The shift from angry young man to stoic father-figure is well trodden ground for gaming’s male protagonists. This dadification arguably reflects the changing concerns of male developers and audiences as the medium ages; fantasies of agency tangled up in ideas of family, legacy and fatherhood rather than teenage angst. God of War (2018) is the latest game to follow this trend, and at a recent hands-on I played the first few hours of Kratos’ father-son odyssey.
In this revamp of the classic hack-and-slash series, deity-skewerer Kratos has grown up. The God of War has no time for flailing around with chained blades at Greek legends. He’s got a child and a nice cottage in a mythical Norse forest, all his seething rage turned to paternal responsibility. A mellow hunting and woodchopping simulator would be boring, however, so this equilibrium inevitably comes to ruin. After a strange presence comes knocking, Kratos’ peaceful life is broken apart.
Father and son
Like The Last of Us, BioShock Infinite or The Walking Dead, God of War (2018) pitches the player as a protector, guiding a child through a dangerous land. For Kratos, this centres on Atreus, teetering on puberty but weak and inexperienced, especially compared to the hyperbolic heft of his father. When action starts, it’s clear that Kratos and Atreus aren’t enormously close, but a narrative arc is kicked off that sees them journeying side by side, the young son learning from his gruff father as they fight for survival.
It’s a fantasy of masculinity through and through; the player filling the boots of a strong, commanding father-figure imparting practical wisdom to a reverent son. Presumably there is some tension later in the story, but the opening hours very much frame Kratos as the man in charge and Ateus as the increasingly useful assistant.
This lopsided partnership is pulled off with some clever linking within the game’s combat system. Atreus carries the bow and arrow, meaning the button to fire at an enemy is actually one to order Atreus to fire, and therefore relies on the AI-controlled Atreus being in the right position to shoot. With a number of enemies needing to be stunned by arrows before they can be effectively tackled, it puts onus on Atreus to be part of the player’s overall strategy. I felt happy when he made the shot, angry when he missed.
It will be interesting to see whether Atreus develops more autonomy as the game progresses. There’s certainly scope to bake his arc from innocence to experience into the combat systems, and its hinted that he will have an increasingly wide range of abilities to assist and augment combat as the game moves beyond its opening hours. There are also shades of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons in the way movement and puzzle-solving requires both parties, so it will be interesting to see how those moments of collaboration build over the game and affect the father-son dynamic.
Set piece spectacle
One thing God of War (2018) does carry on from its predecessors is a structure built around tightly scripted paths and extended set pieces, albeit with a new over-the-shoulder camera perspective. While the linearity can sometimes make the lush world of the game seem restrictive in its scope, the level design makes use of crafty loops and foreshadowing to push you forward in your journey. A way to a secret area may be glimpsed several minutes before the path turns towards it, for example, while chests and symbol-hunting puzzles encourage exploration and a certain degree of backtracking.
As for the setpieces, one fight in particular with a mysterious visitor towards the beginning of the game manages to build impressively from a simple fight to a tense, epic standoff. By its end, I’d realised I’d edged almost completely out of my seat. God of War is at its best when the fight scenes are preposterously vast, and this sequence showed that approach is alive and well in Kratos’ new Nordic home.
First look verdict
The new God of War has its roots in the hack-and-slash action of previous entries, but this setup has been tilted into a RPG that borrows effectively from a raft of other games. There’s Dark Souls’ emphasis on shields and evasions; there’s a Doom-like system of finisher moves for stunned enemies; and there’s – beneath it all – the story of a parent protecting their child. It’s a fantasy of fatherhood as much as it is of Norse mythology, which is fine… but it will be interesting to see if the game unsettles any of those cosy masculine reveries as it progresses through its pugnacious journey.