“God of War” was one of those series back on PlayStation 2 that delighted in being an oddball and benefited from it. It sits up there with “Silent Hill,” “Ico” and “Shadow of the Colossus” as one of those staples that was willing to be a bit more experimental than its contemporaries, playing with mechanics other developers hadn’t before.
The new “God of War” on PlayStation 4 matches that legacy, if only just. Most properly, it should be called “God of War 4.” It’s a deep response to the flaws of its predecessors that also manages to bring back the Greco-Roman questions and themes which have been missing from the series for so long. How can a cycle of violence be broken? What does it mean that the Gods keep killing their parents? In such a tight-knit community as that of the Gods, what does family even mean?
To talk about the 2018 “God of War,” you first have to talk about the PS2 original, so to anyone who’s afraid of spoilers for a game that came out in 2005, skip the next paragraph.
The plot of “God of War” was simple: We were introduced to Kratos, a captain in the Spartan army who was tricked by Ares — the Greek god of war — into killing his own family during a raid. The entire game is spent with Kratos on a revenge quest to kill Ares. You end up having to [literally] go to Hell and back, but you do it, and Kratos ends up becoming the new god of war. Guilt-riddled, he attempts suicide, but now that he’s immortal, he can’t. It was sad and poetic, and the next two games ditched those artistic elements entirely in favor of having Kratos kill the rest of the Greek pantheon, presumably out of spite? It wasn’t particularly pleasant or interesting, or even sensical.
Compared to the last couple of titles in the series, this new “God of War” is a breath of fresh air. Still, the combat and story standards set by the first game were touchstones for years afterward. The original “God of War’s” mix of hack-and-slash combat, quick-time events, light RPG elements and massive boss fights were copied by dozens of games in the years that followed.
Ironically, the new “God of War” has combat that plays more like “Dark Souls,” the new game that everyone is copying. The RPG mechanics are much deeper and more important now: Kratos’s character screen reads more like a “Dungeons and Dragons” character sheet than his original list of unlockable abilities.
"Whereas in the original you could take down a hallway of mooks with one furious combo move, a grunt enemy in the new 'God of War' can take you down in a couple of hits."
Fighting enemies is much slower and methodical, especially early on. Whereas in the original you could take down a hallway of mooks with one furious combo move, a grunt enemy in the new “God of War” can take you down in a couple of hits.
You know, like “Dark Souls.”
Admittedly, this has its benefits. The original’s combat was always pretty mindless, and the “Dark Souls” style tends to be more rewarding as a result. The addition of finishing moves and range-focused combat does give this game’s variation on the “Souls” formula more flare, especially late in the game as new features are added in. But for the first few hours, you won’t be blamed for thinking the game feels pretty familiar.
But that’s the number one problem with the new “God of War” — it gets great if you stick around. The game’s story operates on my least favorite of all video game narrative structures, which is something I like to call the “moving the goalposts” structure. It goes like this: You’re given one goal at the beginning that you will pursue for 80 to 90 percent of the game’s duration.
You’re constantly told this goal is just two or three missions away, but every time you beat those missions, some unforeseen, un-foreshadowed obstacle pops up, and the goal moves another two or three missions away. It’s a structure designed to string the player along for as long as possible while giving them as little as possible. At best — as in this game — it’s an excuse to take players on a sightseeing tour.
Normally this frustrates me to no end, but the game makes about as good a use of this terrible structure as it can. Each time the goalposts move, the world opens up a bit, and you’re allowed to go on exactly one optional side quest to calm down your frustration. It helps that every quest was written and designed with care. This is the first game in the series since the original “God of War” that has all of its characters in order.
"Everyone is fleshed out and feels like a real person rather than an angry caricature."
While it’s still an exceedingly masculine story, the female characters aren’t one-dimensional supermodels designed to appeal to adolescent boys (as in all the previous titles). Everyone is fleshed out and feels like a real person rather than an angry caricature.
Your objectives are simple and somber enough to fit the slower, more mature tone. The game makes excellent use of its twenty-some hour runtime, even if there are still ways it could’ve been polished down and used more effectively.
It’s probable that this new “God of War” won’t have the same impact as its predecessor of the same name, but in terms of modern AAA single-player games, you can’t do much better than this. It’s a fine story that’s well-told. It understands its characters and its medium, along with how to add complexities to each. It almost feels greedy to ask for more — not that we shouldn’t.
Final Grade: A-