God of War returns with a fresh vision for the series, powered by brand new technology from one of the best developers in the business. Santa Monica Studio has always been known for pushing the technological envelope and this new game is no exception. However, more than that, it's clear that the studio has been granted the budget and time to fully realise its ambitious vision - key ingredients in delivering a quality product. From the smallest of incidental environment details to the most towering of beasts, God of War elevates real-time visuals to new heights while pushing the PlayStation hardware to its limits.
On loading up the game and looking at the title screen, the towering figure of Kratos tells us a lot about the visual evolution Santa Monica Studio has delivered compared to previous God of War games. As the camera pulls in, you'll notice the sweat and wrinkles on his worn brow, the pores across his weathered skin, the veins running along his battered hands and the detail of his beard. It's also our first look at how animation and camera work combine beautifully in this game, and the sheer precision in all areas of the artwork.
It's a bold opener for what God of War has to offer and it's quickly apparent that this is a very different game compared to its predecessors. The series has traditionally focused on distant camera placement, rarely allowing the player to closely observe Kratos in action, but the camera never cuts here, and is always situated just behind Kratos. It's an entirely new presentation - and it works. Getting up close like this showcases the extreme detail, whether it's on Kratos himself, his son Atreus or any of the other friends and foes you'll encounter on the journey. Thanks to the game's reliance on physically-based rendering - leather, cloth and fur all appears highly realistic and sits naturally within the world. Hair and beards both look and move realistically, with excellent shading and detail.
Animation plays as important a role as raw detail and sets a new standard for the series. Attacks connect with and stagger enemies realistically, and everything from tossing an axe at the head of a large creature to swooping up the undead with a vicious attack lends a sense of weight and momentum to the game. Larger enemies - a staple of earlier series entries - also make an appearance, featuring both excellent cinematic and in-game animation. Clothing and 'dangly bits' also receive their own attention to detail with realistic physics applied to each of them as you run through the world. Realism here is impressive; It feels as if the armour worn by Kratos is a separate object with its own physics applied, rather than something attached to his model.
This is enhanced by the inclusion of environment destruction and interaction. Early in the game, as you face down a powerful foe, every tree and boulder can be smashed apart through your actions. Hulking beasts can wipe out stone pillars and even the swing of Kratos' axe causes nearby foliage to briefly blow in the direction of your swing. Even more impressive are the cinematic sequences, which allow for pre-calculated displays of physics and destruction - running an enemy through the side of a mountain anyone? There's some impressive stuff on display here.
Snow deformation also plays a large role in specific scenes. While simple texture tricks are used in areas with a light covering of snow, thicker ridges offer full deformation - reminiscent of the adaptive tessellation used by Rise of the Tomb Raider. This feature allows players and enemies to carve up realistic paths that remain matted down - finish a battle in a snowy field and its once pristine surface is reduced to mush. Everything is backed by an excellent implementation of per-object motion blur - a feature which can be adjusted from the options menu should you prefer not to use it.
Character realisation is sensational in this game but ultimately, it's the environments that really steal the show. Early showings of God of War intentionally focused on the gorgeous snowy forests of Midgard but there is so much more here. Compared to prior God of War titles, each area is larger and more complex than before. There are now multiple paths that crisscross over one another as you progress and it's even possible to backtrack in search of missed secrets and passages. It feels more like a fully explorable world this time, as opposed to a series of more linear stages. The environment artists have focused on extremely fine detail with this game and the base geometry created for the scenery is remarkably dense. From the towering peaks to the smallest details, every inch of the world receives careful attention to detail. Look closely at any scene and it's easy to appreciate - every wooden beam, slab of stone and snarling tree branch is suitably rounded and realistic.
This is enhanced by excellent texture work. The new PBR system helps to create more natural environments - stone work appears suitably rough with light scattering in more directions than smooth materials such as shiny floors. Specular highlights are used to great effect in combination with materials to create surfaces that appear realistic yet still fantastical. And that's actually a perfect description of the game world; many scenes appear startlingly realistic while others push into the world of fantasy. The leaves and mud puddles early in the game resemble a forest one might stumble upon in real-life but later environments feel almost otherworldly at times.
This is all backed by a slew of new lighting features, some of which are made possible by the move to a deferred renderer when building the engine. Dynamic lights are used in abundance throughout, while a certain artefact even allows Kratos himself to shine light in darker areas which, in turn, produces shadows from nearby geometry. The world itself is lit realistically complete with bounce lighting - basically, when light bounces off certain materials and colours, that colour value is translated to surrounding objects and characters.
Volumetric lighting also plays a huge role here. From piercing light shafts to thick fog, a voxel grid solution is used to lend a sense of fullness and atmosphere to the game. If you look closely in some scenes when precision is reduced, you can even see the voxel structure used to achieve the effect. This basically allows for long beams of light to pierce the atmosphere and realistically scatter through the air - it's generally an expensive rendering technique, and we were surprised to see it used so heavily throughout the game. On the flip side, reflections are somewhat limited in many scenes. Very specific areas rely on a mix of screen-space reflections and cube maps. It works reasonably well but most areas make use of approximate cube-maps that result in reflections which don't match up to the objects that should be reflecting onto the surface. In select cases though, important objects receive proper reflections while the surroundings do not.
Particles are another impressive feature - GPU-accelerated particles are used in abundance throughout the game. Everything from the ashes and sparks during combat to the performing of a door opening ritual results in a gorgeous shower of GPU accelerated particles. It's something that was a big deal early in the generation but has been toned down in more recent games - the fantasy setting of God of War is a perfect place to showcase such effects.
And really, as you progress through the game, it's the little details that start to stand out the most. The way light penetrates leaves as it passes through trees, how crates and other objects break apart in the direction of your swing, the water droplets from the log as you hoist it from the river and the tiny blades of short, blowing grass like this all work together to create a more realistic and visually engaging experience. It's a visual showcase whether you're playing on a regular PlayStation 4 or the 'super-charged' PS4 Pro, which features one of the finest implementations of checkerboard rendering we've seen to date with a level of clarity not far from native 4K - at least perceptually. That's the thing about checkerboarding - it's almost akin to interlace versus progressive scan. If you look closely at a still image, you can see visible artefacts because of the checkerboard technique - during normal gameplay, however, the effect is convincing.
Ultimately, while the debate will continue to rage about the effectiveness of the technique, checkerboarding makes a lot of sense here - it would be impossible to render a game like God of War at native 4K on a PS4 Pro while maintaining a smooth frame-rate, and the visual payback compared to some of the 1800p and 1620p games we've seen is self-evident. As you might expect, the regular PS4 delivers a 1080p presentation. Pro offers greatly enhanced image quality but the rest of the visuals are mostly equivalent between the two save for slight variation in ambient occlusion - which makes sense as the extra hardware is put to use in massively increasing the pixel count rather than boosting fidelity. All versions are clean thanks to an excellent anti-aliasing solution which handles edges and temporal artefacts quite well. Texture filtering is also generally of good quality across both platforms.
In terms of performance, we have three configurations to look at - the base model's 1080p30 target stacked up against two Pro offerings running at 2160p checkerboard and a performance-orientated mode running at full HD resolution with an unlocked frame-rate. Let's start with the PS4 Pro version using the high resolution mode. When selected, the frame-rate is capped at 30 frames per second to deliver consistent frame-times - unlocked frame-rates have been a staple of the series in the past and for those that prefer this, the performance mode is available, though it's clear that the team has focused on delivering high-end visuals rather than targeting higher frame-rates.
When using checkerboard 4K mode, the game does a reasonably good job of holding steady at 30 frames per second in most scenes, with even intense battles that pile on the visual effects sticking mostly to the target frame-rate with only small pockets of dropped frames. It's not quite perfect though, and some effects-heavy scene will see performance drop. Thankfully, this is more of an exception than the rule and most of the game delivers a stable 30 frames per second, but it's not a perfect lock.
Is performance mode the answer? Well, there's a significant increase in frame-rate when you trade in the vast pixel-count for standard 1080p. A stable 60 frames per second is off the table here and the frame-rate is left to run wild instead with noticeable judder. What this mode basically delivers is something more in line with, say, God of War 3 or Ascension on PlayStation 3. The frame-rate averages in the mid to upper 40s most of the time during any skirmish while some of the quieter moments can jump up to or around 60fps. It's not our cup of tea, but if Sony follows Microsoft's example and embraces FreeSync technology, it may improve matters. As it is, it's a nice option then for those that prefer the fastest possible performance and don't mind the judder you get from uneven frame-rates on a 60Hz display.
Lastly, there is the base PlayStation 4, which is capped at 30fps and here, the level of performance is remarkably like the PS4 Pro with the higher resolution option engaged. Frame-rates generally hold steady at 30fps but there are dips in performance during specific sequences, which does reduce fluidity. Ultimately, between the two systems and available options, I prefer the capped 30fps mode using the high-resolution option on PS4 Pro. It's a good mix of image quality and stability. The occasional dips below 30fps are frustrating at times but the overall level of consistency is generally solid. The unlocked performance mode is simply way too variable and unstable for my tastes - the judder detracts more from the experience than occasional dips below 30fps.
God of War is receiving a lot of positive press right now - not least its Eurogamer Recommended review - and from our perspective, it deserves its plaudits. It's another great example of a first party studio reaching new heights in terms of visual fidelity, with the title standing proudly alongside the likes of Horizon Zero Dawn, Uncharted 4 and Gears of War 4. From its remarkable rendering technology to its seamless camera system, God of War is a showpiece title - it's an impressive achievement that demonstrates what can be accomplished when that heady cocktail of raw talent, budget and time is deployed on a key project.