It’s only April, but God of War is already a strong contender for Game of the Year. One of the single most compelling reasons to own a PlayStation 4 in 2018, God of War strikes an elegant balance between surprisingly thoughtful storytelling, bone-crunching combat, and addictive RPG-style mechanics that will keep you playing into the wee hours of the morning. Trust me on that–late-night God of War sessions have made me late for work no fewer than three times in the past week. This is a spoiler-free review-in-progress as I have yet to finish the game, but having spent approximately 25 to 30 hours battling my way tooth and nail through mystical planes, fending off all manner of fell beasts, and clashing with Norse gods, I can safely say that unless something truly atrocious happens in the game’s finale, it is rocketing right to the top of my ongoing “Best of 2018” list. Once I complete the game, I will update this review to reflect that.
The first thing you’ll notice about God of War is that it’s a gorgeous game. With sprawling vistas, screen-filling bosses, and visceral combat, you will want every pixel of processing power available to you to enjoy God of War in its fullest glory. Every animation from tender cutscenes between Kratos and his son Atreus to stunning moments like the World Serpent Jormungandr erupting from the watery deep are rendered with excruciating attention to detail. This review was conducted on a normal PlayStation 4 using a review copy provided by Sony Interactive Entertainment of America. Having tried the game on a PS4 Pro in 4K, I can safely assert that the PS4 Pro version is one of the most dazzling graphical displays I’ve experienced. That being said, the game still looked terrific on my regular old PS4 and on my regular old TV.
Addictive, frenetic combo-based combat has always been the bread and butter of the God of War series, allowing you to pummel your enemies into a fine red mist, and perform all manner of brutal finishing moves on a wide variety of mythological beasts. This time around, Kratos has left Greece behind for the land of Norse mythology, which comes with a host of nasty new enemies for him to face. From undead draugr to gruesome ogres to dragons so large that defeating them seems impossible, the creature design never disappoints. You’ll need to use every skill at your disposal, too, if you want to defeat the game’s myriad enemies as God of War will throw wave after wave of nasties at you and pit you against bosses that will test your strategic mettle. With multiple difficulty settings, the game is as challenging as you want it to be. I suggest playing on medium or higher if you want to experience just how deep this combat system can truly be.
While the game still employs the occasional quick-time event—a mode of frantic button pushing to make a cutscene feel interactive that the series popularized way back when—it avoids over reliance on the outdated game mechanic by putting you into dynamic, fast-paced combat situations where you must use your Leviathan Axe (and its magical boomerang like qualities), tactical evasion, and well-timed arrow strikes from Kratos’ son Atreus in order to survive. As you slaughter enemies and complete quests, you will accrue experience points and hacksilver (the game’s currency), which you can spend on upgrading combat skills and items, respectively. There is a rich RPG-style character progression here that gives you a tangible sense of evolution as you conquer your way through the myriad planes of this frozen Norse land you now find yourself in. (Pro-tip: upgrade Atreus’ arrows to do stun damage and thank me later.)
When it was revealed at E3 2016 that Kratos wasn’t just a daddy, bur rather a father, my eyebrows raised because everything we saw screamed of glorified escort quest. Thankfully, as I learned from both my hands-on gameplay preview and countless hours playing the game, that isn’t the case. It was something that the development team was well aware of, too.
“We knew out of the gate—being fans of games ourselves and AI in general—that we didn’t want to have to manage this character,” Shroff told me earlier this year.
The result feels like a companion character who can aid and abet you in combat, help keep you on track when you feel lost trying to complete an objective, point out items you may have missed, and resurrect you when you perish during a particularly grueling fight (provided, of course, that you purchased a resurrection stone from your friendly local dwarf merchant). Atreus never felt like a burden to me during my time playing the game; rather, I came to rely on him especially during combat, strategically pressing the square button to unleash a salvo of shock arrows which stunned my opponent, providing Kratos with an opening to pulverize them into a Jackson Pollock painting on the frozen tundra.
While the gameplay mechanics are incredibly polished and unreasonably addictive, God of War‘s greatest asset is its storytelling, which took me by surprise. Tragedy, regret, and wistfulness pervade God of War‘s storytelling as Kratos and Atreus make their way to the top of a mountain to bid farewell to a loved one. Echoes of Kratos’ past, which he is reticent to discuss, haunt the warrior-turned-reluctant father, dogging his every step. It is a legacy of blood, fire, and violence that threatens to consume not only Kratos once more, but his son as well–and the thought of that happening terrifies the itinerant god. Ripping the wings off of a dark elf and harpooning it with its own spear is second-nature to Kratos; being emotionally vulnerable and placing a comforting hand on his son’s shoulder during times of struggle are not. It’s an astonishing amount of character development for someone who I had largely written off as a one-dimensional rage avatar. And most of all, it made me feel personally invested in God of War in a way I never could have expected.
God of War isn’t just a game that I’ll be thinking about for a long time, but playing and replaying as well. With countless collectibles, secret areas, hidden mini-bosses, and a seemingly endless amount of challenges to complete, the game feels incredibly repayable, which is important given its lack of multiplayer and $60 price tag. My complaints are few and far between. This is not your father’s God of War. This is *your* God of War and now you are the father. It’s a surprising and thoughtful evolution for the series, showing an emotional maturity that makes it perhaps my favorite entry in the franchise to date.
Images: Sony Interactive Entertainment; Santa Monica Studio
Dan Casey is the senior editor of Nerdist and the author of books about Star Wars and the Avengers. Follow him on Twitter (@DanCasey).