I’ve just kicked a draugr off the edge of a cliff. Another of the ugly buggers is wearing my axe on his face. I tear a third open with my bare hands in a shower of orange sparks.
Then the ground shudders. A huge ogre proceeds to try to rearrange my facial features with its scaly fists. With boy’s help, I open up wound after wound in the hulking creature until I can jump on to its back and, riding it, crush more hapless draugr under the ogre’s flailing fists. Then, finally, I plunge my axe into the creature’s jaw until it lies in a bloody, motionless heap at my feet.
This is what God of War is all about. This is what I had hoped for to rejuvenate a series that was once terrific, but had seemingly run out of ideas.
But there’s more to Santa Monica’s magnum opus than brutal violence. Following the vicious battles there are always moments of peace, where puzzles are solved and relationship between father and boy develops. The story features some genuinely touching moments as big bad Kratos struggles to get over himself and see the true value of fatherhood. To accept his responsibility as the ultimate role model for his child; a responsibility all the more pressing following the death of the boy’s mother. God of War is a rollicking maturation story of love, loss, and redemption.
Unfortunately, it’s also a journey marred by arbitrary collectibles and bloated upgrade mechanics: the unimaginative open-world RPG tropes that are stuffed into far too many AAA games.
Don’t get me wrong: God of War is a very, very good game. When the nuances of its combat system are understood, it’s wonderfully cathartic to unleash a grunting dance of death on your foes. The environments are often breathtaking, and the aforementioned relationship between father and boy unfurls at a believable, engaging pace.
But I can’t help but feel – unpopular as the opinion may be – that God of War’s stunning critical acclaim is in no small part a result of what it stands for: a resounding roar that single player-only experiences aren’t dead. With today’s market so saturated with shallow Battle Royale games and lootbox-stuffed grindfests, Santa Monica’s latest entry in the grizzly Greek’s series came as a breath of fresh air.
As a result of this, I would suggest that critics and gamers alike have tended to overlook God of War’s flaws, most of which stem from Santa Monica’s insistence on shoehorning in tired, uninspired open-world tropes that so many AAA games teem with.
Let’s face it: collectibles like the laundry lists of artefacts that God of War boasts are shoved in to a game for one reason: to tap into our compulsive tendencies in order to pad out a game’s length. Although blatant, this can be more palatable if the collectibles in question contribute to your experience in some way, or add to the world’s lore. What they absolutely shouldn’t do, particularly in a fast-moving, energetic game like God of War, is jeopardise the pacing. Bizarrely, God of War not only does this, but actively encourages you to languish in a hub area, slowing the game down to a snail’s pace. It openly mocks you that you’ve only found two of 12 of this particular mug collectible type, hoping that you’ll return to this area again when you have the tools to access its hidden areas.
In my view this makes no sense. Good stories are all about sustained conflict and ever-more-challenging obstacles. To hold the player’s attention, suspense and intrigue must simmer away throughout. Every time Atreus tempts me to go on the hunt for some pointless collectible item, the game’s energy fizzes away like a punctured bouncy castle. And for what? A little XP and some hacksilver that can be pumped back into the severely bloated upgrade system.
The original God of War games didn’t feature the same emotional impact or combat depth as the confusingly-titled 2018 sequel, but the early ones in particular knew exactly what they wanted to be: balls-to-the-wall, over-the-top action/adventure games. When you found a new weapon, you picked it up and started smashing gods’ heads in just as before. You would unlock new move sets and abilities, but the experiences were focused and well-paced.
I don’t mind at all that Kratos has developed a soft side – after all, speaking as a new dad there’s nothing like a child to give one a new sense of perspective – but he’s not the sort of guy to mess around tweaking axe hilts and comparing the properties of Enchantments to determine which best suits his style of combat. He smashes chests open with his fists, for Odin’s sake! It’s all far more complicated than it needs to be, and once again can drag down the game’s pacing if you don’t actively make an effort to ignore it.
Once again, I want to reiterate that I recognise that God of War is an excellent game. I’m intentionally focusing on what I perceive to be its flaws because I want to see single player video games thrive, and to do that they need to continue to push boundaries. God of War excels in its deep, meaty combat, and builds on the sort of character development focus that Naughty Dog are famous for. But when it comes to populating its world with interesting activities that don’t jeopardise the pacing, it’s stuck in the past, treading water.
God of War has proven, if any evidence was needed, that single player-only games can sell millions of copies if the vision is strong enough, and the execution sufficiently assured. There’s no need to risk diluting that vision by cramming in the same tropes we see in so many AAA games these days. Bloated upgrade and crafting systems and dreary collectibles have no place in worlds that are as imaginative and colourful as God of War’s, so I can only hope that in the inevitable sequel Santa Monica ditch these unnecessary features.