Is God Of War As Good As People Say?

When God of War (2018) had finally been delivered to the masses, it was smothered with 9’s and 10’s out of adoration by virtually every respectable review outlet known to man. The praise was due to a culmination of the game’s great graphics, an in-game camera that never cuts away, a more measured approach to combat, its story, side-quests, and open world design. Just like that, any and all concerns associated with the studio’s decision to change the franchise so drastically had melted away overnight.

But is God of War really one of the best games of all time?

For those unfamiliar with God of War’s previous story, it was about a man turned demigod by the name of Kratos. He pledged his life on the battlefield to Ares, the original god of war, for victory in return. As a result, Kratos was granted great power and had a pair of blades permanently chained to his forearms. He used these to carry out the god’s bidding time and time again, but his thirst for blood was redirected when his wife and daughter were killed by his own hands. He destroyed Ares and became the new god of war, but was then forsaken by the remaining pantheon up on Mount Olympus. Needless to say, this didn’t go over well and Kratos went on his most destructive rampage yet, not stopping until Zeus was reduced to little more than a bloody pulp. This was the end of the main trilogy, leaving Kratos’ fate ambiguous to the audience.

2018’s God of War picks up many years later. Kratos has aged, settled in to the world of Norse mythology, had seemingly found a new love and had a son. The woman of his life recently deceased, to respect her wishes, he and the boy are tasked with releasing her ashes from atop the highest mountain in all the land. But before they’re able to set off proper, a mysterious stranger appears with an ominous message, something along the lines of, “We know who you are and you’re not welcome here.” With nowhere to hide, the demigod and his boy – a mere survivalist in training (you can’t quite call him a warrior, not yet) – decide to push forward with the task at hand before something worse catches up with them.

It’s a straightforward premise to be sure, but the heart and soul of this adventure is the relationship between Kratos and Atreus. It’s clear that Kratos was too busy providing for his family to be much of a father, and when he was around, the pressure he put on his son had strained their relationship. Kratos was all business and no play, and unlike his actions in Greece, we can sort of understand why. He knows the world is full of unsavory beasts and beings, and if his boy is to survive, he needs tough love.

Some of the more critical fans out there don’t care for Atreus’ inclusion, because he’s not just there at the beginning, but stays by Kratos’ side throughout. This isn’t unlike Ellie from The Last of Us, but she, wittier and wiser than her years let on, was a far compelling companion.

Personally, I don’t love Atreus but I don’t hate him. I appreciate Atreus because he’s roughly my son’s age and acts the part. When it comes to exploring the world he’s quite green but also acts like he knows everything. So, when the game wants you to explore every nook and cranny to find all the hidden goodies, Atreus attempts to pull you off the path… and I can’t understand why. Is it to remind us how to get back to the main quest? I’ve yet to get lost in God of War and certainly don’t need Atreus’ help. This game may be open world, but it’s not Skyrim. In fact, I question the ‘open world’ claim in the first place (more on that in a bit). We really don’t need Atreus to mimic Ocarina of Time’s Navi – “Hey, LISTEN!” – and that’s something that every developer should do their best to avoid.

Atreus is a handy extension during battle though… eventually. He’s useless at the beginning, but the more he learns (and the more you upgrade his skillset), the more he’s able to help. Halfway through the game the kid is a bonafide life saver. He’ll unleash arrows (at your command) that either stun or deal damage to foes, so he’s viable for reducing their health and managing crowd control. As he strengthens and grows, Kratos will acknowledge his child’s improvements and thus improves their bond. They still have their issues though. Kratos clearly wants to comfort his son but feels he can’t. Atreus wants a father figure but resents the one he has. This plays out in interesting ways.

Now, I’ve seen people say that the secondary characters are great, and they are… but only to a certain extent. They’re written and acted quite well, but God of War relies too much on recycling the few it has as opposed to presenting new ones. The two you’ll see time and time again are a pair of estranged dwarven brothers, and while they’re entertaining, you almost feel like they’re the only two characters you meet throughout the game. There are others, sure, but none as prominent as they are. The game does a good job of explaining how they manage to pop up in each location before Kratos and Atreus are even able to get there, but without an expansive cast to back them up, their inclusion makes God of War feel a bit hollow. You could certainly argue the previous games lacked in the same area, but they also weren’t nearly as story driven.

It’s worth noting that the story, by the way, is barely there. The writers do a decent job at exploring the world’s lore and providing some back information on its characters, but God of War never feels, at least narratively, as epic as its visuals. There’s some surprises, yes, but considering the slogging ‘slow burn’ technique employed – which I’m usually a fan of – those payoffs come way too late in the campaign.

But let’s get away from the narrative and cast and talk about design.

There’s been a lot of buzz about God of War’s open world and how you’re able to return to old areas to unlock things that were previously forecasted as late game content.

Personally, I don’t see it.

You could technically call this an open world, but it’s not, at least not in the strictest sense. It’s more like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (two references in one article… niiiiice). They N64 classic used Hyrule as a central hub area with each unique area branching off of that. God of War is quite similar as it uses a large lake as its central hub. Once you branch off to chase the story or side quests, things get extremely linear. The backdrops along the way are breathtaking and make your environment feel expansive, but from a travel perspective, you’re basically dealing with a bunch of corridors that are occasionally broken up by small battle arenas and puzzle rooms. This illusion of an open world mixed with the reality of linearity makes God of War feel like it has something of an identity crisis.

And by the way, even those linear paths can be a chore to traverse. Nearly every time you turn around, there’s a new chest just begging to be unlocked. There’s a few ways of doing this: by finding and smashing three vases with runes etched on them, by doing the same but with a strict time limit, or by rotating runic columns until you find the right combination. I applaud the developers for wanting to add more content to the game, but this is virtually all they offer until you’re at least halfway through the game. At that point, you have the option of going back to certain areas and engaging in battle with corrupted Valkyries, but the ‘open the chest’ variants are what make a good portion of this game’s ‘things to do’ list. You could blow past these time wasters to carry on with the main story, but then you have to live with knowing you probably passed up something that could have permanently increased your health.

Lack of variety also rears an ugly head with the adversaries you face. You pretty much go up against the same enemies over and over again, and that includes the mini-boss trolls. The surprising thing is that God of War seems to space out the major bosses few and far between. In my first fifteen hours or so, I think I’ve had three actual boss fights. Otherwise, the developers have said, “More trolls!” I believe Cory Barlog himself had stated that the reason there weren’t more epic boss battles is that they simply didn’t have time to include any. That’s a pretty big omission, considering the most memorable moments from previous installments had been going up against the Colossus of Rhodes, Poseidon, etc.

The combat itself feels pretty good, although it takes a bit of time before it finally gets to an appreciable state. The early game leaves Kratos with few moves and skills at his disposal, so it gets tiresome doing the same combination over and over again. But once you’re able to string more things together and can actually count on Atreus to help you out, it’s extremely fun to unleash upon the hordes of enemies that come your way. You can throw your axe, use it for melee, or drop it altogether and pound someone with your fists. The variety of ways in which you can approach your adversaries isn’t vast, but boy, does it feel good. But the fact that it takes some hours before combat feels fun is definitely a problem.

That’s really the running theme here, isn’t it? This game’s pacing feels off, mainly because while the game boasts about 30 hours of content (if you’re looking to do everything along the way), very little of what’s offered outside the main quest feels substantial. Instead, it’s just the same rigmarole on repeat ad nauseum. This game would have been much leaner, and for the better, if the developers stopped looking for excuses to pad things out. But they probably didn’t because despite what you’re led to feel with the ‘open world’ and all that ‘content’, most of the given areas in God of War aren’t very big… they just appear that way. These pacing issues are what caused me to take a break halfway through the game and come back a couple of months later, because I just got to a point where I felt like it wasn’t respecting my time.

That’s not to say that God of War isn’t a good game, because it most certainly is. It does plenty of things right, but for so many reviewers to overlook its flaws sort of baffles me. Some people say that God of War is the greatest game of all time. Some have said it’s the greatest game this generation. Others have said it’s the best game on the Playstation 4. I know my opinion is subjective, but I postulate that it’s neither of these things. I think what we’ve got is a game that didn’t have enough time in the proverbial oven to become fully realized, and that the studio was pretty darn lucky that everything shaped up as well as it did. With another year or maybe two, God of War probably could have reached the upper echelons of greatness that people already claim it’s at, but as of now, I think it’s just ‘pretty good’ with occasional flashes of greatness.

A 9 out of 10, in my opinion, it is not.

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Review: God of War III – Remastered (PS4)

The God of War franchise has dominated on the PS2, PS3, and PSP. The story isn’t exactly rich, nor the gameplay redefining, but there were few games that instilled the same sense of adrenaline and awe. Some criticize these games for being little more than mindless button mashers, which is valid to a certain degree. But the success of Santa Monica Studio’s mythological demigod has proven that simplicity doesn’t have to be a negative talking point. Games can be memorable for a variety of reasons, and as long as the complete package delivers more often than not, things will likely turn out for the best.

Unless you’re talking about a remaster, of course. That’s when things tend to go south, as the mere mention of them nowadays make people foam at the mouth. “Grurfrgh! Why do I have to rebuy it again?! JERKS!” Ermm… you don’t. But despite the vitriol these projects draw, the Ghost of Sparta had yet to conquer the PS4, so the devs seemingly thought it would make sense to bring God of War III to Sony’s latest home console.

And despite what some would have you believe, it does make sense. With a new God of War game in early development, porting an established title to the PS4 allows the devs to sharpen their toolset. It also allows the people who jumped the Microsoft ship to experience this game for the first time. Really, the only time I think it’s worth complaining about a remaster or port, is when it’s something nobody asked for (Dead Island, I’m looking at you). Otherwise, weigh your love of a game against how extensive the porting process was (for my in-depth opinion on remasters, click here). At the same time, studios should offer rereleases at an exceptional value, and I’m not convinced God of War III Remastered has done that.

For the uninitiated, the franchise revolves around Kratos, a ‘brawn over brains’ type that commanded the forces of Sparta. Inevitably, his bloodlust lead his army to defeat against a horde of barbarians, but rather than accept his fate, he called upon Ares for aid. The god of war was willing to grant Kratos the power he desired, but at the expense of becoming his indebted servant. He agreed, being the bloodthirsty fool he was, and was provided a pair of chained blades that were imbued with fire. The wielding ends were permanently seared to his forearms, but as promised, they made Kratos an unstoppable killing machine.

Predictably, Kratos got a bit more than he bargained for, as he became a blind ball of rage under Ares’ influence. After one such episode, he was horrified to find his family laying lifeless at his feet. So, in his most ambitious vow of vengeance yet, Kratos went after Ares himself… but that wasn’t enough. After an assault on Rhodes, the gods grew tired of his defiance, so they stripped him of his power and left him for dead. However, Gaia, who has her own agenda in this, saves Kratos from his fate in the Underworld.

And now with God of War III, the epic finale begins with Kratos hitching a ride atop none other than Gaia, as they mount their assault on Olympus with Titans in tow.

Not unlike its predecessors, the plot is bare bones, if not formulaic. Once again, Kratos, seemingly at the top of his game, is smacked down and goes through the wringer to regain all his lost power. There’s a couple of twists that try to lend greater meaning to preceding entries, but they ultimately fail to evoke… well, anything.

Worse, character development is as stagnant as ever. Once upon a time, it wasn’t unreasonable to have a few shreds of sympathy for the demigod, but now? We’re brutally bludgeoned with the idea that Kratos has become the bad guy. This time, the consequences to his actions are literally tearing the world apart, but despite seeing what his vengeance has wrought, he couldn’t care less. Of course, that’s the point. In the end, Kratos was no better than the gods he was thwarting. It’s about tragedy more than redemption. Even so, couldn’t the writers have found a better way to incorporate his loss of self than by making him so one-dimensional?

But really, these are minor complaints in the grand scheme of things. People don’t play God of War for the finesse of Shakespearian writing, but for action so big it puts major motion pictures to shame. Well, this game accomplishes that feat and then some. That ride on Gaia is no mere cut-scene, but the first playable portion of the game. Upon taking control of the series’ protagonist, you’ll be on the earth-mother’s arm, hacking and slashing your way through enemies as it tilts and sways. Before long, the camera zooms out to show her fending off watery tendrils summoned by Poseidon, and as she does, Kratos must dispatch foes as he dangles by his blades. Eventually, Poseidon calls upon Hippocampi, powerful monsters with horse-like heads, arthropod-inspired limbs, complete with the body of a serpent. Once it’s clear that Gaia is fighting a losing battle, Kratos steps in. As a result, we’re treated to an epic battle of god vs. demigod.

And that’s just the opening act.

This entire game settles for nothing less than tossing Kratos from one massive set-piece to the next. It was nonstop spectacle at its finest upon its initial release five years ago, and there hasn’t been a game that’s topped it since. If there’s one area this game DID revolutionize in, this is it.

Of course, all the ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ would mean nothing if the controls were crap. But the gameplay itself, while not perfect, does a great job of making us feel like an extension of Kratos. When those chained blades are swung with surgical precision, it isn’t long before that feeling of epic badassery swells from within. You’d be surprised how long you can keep the same basic combos rolling off your fingers before they begin to feel tedious. However, to keep things fresh, Kratos earns new weapons and abilities throughout. Some add to the game’s ‘wow factor’ – you can make it rain arrows when in a pinch – but for the most part, there’s only a couple of enemies or puzzles that require their use. Furthermore, your primary blades become overpowered long before the end credits roll, so the other goodies feel more like bells and whistles than essential companions. Still, I can’t say the option to change things up wasn’t appreciated.

After all is said and done, God of War III is the undisputed king of gratuitous action. If you’ve never played this game for whatever reason, now is absolutely the time to buy.

But, what if you’ve already got a last-gen copy sitting at home? It was probably the best looking title on the PS3, so is it worth upgrading?

I’m a huge fan of the franchise, so I, personally, don’t regret spending the 40 bucks. The increased resolution of 1080p adds a touch more in the way of color and contrast, but the best part of this Remaster is its buttery smooth framerate. Not once did I experience a perceptible loss of frames.

That said, I can’t in good conscience recommend a purchase.

God of War III REMASTERED? Gotta love marketing and how it messes with consumer psychology!

This is a port. Nothing more. I know it’s still an arduous effort for the devs – especially since the game was originally designed for the PS3’s cell architecture – but a remaster, this is not.

Nor does it represent great value for its asking price, and ultimately, other studios have offered better. The Halo: Master Chief Collection delivers 4 games – or 5 if you were eligible for Halo 3: ODST – for $60. The Final Fantasy X collection has 2 games for $40. Saint’s Row 4’s port came with all DLC and an expansion for the same price. Even the Ultimate Edition of Gears of War comes with digital copies of the entire franchise… also $40, and it’s a true remaster, at that. So why didn’t Sony Santa Monica go above and beyond for the adventures of Kratos? Ascension could have been ported, not to mention the first couple of games which were already given an upscaled treatment. Hell, even the option to own – a term I use loosely – these games via PSNow would have sufficed. I understand this studio is hard at work on another game, but asking $40 for what’s essentially a straight port is a hard pill to swallow.

In order to justify a purchase, you either have to be a huge God of War fan, or someone who’s never played the third installment… which, to be fair, is the intended target audience anyway. However, if you fall somewhere in-between on the spectrum, you’d be wise to wait for the price to go down a bit at your local retailer.

God of War: Ascension

I didn’t get to play this game until months after its release, and not for a lack of interest. No, my poor PS3 had died in 2012, and with a kid at home and all, it was difficult to acquire the funds for a replacement. It’s a good thing I waited though, because I was able to nab the God of War (red) edition of the PS3, which included the God of War Origins Collection (the two PSP games via download voucher), God of War Collection (God of War 1 and 2), God of War 3 and God of War Ascension. The console itself came with a 500gb hard drive, and I got it all for the sweet price of $300. Yep, it was a sweet, sweet deal (steal?).

Yes, I’m a die-hard God of War fan. I know many regard it as a mindless button masher, but is that necessarily a bad thing? It’s infantile to dismiss an entire genre, based solely on its gameplay style. What matters most is how well the devs take advantage of that gameplay, and when it comes to God of War… it works. BOY does it work. For a ‘mindless button masher’, it’s offered some of the most action set-pieces gamers have ever seen. Even if you’re not a fan of the franchise, you’d be a fool to deny as much. I mean, entire levels played out on beasts that were larger than mountains, and you were tasked with taking them down. Granted, controls for God of War were nothing special – as they mostly required you to endlessly beat your attack buttons – but nobody has ever used such a simple mechanic with such satisfying results. God of War and the sequels it spawned were all pinnacles of the ‘mindless action platformer’… and for a franchise that only demands you turn off your brain and enjoy the ride, nothing has ever come close to surpassing it. You want to talk about a killer app? God of War helped move more Playstation 2’s than a guy who got arrested for beating a prostitute moved Sham-Wow.

That being said, I was highly skeptical of God of War: Ascension. God of War III was a spectacular action platformer that was backed by insane visuals, and it finally completed Kratos’ trilogy of rage. Knowing full well it would have been downright silly to further a completed plot line, the devs wisely decided on a prequel. Now, I wasn’t against the idea of a prequel per se, but I was convinced they wouldn’t be able to top the action from God of War III. After all, that was Kratos’ endgame, so it wouldn’t have made sense for this game to feel larger in scale. So, where this game really needed to excel was its story. Unfortunately, it failed to deliver.

Why? There’s a missed opportunity here, for starters. As an origin story, we really should have started amidst the battle where Kratos’ army was slaughtered to no end. We could have fought our way through the madness as men all around us were being skewered and dismembered, until Kratos finally decides to offer his services to the God of War. But no, the story begins AFTER Kratos has killed his family, cursed to wear their ashes on his skin forever. What’s the point of having a prequel then? I don’t think I’m the only one who hoped to play through Kratos’ origins, and I’m honestly shocked that the devs missed such a golden opportunity.

Anyway, at the beginning of our tale, Kratos still shows signs of humanity – He’s confused and conflicted, and his destiny isn’t quite set in stone just yet. He could forge his temper to a manageable point, or he could give in to the rage that’s swelling inside… we obviously know which path he’s chosen. The seeds of revenge have already been planted, and their vines – as black as night – are beginning to sprout and corrupt his soul. Kratos has already made the decision to break his oath to Ares, and the Fates – quite possibly the most disappointing villains in the franchise – have imprisoned him as a result. Kratos breaks free and sets forth on a quest to ‘put down’ the Fates so they won’t be able to intervene in his assault against the Gods. It’s a decent setup, but getting from point A to point B feels empty, somehow.

The Fates are the ultimate tipping point for Kratos, pushing him from a man betrayed to a man blinded by his anger, but I didn’t see this play out with natural progression. More often than not, it feels like Kratos is getting angrier ‘ just because’. Furthermore, other than the weak ‘Fates holding Kratos captive’ storyline, there’s literally nothing to bridge this adventure to the big picture. It doesn’t add anything, or do much to preface the things to come.

So, the action doesn’t top III, and the story seems like an insignificant one-off, much like the PSP titles. None of this really comes as a surprise however, but that’s precisely the problem. The devs really shouldn’t have pushed forward with another installment unless they COULD surprise us, but they did anyway because they had to milk their money maker. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that Ascension is a BAD game, because it’s most certainly not. The fighting gameplay feels familiar, if not identical to what we’ve been treated to previously… which isn’t a bad thing. As I said before, if it works, it works, and in God of War’s case it most certainly does. The devs added some switchable powers for Kratos’ blades, all of which harness unique abilities. They’re mostly useless, except for fire, but I definitely appreciate the options. Also, a big addition to the series was the use to manipulate objects through time – Come across a bridge that’s been demolished? Use this newfound ability to have it go back in time, until it’s reconstructed itself block by block. This comes into play with more than a few puzzles, and it’s always fun to experiment with. Last but not least, the game offers some jaw-dropping set-pieces. It’s expected at this stage of the game, and I was actually impressed that they were able to deliver something that felt fresh and new – the large mechanical snake ride through the skies and mountains comes to mind – while continuing the tradition of massive monster battles. Still, when compared to the likes of God of War II and III, most everything else is forgettable. Even the new time-shifting gameplay mechanic, as cleverly implemented as it was, isn’t new to gamers. Hell, Prince of Persia did the very same thing some years back, and other franchises years before that.

Despite all my bitching, I’ll say it again – God of War: Ascension is a decent game. If you’re a fan of the God of War style of gameplay, then you’re going to enjoy most of what this game has to offer (outside of the story, that is). Personally, for me, it’s the weakest game between the PS2 and PS3 iterations, but I’m still glad I played through it. It didn’t knock my socks off, nor did I want to claim it as ‘game of the year’, but it was still God of War, through and through. Here’s the only caveat – If you’re unfamiliar with the franchise, don’t make this game your introduction. Do yourself a favor and pick up the God of War Saga collection, and start from the beginning, working your way through. Once you have an appreciation for the series and all it has to offer, Ascension will likely become more enticing.