In contrast to the bombastic beginning of the very first God of War, the beginning to God of War for PlayStation 4 is a somber one. Kratos pauses before a tree marked by his dead wife, reflecting alone before chopping it down to make a funeral pyre. He carries the tree back their home with his son, a quiet, somber moment, given that neither knows much about the other. The mother was the thing connecting them and she's gone now.
God of War wants you to feel these quiet moments as Kratos burns his wife's body. The game wants you to feel sympathetic towards Kratos before all hell breaks loose. As Kratos and his son Atreus prepare for their journey to fulfill his wife's last wish—that her ashes be spread on the highest peak in the land—a stranger knocks at their door. Kratos has his son hide, as he's not ready to let Atreus know that he's the son of a god.
The Stranger was sent to find Kratos, the god of a different land. Kratos warns the man that he should leave. Instead, the Stranger taunts him. He hits him. And Kratos takes it for a time, a clear illustration that this isn't necessarily the Kratos that we knew before. He has the ability to kill gods, but at this point he's just a god that wants to be left alone with his son and his grief.
He does defend himself though and that's when the Stranger delivers an uppercut that reminds you that this is God of War. Part of what makes the fight really work is the single camera shot. When the Stranger hits Kratos high in the air, you follow him up and over his home. It's not first-person, as if you're feeling it yourself, but the camera is close enough that you're along for the ride.
That closeness is important, a fact that's immediately highlighted when Kratos avoids the jumping smash of the Stranger. You feel the impact of the knee coming down and cracking the earth where Kratos once was. As Kratos and the Stranger fight across the clearing, tearing up the home, nearby trees, and cracking the firmament of Midgard itself, you're right up in the action.
Sony Santa Monica also does an interesting thing with the single shot camera. They give the camera itself weight. When Kratos and the Stranger tumble through the roof, there's a bounce as the camera lands with both men. When Kratos is kicked into a tree, the camera doesn't simply zoom towards Kratos, it bounds there as if there's an invisible cameraman that has to run after the God of War. The camera shakes and jitters a bit on still shots, when technically it could be perfectly still. Kratos looks at things hot second before the camera follows his gaze. The developer wants to put you in the action, without actually making you Kratos.
The in-game camera doesn't move as much in order to give you gameplay clarity, but the tight, over-the-shoulder choice of that viewpoint is important. One problem with the older God of War titles is outside of boss fights and Quick Time Events, you didn't really feel the impact of Kratos' hits. Between the camera's closeness and the subtle use of the Dual Shock 4, you feel every attack here.
Even outside of that, this boss fight goes places. Kratos slams a stone column into the Stranger, tearing the ground in half. Both men have a punch out high above the ground Dragon Ball Z style, fighting as only gods can. And it ends with Kratos' snapping the Stranger's neck and discarding the body in a newly-made ravine. Kratos' lays there, panting and resting: he's not the spry young mass murderer he once was. He can no longer take hits without feeling anything. As Kratos walks back home, he stumbles, holding himself up with his new Leviathan Axe. He's older, he's tired, and he just wants to be left alone.
The Stranger fight is the first hook, the first shot at saying, "This is God of War now." And if the reception to these early moments is any indication, it's working for folks.
So I wanted to not like God of War, because being a contrarian pooface gives me life, but then I caught a stream of The Stranger fight. I'm gonna end up buying it.— Ash Bates (@donovan_ryder) April 20, 2018
Kratos vs The Stranger cinematic was better than 95% of movies that have come out in the past 5 year and that was only the first fight in God of War this game is so amazing— Hunter Gonzalez (@H_GonzalezDoh) April 20, 2018
The Stranger fight in #GodOfWar is the single most godlike fight I've experienced in game..— Kahreem Horsley (@Kahreem_Horsley) April 20, 2018
The first hour of #GodofWar done and dusted. Will try to say something without hyperbole..actually no, the 'Stranger' sequence is hands down the greatest fight I've ever had in a video game. Ever. Holy shit, @SonySantaMonica @corybarlog. Only an hour in. Next. Level.— Rosskod of War [FNGRGNS] (@RosskoKeniston) April 20, 2018
In 30 minutes involving a quiet cinematic and one boss fight, the new God of War establishes who Kratos is now and the level of power he'll face here in Midgard. And it's only the beginning of Kratos' and Atreus' journey.