Kratos is back, and he's looking cooler than ever.
Even if you're not a huge fan of the God of War series, it's still hard to deny that the behind closed doors demo shown by a couple of developers from Sony's Santa Monica Studio at E3 was one of the most impressive of the show. And after having seen it in more detail, we have to say that it's among the games that we're most looking forward to playing on PS4 (whenever it launches, there's currently no indication of when that will be).
It wasn't the goose-bumps caused by the orchestral opening during Sony's E3 conference, nor Kratos emerging from the darkness uttering "I'm hungry; feed us" that left a positive impression. It was the gameplay itself, with the combination of breath-taking environments, smooth and impactful combat sequences, and a simple, user-friendly approach.
Same as with Days Gone (that being Sony's Unannounced Game 'A', this being 'B'), we were privy to an extended version of the ten minute gameplay demo that you can watch in full below. Thus, the Santa Monica Studio devs took a longer look around the environments, tried a couple of different combat tricks, and better explained their goals for this reimagining of the series.
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The game is actually linked to the first games' storyline somehow, but we don't know yet what happened between then and now; why did Kratos decide to take such a long trip, and what caused the death of his son's ill-fated mother. It seems as though Kratos himself wants to leave his past behind; he doesn't seem open to sharing any clues, just like the developers we spoke to.
What we do know is that the new Norse environment already looks like the perfect choice, not only allowing for new monsters, gods and fantasies based on Nordic mythology, but it also means there's a really striking contrast between the stunning landscapes and the gory brutality that the series is known for, now realised in higher fidelity and with greater flair than ever before. Indeed, the new style looks more elegant, more mature from an artistic perspective.
In a modern approach to the genre, the camera is now much closer to Kratos' shoulder, giving a more intimate feel and a new means for the player to better feel every incoming and outgoing blow. For those who are used to the wider perspective of the past and the huge open battles that came with it, you shouldn't be worried: combat design and direction, along with some new tools and features, already suggests that the game won't lessen scale or spectacle; more like the opposite.
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The axe, for example, is the one and only weapon used by Kratos during the demo (the developers wanted to showcase this side of the combat), and it actually reveals some cool close-quarters and ranged options. It's ruthless as a combo starter, destructive as a finisher, and rather handy as a throwable weapon. You can, for instance, keep one enemy at bay by hammering them into a wall from afar, using your rock-solid fists to deal with a closer opponent, before recalling the axe for the next round. We witnessed a couple of mid-air attacks during the extended demo that were so impressive that we reckon fans would have paid Sony just to include them in the public gameplay clip.
Button and QTE prompts are more discreet this time around, in line with the cleaner, more cinematic presentation of the whole. Set pieces are also introduced seamlessly, with some cutting-edge slow motion moves and suitable camera angle switches. But, despite the arcade-ish elements being more hidden now, you're of course still filling up your Spartan Rage meter, which you can unleash by pressing L3+R3 when you're ready for another bloodbath.
Adding to all this - which might still sound overly familiar gameplay-wise, despite the new setting, weapons, and presentation - Santa Monica Studio is also promising a couple of expanded features which could end up being very welcome. First off, and underlining that the new God of War is by no means an open-world game, the studio is adding several routes through each stage which the player can explore freely. This is linked to a "knowledge" system that rewards users as they reveal new areas and secrets, and the studio wants "the story unfolding around the player" with several environmental tricks and nods.
Secondly, of course, there's the child. We'd bet on him being playable during later sections in the game The Last of Us-style (and not just during the brief, but clever training sequences), but for now the devs will only confirm that Kratos' son gains experience and both his strength and his weapons can be upgraded along with his dad's as you progress through the journey. The boy is an active participant during combat as well, and there's literally a "son button" (directly mapped to one of the face buttons of your DualShock 4) that you can press to command him to attack at the right moment (for example, with his bow and arrows).
But, again, this was just a little teaser. The developers haven't told us that much at this stage, but despite the short demo, we left Sony's private room convinced, because God of War looks mechanically solid, beautifully realised, direct and impactful, easy to pick up, and true to the spirit of the series. If they don't slip up with any possible sections involving the son, and if they can build an addictive character progression system on top of a well-paced and varied story mode, we could very well be looking at the rebirth of an old god.