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You are my son. You’re better than anyone. You’re like a shiny, new, toy. You are my boy.

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    God of War

    Rating: 4.0 – Great

    You are my son. You’re better than anyone. You’re like a shiny, new, toy. You are my boy.

    The God of War series never really clicked for me. They’re not bad games or anything; I like the settings and the hack ‘n’ slashing since I don’t mind some juvenile power fantasy from time to time, but the QTE reliance always lead me to put them aside after a couple of hours, never to return. So when this new edition rebooted the series by changing the characters, tone, setting and gameplay I was intrigued.

    On paper this new version sounds personally crafted to me. I like character based journeys about bonding like The Last of Us or Life is Strange. I like slower methodical combat like Dark Souls and Nioh more than intricate fighting games. I like having downtime from the action to explore areas for secrets and puzzles. I should love this, but I don’t. I definitely like it but stunning visuals and combat aside this didn’t impress me in most of its core focuses.

    Let me feast my eyes on that boy

    Ocarina of War.

    Before I get into what does and doesn’t work, the thing that stands out most is the structure which reminds me of pre-Breath of the Wild Zelda of all things. Despite the numerous Last of Us jabs the game receives thanks to the precocious scamp sidekick, God of War is built out of four distinct primary aspects; combat, puzzles, exploration and story. These are present in surprisingly even volumes; it’s rare to successively face two rooms with the same focus. This balance is the primary drawback beyond the actual execution. It only does one of these things poorly but it also only does one incredibly well, leaving that other 75% of the time feeling lacklustre and moments of brilliance as quick flashes rather than extended runs.

    This negatively affects the pacing. It takes ages to establish any individual element since it can’t dump an hour of development into any concept when there’s three hours of other stuff mixed in too. It takes a dozen hours for the story to raise the stakes and gain propulsion. It takes almost as long for the combat to gain its eventual lively functionality. It takes twice that to unlock enough mechanics to avoid a frustrating succession of locked doors when exploring, during which time puzzles are locked to single braindead mechanic ad nauseam.

    Oh why’d you call me sir? Why don’t you call me daddy?

    The biggest victim of this is the combat. At its peak God of War is a fantastic onslaught of visually intense gratuitous slaughter with a great variety of satisfying options at your disposal. Most combat I’ve really loved over the last few years has been interesting due to the weapons themselves and enemy behaviours, like how every Souls game has 75 movesets or how Horizon Zero Dawn relies on basic shooter inputs with the depth coming from the disparate capabilities of each tool. God of War isn’t that at all. You’ve got an axe. You’ve got a boy. Go to town.

    Combat is all about managing many simultaneous threats by firing off massive AOE attacks, combos, heavy strikes, boy shots, axe throws, bare handed beat downs, gorgeous take downs, basic juggles and musou onslaughts. All in all God of War uses 13 buttons on the controller to execute no less than thirty-six different moves by my count, and putting it all together feels amazing. There’s a lot of complexity which in the past often used a quick QTE or combo entry to execute a flashy animation. This balances the "you made that happen" pleasure I love with a considerable amount of visual flair, with the extra animations from landed charged cleaves or glory kills feeling well earned.

    Chop chop dig dig

    Sadly the combat is screwed over by two pacing issues. Big gripping fights are far too infrequent; it doesn’t need more action since the enemy pool runs dry by the end, but a tighter 20 hours of combat would carry the momentum better than this stretched out 30. It could be said having many safe areas builds tension since assaults are less predictable, but fighting is the best thing in the game by a large margin so this much downtime feels wasteful. Spreading out the battles so much kills off any growing intensity; the excitement builds towards a crescendo of action, only to pump the brakes to make room for some rock climbing.

    Additionally Kratos starts off incredibly hobbled and it takes an unforgivably long time before that enormous moveset becomes available. Things start with only a light/heavy attack pairing and one basic juggle; axe throws can’t even be properly incorporated into it yet. Incredibly basic moves such as charged attacks, sprinting attacks, heavy combo finishers, and dodge attacks aren’t available when you begin. Leaving these basic things inaccessible until gear is levelled up a few times is a woeful first impression that lasts hours. When the second weapon is introduced at the mid-point it does the same thing! Once again dragging that momentum and thrill back to a crawl for no damn reason. God of War is a richly versatile high-octane action game at its fullest so I can’t fathom why they’d sacrifice that just to push some unsatisfying RPG progression. The discoverable runic attacks and second weapon are easily enough character growth for a pure action game without all this stalling.

    This isn’t what I had in mind when I badmouthed QTE bosses.

    While most combat is that fantastic mob slaughterfest, the series is also known for its boss fights, and God of War 2018 sure… has boss fights. In the past these were often massive spectacles which had Kratos savagely dismembering his foes in gorgeous cinematics I had to ignore to avoid missing all the QTE prompts, here things are a lot smaller. Monsters directly engage in combat and must bested in a real-time fight, and while there are some cinematic scenes shown between volleys they require little to no input of your own and function as videos for spectacle rather than a Simon Says exam. This is typically my bread and butter, but Santa Monica Studios forgot this type of conflict demands quality opposition.

    Introducing CCOHMOCMTYFEs: Continue Cutscene Or Have Methed Out Conor McGregor Taunt You Forever Events.

    There’s an inordinate number of troll and ogre reskins with flashy new names and they’re never good. It isn’t really their fault, Kratos is the one dude in the realm with a magic boomerang axe and a tyke with a rapid fire lightning bow; they bought a stone pillar to a gun fight. It was never going to go well for them, but big and slow is incompatible with a fast and explosive frenzy so it seems odd how often they’re keen to try. God of War‘s combat is definitely designed with mob slaughter in mind, so whenever one of these bosses shows up as a big lumbering target it just doesn’t fit in with how the combat works.

    On a positive note the elf boss was the point where I first noticed I was having fun. The Super God Brothers is the most mechanically satisfying battle in the story. Baldur also delivers in a big way despite not evolving much beyond his first half hour appearance, particularly one featuring an obscenely epic setting. The Valkyries are fantastic but are tucked out of the way, optional, and are almost as repetitive as the trolls. There’s only a solitary giant dragon spectacle fight which works as a Zelda styled "use the weakness while staying alive" puzzle while still squeezing in the flair of the old QTE-fests. And that’s it, everything else is one of three flavours of slow moving troll giant and it blows.

    I just praised every single other boss in the game as having some worth, yet overall the bosses are extremely dour because there’s more than twice as many of these god forsaken things than everything else combined. Gate keeper for the realm of the dead? That’s a troll. Final security method for a God’s tomb? That’s a troll. Guardian of the frozen mountain? That’s a troll. Ultimate guardian of the gate hidden outside of reality itself? Troll.

    "Of course it’s different, there’s two now!" – Cory Balrog

    It’s not like trolls have the license for reuse spam however. There’s only two boss in the entire game that only appear once, everything else is repeated. I am generally quite partial to boss return since I like getting a reminded of how much I’ve improved, but not when it’s the whole game.

    Why yes, there are "Your Mum" jokes.

    The story also has to manage two forms of pacing, but thankfully it nails one of them. God of War is surprisingly snappy with its scenes, managing a largely personal bonding story without dragging down the pace. Scenes rarely last more than a couple of minutes without allowing the player to run off to make progress, but they’re frequent enough and punctuated with enough idle chatter while exploring to keep you involved. I never felt frustration with how long any segments were or that my time was being wasted, yet I was also never any risk of losing sight of the story at hand.

    The pacing issue which doesn’t work is yet again that damn first dozen hours. While the effective opening segment setting up the mourning family is very strong narratively, and the arrival of The Stranger is a wonderful scene which provides a solid impetus for the story, it then aimlessly chugs along for the next third of the game. Big Daddy’s dead wife wanted her ashes spread on the highest mountain in all the realms because she was a jerk like that, so you climb the tallest mountain you can find for like nine hours. Dad and Boy make a terrible pairing throughout this period as Kratos is mostly stoic and distant, resulting in one sided conversations where most discussions are more mechanical than impactful.

    The Greek God’s transition from all conquering maniac in the old games to measured mentor figure all happened off screen, so for the first act all I could think about was the much more interesting character event that occurred in the past. I spent most of the silent & naive bonding tour thinking about stories I’d rather be watching than what was offered. Maybe we’ll get a Mumtos and Dadtos Adventure spin off one day.

    Hover hand: All the pulsating pathos of a shy middle schooler’s failed flirting.

    Thankfully act two races along at an exciting tempo as decisions and outcomes snowball upon one another. You get a third companion, finally allowing for proper banter between the party instead of one-sided statements and terse silence. The Norse gods start throwing their weight around and the quest gets complicated. Things happen to characters besides walking up hills. Locales shift from endless mines to unique settings like the corpse of a frozen giant and the opulent chambers of Gods. It really is wonderful once it’s firing on all cylinders, and the bite sized pacing of individual scenes kept me entertained narratively but never passive as a player.

    Row, row, row your boy, gently down the fjord.

    We’ve done the great and the good, now it’s time to look at the deadweight consistently bringing all that down. God of War handles exploration and traversal in a number of ways with many different goals and it’s mostly alright. On the positive front the realms are obviously gorgeous so it’s nice to soak in on a visual level at least.

    They say a picture is worth 1000 words, but this is the word "pretty" repeatedly scrawled all over a maniac’s walls and ceiling.

    Layout is again reminiscent of Nintendo’s flagship elf-boy series with a largely linear progression featuring plenty of more open areas to wander about between setpieces. Bonus optional areas to plunder are effectively tacked onto the main path as often as possible to avoid feeling like a restrictive corridor despite the tight direction. I’m not sure why a game with side routes filled with valuable loot decided to have a child irritatingly complain that you’re going off script when you go exploring, seems like it’d make people hate a child and we wouldn’t want that.

    You suck, boy.

    God of War also spices up getting around with some very basic climbing, jumping and strongmanning. The climbing stands out because there’s too much of it so it quickly becomes unnecessary filler between combat and story beats. It does the Horizon Zero Dawn thing where climbing is limited to obvious yellow markers, and for a little flavour there’ll be some rigid jumping prompts that can’t be failed. It’s dry but acceptable stuff. Sadly Kratos is slower than Aloy and there’s twice as much climbing even though the game is a third as long. It goes past "mundane distraction from the core activity" and deeply into "when do they get to the firework factory?" territory.

    I have a weird but vehement personal distaste for the strongman sections too, simply due to the use of button prompts in a feeble attempt to make grand feats of strength feel more massive. It doesn’t. Stop. It does nothing but remind me that I’m a weak naked man lying in a puddle of his own filth, alone, playing video games in the dark; exactly what a game is meant to make me forget. Do it again and I’ll dock a point for every asinine thumb tap you demand, Sony.

    No, mashing circle doesn’t make me feel like I’m lifting a bridge. Stop.

    Aside from my personal vendetta there is another major exploration misstep; backtracking. God of War carves out a 30 hour runtime from not all that much space. You’ve got the woodlands surrounding the house, the mountain path to the Witch’s house, the Lake of the Nine, the mountain, the giant’s corpse, the elf realm, the frozen Hel realm, and the challenge realms. That’s not much real estate for such a long time, so it relies on endless backtracking.

    In what is largely a strength of the game, God of War features a persistent camera completely without cuts. While barely notable in this age of open worlds as far as exploration goes, it does result in dynamic camerawork thanks to the stunning direction in narrative scenes. This has a genuine director’s touch in the way the camera moves so gracefully during a scene to hit the perfect angles in a fluid manner. A great early example is The Stranger’s arrival scene which manages to go from father and son interacting in their home, to something landing on the roof and dramatically panning around showing the panic of the characters, to meeting The Stranger and finally framing shots between them like the "You do not want this fight" square up and well posed taunts, all executed perfectly without any unnatural movements. Very few movies match the magnificent direction here.

    The downside is that real-time walking is the only way to get from scene to scene, and with that stumpy list of locales that means re-treading old paths. The best way to explain is to show an example, so the following is the journey taken in the second act:

    Atop the mountain a plot twist forces a return back down it, to the bridge, to the witches house, back to the bridge, the frozen giant, back to the bridge where another plot twist sends you back to the witch, then back home with an admittedly interesting scene rather than manual travel, but then it’s back to the witch, then back to the bridge, to Helheim, back to the bridge, back to the witch, then back to the bridge, a little subsection, before finally once again up the mountain and its summit.

    For one plot thread taking around 6-10 hours that’s five bridge trips, four witch visits, and a second trip through the major segment of the first act, all largely unchanged. The world is pokey so most of the trips are only two to four minutes of running and rowing but holy mother of Thor does it add up. Oddly enough a couple of these trips are kind enough to offer a teleport, but only those couple, the rest are uninterrupted tedious backtracking. What’s more since they’re all theoretically "gameplay" segments, there’s no chance of skipping them on a replay. I’m a one and done guy, but this stuff bored me the first time around and would understandably send replayers bonkers.

    If all this plot backtracking wasn’t enough the game is also deeply in love with optional "come back later" backtracking too. The idea was to have a Metroidvania style progression where new abilities shifted how you see the world, but blocked areas are usually just treasure or boss rooms rather than major new sections to discover. This makes free exploration mostly a waste of time until you’re finished with the game. Sure you could immediately go find places to dock after obtaining the boat, but there’s usually something that needs an ability unlocked later in the story before it can be completely finished, so why bother? Honestly by the time I’d gathered the tools to not get blocked every time I took a major trip off the path I was completely done with exploring; I couldn’t think of anything worse than going back to the stupid lake for the 29th time just to do some sidequests and fight more reskinned bosses.

    A Zelda dungeon where Link has massive brain trauma.

    I already am, you loser kid.

    Unlike all the other concepts which are held back by the pacing, the "mind-benders" Santa Monica Studios provide are codswallop pure and simple. Simple being the operative word. You know how the Zelda formula can be a little unfulfilling at times because the solution always uses the dungeon item? Now imagine that a Zelda game had a single item for 15 hours and you’ve got God of War‘s puzzles. The axe breaks glowing blue jars and freezes glowing glyphs on contact, that’s the first 850 horrendous puzzles in this nightmare. Eventually you get lighting arrows which blow up red stuff, and green energy balls that can be moved to other green energy balls. That’s it for the whole goddamn game.

    This is the only puzzle I found that required two different concepts in unison. It’s twenty-three hours in.

    To put it in perspective this stuff is used as frequently as combat and adventure rooms. You can’t go more than 90 seconds without finding a barrier that needs to be conquered with the shocking power of throwing an axe at a switch. When I complained about great content feeling drawn out since it keeps getting interrupted, this is what holds up that progress. I guess I made things worse by opening the sealed puzzle chests scattered throughout the game, but that’s how health is upgraded so ya know, not overly optional.

    Other things are so dim-witted I don’t know whether to call it puzzles or part of the exploration. Most notable is the sealed doors which require a stupid hot and cold minigame because there is literally nothing more fun than an arbitrarily annoying to open door. There’s the crystal pillar segments which involve carrying a pillar to a pedestal somewhere else in the same room because jog-restricted backtracking is stimulating as hell. Finally there’s making magic paths by shooting arrows at the bright blue targets, which is braindead because they glow bright blue. I only found one of these that tried to obfuscate matters and… you be the judge:

    I’ve had bullies that respect my intellect more than Atreus does.

    It’d be hackneyed to close out with a "Be Better" quote wouldn’t it? "Be Less Poop", yeah that’s more like it.

    God of War 2018 is good sporadically great game that is definitely worth playing, but I’d recommend doing it sooner rather than later as I believe it’ll be rendered obsolete in the near future. It’s hampered by a lot of weaknesses, but if Santa Monica Studios know what they’re doing the solutions are blindingly obvious, and judging by how polished this is I’m confident they’ve got their heads on straight.

    The gimped starting point for combat can easily be buffed to something closer to what you end with to make things fun right out of the gate, while there’s still room for jumping modifiers or dedicated grab attacks to expand it further. The enemy variety already suits horde warfare well, but simply add half a dozen extra types which need to be handled slightly more strategically to the fray and it’ll be gold. The basic fighting concept is set so they should be able to invest more time into designing unique bosses instead of just copy pasting the same five over and over like placeholders.

    The story is already at the "face the wrath of the Gods" stage and the father and son dynamic has been resolved, so the narrative can get right into the big developments and tensions that the sequel hook dumps on us in the ending, leaving no need for a boring first act. They will have heard enough feedback about the backtracking, padding, and trash-fire puzzle solving to trim each by three hours.

    Also they can just fall back on stuff like this whenever they like

    These developers are more than talented enough to make these enhancements; they don’t need to reinvent the wheel, they just need to stick an engine on their cart. For that reason I think whatever follows is going to absolutely crush this one. Still, even in this flawed form there’s a lot of brilliance to enjoy and a polish and care put into it that is basically unparalleled, so get in before it becomes quaint.

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