There’s a moment in God of War when you realise you can go anywhere. Clear of the opening set up, the game steps back, presents you with a map of the world and says, ‘you know what? You’re a demigod, you’ve got a boat: sort yourself out.’ It’s perhaps the biggest change to the series, aside from the [deep breath] combat, Kratos, timezone, location, gods, monsters… beard. The ability to go anywhere and do anything in a semi-open world suddenly makes this as much about your journey through Kratos’ story as it is any of his goals.

Don’t worry, though, there’s still a tightly woven tale here. It’s beautifully rhythmic and perfectly paced as it ebbs and flows through violently crashing narrative crescendos and quieter, expositional lulls. Now, however, you can control when to mainline the plot, or just wander off in a canoe and explore. For a series more traditionally built on a carefully controlled theme park ride of excitement and set pieces, this newfound freedom is just as much a rush as any building-sized monster with oh-so-gougeable eyes.

Perhaps God of War’s greatest achievement is making Kratos a likeable character

These changes mean this God of War works whether it’s your first time with Kratos or you know the man well. There are call outs that will mean more to some than others, but nothing to alienate a newcomer. The new (old) world Kratos now roams the Norse realm of Midgard. He’s older, beardier and a very changed man, mourning a wife not long dead and with a son, Atreus, to raise. I’ll steer clear of any spoilers but, safe to say, some things happen, and you set off into the world to do something about it. Mainly by being grumpy about stuff and hitting it with an axe.

Perhaps God of War’s greatest achievement in all this is making Kratos a likable character. The original PS2 games’ vicious edge and misogyny got somewhat of a pass from its cartoonish sheen and sheer outlandishness but, as things got more realistic on PS3, the Ghost of Sparta became increasingly harder to enjoy. He was just a spiteful, cruel man full of rage and with almost no redeeming qualities. Now, he’s wiser: aware of, and unhappy with, his past. Trying, as he so often repeats to Atreus, to “be better” while gruffly and inexpertly attempting to pass on what he’s learned the long way round to prevent his son repeating his mistakes. Hoping to make both the boy and his future a better place as a result. This is wisely done without ever ignoring what went before – Kratos never denies or excuses his history, just a desire to ensure he doesn’t pass it on. It’s not hard to read more into the God of War’s attempts to be a good man as the series reinvents itself for a new generation, minus the sex mini-games and exposed breasts of before.

As a result the relationship between father and son is everything. It’s full of frustration, awkward moments of bonding, and popping breakthroughs of progress. You’ll be rooting as much for them to just sort it out, as you are for hacking up a 30 foot troll. Their chats, as you explore, develop them, the world and characters around them in detail, and every person you meet is expertly realised, written and performed. This has some of the best storytelling and cast in a game for a long time, and even the most incidental conversation is written with all the weight and care of a major cutscene. It’s funny too, in a very ‘real’ way, not just jokes for jokes’ sake. I can’t say much without spoiling it but there are interactions, one liners and interplays that feel believable and human, even if there is a massive fantasy monster crashing about in the background. Plus it’s got one of most interesting and different villains I’ve seen for awhile.

You’ve probably noticed I haven’t even touched on the combat yet, mainly because there’s so much going on with characters, world and story. There is plenty of fighting though, so don’t worry – brutal, bloody, ‘can’t unsee what you just did to that man’s face’ fighting, with a system that’s spectacularly physical and flexible. Kratos’ chained blades have been replaced by the Leviathan Axe, a more focused and drawn in weapon. Using a combo system of light and heavy blows it’s about prioritising threats and managing space with dodges and parries around ever-closing enemies.

The upgrade systems driving the combat are huge, letting you build out both Kratos and Atreus’ abilities, gear and armour on multiple skill trees: the latter mainly able to unleash stunning arrows, or choke enemies (weakening them for an axing) with a press of Square. Then there’s magic, the ability to throw the axe as a projectile and fight with your fists, a shield for rebounding parries, and more. The options initially seem daunting because of the scale – there’s just so much to consider with a range of stats that can be hard to decipher at first. Is +3 Strength better than +10 Runic overall? If this new bit of kit drops my Luck by two will that matter? If I’m honest I didn’t feel entirely comfortable with it all that until at least 20 hour so hours in.

However, the system grows as you master it into a devastating arsenal of splintering, crushing damage. It’s a beautiful thing to watch as you swiftly dodge and counter, or time a cleaving blow perfectly. Atreus also becomes increasingly useful as you power him up and, by the end, you’ll be fighting as a coordinated unit – both from hammering Square to call out his arrows and magic, or contextual attacks. For example, when you’re bent over from a heavy axe blow he’ll jump from your shoulders to rain arrows down on your target as he flies past. It is just the best thing.

Combat is just as bloody, and as brutal, as you’d hope

Elsewhere this is every bit as brutally unflinching as previous games. Rib cages are torn open with bare hands, or jaws are left hanging on strips of skin. Vicious curb stomps will make you flinch for a second, before gently whispering ‘again’ and diving straight back in. Unrecognisable in a lot of ways, this still is 100% a God of War game when the action flexes it ample muscle.

The series’ sense of scale is still there, just redirected and more equally distributed. In the same way the old games would make you blink in disbelief at the scale of a single boss fight or set piece, this applies that to the entire world. Every region, each place you visit, has a colossus, hydra or Titan’s worth of ‘WOW’ applied across every inch of Midgard’s soil, rock and mountains. There are frogs in this game, hopping around the background, that are better crafted than some entire game campaigns. And, when the game does roll up its sleeves for a spectacle, it does not disappoint.

Something that’s really cleverly done is how you use your flesh-rending arsenal to also interact with the wider world. God of War’s map is full of puzzles and navigational obstacles to hack, thump and fire at. For a vocabulary mainly built on hitting things it’s incredible just how satisfying the language of solving problems is. At a basic level your axe can freeze cogs to hold a door open, say, but as you progress, how you reach that cog escalates, or other mechanics come into play. There are gear-gated elements that hold things back for later with barriers you can’t pass or solve until you have certain items or skills. These gently corral you back to the main story, only to return later with a new tool and a dawning epiphany of what that means for whatever you couldn’t get past before.

Even now, a good 15 hours post credits, I’m still finding new areas, and puzzles that have me slow-clapping the screen at whoever made the damn thing. They’re rarely a chore and with a level of ingenuity up there with Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild’s Korok Seeds when you see something familiar flipped in a way you’d never have predicted. It’s a world that continues in a very satisfying way long after you’ve ‘finished’ the main story.

That openness, combined with the range of abilities to unlock, can leave you a little confused sometimes. Possibly my only real criticism is that you can occasionally find yourself unsure if you’re doing something wrong, or don’t have the right equipment yet. Is it you, or the game, that has the problem? Are you solving this puzzle wrong? Or just lacking the right tool? Is this enemy too hard for a reason? Or just because you haven’t found the thing that hurts it more?

Realistically, however, I don’t think it’s possible to overstate just how good God of War is; how well realised its world, how nuanced and layered its characters and storytelling. The depth and craft of its combat, puzzles and almost every system it has sparkles and shines with an indulgence and luxury that regularly stopped me in my tracks to drink it all in. Whether breathless and bloody in the aftermath of an axe-hacked victory, or watching Kratos and his son Atreus share a genuinely human moment, this is a level of game making that doesn’t happen often. The final question really isn’t about where it sits in any game of the year discussions, but rather its place in eventual game of the generation talks.

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