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E3 preview: ‘God of War’

‘God of War' adds a bit of Bruce Banner to Kratos' Hulk

“God of War is not a reboot,” SCE Santa Monica creative director Corey Barlog was quick to point out during our recent hands-off demonstration of the revived action series. Barlog walked us through the same demo revealed during Sony’s press conference, but played live by one of the game’s combat designers. “From a gameplay perspective we want to tear God of War apart, put all the pieces on the ground and see what rises to the top.” The core elements are all there, but it simultaneously feels very new.

Less Hulk, more Bruce Banner

This is the same Kratos we’ve come to know from the previous entries in the series, but a little older and a little wiser. The choice to remove the number instead of continuing on at 4 was instead about signifying that Kratos’ story from the first trilogy has concluded, and that this is a new phase in the notoriously angry warrior’s life. “It’s sort of a BC/AD thing,” added Barlog.

“You must think, not simply react.”

“The entire Greek pantheon of games, the sort of Greek era of God of War, was marked by Kratos being rage-filled, focused on that goal of getting vengeance.” By the end of God of War III, Kratos had finally accepted that neither he nor anyone else could change the past, and instead began to learn acceptance and self-control. “In the previous games, Kratos was always the Hulk, and never Bruce Banner, never had that balance between the two of controlling the monster inside.”

Fatherhood is one of the main reasons for Kratos’ change of heart. Kratos’ son, who features prominently in the demo, will remain a companion throughout most of the game, forcing him to constantly consider his actions and how they appear to an impressionable child who is looking up to him. “This iteration of the game is about that idea of controlling himself, the idea of how much of ourselves do we really show our kids, you know? How much of our worst selves we see in our kids changes us.”

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You can see this inner struggle at work in the first few minutes of the demo when Kratos’ familiar rage flares up after his son botches his first attempt at shooting the deer, before he catches himself and suppresses it. “You must think, not simply react,” he advises the boy. “Be calm and plan.” This is not quite unhinged berserker we once knew.

That all changes once the battle begins, however, and we get to see Kratos unleash the beast. His signature chain-mounted Blades of Chaos are gone, and instead the weapon shown off in the demo is a battle axe, etched with glowing runes. A similar mix of melee and ranged combat is achieved, however, by Kratos’ ability to hurl the axe at distant foes.

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When the axe lodges itself in something (or someone) Kratos can then call it back by extending his hand, bringing it spinning back towards him like Thor’s hammer Mjölnir. The button to call the axe back is separate from the attack button, allowing Kratos to, for instance, throw it at a distant enemy, start punching a nearby foe, and then summon it back mid-combo for a nasty attack from behind.

There’s no limit to how far he can call it from, or how long he can leave it. “You could throw it away in the very beginning of the game, leave it behind, and then call it back to you midway through,” Barlog mused, “though my programmers would hate you.”

A matter of perspective

The most immediately striking difference between God of War and the original trilogy is the camera. Where the earlier games were much more distant at a fixed, isometric angle, this time we will be up close and personal right behind Kratos. “Right from the beginning the concept of telling a more personal story meant we needed to be closer to Kratos,” explained Barlog. “For me we needed to be closer to Kratos all of the time, so while the cinematic camera was fantastic and presented a tremendous amount of opportunities, the idea of really getting in and staying close and seeing the world from Kratos’ perspective. It’s also empowering for the player to be able to look where they want to look.”

The mechanics, theme, and presentation all flow beautifully into one another in a coherent and holistic design.

That ability to look around more closely pays off with a beautifully rendered and exquisitely detailed world that you’ll want to take time and examine. Environmental storytelling has been a big focus of the design, with places bearing the marks of what happened there without explicitly laying things out for the player. For instance, after the big troll fight in the demo, Kratos wanders through a ruined camp of troll hunters who were in the midst of processing a huge troll carcass when the beast Kratos just slew had torn through the camp.

The game’s world will also be generally more non-linear than previous entries in the series, encouraging players to explore more. Barlog described it as “a world that is open, but not an ‘open world’.”

Barlog also pointed out that the camera never cuts away during the demo, and in fact it won’t for the entire game, maintaining one continuous shot. In addition to helping achieve the intimacy with Kratos’ point of view mentioned before, Barlog also saw this as an embrace of the game as a game, which can maintain a continuous shot in a way that films generally cannot (with rare exceptions, like the film Russian Ark).

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“For me, the film language of camera cuts is sort of intrinsic to the film industry. I love movies, but I want to make games. We can do something that they can’t do, which is this concept of a prolonged experience in which you never cut the camera away.”

By Odin’s beard!

The other obvious difference from the previous games is the move from ancient Greek mythology to Norse. Barlog pointed out, however, that despite what many fans have assumed, it’s not in fact set in the Viking age. Instead it is set in earlier age of gods and heroes about whom the Vikings told stories, when Scandinavia was more sparsely populated and the gods walked among men, analogous to the heroic age of Greece explored in previous games.

All told we were extremely impressed by God of War. Barlog and his team have taken a thoughtful approach to the series’ reinvention, maintaining its core while making something that feels fresh and modern. The mechanics, theme, and presentation all flow beautifully into one another in a coherent and holistic design. The original God of War revolutionized action games for its time, and every sign so far indicates that this return to the beloved series has the potential to be just as much of a milestone.

God of War is currently in development for PlayStation 4, with no release date yet.