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God of War Review: A Perfect Return for a Flawed Hero

The latest entry in the God of War series feels older and wiser, and is fun as hell to play.

Editor's Choice

Our Verdict

The latest entry in the God of War series feels older and wiser, and is fun as hell to play.

For

  • Excellent father-son story
  • Polished combat mechanics
  • Beautiful, massive world

Against

  • A few graphical stutters

If you're looking for a rage monster swinging his a pair of chained swords with reckless abandon, this is not the game for you. But if you're looking for a mature game with some gratuitous, yet stylish violence thrown in for good measure, then please keep reading.

The Cat's in the Cradle

This isn't the Kratos you remember from the previous God of War titles. This Kratos is somber, grieving and a bit scared. After seemingly destroying the world as we knew it in God of War III and beating his father, Zeus, to a bloody, mushy pulp, the titular demigod has run afoul of the Norse pantheon. And instead of cutting a swath of destruction through the land so deep that you'd hear the gnashing of teeth and lamentations in your dreams, Kratos has settled down and gotten a family.

But this is Kratos we're talking about, and nothing comes ever comes easy for him. At the start of the story, we find him and his adolescent son, Atreus, searching for a specific type of wood for a cremation — for Kratos' wife. Once the father-son pair has immolated the body, Kratos gathers the ashes to fulfill his lover's last wish and spread them at the top of the nearby mountain. However, before father and son can begin the trip, Kratos has to hide his son when a mysterious stranger accosts the father. Odin knows that Kratos is here, the stranger says, and does not appreciate the Greek's presence.

So, Kratos and Atreus embark on a quest to honor their lost loved one, and the path is fraught with danger, magic and mystery. But the biggest obstacle is the distance between father and son. How does a god in exile, who succeeds through sheer rage, stubbornness and a twinge of myopia, find the tenderness needed to nurture his growing son in the boy's time of need? After all, this is the same Kratos who killed his daughter at the start of the series and later forsook her when he reunited with her in the Elysian fields in a later title.

Throughout the game, I wanted to throw my controller at the screen when Kratos would go to comfort his son, only to think better of it and draw his hand back. For the love of Zeus and Odin, Kratos, give that child a hug! But this is a sentimentality I've gained as I've gotten older. I'm curious how a younger gamer, battle-hardened by hundreds of hours of gameplay, will feel about this new relationship.

Combat: Violent but measured

In this new GoW, you won't necessarily be tearing out a cyclops's eye while the camera lovingly pans and zooms over the gore. That's not to say that the game isn't violent — heavens no. During my time exploring the Nine Realms, I've impaled a dark elf with his own spear and torn the still-glowing, beating heart from a golem. I've also grabbed a wraith-like witch by the face and torn her head off — so yeah, plenty of violence.

But developer Santa Monica Studio has definitely matured in the way it tackles violence. The colors are richer, and the textures more detailed, especially when you're playing on the PlayStation 4 Pro on a 65-inch Samsung television. I started playing by myself, but quickly had an audience of my coworkersoohing and ahhing at the action. By then, I had unlocked enough moves on the skill tree for both Atreus and Kratos that combat looked like a beautiful ballet. While Kratos dove into battle, using his physicality to bludgeon, slam, kick and grab, Atreus used his bow to stun enemies and provide a bit of crowd control, keeping the hostile numbers manageable.

Depending on the skills you have unlocked, you can aim Kratos' Leviathan ax like a sniper rifle to get precision headshots at range, or you can send it spinning into a crowd of hostiles like a whirling dervish of death. Best of all, when the carnage is done, or when you want to just bury the weapon in the head of a foolish foe, you can call the ax back to Kratos' waiting hand with a quick tap of the triangle button.

During my time exploring the Nine Realms, I've impaled a dark elf with his own spear and torn the still-glowing, beating heart from a golem.

Currently, my build of Atreus has him shooting off three arrows at a time to disperse enemies. He can also summon a magical frost wolf to dispatch foes. But just because he's small, don't think that Atreus can't go toe to toe with some baddies. Depending on the armor, you can unlock a number of melee traits. For instance, Atreus will jump on an enemy's shoulders and choke them out with his bowstring or throw Kratos a health boost if Dad's low on energy. Atreus can even revive his father when Kratos has been knocked out.

Ultimately, Atreus is the evolution of the smart AI-assistant dynamic we praised in BioShock Infinite with Booker and Elizabeth. Similar to Elizabeth, Atreus' relationship with his father drives the story. However, in combat, Atreus takes things a step further than what you saw in BioShock, thanks to his dynamic combat skills. There was never a time when I worried that he wouldn't be there to provide ample support. And even when I'm not directing where his arrows should go, he's a competent-enough companion that can hold his own.

Open World: The Odyssey meets The Road

The God of War series has typically been a linear experience, with a bit of backtracking thrown in for a touch of exploration. This latest edition of GoW is still linear; however, the world is anything but. The set pieces are massive, with nooks and crannies just aching to be explored. Right now, my favorite place to return to is the Sea of Nine, which is littered with islands that you can explore.

The strangely placid waters are always foggy, which makes navigating on a small canoe a bit tense, especially when you have only a small lantern to light the way. But, suddenly, the fog lifts, and you find yourself in front of a hulking statue of Thor or by an abandoned village with a chained dragon. In another part of the game, I traveled to a different realm that had gorgeous bridges made of light, big, purple flowers and graceful, but-murderous dark elves, all under a rose-pink sky.

In another part of the game, you'll encounter a huge face carved into a mountain, with billows of midnight-black smoke pouring from the nose and mouth. My point is: Explore as much as possible.

Not only are you going to encounter some incredible sights and sounds, but you'll also find that many of those trips lead to hidden treasure chests. These can yield new armor, power boosts or items that you can sell to a vendor. Santa Monica Studio made a gorgeous game that you shouldn't rush through. Don't be afraid to stop and enjoy the scenery, as well as the dialogue between Kratos and Atreus.

Armor, Stats and Skills — Oh, My!

Similar to what you find on other GoW titles, you're not a god-killing badass at the start of the game. The skills that allow for those fancy air-juggles and devastating shoulder slams will have to be earned throughout the course of the game. But instead of using the blood-red souls of your enemies, you'll purchase abilities via experience points. Kratos has four sets of skill trees to Atreus' two. With Kratos, you can enhance ranged, close, rage and shield attacks, while Atreus has trees for magic and expert combat.

Outside of a quick video for each skill in its respective tree, the game doesn't hold your hand when it comes to putting together effective combos. It's up to you to learn what moves work best against which enemies. But before you panic, know that Atreus' journal doles out some helpful tips via the bestiary. Once you get the hang of it, GoW becomes an exercise in strategic strikes and dodges, instead of frantic button-mashing. 

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Previous GoW titles took a couple of popular components from role-playing games and used them to great effect. This is the first GoW in the series that incorporates stats in various armaments like tunics and bracers. Most armor pieces will directly affect Kratos' attributes, including strength, vitality, luck, cooldown and defense. However, some armor will feature a slot or two for an enchantment or a talisman, which can unlock passive abilities like getting a small health boost with every ax kill. Best of all, armor, talismans and enchantments can all be upgraded to get more-powerful attacks.

Bottom Line    

God of War has come a long way. The series began as a bloody good romp through the Greek pantheon with a devil-may-care attitude, and it slowly fleshed out the torment of a man turned god. The latest iteration of the franchise takes that legacy and expands upon it brilliantly, delivering a mature story that allows Kratos to grow up. Now, the titular God of War can fully reflect on his past deeds and try to impart some of his hard-earned wisdom to his son, all while attempting to establish a meaningful relationship with said child. Add in an evolved take on the GoW combat system, smartly integrated stats and skills, and an absolutely gorgeous world, and you have a game that I plan to complete a couple of times over. You should too.

Credit: Tom's Guide