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Why God Of War (2018) Deserves All Of Its Critical Acclaim (First Impressions)

Boy. It's good.

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God Of War (2018) is out now and boy, is all the critics raving about it. Based on the early reviews, you can see how the folks that got early access to it really love the latest game by Santa Monica Studio, to put it lightly. Even the local press are saying it’s really good.

But is it though? Obviously we too are in the dark as most of you out there, so now that the game is released we finally got our hands on the first five hours of the game.

The verdict so far? God Of War deserves the hype, and we try to break down the four crucial elements on why it is so good of a game, so far.

(There are no spoilers on names or specific moments outside of referencing the E3 2016 trailer– which is the opening parts of the game. Other moments of the game are vaguely described)

1.Marries gameplay with storytelling to great effect

One thing that got me personally worry of all the high scores being put up is that it’s another one of those well executed cinematic games. Don’t get me wrong, The Last Of Us is certainly a great game but I don’t think I like the future where we always have an AI buddy walking through well-made and controlled cinematics then some samey but good gameplay bit and rinse and repeat.

Thankfully, God Of War isn’t reliant too heavily with it cinematics as I first expected. Instead, it tries its best to meld the narrative and gameplay aspects so they complement each other. Remember the E3 2016 reveal where suddenly HUDs started to appear? Me being a sceptic I thought this was just a cheap way to showcase the gorgeous graphics are indeed rendered in real-time. But they actually use that trick to great affect.

There’s a scene early in the game where the HUD elements help drive the emotional situation of Kratos at the moment and it is done so brilliantly you will surely clap when you see it (hint: It’s the Spartan Rage tutorial). Another scene early on that isn’t a spoiler is the one, again, appeared in E3 2016 trailer. Kratos’ son Atreus aims for a deer with his bow, but he didn’t do it properly drawing Kratos’ anger. At the end, the struggling dad advised that Arteus only shoots when he gives the signal. And that’s the introduction to the square button where in combat, Arteus will shoot an arrow to an enemy you either locked on or is the closest to your immediate vision. Only when you give the signal by pressing square.

The “press square to ‘boy’ button” as I like to call it (Kratos refers to his son by name very occasionally early on it seems) is also put to good use in another small moment. All I’ll say is it avoids the pitfalls of the “press X to Jason” scene in Heavy Rain, which was supposed to be emotionally charged but turned out to be funny in the wrong ways.

God Of War uses its gameplay, from the simple contextual button prompts, the expected barks that reflects your performance in fights and the nifty use of UI to enhance the storytelling. Some might find it too video-gamey, but it totally contextualises the experience: so none of that ludo-narrative dissonance issues here.

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2.Excellent level design that carries the strengths of both open worlds and linear levels

In the modern world of video games, there are two extremes of level design. One is the open world, a vast amount of traversal land that gives a sense of player freedom but if done wrong can be just a swathe of unnecessary land filled with check boxes to tick. The other is the strict, linear levels where at worst is a horrible experience of walking from the next corridor with expensive skyboxes to another and at it’s best, immersed players so well that you just want to keep pushing forward.

But where does God Of War stand in the spectrum? A little bit in the middle, from what I’ve played so far, and it’s impressive. There are a few branching paths here and there during the early, more linear sequences but it’s also took a page on the Dark Souls school of level design where the levels are not long corridors, but spiraling upwards with looping shortcuts. It makes sense as the first few hours your goal is to reach a mountain, so the slow ascension in the routes feel grounded and justified.

Though it’s not just a rip-off of Dark Souls either. Later on the world opens up revealing many, many side location you can discover on your own. Some are just small, bite-size exploration bits. Think of it as a hub world like in the recent Deus Ex games, older Zelda games or the mini-open worlds of Uncharted 4 and Uncharted Lost Legacy. Since the game has RPG elements, it’s worth getting sidetracked for a bit. The world is also big enough for fast travel to be a thing, so it’s not strictly a linear experience.

Also, there seems to be a ton of variety of landscapes. Or so the game wants me to believe so far.

3.Combat is different yet familiar, methodical yet still enough to be a character action

I admit: I actually never touched the God of War series before. But I definitely know that the past games are in the character action genre similar to the Devil May Cry series, but less punishing and more button mashing. So when they revealed the new control scheme which looks similar to SoulsBorne games, of course the reaction I have is that it’s more methodical, more thoughtful- the devs said that’s the intention as well. It’s not a character action anymore.

Apparently I was wrong.

Yes, your movesets feel really close to Soulsborne, the quick-step/roll is there, the block button is there. light and heavy attacks are mapped to where you expected. But get this, there’s no stamina meter to manage. So this is what Bloodborne, the fastest of the formula’s combat style, but ramped up to 11- which makes it feel closer to a character action game.

There are also small details that makes it still play like a character action game like the series’ roots. Animations can quickly be cancelled out for last minute dodges. Last minute blocks is rewarded with a parry, opening up opportunities to combo an enemy. And hit stops- the slight stoppage of animation to convey the weight of the impact- is also there. Some of these elements are present in SoulsBorne games but are not prominent features, so despite the similar control scheme, it’s a different feel.

The combos are rather free form. It doesn’t play like the Arkham games where you only press the few buttons  to attack and counter when a prompt arrives, you have tons of creative freedom to chain your attacks. For example, you can start with quick light hits then into a launcher, then throw an axe so the enemy freezes so you can attack the other enemy on the side with your bare hands and immediately stopping mid-combo to dodge a projectile and retract that axe again, which hits some of the enemies on its way back.

There’s tons of moves to unlock in the skill trees, each adding a new useful tool and there’s also runic abilities that you can equip on Kratos’ Leviathan Axe. The abilities can be in various forms such as area-of-effect attacks that has cooldown, which can be reduced with right gear setup.

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The over-the-shoulder camera will require some getting used to. You can’t immediately attack the enemy at the back with this camera and enemies attacking from outside your line of sight is a common issue. They don’t trickle in one-by-one like Arkham-style combat does. The developers certainly know this, the proximity arrows similar to Forza motorpsort, the many runic abilities you find early on are AOE attacks and RE4-like quick turn button are there to mitigate the issue, but with five hours in, that’s the only thing I can nitpick so far.

4.World feels alive thanks to a reactive enough environment

Lastly, the world of the new God Of War is a welcome change. Not only that Kratos is now exploring the world of Norse mythology instead of the Greeks of past games, the way it interacts with you is also fulfilling. There are no platforming sequences from what I’ve played- your jumps and leaps are all contextual now- but what it is replaced by is a variety of puzzle to solve using your abilities.

Throwing the axe to lock or move gear mechanisms in inventive ways are the majority of what you will see early on, with some teases of other abilities that you will unlock later on. But it’s not just environmental puzzles here, those mechanisms could play a part in the combat as well. There’s a section in the game where you could push enemies down holes. There’s also instances where a puzzle mechanic can be used in combat to great effect.

I am looking forward to see how far the game melds these differing elements together to shake up the combat or puzzle sections, because so far, it’s pretty good.

God Of War is out now exclusively on the PS4.