July 30, 2018

RE: God of War (2018)

If you want to know what I think of the latest God of War (and I’m not sure why you would), then let me say this to start: I’m not a God of War fan.  I touched the first game once, and never did again.  I skipped the second.  Watched chunks of the third -- and probably 75% of the first, at a bare minimum.  Skipped all the handheld games.  Forgot Kratos showed up in fighting games as a guest character.  Never used Kratos in PlayStation All-Stars: Battle Royale (jeez, remember that game?)  Touched Ascension once, and never did again.  

Generally swore off the series after that.

So if nothing else?  Congratulations to God of War (2018) for being the first and only game in the franchise so far to make me want to go back to it again.  For real this time.

I just love how trying to search for a good BOI complication led to me getting spoiled.  Jeez, it’s release week all over again when YouTube decided I REALLY wanted to learn who the final boss was.

I’m going to assume that, if you’re reading this, you either know GoW4 intimately, or you haven’t cared up to this point and have just opened this post for kicks.  Either way, here’s the setup.  Kratos has given up (?) the life of a murderous psychopath out for revenge and settled down in the woods.  I’d say he’s got a happy family by his side, but that’d be a lie that dwarfs Mount Olympus.  His wife Faye is dead, leaving him with the young, formerly-sickly Atreus to watch over.

As part of a ritual -- and his late wife’s last wish -- Kratos opts to scatter her ashes atop a mountain.  But plans go astray when a wiry stranger comes a-knocking, only to wail on Kratos in a superpowered brawl that’s a little too close to Man of Steel for comfort.  In any case, the Ghost of Sparta tells his boy Atreus to saddle up, because they’re going on an adventure -- and there’s no better way to keep his son safe than to have him occasionally ride his back like Diddy Kong.

Sony and Santa Monica Studios have thrown a lot of weight behind this game, and it shows.  At the outset, the game trades openness for linearity, which makes for a very direct, very guided experience; you will see the world exactly as the devs intended.  The benefit to that approach is that the world is beautiful and alive, despite the sheer lack of other characters.  It really feels like I’m getting back to nature -- save for an unlucky run-in with some bandits -- which really helps drive home how isolated Kratos and BOI are from everything else.  Also?  I feel like it should go without saying, but we’ve pretty much left the era of brown and gray “realism” behind.  GoW4 cements it, and I couldn’t be happier.

Admittedly part of…well, half of the reason I’m playing this game (finally) is because I want to see what kind of crazy skills you can get.  I’m just barely past the starting line, so I don’t know how off-the-wall things get.  Still, I’m happy to report that the first skill I got lets Kratos throw the Leviathan Axe forward for a multi-hitting projectile attack -- a dead ringer for the Strike Raid from Kingdom Hearts, and one of my favorite moves ever.  Also, it’s interesting to see that Atreus gets his share of upgrades, too -- not just to bolster dear ol’ dad’s combos, but to put up some semblance of a fight himself.

Although on my file, the first thing I got for him was a passive ability to help me in a jam, up to and including scrounging up health stones for me to shove down my gullet.  Father of the Year over here.

But the upgrade system would be pretty useless without combat to whet my whistle with.  And so far, said combat is…pretty enjoyable.  You can get by with just the basics, I bet (at least on the normal difficulty), but part of the reason for that is because there are nuances here that feel like they were culled directly from every fighting game in the last decade.  Granted that’s probably true of all of the GoW games; still, the removal of a dedicated jump and the de-emphasis (note the word choice here) on on the Blades of Chaos’ sweeps/range makes for an intimate, up-close experience with more -- for lack of a better term -- “grounded” combat.  Quote/unquote to the max.

At the outset you won’t be launching a foe five stories high and jump cancel into an aerial rave.  In exchange?  Even just a few hours in, Kratos has access to a launcher (to put foes on the same level as, say a Tekken launcher), juggles, filler, and ground bounces.  There’s a non-zero chance that you can get wall bounce combos in there, and certainly wall splat combos (or wall pins, as it were).  Plus there’s a stun gauge you can fill with bare-fisted combat and Atreus’ arrows -- and speaking of BOI, you can sprinkle in his shots to bolster your combos.  Or just have him make a distraction.

Near as I can tell, the combat is as much about crowd control as it is about those combos -- for good or ill.  The combat is up close and personal, largely because the camera is set in such a way that Kratos (from the back) takes up 30-50% of the screen at all times.  That’s not exactly conducive to combat as we know it, and to this day I’m still undecided on how I feel about it.  

While the onscreen indicators do tell you where enemies, attacks and projectiles are -- relative to your position -- I get the feeling that the devs could have avoided that step entirely by just pulling back the camera like plenty of other character action games have before.  Otherwise I end up taking hits from baddies lurking offscreen.

Still, I prefer this game’s combat to every other GoW before it.  I suspect it trades some of the earlier games’ speed for power and impact (I can’t prove that, but it’s a hunch half-built on this new entry being a 30FPS adventure), but it’s no worse off for it.  Landing perfect parries feels too damn good.  The idea of being able to make some crazy custom combos -- featuring real-time weapon change against foes already stuck in my juggles -- is tantalizing.  And wisely, the game introduces its version of Vergil ASAP.  Many games, indeed, are improved the instant they introduce a rival character.

But enough about that gameplay garbage.  Let’s get to the real shit.

Part of the reason why I put God of War off for so long was because I dreaded having another The Last of Us on my hands.  Hype aversion played into it; sometimes it feels like the key to being a 10/10 AAA game (or product in general these days) is to meet certain criteria: good graphics, familiar brand, marketing.  And on top of that?  TLoU soured me on the whole “father and child adventure” concept, partly because I knew the success and accolades meant we’d get more -- even when those accolades and successes went toward something that’s passable at best.  I know what I said.  Fight me, I dare you.

Like I said before, GoW4 is better than TLoU -- in my opinion at least, and based on some early impressions.  At an absolute bare minimum, Kratos’ latest adventure has FAR superior gameplay, and something I’m interested in going back to…whereas my first experience with TLoU ended with me asleep on the floor.  It’s been years since I touched Naughty Dog’s darling, but if I had to guess?  It’s less about the inherent flaws of the concept and more of the inherent flaws with Naughty Dog -- a company that’s seemingly become my archnemesis in the wake of…certain games.

To me, The Misadventures of Joel Grumpybuns and Girl came off as less of a road trip across zombie-infested America, and more of a tension-free, rudderless slog.  It was like I was spinning my wheels for hours on end, and all for a journey that went around in circles.  And yes, I recognize that Joel Grumpybuns did progressively change over the course of the game, but A) he did so too slowly for my tastes, and B) with or without his arc, he was still comparatively boring.  As flat and as bland as the game he rode in on.

What killed that game for me…okay, one of the things that killed that game for me was that the central relationship took too much time to develop.  Part of that comes from the dull, dry gameplay slowing things down and dragging out simple skirmishes beyond their expiration date, but IIRC?  Joel Grumpybuns loves treating Ellie like a burden, a nuisance, and a talking knapsack to drag across the continent for way longer than necessary.  And yes, I get that that’s the point -- that he had a rough experience and a rougher life, and he’s not willing to open his heart.  But that doesn’t make for a compelling story.  To quote Tycho of Penny Arcade fame (again):

“I don’t understand the thinking behind giving me lead characters, which the narrative can slowly alchemize into gold.  Why don’t you give me gold characters, and then refine them into platinum?”

Why, indeed.

If nothing else, GoW4 drops all pretenses and provides more from the get-go.  The journey starts NOW.  The relationship starts NOW.  The conflict starts NOW (in a way that’s actually interesting).  The development starts NOW.  I’m not suddenly in the “OMG, WTF I love Kratos now” camp yet, but there’s been an effort with him that I appreciate -- partly because the warrior himself is making an effort.  

I get the feeling that Kratos and BOI have a history together -- a lot of backstory that justifies the things they say and do.  Was Kratos around a lot for Atreus?  If so, how hard on him was he?  If not, what was he doing for all that time?  I mean, I get the sense that Atreus was mostly under Faye’s care, especially if the kid was too sick for any rough-and-tumble Spartan training.  So if that’s the case, does Atreus want to prove himself to Kratos to show that he’s stronger than before?  Is it out of respect for his superhuman kin?  Or does he want to spite the Spartan for seemingly leaving his mother to die?

Again, it’s likely I’m missing the full story here, and by extension it’s likely I’m getting key details wrong.  But that subtext is interesting and makes me want to learn more…yet, I’d be totally okay with it never being brought out into the open.  Why?  Sometimes, some things are better left unsaid.  Besides, we’re going on an adventure NOW, not in the past.  Eyes forward.

One of the best -- and most harrowing -- shots I’ve seen in the game yet comes really early on.  Atreus is mourning over the loss of his mother, reciting poetic prayers on an infinite loop as he graces her covered corpse.  He does stop eventually, though -- mostly because the camera swivels around to the cabin doorway, revealing the hulking form of Kratos, rendered in darkness as he’s framed by light, and with the sort of stinger chord you’d expect from a Marvel villain.  

I mean, yeah, Kratos walks through the door and shows off his sad dad face, but still.  I can’t help but see it from Atreus’ possible-yet-justified perspective.  While I don’t know what kind of person Faye was, I get the feeling that she was a much warmer and more nurturing person than the man who once cross-slashed his family to pieces.  But now that guy’s his legal guardian.  I wouldn’t fault BOI at all for being scared, and no amount of sad orchestral music will change that.

But this is KRatos’ story, likely more so than BOI’s.  Because of that, we as an audience need to see how he’s been reformed from his image and antics from the PS2/PS3 era.  Has he cleaned the slate?  In my eyes, he’s not clear yet.  Still, he’s making a real effort in-game, unprompted by the player’s hand, that really goes a long way -- stuff that sets him apart from Joel Grumpybuns (relative to their points in the story).

Kratos seems to have some serious problems with intimacy.  He’s…not the warmest person (which begs the question of what the hell Faye saw in him, but whatever), and it shows.  It’s not just because he’s a gruff, guttural growler for three fourths of his dialogue, oh no.  He’s been given at least two chances so far to pat Atreus on the back, or at least stroke him soothingly when he’s emotionally distraught.  And he’s gone for it -- only to coward out and keep his hand at bay.  It’s simple, but I really like that little detail.  It says a lot about the kind of man we’re dealing with here -- flawed in more ways than his bloodlust.

And rest assured, there is more to say about Kratos and his kid.  And I probably will.  Someday.  One day soon.  So look forward to that.  I mean, who knows?  Maybe I’ll find a way to work this guy into the mix.

That’ll do it for now.  See you next time -- after I give Kratos props for one more thing.  I was wondering for the longest time if he’d just call Atreus BOI until the end of the game when he finally acknowledges him and calls out his son’s name.  Turns out the guy uses (and knows) the name as he pleases.  He just doesn’t.

Still a better dad than Joel Grumpybuns.

…Ellie’s cool, though.  

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