When I was a kid playing games, something that often came up in enthusiast circles was the idea that gameplay should come before graphics – a game can look fantastic but if it’s not fun to play then, well, what’s the point? That’s an interesting concept that’s largely been cast aside in the modern age of lenient publishing, Kickstarter and an open indie development ecosystem. Today, we have people seriously arguing that video games don’t have to be fun and that gameplay can be a secondary concern.
Naturally, I’m not too keen on the idea myself; I’m of the opinion that it’s difficult to develop solid gameplay and much easier to downplay the importance of interactivity and enjoyment instead. The ideal, from my perspective, is a game that does it all: one that combines an interesting story and captivating gameplay, something that leaves you slavering to play just a bit more when you’re away from your console. Rather than ditching certain elements, this ur-game embraces all of them, becoming more than the sum of its parts.
I’m not sure if I’d call 2018’s take on God of War an “ur-game,” but I’d certainly say it’s pretty good. Rather than the typical tale of Spartan anti-hero Kratos rampaging around killing every god in sight, 2018 goes with a somewhat more thoughtful conceit. Kratos and his young son Atreus are on a quest to scatter the ashes of Kratos’ wife Faye, seeking the highest point in the realms of Norse mythology in order to fulfill her last request.
If you think that sounds like a departure from the usual God of War formula, well, you’re right. 2018 falls squarely into the “Video Game Oscar Nominee” category – this is game that wants you to feel things where previous God of Wars just wanted you to gape in awe. The degree to which this game is successful in that endeavor tends to vary somewhat; you’re obviously meant to Care A Lot about Atreus but even the obviously massive amount of time spent toward that goal can’t stop him from being an irritation from time to time.
Case in point: combat integrates Atreus in several ways that are clearly intended to bend you toward appreciating his presence. The new shoulder-level camera perspective, for instance, leaves you with blind spots that were generally not present throughout earlier entries in the series, and Atreus makes a point of calling out attacks coming from those directions. I’d never flat out say that the change in perspective was primarily done in order to require this of Atreus, but I’d certainly think it. Likewise, Atreus’ archery skills and the magic arrows he eventually acquires become useful for lowering enemies’ guard. It’s a pretty transparent attempt to get you to think of the kid as something other than a game-long escort quest – see also: The Last of Us, which uses many of the same tricks including making the kid in question mostly invincible – but combat still manages to work pretty well.
It manages to work because despite the concessions made for the new setting and conceit, such as the new camera, there’s a whole series of previous games to draw on for inspiration and God of War doesn’t shy away from doing so. Kratos has traded in his Blades of Chaos for the Leviathan Axe, a classic Viking axe that can be thrown and recalled at will. This leads to all sorts of hilarious axe-throwing shenanigans: fling it at an enemy for damage, fling it harder to freeze that enemy in place while Kratos attacks with his fists, recall it to smack enemies on the return trip, throw it around in an orbital pattern to hit a bunch of nearby foes and so on. It’s an endearing armament that makes God of War’s combat feel dynamic, even compared to previous entries in the series.
There’s also something to be said for the design work involved in making each encounter feel specifically designed to work with your ever-growing toolset. Toward the end of the game you’ve got multiple projectile options, multiple melee weapons, a vast selection of special attacks, a choice of gear that allows you to specialize both Kratos and Atreus to your liking, the list goes on and on to the point of being overwhelming. If you play on a higher difficulty level you’ll actually need to pay attention to all of this and milk the systems for what they’re worth, while lower difficulties focus on allowing you to enjoy the sheer spectacle of battle.
There’s a fair amount of exploration and discovery to indulge in as well. Keeping your eyes open for things that can be axed, shot, burned and so on will typically result in rewards ranging from health upgrades to currency to more gear. God of War’s RPG elements like the gear and stat systems, in fact, seem implemented largely to encourage exploration and punish players on higher difficulties who try to blitz through the game. Toward that end I can’t say I’m especially impressed with these systems; I’d prefer cosmetic options rather than requiring a stat grind in order to stay on par with increasingly more powerful foes. Still, the amount of variety available is appreciated and the game ends up being surprisingly content-rich given its exorbitant production values as a result.
Yeah, those production values are no joke, by the way. You’ve seen videos and ads, I’m sure, you know what I’m talking about. God of War is a graphical treat; the overall presentation owes a lot to modern superhero films and the like, sure, but that’s not necessarily a negative. Likewise, sound and voice acting are solid, though Atreus can be a little too chatty both in and out of combat. Likewise, God of War runs into a bit of an issue regarding checkpoints; on higher difficulties you’ll often find yourself replaying fights, and that in turn can mean replaying long cutscenes which is more than a little irritating.
Still, the good certainly outweighs the bad throughout this new God of War. The game’s new direction was a huge opportunity for the formula to fall apart – if there had been a significant shift in focus from combat to storytelling, leaving the latter underutilized, for instance. Fortunately that’s not what happened. We ended up with that rarest of games: a title that embraces an interesting plot and cinematic elements without necessarily leaving gameplay behind. That’s a win for pretty much everyone. Check this one out and prepare for the inevitable series of sequels.