I've always been a little embarrassed to admit that I could never get into God of War games. When the first installment came out in 2005 and received critical acclaim, I was naturally intrigued. I love hack and slash games, and as Devil May Cry fan I devoured Dante's Awakening earlier that year, but despite a number of solid attempts, including its sequels, God of War never got its hooks in deep enough to drag me past the first couple of hours.
There was a major problem for me: Kratos' signature dual chain-blades didn't feel satisfying to use. I was used to hitting square and seeing a direct correlation to Dante's individual slashes as he cleaved through an enemy. I could see a distinct impact on screen, hear it in my ears, and feel it in my controller. When I hit square with Kratos, I saw a wild flurry of orange and the sound of rattling chains, and there was little sense of impact or contact other than a ticking combo meter. The distant camera only diminished this sensation further, and despite the series' spectacular set pieces, it wasn't what I wanted out of a combat-heavy game. It didn't help that I never had an affinity towards Greek mythology.
Knowing all this about me, it may annoy you to learn that I recently had a chance to play the new God of War on PS4. While series purists may have initially balked at the dramatic change in style, I'm happy to report (to myself, if no-one else) that after two hours, this is definitely a game I want to keep playing.
With its over-the-shoulder perspective and new default weapon, I was immediately taken with the changes in combat. Kratos' axe is more purposeful than it is flashy, meaning one button press issues a single strike, and the close perspective means that the impact of each blow is clearly felt. Though the new God of War uncharacteristically begins with somber, quiet moments before very slowly escalating, the new, satisfying feel of its combat was evident to me from the first few low-stakes encounters.
The broad mechanics are similar to existing God of War games--Light and heavy attacks can be combined with the analog stick to execute a number of different combo strings. You may have also heard about the joys of being able to throw Kratos' axe, and recall it back to your hand just as easily. With just these basic starting tools and some light experimentation, I was able to find a few combos that I had a lot of fun executing, like knocking enemies into the air after a combo string and finishing them by immediately throwing your axe into them.
I could also perform some basic crowd control by using the axe to freeze an enemy in place, and go to town on his buddy with Kratos' bare knuckles. Attacking unarmed was something I was surprised to discover I could do, and soon became my favorite thing--especially as someone who plays Dark Souls with fist weapons. The feeling of embodying a god like Kratos and using his raw power to knock out monsters felt really good, and its audiovisual feedback, with visible screen shakes and meaty thuds, were so satisfying that I preferred to put my axe away whenever I had a good handle of the situation.
There's a stun mechanic that gives preference to unarmed blows, too. Rapid weapon attacks or regular punches build up an enemy's stun meter, and when filled Kratos can execute violent takedowns. These were initially fun to watch, but performing these over and over again got a little tedious. I preferred my own loop of standing and waiting for an enemy attack, parrying it (which is hugely satisfying in its own right) to open them up, and smacking them with a hand-to-hand combo that eventually sent them flying back into other enemies, or forcefully into a wall for extra damage. Some of the incredible, cinematic boss fights I experienced had powerful, earthshaking interstitial moments that recalled Asura's Wrath--an over-the-top Capcom beat-em-up game, which I loved.
With the new God of War focussing on Uncharted-like character interactions, and a Horizon-like gear system, many people I've spoken to have mentioned that the combat is really the only part of the game that reminds them of classic God of War. But to me, the combat reminds me more of The Last of Us, and the impactful feeling of smacking an infected with a plank of wood. You could say that God of War distinctly feels like a Sony game, an amalgamation of mechanics and narrative elements that have defined the success of the company's major first-party titles over the last few years, fused together to create its own stylistic genre.
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The new God of War doesn't feel like the old God of War, and I can empathize with series devotees who might be bothered by that. But for the first time, God of War is a game that excites me--the combat finally feels good, the Naughty Dog inspired character moments work well so far, and I can definitely get behind its lore shift to a grounded version of Nordic mythology. I can't say whether existing fans will still be on the bandwagon, but I feel like I'm finally ready to join the Kratos Fan Club.