, the primal intimacy has been ramped up, and this game is going to make you feel an amplified range of base emotions that games don’t always access. And this time, Kratos is older, and tired – and it shows, the fatigue of war written all over his face. The new camera angle brings combat closer than ever, which is just amazing. 

Journey and Family

Kratos and Atreus, the two main characters, embark on a journey together, not necessarily by choice. This struggle is suddenly thrust upon them and we feel their immediately real loss right from the onset, and their need to find resolution. We soon find, however, that the central part of the journey is not the physical trek over the treacherous yet eye-popping landscapes, but the emotional odyssey that will eventually bond father and son. No matter how danger-strewn the voyage, it is only a canvas for the even more arduous expedition of a formerly deadbeat Kratos trying to cultivate a relationship with his young son. Santa Monica Studios said Kratos is trying to teach his son how to be a god, while Atreus is trying to teach his father how to be human again – which feels right on the dot.

It does not get off to a good start, both parties being emotionally undeveloped in different ways. But just like how a journey is more rewarding the more adversity you overcome, we can see how powerful the potential bond that Kratos and Atreus develop is going to be. Kratos teaches Atreus toughness, combat skills, and how to survive. In exchange, Atreus makes Kratos learn humanity, social skills, and the meaning of life itself. And as a first-hand spectator, the richness of watching this bond grow and seeing boulder-hard Kratos melt room in his deadened heart for Atreus is perhaps as satisfying as overcoming any spectacular boss in the game.

Apart from the emotional depth of having Atreus around, the dynamics of having these two characters in a first-person adventure game is also used to maximum gameplay effect. Atreus scampers ahead, acting as a waypoint for Kratos, something that you will appreciate on more than one occasion. The interplay between Kratos and Atreus also lends itself to more layered adventure puzzles. The ability to control Atreus’ bow as a secondary weapon is at once both a plot enhancement and a way to complexify and add strategy to already satisfying hack-and-slash gameplay. Oh, and you’ll also need Atreus to read Norse, because Kratos can’t.

In fact, it does feel somewhat similar to The Last Of Us, except this time with a boy instead of a girl. But the themes are strong and there is the strong vibe of trying to survive in an unrelenting world. If the story is just as good as The Last Of Us, we definitely have a killer title on our hands.

The Axe

Speaking of hack-and-slash, the first major change you might notice (other than the graphics) is Kratos’ weapon. I was very skeptical about featuring an axe as the primary weapon for a franchise where weapons are so cool they have their own backstories and fan pages. And in the very first scene, we are using the first swings of the axe for its most utilitarian purpose, hacking down trees for wood. Your relationship with the axe obviously gets more complex and meaningful, like Kratos’ bond with Atreus, but again we see that the conscious choice of choosing an uncool-on-the-surface weapon is another way the franchise is telling us that they are not afraid of change, and their confidence in the transformation of the game – they are the ones who make and define what’s cool, not the fancy backstories.

The axe comes with many cool functions – beyond cutting down enemies. For starters, it acts just like Thor’s hammer, as Kratos can send it flying before recalling it to his hand, and it will deal damage both ways. Stick the axe into one of the many interactive puzzles, and the axe will freeze it too. You also get a shield for defence, which can come in useful – though if you’re anything like me you’ll be swinging wildly away. There’s a good variety of enemies, even in the early game, together with one very epic fight against a creepy Norseman. We’ll leave it at that.

Light and Shadow

Many games, especially first-person shooters and games of the horror genre, make use of the interplay of light and darkness not only as a game mechanic but to set the tone of the game. In the chiaroscuro of these games, darkness is what dominates, and light is only there as sweet relief from the threat of the black curtain and the monsters it hides. In God Of War however, it is the light that swallows the darkness. The stark white Norse sky and ever-present robe of snow sears itself into your consciousness and eyeballs, as inescapable as the burden that the protagonists have to bear. The monochrome makes the red stripe of Kratos’ scalp pop, and anything with colour to scream out across the landscape. This also lends itself to the all-new camera angles of this version of God Of War, you can clearly see why you need a first-person angle to appreciate the stark openness and cinematic grandness of the Scandinavian scapes.

But it’s not all greys and whites – the end of the preview playtest brought us to a new, colourful world – a hint of just how much beauty God Of War has to offer, even amid the brutality. With around 30-35 hours of gameplay, this is going to be a long game (in God Of War) standards anyway, but it’s easy to say the preview session has my blood-lust sufficiently piqued.

PlayStation4 exclusive title God of War will be released on 20 April, 2018. The suggested retail price of Blu-ray Disc Standard Edition will be S$72.90, Blu-ray Disc Collector’s Edition will be S$184.90, Digital Standard Edition will be S$64.90 and Digital Deluxe Edition will be S$78.90. The PlayStation4 Pro God of War Limited Edition Console will retail at S$669.

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