The God of War has returned. Kratos, the Ghost of Sparta who destroyed all of the gods of Olympus in his quest for revenge for the deaths of his wife and daughter, is making his first appearance on Sony’s (SEN) PlayStation 4 next month, and it’s going to be huge.
But the living embodiment of a nuclear-powered buzzsaw isn’t what he once was. “God of War,” which comes out April 20, sees the once vengeance-driven son of Zeus and a mortal man take on a more subdued demeanor.
He’s older and wiser, and it certainly shows. From the way the ashes, which he was cursed to wear, have begun to fade from his skin, to how he approaches combat, this is a more deliberate Kratos than the killing machine that battled his way to the top of Mount Olympus in the original “God of War” trilogy.
I played the first two and a half hours of “God of War” during a preview event hosted by Sony, and left more excited to play the final game than ever before.
The aged Kratos we meet in “God of War” has the weathered look of a man nearing the twilight of his days. His face now sports a long, grey beard and his trademark tattoo is fading with age. My first impression of the Spartan was that he had the kind of vibe I got from the aged Wolverine in “Logan.”
“There was a first kind of discussion we had where I said it was kind of like an athlete in the off season,” explained “God of War” creative director Cory Barlog. “There were versions of Kratos where he let himself go a little bit.”
That’s not to say he’s weak and feeble. This Kratos still packs one heck of a punch. And his brutality is still well intact when he needs to unleash it. But he’s also not the walking vial of nitroglycerin he once was.
Much of that has to do with the fact that Kratos is once again a husband and father. At least, he was prior to this game’s opening scenes where we find Kratos laying his wife to rest. His son, Atreaus is still young and inexperienced, and Kratos, now a single parent, is tasked with teaching him everything from how to properly hunt for food to how to defend himself.
It’s clear that Kratos isn’t exactly comfortable in his role as a loving caregiver. Moments like his initial anger at his son over a missed shot at a deer the two were hunting show the Spartan’s rage nearly boil over, only to subside into instructions punctuated through his gritted teeth. The love, though, is certainly there. In another scene, Atreaus tells Kratos not to leave him behind again following a fight, to which Kratos replies, “I won’t.”
The lessons Kratos is imparting on his son, are especially important in “God of War’s” new setting among the frozen Scandinavian forests of Midgard where the Norse gods reign. The change is a welcome one from the previous “God of War” trilogy, which revolved around the mythology and locations of the Greek gods. And Sony Santa Monica Studios has, based on my brief time with the game, done an excellent job bringing this new game world to life.
The forest and cliffs surrounding the game’s opening hours feel alive with animal life and look stunning, particularly when viewed with the PlayStation 4 Pro and a 4K, HDR television. At one point during my demo playthrough I stood still and just listened to the sound of birds and the wind whipping through the trees.
Old man strength
Of course, this wouldn’t be a “God of War” game without some satisfyingly, ferocious combat, and the latest title in a franchise known for its over-the-top battles delivers. The new-look old Kratos doesn’t have his trademark blades chained to his forearms anymore. In its place the Spartan now uses his Leviathan Axe, which lets him cut through foes using both weak and strong attacks.
Strong attacks bounce your enemies into the air allowing you to juggle them and leaving them stunned, while you beat them down. Weak hits let you deal out damage and keep your opponents off balance so they can’t retaliate against you.
You can also throw the Leviathan Axe at enemies and then recall it similar to Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir. Throw the axe at certain objects and you can even freeze them in place. As you can imagine, that skill also comes in handy when solving “God of War’s” puzzles.
Interestingly, the first hours of “God of War” don’t feature the series’ usual massive set pieces. At the outset of “God of War III,” for instance, you’re climbing Mount Olympus alongside Titans the size of skyscrapers.
By contrast, this new “God of War” has you scrambling up hills and taking on the occasional troll. I have no doubt those “Oh my God!” moments will happen later in the game, though.
Everything about this “God of War” has a more intimate feel than the series’ prior entries. Even the camera angle, which has you up close to Kratos looking over his shoulder, helps ground the action more than ever.
This older Kratos is a far more thoughtful demigod than before, and it shows in the way he evaluates situations, whether it’s trying to protect his son Atreaus from having to fight other living humans to how he mourns his wife.
Barlog says that the Kratos from the first trilogy felt like he was the digital personification of the developers’ college days. He was impulsive, wanted to stick it to authority figures and was all for going for bigger and crazier battles.
An enormous amount of time has passed since his days of fighting the Greek gods. Barlog explains that Kratos now feels more like a man who understands what’s important in life and explores the world through the lens of someone who wants to hold on to those things.
And yet, he’s still Kratos, the demigod who destroyed Olympus. Which means we’re sure to see flickers of the Ghost of Sparta when “God of War” hits store shelves next month. And I can’t wait.
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Email Daniel Howley at email@example.com; follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley.