When God of War: Ascension was released five years ago, no one had thought that it would've taken this long for us to once again see Kratos in action. After all, through commercials, appearances in PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale and promo material throughout the launch of the PlayStation 4, it seemed pretty clear that Sony considered the character to be key to the brand, a mascot. But where was he? Rumours circulated that Sony Santa Monica was about to launch a new IP instead (in fact, they worked on one, that later got cancelled), spreading uncertainty as to whether the series would return this generation at all. After all, while considered iconic, the character is not beloved by all, and his blind rage and shallow development over the course of the past few games in the series have been divisive at best.
But, in 2016 rumors started to spread like wildfire with concept art portraying Kratos tackling Norse mythology, and fans all over the world were once again clamoring for a comeback - and at E3 of that year, that's exactly what they got. In a moment that just might go down in E3 history, a live choir re-introduced the character in a new guise, with a son, with the camera closer to the shoulder and with action more subdued than usual. One thing was certain, this chapter was to be different - very different - and while it may seem relatively risk-free to use the grizzled, cinematic, The Last of Us-inspired approach, it's a risk beyond comprehension to use such an iconic character for markedly different visual and mechanical chapter.
But, risk assessment aside, here we stand, a mere five weeks from release, with only a few short trailers to show for it. The game is still shrouded in mystery, but that veil of uncertainty will now be lifted because we got to go hands-on with the game in Copenhagen, as well as chat with design director Derek Daniels.
The first thing you should know about God of War is that it truly does not feel like any other game in the series. So when the designers speak of retaining the basic structural and mechanical DNA, it's simple hyperbole. God of War is different, very different, and while it continues the story of Kratos this could even be considered a reboot, or perhaps even a spin-off of sorts. It's different because it's slower, closer, more concerned with dialogue-based exposition and swooping scenery. It could even be described as intimate.
Surprisingly, our two and a half hour long hands-on session with the game kicked off exactly where you, dear reader, will begin your quest in the not too far distant future: from the very beginning of the game. Exactly as the latest trailer has described (and spoiled, one could argue) Kratos's wife and Atreus's mother has died, and they set out to grant her last wish, to spread her ashes from the highest peak in the realm. It's a road-trip straight and true, and also a journey where Atreus will discover his father's past, come to terms with his heritage, and probably destroy half of Midgard along the way. Every journey, however, starts out small, with the first couple of steps, and so too does God of War. You surrender control constantly in cutscenes, by set pieces and dialogue exchanges, and while incredibly cinematic, it's... well, different.
First off, while one could reasonably be skeptical every time the designers have mentioned a semi-open world for the game, it is actually true. Our demo took us out on an epic quest many kilometers from Kratos's home towards the peaks of Midgard, and while strictly linear, the game world does provide you with ample opportunities to explore - there's even a pretty detailed open-world map, which seems to suggest you'll be able to travel back to clean up missing collectables and upgrades. This openness made us curious, eager to explore any and all paths not immediately recognised as the main way forward. It's a clever move, and if you're observant, you'll find resources to buy and upgrade gear, collectibles that provide necessary context, as well as backstory and even additional dialogue between Kratos and Atreus.
And the dialogue is something you'll want to hear because if there's one thing God of War now has, is a subtleness in its approach to its characters that makes it a joy to experience every little piece of exposition. Whereas Kratos's rage was blinding both to himself and the player beforehand, now it's nuanced, faceted and used to give players insight into a troubled mind. While the main conceit is simple - Kratos wanting to grant his wife her last request and fleeing from the terrors bearing down on his son - it's incredibly interesting to get a few snippets of backstory every now and then, and trying to work out exactly how Kratos came to this place, how his rage subsided, and how he himself regained control. In a stroke of luck more so than sense, Santa Monica handling the narrative aspects of previous games poorly has put the main character in a place where it's now interesting to know how he made these drastic changes to his life. While our demonstration did not provide more actual development other than Kratos struggling to provide Atreus with the love he sorely needs, the more subtle approach was tantalising, to say the least.
But, this approach has been clear from the get-go and doesn't seem to be what everyone wants to know about. God of War has always been about the set pieces and the flow of combat, so how does the subtleness, the slower pace, the greater focus on narrative provide those exhilarating moments that the series is known for? Well, to be fair it actually doesn't, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. God of War resembles more a sort of further developed version of Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice's combat system, where button combinations exist but are not emphasised. You'll be approached by a range of different enemy types, and all of them have a clear health bar to indicate how and where to focus your attention. You'll dodge and block incoming attacks, throw your trusty axe, Leviathan, and use a mix of light and heavy attacks to deal damage to selected enemies. At the same time, using the square button, Atreus can fire arrows that distract some, and this is even required when fighting certain enemies.
You have a few options at your disposal, sure, and there's the ability to upgrade and personalise different weapons with runes, but that same speed and combo-based depth the series is known for is gone. We found it thoroughly enjoyable, however, and just like in Naughty Dog's The Last of Us, simple doesn't mean easy. Enemies are powerful, and while Kratos is too, he can quickly get overwhelmed if he fails to keep an overview of the battlefield. It can also become a Dark Souls-like puzzle to figure out how to approach a combat situation, freezing one enemy by throwing Leviathan into one unsuspecting Draugr's skull, to then switch to a more hands-on approach, dodging out of the way of a heavy attack and finally retrieving your axe by sticking your hand out and letting it zip through the head of another attacker. While it might not contain that aforementioned depth, everything feels tight, precise, and intricately designed. You constantly feel like there are several mechanics in place to help you defeat the tough enemies in front you, and you're also fairly certain you'll look like a badass doing it.
Kratos is still Kratos, but this time you'll get the chance to alter both his appearance and playstyle. Towards the tail-end of our demonstration we came across the traveller, and he revealed that it was actually he (and his brother) that forged the Leviathan axe many eons ago. He offered to aid Kratos by crafting him weapons and armour, and then a new crafting system opened up, offering a pretty deep menu from which Kratos can build new armor and weapon runes. These can be bought using currency and resources found in chests and on the ground, and while the armor will, of course, affect the amount of damage Kratos takes, there are also stats to consider. While our demonstration didn't give us the chance to play around with the upgrades and new gear pieces, it looked pretty extensive, and furthermore, new gear pieces actually alter Kratos' appearance, meaning you can customise his armour.
God of War is looking to take dramatic chances with one PlayStation's most iconic characters, and it may risk alienating hardcore fans who are looking for the combo-based, Greek mythology-inspired, intense, over-the-top, satirically explicit DNA the series is built upon because they simply won't find it here. However, instead, they'll find something equally and perhaps even more satisfying, a dramatically different take on both the staple mechanics and a closer examination of what it means to live with the consequences of your actions. God of War may have grown up, but it appears to have done so with the careful consideration of good parenting, as Cory Barlog, Derek Daniels and the rest of Sony Santa Monica appear to be. Now, we only have one more month left to wait...