Shortly after finally getting to play the upcoming God of War revival for the PlayStation 4, I decided to go back to the source material. I fired up the 2005 original and played it for the first time in more than a decade to get a feel for how things have changed.
I found myself immediately transported to different era in gaming—one where action games like Devil May Cry were the biggest thing going. Caty recently wrote that Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance was a relic of a bygone age of over-the-top action games, and God of War was very much of that era. It unironically reveled in its sheer absurdity in a way that is rarely seen in today's self-serious mainstream games—at least the ones made by Sony.
The original God of War was big. Its dynamic camera would repeatedly pull back to accentuate its scope as swarms of zombies poured in. Its action focused on the thrill of eliminating large numbers of enemies—still a novelty in the PS2 days. It was flashy, filled as it is with massive setpieces and crushing attacks, but not particularly deep.
Its follow-up on the PS4 is violently flashy in its own way, replacing the old QTEs with single-press inputs designed to accentuate the cinematic moments without making the action dependent on them. Its quieter moments are also filled with puzzles, just like the original. But Kratos is seemingly no longer in the business of ripping off heads in the PS4 reboot. Instead, he's content to merely break their neck and throw them off a cliff. He's older and mellower now, his burning rage reduced to mere surliness. This is a Kratos that is choosier about the fights he picks, and his new attitude is reflected in how the adventure unfolds.
Appropriately, the action is much slower now. The swarming hordes of enemies mostly seem to be gone. You're more likely to face just a tiny handful of foes, and button-mashing is almost never enough to dispatch them efficiently. Rather, you need to think tactically, rapidly focusing down a single monster while simultaneously minding your flanks.
Typical of God of War's new ethos is the Revenant—a witch who teleports around the arena firing pestilence at Kratos. Attempting to charge and attack will merely cause her to beam away. You have to call upon your son, Atreus, to shoot her with an arrow, upon which you can rush her down and finish her off. This can be difficult with other enemies closing in, though. Like I said, Kratos has to pick his battles.
In that vein, if the original God of War was an evolution of Devil May Cry, then the sequel feels akin to a modern third-person shooter (though director Cory Barlog might say it's like FIFA). Its close-up over-the-shoulder camera makes it resemble the third-person action games that dominate Sony's lineup of exclusives these days, the axe taking the place of a gun. Often you will see enemies on cliffs raining fire down on you, who you will then have to knock out with your axe (which you can quickly call back to your hand like Thor in The Avengers). The high-low dynamic is a common one in modern triple-A shooters, and it gives God of War that much more of a modern flavor.
The shift stemmed from director Barlog's desire to move the camera in close, says lead gameplay designer Jason McDonald. "We tried that with the old God of War systems that we had, and that didn't really seem to be working very well. We didn't have the throwing axe at the time, and it was really hard to get anything done because the enemies were circling you in the exact same way they were doing in the previous game. So when we finally decided to go all in with the idea, we started developing systems around the characters, deciding to really emphasize this new look for the game. And when we got the throwable axe system in there, it became possible to get to iron sight view really fast with the camera already there. We really wanted to make sure Kratos could handle enemies at range as well as close by, and being able to aim your axe really puts a new spin on that compared to the old games."
The flow of the new combat thus has you throwing your axe at enemies standing on a cliff, then punching a foe directly in front of you, all while using your shield as necessary to parry attacks. The axe is useful for swiping at crowds of enemies, while Kratos' Spartan Rage super move is more about defeating a single enemy quickly. Kratos' fists are also useful in that regard, as they can stagger a foe and get a button prompt to appear, allowing for an instant kill. The instant kills, by the way, are where God of War begins to resemble its predecessors a bit more, as they involve Kratos stomping in skulls or just tearing them in half, just like old times.
All of this adds up to a marked shift from God of War's roots, sacrificing pace in favor of a more tactical approach that I find appealing. The axe-shield-fists dynamic requires you to make interesting on-the-fly decisions, and charging in willy-nilly will frequently get you killed. Survival means making use of all the moves at Kratos' disposal, which helps to keep the combat fresh and varied. The original game might have been more over-the-top and exciting on a moment-to-moment basis, but the revival ultimately feels smarter.
God of War's Quest to Evolve or die
The changes to the gameplay are ultimately reflect the more thoughtful story, wherein Kratos tries to master his rage while raising Atreus. The back-and-forth between Kratos and his son made me think of Last of Us, which features similar themes. God of War even features a roadtrip of sorts.
After I was finished the with the demo, I couldn't resist mentioning the Last of Us connection that I saw to Barlog. He was naturally a little resistant to the idea. "It's interesting because I think at its highest level you can look at the father figure looking after their child as well as the closer camera angle. But for me the game is so vastly different. Not to say anything negative about The Last of Us, because the game is amazing, but the way we handle Atreus and his gameplay relationship to the player is very different. It was very important for me to carve out our own identity in how we approached this game."
I can see why Sony would want to avoid inviting comparisons to Last of Us. After all, Naughty Dog is one of the best action developers in the business, and God of War ultimately has a very different flow to it, eschewing survival horror in favor of straight-up combat. But Sony has cultivated a certain type of cerebral triple-A action game in recent years, and God of War fits right in.
To be honest, this change was needed. Way back in 2015, I wrote about the decline and fall of God of War, and how its act had long since become stale.
Ultimately, God of War faced the same stark choice as all franchises — evolve or die. Either introduce new angles and keep things fresh, or continue rolling with what works and eventually get replaced in the hearts and minds of a finicky buying public. In trying to raise the stakes and make Zeus the target of Kratos' ire, God of Wars' developers had written themselves into a corner. With all the Olympian gods dead and buried, the only real option, so the joke went, was to have Kratos go after Jesus. Instead, God of War's developers began making prequels, all but acknowledging that they had nowhere else to take the setting.
It's funny now to go back to the original game. It feels coarser, rawer, angier. It was edgy in an era where depicting sex in a video game felt almost dangerous. We're a long way from those days, and Sony in particular is keen to cater to mainstream adults with action games they judge to be more mature.
With that, Sony Santa Monica appears to have to taken the "evolve or die" mentality to heart with God of War. The result is a thoroughly modern triple-A action game that is still recognizably God of War, even as it dispenses many of its familiar elements. It still has a growling protagonist, gods to fight, and a certain cinematic flair to its biggest battles. But like Kratos himself, God of War has gotten a little older as well as a little wiser. And in the end, that's reflected in not just the story, but the game itself. God of War will be out April 20 on PS4.