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God Of War Ragnarok Preview: A Strong But Familiar Start For The Much-Anticipated Sequel

The early hours with Sony's sequel to God of War are promising, thanks to a focus on character development.

Who could have foreseen that God of War, a series built on the shoulders of a character defined by his campaign to ruthlessly murder the pantheon of Greek gods, would be the same series to deliver a thoughtful exploration of fatherhood? But that is exactly what Sony Santa Monica's 2018 reboot of the franchise did, and it's just one facet of a game that was exemplary in so many ways. From its cinematic presentation, jaw-dropping scale, and stirring orchestral soundtrack to its intense combat, fulfilling exploration, and robust role-playing systems, God of War revived the dormant series and made it a gold standard for cinematic storytelling in video games.

Naturally, this leaves developer Sony Santa Monica in an unenviable position when creating a sequel. How does the studio take a meaningful step forward from an experience that is critically acclaimed and beloved by millions without faltering? The answer to this, and whether the studio has been successful, remains to be seen, but based on my time with the first few hours of God of War Ragnarok, early impressions are good.

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In many ways, Ragnarok is familiar; thus far, there are no major changes, additions, or subtractions that upend the way it feels or plays. That might not sound terribly exciting for those seeking a transformative experience on the same level as the previous game. However, the intent is clearly to ensure there is consistency and cohesion between the two. It might seem stupid to point out this is a sequel that feels like an extension of its predecessor, but given the time between releases, there was a real chance there could have been drastic distinctions between the two. It happens a lot--for various reasons--and you only have to look at the disparities between The Last of Us and The Last of Us Part 2 to see the impact that can have. The long and short of it is that I very comfortably slipped back into playing the game. But far from being disappointed by this familiarity, I actually found it helpful in getting immersed in the world of God of War again.

The importance of that cohesion becomes apparent from the very outset of Ragnarok, which evokes the opening moments of the first game in order to deftly remind players of the journey its protagonists went on, and also to show how they were changed by it. I was thankful to see that the events of the last game have reshaped Kratos in noticeable ways. Of course, in God of War (2018), Kratos was a completely different person, but the transformation here is much more meaningful. 2018's Kratos was a product of the blood and betrayals of his Greek-era godhood, but his newfound restraint in that game felt like it cost him too much. To cage the beast in him, he cast aside all emotion and, in the process, alienated himself from his son. To understand what it truly meant to be a father, Kratos also needed to learn who he really was. That is the Kratos in God of War Ragnarok: a man who is willing to be vulnerable and show that the loss of his wife still hurts him deeply; a father who now understands that instilling fear is no way to guide a child; and a person who's not too proud to seek the counsel of friends when he needs it. There are moments in the early hours of Ragnarok that are small, but do so much to characterize Kratos.

Atreus has undergone a similar change. His experiences in the first game were a much-needed lesson in humility for the fledgling god, and he comes across as more humble as a result. The father and son are now being hunted by Freya, who vowed to kill Kratos as revenge for taking her son Baldur's life. Atreus has undergone rigorous training to prepare him to survive and the fruits of that training are evident. The boy who couldn't bring himself to hunt is now a sure-footed warrior--though still in need of plenty of tutelage from his father.

The growth shown here is interesting on its own, but it also raises the stakes much higher than they have ever been for Kratos. For fans who have watched his journey from the very beginning, the ending of God of War (2018) was a significant moment; we never thought we'd see him find any semblance of peace and balance, but the self-discovery he underwent and place of understanding he reached with Atreus were as close to a happy ending for him as we've ever seen. But with Ragnarok approaching, and Atreus's intent in engaging directly with the forces that will partake in it, whatever semblance of happiness Kratos had finally achieved now hangs in the balance. It's kind of like seeing that friend you've been hoping would get it together finally do it, but then something threatens to undo all the hard work they've put in. There's a tension in that dynamic, and some of that underpins the events of Ragnarok.

Needless to say, from a narrative and character standpoint, I was enthralled by the opening hours of God of War Ragnarok, and I am very keen to see how Kratos and Atreus continue to develop as characters, especially as the many conflicts that have already been set up begin to unfold.

When it comes to dealing with those conflicts, God of War sticks to the tried-and-true combat from the previous game. It still feels suitably intense thanks to the close-up perspective, where Kratos dominates the frame as much as he dominates his targets. That sense of brutality that he's known for once again comes to the fore as he stomps around battlefields, rending opponents in two with his Leviathan axe, slicing them up with sweeps of his Blades of Chaos, and bringing them to their knees with thunderous strikes of his fists. At his side, Atreus holds his own with precision arrow shots from a distance and, should the situation call for it, merciless use of his knife up close. That sense of back-and-forth dynamism between the two characters is preserved in Ragnarok.

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At this stage, I've started to come to grips with some of the tweaks that have been made to the combat, such as unique functions for each weapon called Runic Attacks. Holding triangle--a button used exclusively to recall the Leviathan axe in the previous game--will now execute a special move. The axe, for example, will form a heavy ice coating on it, allowing Kratos to do a very powerful upward strike. Holding triangle with the Blades of Chaos will make him swing a blade and, if held long enough, it will immolate, then allowing him to summon a geyser of fire to launch his target. The light and heavy runic attacks are a new wrinkle that adds a layer of additional strategy to fights, as I found myself needing to better exploit weaknesses to deal with enemies quicker. Maybe I'm just a bit rusty, but it feels like the enemies in God of War Ragnarok are much less forgiving; there are often more of them and they hit a little harder. Not to mention that I've already fought my fair share of strange and very dangerous beasts--at times it felt like I was in a Monster Hunter game, carefully watching these animals to learn their patterns and exploiting brief windows of opportunity with specific moves. Having said that, I am having a lot of fun figuring out their attack patterns, nailing down my dodge and parry timing, and coming up with combo strings to do maximum damage. I look forward to seeing how the combat evolves, especially as new weapons, armor, and abilities are acquired, unlocked, or upgraded.

That's as much as I want to say about God of War Ragnarok, and as much detail as I want to go into, especially given how close we are to release. My main takeaway thus far is that it's doing all the right things and I'm confident it will be an enjoyable experience. What remains to be seen is whether it can go beyond this and elevate the experience further. Since Sony Santa Monica said Ragnarok will be the conclusion of Kratos's Norse myth, expectations are understandably high. With Thor and Odin involved, there's sure to be some heart-pounding set pieces, but I just hope that, through it all, the characters remain the heart and soul of the story.

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tamz

Tamoor Hussain

Tamoor Hussain is the Managing Editor of GameSpot. He has been covering the video game industry for a really long time, having worked in news, features, reviews, video, and more. He loves Bloodborne and other From Software titles, is partial to the stealth genre, and can hold his own in fighting games too. Fear the Old Blood.

God of War: Ragnarok

God of War: Ragnarok

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