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God of War review: astonishing technological craft in the service of simple pleasures

Here comes the head-stepper. - Recommended badge
Despite eye-catching changes, the heart of this series remains gloriously unaltered.

Remove the heart. Climb on the chest, feet slapping against sinew and skin. The ruined flesh beneath shudders but holds. The first incision. One to pierce the surface. The second to part the ribs with a brisk crack. The heart is in there, but it's well connected. Reach deep. Pull. Remove the heart. Pull.

Something about this incident gets at, well, the heart of God of War. It is ridiculous and petulant, a world in which gods are just giants and giants can be felled and there is still, regardless of your own beliefs or lack of them, something of a guilty shudder to that. But it's also sort of realistic, or at least it cleaves to the most superficial elements of reality: to the human textures of the shells we all bumble around in, the warm depths. And it's disgusting, but it's also businesslike: we are kept in our place, and - if you look closely, as it were, at what we are shown and not shown - we are quietly shielded from the least palatable aspects of it. God of War is so committed to getting us close to acts of depravity that at times - when it's literally tugging at the heart - it steps back just a little and reveals its secret, shameful conservatism.

Then there's this, of course: that heart is one grotesque highlight nestled in amongst an endless run of highlights. Everything is a glissando here, in a game of one god set against all the others. Kratos will have forgotten the heart ten minutes from now, even though it bloomed and shimmered when he held it aloft, like a Pimms jug with a couple of glowsticks in it. And ten minutes from then? What fresh horrors will he be up to by that point?

None of these things are criticisms. God of War is so lavish, so sharp-edged with technological brilliance, so studied in its understanding of everything a big budget game needs in order to make people feel the bigness of its budget that these internal contradictions are welcome, because they give it a bit of life, a bit of warmth. They give it, I almost want to say, a bit of humanity. Just a bit.

Anyway, God of War is back. Not quite rebooted but certainly heavily retooled. Kratos is even more serious now, and even more violent. And he's taken a bit of a trip, washing up in the Christmas forests of Midgard, Greek gods a muddy stain behind him, Norse gods forming a gauntlet of freewheeling hicks and Biro-tatted hoboes up ahead. There's a shift in location, then, but this most beautiful of series is very capable with the frozen north, with rocks and moss and trees and snow underfoot. There's a shift in the cast, but gods are gods in a world like this, which means they are sleazy, compromised, fallen and corrupt. The Greek world was connected by chains, this one is threaded into the roots of a tree, and yet there is an understanding that both realities can coexist. All beliefs are equally real, equally foolish. The chains and the tree do not cancel each other out.

Lots of religions have room for a giant magical snake.

So what's the big difference? It's tempting to say that it's the boy - the son, Atreus - that Kratos now takes on his adventure. God of War meets The Last of Us? But this isn't entirely true. We'll get to the boy, but the main shift is one of perspective. In previous God of War games, you were big but the world was bigger, so Kratos, perversely, was often quite small, an ant crawling over a Titan the size of a mountain range. That elastic camera would sacrifice your sense of personal size in order to give the Greek myths their panoramic due. Here, though, Kratos is given his weight and stature and it never leaves him. The camera moves in close and it stays close. We see the world at almost all times from over his gigantic shoulder.

He is a marvel: muscle twisting and bunching beneath the tats, weighty flesh casting shadows, skin stretching and revealing scars, one along the back that I cannot stop wincing at, one running over the stomach and suggesting, even if it runs in the wrong direction, a weird hint of cesarean childbirth. Kratos' beard: you can see every strand of the thing, just as you can see the glossy irises of the eyes, just as you can read his age, his agonies, in the bruising beneath the sockets of those eyes. He is the main character, but he is also the theme and the backstory, all of it on display at all times, all of it written in the things that happen to flesh.

The world is another marvel, thankfully, capable of suitable deity-crushing bigness despite the fact that you're wedged so close to the surface with none of that sprightly wandering of the old game's cinematic camera. The detailing, though! Silver birches have peeling curlicues of bark, rocks have little cracks running through them, huts are made of planks of wood that do not meet cleanly, that do not match.

All of the extraordinary flights of fancy of the gods and their realms builds upon this sense of reality, of messy wilderness. This means when the game takes you somewhere extraordinary it does not purely feel like a set-dressing change, but it also does not feel entirely natural. The gods' worlds are impositions, garish indulgences, and they look like it - because the gods are children, and they are forced, perhaps through the weight of expectations, to remain children. An interesting choice, really, to come in close. These games have always been graphical showcases, and they show, this time, that the things we like to look at have changed. God of War is as spectacular as all the other God of Wars, and there are still those dizzying shifts in scale that define the series' imagination, but the designers have also developed an eye for the smaller things and found a way to make it all work together.

Kratos is an astonishing special effect in and of himself.

It feels a bit like Tomb Raider in this regard - another reboot that sought to bring the camera in closer and rediscover the natural world and make things a little less pulpy as it did so. Crucial to this aim in God of War is Kratos' son. Atreus, who sets off with Kratos at the start of the game on a mournful, treacherous mission that his father does not think he is ready for.

The less said of the plot the better - it is simultaneously filled with spoilers and light on any real sense of forward momentum, offering complications and frustrations rather than genuine developments that might enrich proceedings - but the character of Atreus is well-realised for the most part. Sure, he is a surprisingly Californian son for a Greek god seeking refuge in the frozen north - at one point he stalks away from an argument with a petulant, "Whatever..." - but this is a series that has always been playful in combining modern sensibilities with its ancient cast, in understanding that the ancients saw their gods as contemporary beings. He is dark-eyed, scarred and watchful, Atreus, but beneath the heavy burden of backstory and the hacked-about Hoxton haircut, he has a lot of genuine child to him. I think someone involved in God of War may even have had a kid of their own for a while. Riding on a timber lift, he will bounce up and down on the springy planks filled with aimless energy. He is nervous around his remote father one minute and teasing the next. He pushes things and you fear for him. This glimmer of actual life inside him makes up for so much of the game's trajectory, which spends too long, in amongst the predictably gradual thawing between father and son, on that annoying idea that the best a child can be is a perfected version of the parent - or that, at the very least, they must in some ways be defined by their relationship to the parent's flaws.

Thankfully, as a game character, Atreus behaves very well too, keeping himself alive and warping, I suspect, in and out when I'm not looking to avoid snagging himself on geometry. Out of combat he is a hint system, a plot reminder and a means of making the subtext of a moment clear even to people who like to check their messages during cutscenes. In combat, he is a ranged weapon with his bow and arrow and has some nice magical trinkets hidden away in the upgrade menu. God, it was a happy day when I realised I could slot a rune or whatever it was into a socket in him and make him summon a spectral herd of wild boar at trying moments. That's my boy, off into battle, awaiting my cry of, "Ghost-pigs! Hit them with the ghost-pigs!"

The bigger the enemy, the less interesting it is to fight.

As runes and sockets suggests, God of War has become very excited about items and levels and other RPG trappings. Fights grant XP, which allow you to unlock new skills for your various weapons, but enemies also drop Hacksilver and resources that you can submit to a pair of blacksmiths to buy and upgrade armour and other handy bits of kit. Everything has a socket which allows you to trick things out further, and Kratos' stats are divided into categories like strength, defence, vitality and luck. This stuff links together in a friendly muddle and means that you always have a reason to dip into a menu and give your axe a new pommel, say, which might boost this or that, or to slot an enchantment into armour. I tended to let my XP build up - a sure sign that there isn't anything truly earth-shattering lurking amongst all the literal earth-shattering going on with the skills to spend it on - but it's still nice to locate a perk that allows me to summon a boulder and chuck it, or unlock a nice launcher move. It looks the part, in other words, but the depths are never deep enough to lose your way in. God of War has loot and items and crafting, but it's not Diablo, just as it has a bit of gentle gear-gating but it's not Metroid.

What it is is God of War, thankfully, and the recipe is surprisingly unchanged despite the son and his echoes of The Last of Us and despite the new mournfulness and the tragedy beard and the close-up camera. Moment to moment this is light, visually appealing puzzling, often with an enormously satisfying pay-off as ancient machinery turns, or as forgotten doors open, or as an entire island spins on its axis like the mechanism of an old watch. It's a bit of that, yes, and a bit of no-fuss traversal as Atreus hops on your back and you gamble up an artfully rendered cliff-face emerging into the rosy light of another perfect dawn. And then it's a bit of exploration, through a world that is perhaps a little more open than before and has side-quests - and a lot of backtracking - sprinkled in, but remains, at heart, a series of extremely pretty corridors connecting hubs and battle arenas.

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All of this and then combat, and combat remains the biggy.

It is still such a joy, too, such a sometimes-tactical, technical-as-you-want-it-to-be, shamefully violent, blood-rushing pleasure. Kratos appears to have traded his chains for an axe, but the range of the chains is still available since the axe can be chucked at people and then summoned again with an outstretched hand, and it can also be swung with great force and purpose, cleaving distant archers in two, knocking tanks sideways, or sending ripples of ice through the ground. You can parry and dodge with precision, or you can knock down the difficulty to the point where neither is required. Enemies, ranging from teleporting witches to the spindly, Peperami-in-armour forces of the Northern undead Draugr all come with their attack quirks and all succumb eventually, often exploding in bright gouts of Lucozade, while the chugging economy of being an angry god thunders through the game, violence allowing your rage to grow, and rage being cashed in for moments of absolute frenzy in which violence suddenly rebuilds your health bar.

Is the axe as much fun as the chains? Not entirely if I'm being honest, and there are signs the developers realise this since the axe is joined, in the second half, by further weapons which should not be spoiled. And as the action increases and the XP starts to get pumped into different abilities, a true synthesis emerges between Kratos and Atreus. In another developer's hands this would have felt like a prolonged escort mission, bringing the kid along, but there is none of that in God of War. On the standard settings, at least, Atreus looks after himself and you both look after each other. The escorting is saved for quiet moments of exposition.

The regular fights - elemental baddies, baddies with shields, baddies who hover and spit fire - are so much fun that the bosses almost take a backseat. They're still spectacular, of course, but the stage-management of them, with which they pull you between arena-brawling and moments of lofty on-rails theatrics, make them feel a little less alive than the basic scrapping. In a game about the indulgences of the gods, these are the indulgences of the real higher powers: the designers. Even here, though, the sheer drama of being a god who hates other gods steps in to keep things fresh. You fight a winged beast by racing up over its scaly back and into its mouth where much dentistry awaits; you knock a man through a mountain and then he knocks you through another. It's astonishing stuff to look at and playing on a PS4 Pro the frame-rate never faltered (although the audio occasionally hitched and there was the odd pause for loading).

Such are the intricate pleasures of brawling your way through Midgard and beyond, it can sometimes be hard to notice all the game's wilder ambitions. Despite the plotting, I didn't really reflect much on God of War's relationship with the other big relationship games out there: Kratos and Atreus just sort of get on with it. Despite the backtracking, I didn't really think much about the fact that the whole adventure was knotted up in an audacious, improbably calm single shot with no cutaways or flashbacks. There's padding and asset reuse, but look at the richness of the assets and the world they are delivering. And at the end of it there's still so much left to mop up, still so much that remains unseen. God of War does a lot with holy light and crumbling temples, but one of its best moments involves waves of enemies and two bonfires that must not be extinguished. It is capable of making fun from very straightforward things.

Yes. Like Kratos, the god of fury who must learn not to fear his son, this is a strange beast, really. The latest technology and astonishing craft and artistry are employed to deliver a game of extremely simple pleasures - a wash of new pseudo-ideas that cannot hide the fact that the basics remain unfixed because they were not broken. God of War dresses things up, in other words, but it is ultimately the same deal it always was. As is the way with myths, I guess. As is the way with gods.

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