God of War (2018)

Some quick thoughts on the new PS4 exclusive God of War. This is my first play of any game in the franchise (was on xbox 360 last gen, and before then was in China during console ban era), so I’m looking at it with only a superficial understanding of the lore and no gameplay experience.

The high review scores (3rd highest reviewed all-time PS4 game, was tied for 2nd initially) are not surprising. This is best recent example of a game playing squarely within the constraints & definitions of a single-player AAA experience – super high polish, beautiful world and graphics, satisfying combat, and engaging narrative. Of these points, the narrative may be the least accomplished – it’s kind of a road-trip plot1 with a very limited cast, but it does quite a lot with this little material. (I found it especially hard not to love many of the side characters.)

Indeed, from a production standpoint the whole game is a great example of exercising constraint. The insane polish and presentation is achieved through tightly managed scope2 – small number of enemies, smart level design which reuses and builds upon lots of areas3, and relatively cheap optional content that adds lots of gameplay hours through difficulty.

This may not sound like high praise, but I found myself totally immersed (and going into an obsessive “I must beat this boss” mode for a lot of the optional content, spending hours on a single encounter) despite not finding any part of the game groundbreaking. You could argue, perhaps superficially, that everything God of War has to offer has been done before – there are clearly strong elements of other modern video-gaming giants such as The Last of Us, Uncharted, and Dark Souls / Bloodborne. But it is darn impressive how well put together the whole thing is, and how it reinvigorates a perhaps outdated protagonist (and commercially sets the scene for a big new series of games).

If there’s anything to nitpick, my only complaint was the game’s collectibles design felt at odds with its narrative goals. Unlike games such as Uncharted, where collectibles were a pure achievement goal (for the completionists), the hidden treasures in God of War unlock abilities or represent rare gear. Therefore there is strong motivation for even the gamer who just wants to have a good story to poke and run around the levels, to try to find every nook and cranny. At times this breaks the immediate flow of the narrative (at a tense bit of the plot, yet here I am backtracking because I spotted in the distance a chest I missed earlier). At a meta-level, it also created a disconnect for me in the main plot vs the side content: I was aggressively tackling some of side content, which was much more challenging in combat, so that by the time I got back to the main plot, I was clearly over-geared and none of the intricately staged combat designs were remotely challenging. This is clearly a minor issue to a great game, though it does showcase the inherent tradeoffs to any design system.

  1. And it’s easy to call out the resemblance to The Last of Us.
  2. It’s probably way more chaotic in the actual production, and lots of painful decisions, but alas such is the development of video-games.
  3. but avoids feeling too repetitive by “designing vertically” – i.e. you are in an existing area, but there’s a new shortcut or an alteration of the terrain