When the original God of War was released 13 years ago for the PlayStation 2 it successfully combined fast-paced, combo-based combat with excellent platforming and puzzle solving. It soon became a fan fave.
A sequel followed and was equally well received, expanding upon the mythos of Spartan warrior Kratos who, by this time, had become the eponymous God of War. The gameplay was very similar to the first and hack and slash fighting was still order of the day.
Come the PlayStation 3 and God of War III continued the speedy action game mechanics, albeit with a graphical boost thanks to the beefier power of the console. But, even at this time, frantic, button-mashing was becoming a dated concept. When it finally appeared in remastered form on PS4, it was clear the series needed more than a lick of paint to make it relevant.
Hence, God of War. While not a reboot in the style of Tomb Raider, it is a very different game to what has gone before. It is grown-up, layered, clever and a perfect fit for the current, super-powered generation of gaming.
It was always going to look more spectacular thanks to the technical nous of the PlayStation 4 and, especially, PS4 Pro, but also plays like a modern game should. It is better paced than ever before, adds depth, customisation, emotion and role-playing elements while retaining much of the technical combat traits of its forebears. It is, in short, a God of War for a new generation. And without leaving the last behind. Genius.
Its immediate appeal can be attributed to an all-new setting.
After the end of the original trilogy, with Kratos’ thirst for revenge against the Greek gods finally quenched, he retires to the realms Norse mythology in order to live a quieter life. He is older and a father of a young son, Atreus.
This is a different Kratos to before, and the game is much richer for it. Hate and anger are still there bumbling under the surface, but the responsibility of fatherhood changes his motives and, therefore, gameplay attributes.
He is also different in presence on screen. Not only is he better defined thanks to greater graphics hardware – up to checkerboard 2160p on PS4 Pro – our view of him has changed, literally. The action is now viewed in an over-the-shoulder 3D perspective and it makes his hulking stature all the more imposing for it.
Some might bemoan the artistic decision to move camera angles from what has gone before but it works wonderfully. And even with much of the screen taken up with pale muscle mass, you still get to see some of the most beautiful scenery ever rendered in game form.
Midgard and the other realms of Norse myth are jaw-dropping in their detail and, when you get to some of the others around five or so hours into the game, variety. They are also some of the best showpieces for HDR tech we’ve ever seen in gaming: bursting with colour and vibrance. If you don’t own a HDR TV already, here’s the excuse you’ve been waiting for.
The Norse theme doesn’t stop there, of course. Costumes too are inspired by Nordic warriors and legends. There are no horns on helmets here, but plenty of fur-lined leather and tattoos.
It’s not just aesthetic either. Alternative armour combinations, along with customisable weapons, are a big feature of this God of War. Different, enhanced armour styles can be purchased or found and upgraded throughout the game, for both Kratos and his son. This not only makes the adventure more varied, it adds a flavour of strategy and thought that previous games in the series only touched upon.
Wearing improved armour not only looks good, it increases your stats: strength, runic, defence, vitality, luck and cooldown. The same is true for your son's, which is vital as he's not just an emotive plot tool but an essential ally in skirmishes.
While you start with the Leviathon Axe - which works a bit like Thor's hammer, returning after a mighty throw - your son is equipped with the Talon Bow and can be instructed to rain arrows on opponents as you beat them into submission with your melee attacks.
Utilising both leads to many of the game's excellent combo opportunities, which can be improved and expanded further through a deep skill tree system and add-ons in the shape of runes. You can also level up just about every item you wield or wear, making for even more tweaking throughout. And, ultimately, it leads to organic, fast-flowing, varied fights that suit your play style.
Finding the bonuses and power-ups are part of the fun of God of War. Although the game has a definitive plot and mission structure – you must travel with Atreus to scatter your wife’s ashes at the top of the mountain – there are many side quests you can opt to undertake too.
Indeed, much of the game is sited on large open-world maps that guide you to your main objective but also feature hidden areas and secrets. And when travelling, you should always keep an eye out for a little, off-route passage. It will likely feature a chest with a helpful item or Hacksilver – the in-game currency that you can spend on new armour or weapons.
In fact, we found ourselves spending hours just meandering around, finding side missions to complete and taking on optional bosses. So much so that by the time we encountered a difficult enemy on the story trail, we’d already beaten similar in a secret task when lesser powered. We knew what to do without any handholding, even though the dialogue barked by Atreus effectively told us what we already knew.
Meet the new boss
Even without the optional boss battles there are plenty to take part in during the main plot. And you’ll find the excellent, intuitive combat system a great help. Naturally, like many games, including previous God of Wars, bosses are generally beaten through learning specific patterns or weak points to exploit. It doesn’t make them any less fun, however, and the sheer thrill of wielding the Leviathan Axe makes every fight a joy.
This God of War also intelligently guides you through tutorial levels at the start without them feeling such. By the time you meet your first boss, you should have the skill set to defeat him. And as each gets progressively harder, your talents with a gamepad should be greater.
It also helps that a lot of combos end with spectacularly powerful moves, so you shouldn’t find things too tough until late into the game, and by then you should prepared. It’s masterful game design and even those not used to action-adventures of this ilk should be able to play GoW without struggling too much.
We highly recommend it, because you’d be missing out on a potential game of the year if you don’t.
To reinvent such a well-known game series is brave, but this new God of War is both a modern masterpiece and a love letter to existing fans. It brings the combat system bang up to date while slapping on a dose of some of the best visuals we’ve seen in this generation – especially in 4K HDR on PS4 Pro.
Then, of course, there is the relationship between a father and his boy, which underpins the entire experience and has the emotional impact of some of the best Oscar winners. The fact that the parent is none other than former rage-filled brute Kratos, yet still pulls at the heart strings is nothing short of magnificent.
PlayStation has a few triple-A, premium exclusives on the horizon, but forget talk of The Last of Us 2 and Spider-Man for now, here’s a game that can hold its head up in such exalted company and it’s already available. You lucky people.