Legacy is a tricky thing to live up to. Shadows of the past build certain expectations and make change difficult. No matter the quality of new entries, they will always be thoroughly scrutinized and compared to previous ones, and vice versa for the previous, older entries. As a result the new God of War, referred to as God of War 2018 throughout this article to avoid confusion – made by series developer SIE Santa Monica Studio – was confronted with a conflicted fanbase when first announced. When critiquing art there’s a general rule though: judge the art on its own merit, but also compare it to the bigger picture, to both its past but also to the genre and hobby at large. So: where does God of War 2018 stand? Is it cowering in the shadows of its forbearers? Does it cast one of its own? Or are they two statues standing firmly next to each other, gazing into the horizon?
conviction of Janus, god of change
Before we go into the current game and its development, we first need to answer two questions surrounding it:
What is the core of God of War’s gameplay, both to the casual consumer and veterans?
Analyzing the series, you end up with a game starring violent demigod Kratos in a booming spectacle that combines elements of a popular mythos paired with easy to pick up, hard to master combat. A fighting system that allows for experimentation, but does not force it on the player, with a unique genre emphasis on grabs. Combat that looks brutal and allows everyone to feel like they themselves were the berserker general from Sparta. These are the main elements at the heart of God of War’s moment-to-moment gameplay.
Why did the series feel the need to change, and was this reason justified?
With the series original adventure having concluded with God of War Ⅲ, this new title was treading on thin ice to begin with. Santa Monica was aware of this with studio head John Hight noting “while God of War Ⅲ will conclude the trilogy, it won’t spell the end of the franchise. We’re going to be really careful about what we do next”. This eventually lead to a prequel, God of War: Ascension, that showed Kratos’ tale before the first game. Apparently, they considered it would be smart to stick with Kratos and see how that would pan out. One big addition to the game was an online multiplayer mode which always brings an extra layer of difficulty to game design, as it means resources have to be divided. Not having prior experience with this type of game design, Santa Monica wanted to avoid players feeling that the mode was tacked on, which led to a balancing problem at times as attention constantly shifted between singleplayer and multiplayer. Eventually the developer said that they’d “found the heart of the final multiplayer game shortly before the first press show. Development focus switched back and forth between single-player and multiplayer; single-player received less attention while the team was preparing multiplayer for the first press announcement, but when single-player mode was reemphasized prior to its public debut, the multiplayer mode suffered”.
When the game released in 2013, its reception was mixed, both with fans, critics and newcomers to the series. This leads to a question within a question: why was it received as such, and was there truth to that reasoning? Often times public perception is based around the initial impression, and in such a short time it can be hard to nail down exactly where the dislike comes from, which leads to a speculative conclusion. This is a common practice in the creative industry when working with non-creative customers and clients, where a statement like “I don’t like that design, change the color to white” means the creative director should wonder what lead him to that conclusion, and not just simply change the color to white. There’s usually a completely different thing bothering the client, and changing the color to white is just that person trying to come up with a possible, and often erroneous, solution.
The biggest complaint about Ascension ended up being that the formula was tired and needed to change. So let’s analyze that and see where it leads us, paired with some facts regarding the content of God of War: Ascension. The game offered only one usable weapon compared to the four in the previous game, making it highly likely that players would get tired of the moveset available throughout the nine hour experience. Magic was also less present, being hidden behind costly upgrades. This is problematic in a series already known for players leaning towards using one single combo throughout the game due to lacking motivation to deviate from it, as discussed in our previous article . Most new enemies were either reskins of older ones while also feeling very spread out, with some foes only appearing twice in the whole game. Environments and the story were very fragmented and felt unfinished, as noted by hidden chests being more out in the open and with other secrets and unlockables being completely absent when compared to previous titles. It would be a fair assessment to say that this game was lacking in both content and quality, partially to make way for the multiplayer. The story may also have been an issue, with God of War Ⅲ concluding the tale of Kratos while this game keeps him in the lead, not moving on the overall narrative. We can reasonably conclude that the problem wasn’t that people suddenly got tired of the formula between God of War Ⅲ and Ascension, but rather that they expected a certain level of polish and variation, but also a certain evolution of the series as they’d gotten between each major release until now. The result was a game that sold below expectations, selling only half of what God of War Ⅲ did. A completely new direction for an established series doesn’t happen on a whim.
the stand alone mural
After God of War: Ascension, then Studio Head Shannon Studstill noticed that “a lot of people throughout [Sony] wanted [God of War] to sleep and rest”. Not giving up, former lead animator, designer and now director Cory Barlog set up a pitch. While it is unclear where the inspirations for his new direction of God of War came from, some assumptions regarding this can be made.
One of director David Jaffe’s original concepts for the series going forward after the original game was for Kratos to become the literal god of war and team-up, in bloody fashion, with the god of war from the Norse pantheon, eventually leading them to wage war on the Egyptian mythology’s gods. Another idea was that Kratos would slowly transition into the grim reaper, his Blades of Chaos turning into sickles. But times change, trends shift and tropes are born, especially in a fast moving market such as interactive entertainment. Cinematic games broke new ground since Ascension’s failing, like The Last of Us, Tomb Raider, Bioshock Infinite but also the resurgence of titles like Deus Ex and winnings of smaller atmospheric titles like Slender, SOMA, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture and Firewatch. In an effort to keep God of War in the top spot as the best selling action hack & slash game after the disappointing Ascension, a new direction was ready to be taken. Having won a Bafta award for his writing on God of War Ⅱ, this was Cory’s chance to re-cement the man and the title as a narrative presence in the medium, eventually leading to the following pitch.
Despite still being skeptical, Sony gave the go ahead. Cory recalls that even after the first set of pitches, he still had the feeling that they really needed to bring their best if they wanted to bring a new God of War title into the market. But they did, and 5 years later God of War 2018 arrived on the Playstation 4.
shadows at war
God of War 2018 takes place an undefined but lengthy time after God of War Ⅲ. Kratos is older, has a beard, a son and an axe called Leviathan. The meat of the gameplay is combat and its focus is a spin on the well-known dodge, block, parry and punish methodology. The twist this time around is that you can throw your axe and have its icy edge freeze the foes it’s attached to while also allowing you to damage them from afar, trip them up, send them flying into walls, while punching away with your fists when the axe is embedded in some poor enemy’s skull or otherwise preoccupied. Kratos can also fill up a rage-bar which, when unleashed, gives him temporary access to new supercharged attacks, embracing his brutal spartan heritage. Another addition is his son Atreus, standing in Kratos’ shadow as a support with arrows that can be shot on command.
Enemies come in a small variety with each foe having one or two attacks and some other minor variables setting them apart. One Norse inspired Draugr wields a sword, the other can imbue it with fire, some heal themselves and others are immune to your axe while another chugs flames from a distance. Some, like the Tatzelwurm, are small and burrow underground for a surprise attack, while Revenants keep you on the move with their constant teleporting. Their attacks do tend to blend with their idle animations however, which makes spotting attacks during tense fights something of an annoyance. Off-screen attacks are indicated by a little arrow and while neat, this almost makes it smarter not to look at the enemy so you know when an attack is coming, since they only have a few attacks and they generally have the same outcome: a sword to the face. The enemies generally work well together and fights smartly combine different types to keep engagements interesting; they are also smartly reused, with reskins and foes wielding different weapons or harnessing other elements to change up their moveset somewhat, keeping the game fresh. Design-wise most are inspired by nature, with tree crusts forming plates of armor for the Draugr, while flies hover around Revenants and slain creatures bleed an almost tree sap-like substance that may or may not be flammable. While it looks elegant, killing them does lack a feeling of brutality, with only one or two exceptions.
In terms of level design, God of War 2018 draws from multiple sources of inspiration. The game starts off in a forest layered with snow, with later areas featuring rich foliage with bright colors – a rarity these days – while the main hub encapsulates the more traditional viking setting with slippery mountains, large stretches of water riddled with caves and green country sides. Let’s take a look at the Light Elf Outpost, one of the many optional islands. It starts off with a small beach encounter with an Ogre enemy, but quickly reveals itself as a tower that you have to ascend. You’ll climb, fight enemies on different heights than you, drop them down into the sea, solve short riddles that use the differing heights and discover hidden chests before reaching the top where you’ll face off in one last battle. This is easily the best and most diverse stage God of War 2018 has to offer. In terms of their layout, most other areas tend to be compact and lack verticality; they are generally nothing more than fancy-looking arenas. Some do have traps that you can use to your advantage, but they can sadly be counted on one hand. Paired with fights generally having more than five enemies at once, the areas can feel quite packed, which is increased by adding ranged enemies and the more close-up camera, leading to a cramped feeling. Even with the enemy-indicators, you can easily lose sight of the combat and get swarmed, yet the arenas also aren’t small enough to keep you from running circles around your foe while throwing the axe, which lessens the tension, and at times can feel like cheating.
When the axe is tossed aside, Kratos will automatically switch to his fists. There’s a balance at play here, attacking enemies with your fists deals less damage but fills their stun bar faster. When stunned an enemy can be grabbed, which has differing results per foe. Some are killed instantly with an explosion, while others get thrown into a target of your choosing. The axe on the other hand deals more damage, but builds less stun. The idea however is that they are used together. For instance, you can freeze a foe by throwing your axe at him so you can focus on another. Kratos can also make a foe trip by throwing the axe at his legs, allowing you to run up behind the enemy to deal extra stun damage using the fists for a quick kill. Alternatively, you could pin them to walls with your thrown axe for bonus damage, push them off cliffs, throw them into each other; in short, there are a lot of possibilities. The one thing you’re probably already noticing though is that the axe’s main pull is its throw. With most enemies being susceptible to stuns, it’s quickly the superior option; the axe’s normal attacks lack a killer application to warrant its use. As such, high level play generally sees Kratos only really using the Axe as a throwing weapon, while letting his fists do the talking. The only exception to this being bosses, who tend to not have a stun-bar.
The way Kratos switches between his weapons also comes with a small delay, and recalling the axe locks him in place, making it impossible recall the weapon while running, dodging or in the middle of a combo. Aside from feeling wooden in motion, it also feels strange to limit such a core concept to standing still. One can alleviate this a bit by canceling the recall animation into a dodge, but it is far from ideal.
While all that axe throwing is going on, the boy can shoot arrows at your command, allowing for some teamwork. For instance, you can trip them with the axe and stop them from standing up or turning to face you by having the boy shoot them, or he can be used during juggles to extend the air time of foes or even bounce them off the ground for some nice ‘Off The Ground’ combination attacks. The boy’s arrows come in two forms, one offering more stun while the other staggers foes and are ruled by a cooldown that gets shorter as you upgrade the boy.
But while these options sound great, with juggles, weapon switching, freezing, tripping and even kicking enemies off ledges, one quickly notices that these applications only really work on generic Draugr – not on bigger foes such as Travelers, Heavy Draugr and Dark Elf Lords, and also not on bosses, higher level enemies and enemies that have activated their Elite status, leaving you with just your basic attacks, parries, blocks and dodges to slowly whittle them down. As a result the game starts off strong with a lot of combat options, but by the end each fight will see you doing the same routine without much option for variation and player creativity. The longer you play, the more these mechanics take the backseat. Some enemies and bosses are even hardcoded to automatically dodge away after taking a certain amount of hits, limiting creativity even more.
Most foes are also introduced quite early in the game, making late-game weapon additions feel more like extras than something that foes are built around. The restrictions go even further with some enemies being immune to certain weapons, limiting your combat options even more. All the above is further amplified when enemies activate Elite Mode, a mechanic exclusive to the highest difficulty setting. In this state even the most generic enemy becomes immune to stagger, launchers, stun, freezing effects, knockback and everything else you have. In the original God of War, each action would generally work on every foe, albeit in varying degrees of success. Launchers, grabs, throws, it was all possible, just harder depending on the foe, with some having to be hit during or after a specific animation to get the juggle, or only being grabbable after taking enough damage. Harder enemies required you to play better and use your abilities less recklessly and more planned out, however God of War 2018 on the other hand seems to actively want you to avoid playing with its tools creatively and smartly, ignoring its combat mechanics in favor of shiny attacks with the axe and throwing it ad nauseum – a style of difficulty that can, and will, become monotonous. The Labor system was implemented to avoid this, giving Experience Points, used to buy new moves and upgrade certain abilities, by completing small challenges. These however tend to focus around minor, repetitive tasks like launching an enemy 25 times, killing a certain enemy 100 times or parrying 75 times. This labor system is especially bothersome as it forces a grind upon you instead of rewarding a specific playstyle. It just asks a player to keep one last enemy alive and parry him for 10 minutes. In short, it feels tedious, not rewarding.
judgment of Apollo
All these elements beg the question: why? Why do actively avoid your own combat mechanics and limit player creativity?
One reason could be to emphasize the newly introduced gear- and stat systems. Throughout the adventure Kratos can find, buy and craft pieces of armor, handles for his weapons and gems to socket within them. Each of these pieces contribute to stats that have varying effects such as decreasing the length that you’re staggered or increasing damage done by a marginal amount, but most importantly they work together to up Kratos’ Power Level. A Power Level 3 Kratos will have no problem blocking and parrying Level 3 foes, and will decimate those of Level 1 in less than three hits. But have a Level 3 Kratos face off against a Level 5 – or worse, Level 6 – enemy will be a nightmare, as Kratos cannot stagger, block, launch, ring-out, trip, stun or freeze these foes. Again we see the game taking features away in order to make the game difficult. On the flip-side, by exploring, crafting and leveling, Kratos’ more lackluster fights against enemies that ignore these mechanics become a lot more manageable. This again begs the question though, why do this? As it stands, the gear- and statsystems only serves to make arbitrarily hard fights easier, that were only hard to make the system feel worthwhile in the first place. Other ways this could’ve been implemented was to have stats not impact your combat prowess, but change up effects and qualities of your attacks to give a feeling of progression – something the game does do, but it requires end-game amounts of stats to unlock even the most basic move-change. Having non-scaling damage options i.e. moves that always retain their power no matter how low or high level you are, would’ve also been an option.
Next to these RPG-elements, Runes and Talismans also add to the combat. These are short special attacks that pack a heavy punch, but are balanced by cooldowns that last minutes, if not more. Kratos can equip two at a time, and while you can freely switch between them when they aren’t on cooldown, this does make you quickly play favorites as swapping between them requires menu usage.
As you can only use them once every few minutes, you’ll generally use them at the beginning of the fight to get a quick hit in and start the cooldown up in the hopes of using them again in the same fight, only to do the clean-up with your regular attacks. If the player has the patience he can simply wait the cooldowns out between fights, but this also makes them feel less important. This was a problem already present in God of War: Ascension, which introduced cooldowns to the series as a mechanic. Before this, the games used a magic meter that didn’t refill automatically in order to use special attacks and magic. A similar mechanic might’ve been a better fit for this game as well, like allowing Runes to be used at the cost of Rage, making it a tight balancing act between spending meter for a quick special attack or saving it up for one prolonged super mode.
The combined effect of all these new mechanics is that the game can be hard to balance since the designers never know what gear you have, which Runes you’re rocking and what Talisman you’re wearing. Some, like the Amulet of Kvasir, allow you to slow down time with a well-timed dodge, while the Blessing of Frost Rune increases your Axe’s damage output and stagger potential by a large factor for 15 seconds, which completely break certain fights as they are designed around Kratos base moveset, not his extended arsenal.
Besides ripping and tearing creatures to shreds, the game offers several types of distractions. Aside from the main quest there are islands to explore such as the Elven Outpost mentioned earlier. While the game is very focused on its storytelling in between fights, with constant unskippable scenes, it is during these optional segments that you can play long sessions without any story-based interruptions. Ironically though, in a twist compared to the trope it hails from, gear and Runes found off the beaten path are often inferior to those that you can find during your main adventure or in shops; in a sense making the biggest reward of exploration that you can fully enjoy the gameplay without the story.
To tell the story the game uses a one shot setup, also called a continuous shot, meaning that the camera never cuts to a new scene. The game opts to generally have the camera be close up to Kratos, even during combat, giving it an almost claustrophobic feel. Multiple of the game’s combat designers were against this notion with director Cory recalling that ‘there was big resistance’, as they felt it meant the combat would be harder to follow. As a result, the camera is a mixed bag. At best, it offers tense engagements and a feeling of immersion in story, at worst it has you constantly panning the camera around to see what’s going on while each scene feels the same, with no visual standouts. Games in the Action genre often zoom out the camera a bit more during combat and this is greatly missed here. So while interesting and an achievement shared only with Metal Gear Solid 5, the one shot camera feels more like it was done because it hadn’t been done a lot, instead of doing it because it served the game’s purpose.
In conclusion, as a stand alone title, God of War 2018 is an interesting title whose emphasis on efficient play, tripping up and ringing out foes for quick kills is a breath of fresh air in the modern market. Yet it doesn’t seem content with you actually playing it that way, constantly wanting to pull you back into the world of Square Square Triangle, fearing you don’t know how to deal with its obstacles without the familiar combo. Its active systems are set in place in such a way that they prevent the player from using the combat engine to its fullest and cast a large shadow on the combat, larger than any game in the series or even genre could’ve done. Add to that the constant interruptions, and low replay value thanks to unskippable cutscenes, story scenes and climbing sections, and you’ve got a game that doesn’t seem to want you to play it.
When viewed compared to where it comes from it is a game that removed more than it added, and is a hefty step back in all elements, both platforming, puzzles, feeling of scale and especially the combat. But that is fine, a game can become something new and fight and evolve to reach new heights. To reach those new heights though, God of War 2018 has a lot of climbing left to do before it can even reach its contemporaries. Here’s hoping the inevitable sequel will provide a balance in combat and mechanics, and will embrace its genre and have faith in its players to play with and explore its combat, and ultimately to reach the heights it aspires to. Until then, this is simply the first step taken to get out of the shadows of the originals: the full climb still lies ahead.
Ω reflection style Ω
In this short section I reflect on the article from my own viewpoints as a gamer and lover of the genre instead of a critic.
“But what about the story,” I hear you ask. Honestly, that is not what this site is about; it is about gameplay, combat and the mechanics surrounding it. But as it is, when I could separate the re-written Kratos from the character he used to be, it was a decent if somewhat predictable story. I was really disappointed in the camera work; the One Shot style of storytelling and presentation has the advantage of total immersion when used correctly, typically showing a ‘day in the life of’ a character – it is a method not often used, having only appeared in 25 films, and most of them being independent small productions. God of War 2018 doesn’t use it in smart ways however, often opting for just using the same shots constantly instead of clever camera angles to either create overviews, interesting perspectives or focus on other elements in the scene to create a varied and visually interesting story. Instead it becomes very repetitive, often just floating around aimlessly, focusing on talking faces. Even then, the game technically does break its rule when loading, opening menus and using quick travel. Some story-scenes are also shot in such a way to hide an easy edit to a new scene. Some twists, like the reveal of Atreus, also feel rushed. The changing of the canon that Kratos is now suddenly a full god is also a tad strange.
In terms of writing this article, though I go on record often to say this: it wasn’t easy. This piece almost lead to me quitting the site. The reason being that I wanted badly to write what bothered me so much about the game and why it didn’t work for me. A ton of discussions are cut short with one side calling the other “trolls” or “afraid of change”, so it was hard to make a good argument or get a good discussion out of it. All the points as written above are aimed at the game itself, if it was a new series I would hold it to the same standards, and it would still fail.
Writing about it was depressing for me, as I don’t really enjoy playing the game due to it constantly removing combat mechanics in favor of dodge and punish and its constant emphasis on story, which gets boring fast. The constant story interruptions and lack of any real skip button brought me to tears; I ended up barely beating the game three times for this article, often reading a book while the cutscenes played out on my later playthroughs.
To me though, God of War 2018 is a game that scares me. It shows, if anything else, the state of both the hobby and the media surrounding it. A man can grab an existing and loved property, change it to what is currently popular and call it his new artistic vision. Pair that with a media that suddenly hates the games it used to give almost perfect scores to – calling them dumb, childish and sexist while originally defending them as generation defining games – in the hopes of presenting this new game in a bigger and brighter light, and your faith starts to dwindle. I would not at all be surprised that when a follow-up game changes the formula again, this game will be ripped apart for being a kids action game and lacking in depth: a shame if you ask me. Hating on one product to promote another only shows weakness in my eyes and a lack of faith in your product. This is even sadder when said journalists, when asked, note they never even played the originals.
With Devil May Cry 5 having just been announced we will probably see this play out further. The media originally blasted the originals and its fans when the rebooted DmC: Devil May Cry came out, calling out just how ‘bad’ the originals actually were. You can bet your ass those same journalists that praised DmC: Devil May Cry will now throw it under a bus to promote the next one.
Personally I’m all behind a new vision or a new direction as long as it isn’t for the sake of money, which this badly reeks of. God of War changed to what was popular within the singleplayer playing field, which it already tried to break away from with Ascension’s focus on multiplayer. Perhaps Cory really wanted to make this, who knows. Watching developer interviews isn’t the way to get the real information, as you never know where the marketing ends and the person begins. In the end what we’re left with is a decent cinematic experience with neutered and held back combat – critique I’d have against the game even if it was a new I.P. This is especially noticeable in its community. Despite being a glowing success with sales record after sales record, and being the best overall rated game of all time, it is already seeing forums drying up with barely any discussions about combat, speedrunning or other advanced talk. Where other action titles stayed alive for years, if not decades, God of War 2018’s story has been played out and fans of this new iteration are now awaiting their next entertainment fix, while the fans of the original’s combat and those of the genre at large, and those who are skeptical of this iteration’s mechanics can’t help but fear what they will remove next. In the end, a game that tries to have both story and gameplay, can’t focus on either. Eventually you’ll either be left with a mediocre product, so God of War 2018’s successor needs to make a choice: either continue along the vision it currently laid out, or return to its roots.
Ω postscript notes Ω
The game runs at a decent 30 frames per second at 1080p on a regular Playstation 4, with some dips to the lower 25 fps when things get extremely messy;
Thanks to the lack of focus on the combat and how later gained attacks impact the enemies, the game is filled with infinite combos. Especially the Guardian Sweep and Guardian’s Justice can loop nearly every foe in the game to death, including some bosses;
Despite the game getting numerous patches, it is still possible to gain infinite experience points by completing Labors, saving, and then dying. The game will save your experience gained, but not the labor being completed;
With those patches came nerfs though, slowly taking away even more options from the combat;
Yes, Passage Three is a reference to the flopped Middle-earth: Shadow of War;
David Jaffe’s idea for Kratos becoming the Reaper, and his blades becomes sickles was a concept later used in God of War Ⅲ’s weapon The Claws of Hades;
Despite the toned down gore, and even panning the camera away to not show a decapitation, the finisher on Wulver look especially brutal;
The multiplayer component of Ascension was originally intended as content for the PSP title Chains of Olympus, but was scrapped due to time restraints;
David Jaffe spoke with NowGamer prior to the first press announcement in late April. He said that if he had worked on Ascension, he would have incorporated three specific elements: different myths, a co-star, and “look to the Zelda structure as a jumping off point“. He liked the idea of a cooperative mode, and added “I’d love to see player one be Kratos and player two be this stupid annoying sidekick that—for some to be determined story reason—Kratos is stuck with for the whole adventure and in the end, once the main quest is over, Kratos just snaps the poor kid’s neck”. A delicious and somewhat ironic statement when compared to the current state of affairs;
David Jaffe also spoke to IGN about Ascension’s multiplayer element: “I think it looks cool. It looks like another great, impeccably executed Sony Santa Monica game“, and added, “If it turns out to be the case that the single player is watered down because of the multiplayer, then I think they have some justification. But I don’t see any evidence of that, and I don’t see evidence of that based on the team they are”;
While currently breaking the One Shot camera, menus were originally also ingame ala Dead Space, with Kratos for instance looking at his axe to customize the gems inside of it;
The game’s controls can be a tad annoying, with overlapping options. The game has a lot of options and allows for customization, especially after its dozen patches. Yet some default features can be baffling such as executions and lock-on sharing the same button. So if you see the stunbar fill up and you press R3 to kill them, chances are you’ll also lock-on by accident. Activating Rage can also happen by accident from time to time;
Despite my grievances, it is a delight to see a singleplayer game be successful and not feature DLC, microtransactions and other types of money begging. In that sense, there is hope!
Ω sources Ω
This article was originally written on the original Blogspot site, if there are any visual bugs please let me know in the comment-section.