With five years between him and his last adventure (the PS3 God of War prequel Ascension), the Spartan Kratos has grown the hell up. Or maybe we should say he's matured to the point of being able to focus his anger. Whereas previously he seemed a caricature of rage and boundless, one-dimensional fury, he's calmer and more collected now. He's also gained heart since the last outing in his timeline, a series of events that found him killing Zeus (also his dad), boning Aphrodite and then … disappearing maybe? Regardless, he's shown up in the Norse realm of Midgard, made himself a life with a woman, sired a kid and grown a totally sick beard. Everything is alright.
But when his wife dies, the entire coterie of Norse gods comes a-knocking for reasons unknown and, if he's ever gonna spread his lost love's ashes with the help of his son Atreus, he'll have to fight them all. Damn, how many gods can one demigod run afoul of?
God of War returns with a vengeance, using director Cory Barlog's long-desired no-cuts method (as in no camera cuts; a method he tried to make happen while working on Crystal Dynamics' excellent 2013 Tomb Raider reboot and, reportedly, other IPs he had a hand in, to no avail) to great affect. From ferocious fight scenes and open world exploration to seamlessly implemented cinematic moments, this game runs like a dream and drives home a singular, uninterrupted experience like nothing before it.
Everything is more beautiful, too (an intense thing to say about a long line of gorgeous games), from the lush forests of Anyplace, Scandinavia, to the monsters, allies, alternate realms and even Kratos himself. There is actual emotion conveyed through his eyes now, a world-weary sadness from a lifetime of loss and slashing fools. Kratos still has some fight left in him, but as one character points out early, he's older now. Wiser? Yes, but even more determined to lay his love to rest as she wished and to live a quiet life with his son.
Story elements feel drawn from the likes of Naughty Dog's The Last of Us while the once-frenetic combo-based combat mechanics play out a little slower and more methodically. Our hero now uses the Leviathan Axe, a weapon that feels much heavier than those of previous games, and an ice-based tool inherited from his dead wife. He also unlocks any number of upgrades to be purchased from quibbling dwarf brothers and blacksmiths Brock and Sindri, who find themselves along Kratos and Atreus' path throughout the game. Further adding depth are craftable and upgradable armor sets broken up into chest, waist and wrist pieces that—get this—actually provide a cosmetic difference in-game. Like most objectives, these can be found throughout the nine realms in the game and actually look like they'd be crafted in the fiery, volcanic mountains of Muspelheim or picked up in the elven land of Alfheim. These sets look cool and provide various strength and combo bonuses, such as a reduced cool-down time for special attacks and abilities or the passive ability to add a little health or a shield to Kratos while in a sticky situation. He can also fight bare-handed and use any number of combo and special attacks that make use of his super-cool retractable shield.
Meanwhile, Kratos' son almost provides the most fun as a sort of NPC/on-rails attack partner. Atreus represents another layer of combat and also has access to upgradable armor sets as well as arrows imbued with special properties. These work great in combat or for reaching new areas in a way similar to Metroid. As a character, Atreus softens Kratos, a stream of steady questions babbling from his mouth and consistent lessons in morality that come in the form of urging his dad to help someone out or wondering what his life was like before he met the mother. We begin to form a real connection with him and know how Kratos feels when he struggles to convey his feelings to his boy properly while also preparing him for the harsh realities of the world.
Everything is grander in scale campaign-wise, too, and rather than embrace a mostly linear experience like previous games in the series, the new God of War provides side missions (known here as favors) that send Kratos and Atreus into deep mines or across vast lakes, to the top of mountains or into once-inhabited dwarven settlements. These quests add hours and gameplay, yes, but they also strengthen the father-son relationship and generally have a meaningful impact on the overall narrative. That's almost shocking given how most games' side objectives are thinly veiled time-adders.
Clocking in at around 40 hours, God of War is the longest in the series and a new benchmark in every way—for games as a whole, even. Even when backtracking or dealing with a particularly hard battle, the drive for answers thrust Kratos, Atreus and the player ever forward to the utterly satisfying and emotional ending. This one, practically flawless and endlessly fun, will be hard to top for years to come and speaks volumes about the future of single-player narrative-based experiences. They're far from dead and we couldn't be more excited about that.
Our reviewer played on a PS4 Pro in Performance Mode.
+Gorgeous, massive in scope, endlessly fun and brilliantly written
-We got nothing
God of War
Rated M (there will be blood)
PS4 and PS4 Pro