God of War: How do you improve on perfection? You port it to PC, obviously
The migration of PlayStation exclusives continues to be a great idea
The RPG Greetings, traveller, and welcome back to The Register Plays Games, our monthly gaming column. Long may this trajectory of PlayStation titles eventually coming to PC continue – because we now have God of War.
How do you make a flawless PlayStation exclusive even better? The answer seems to be to port it to PC, which is what happened with God of War on 14 January. Back in 2018, The Register was lucky enough to receive a copy ahead of its original release. We played it and loved it, though without a dedicated spot on the site for gaming it would have felt strange to suddenly write about the experience.
Things have changed. The RPG has entered its third year as God of War becomes the latest in a number of erstwhile "exclusives" that have made the leap to the desktop. In that vein, this column has previously covered the PC releases of Death Stranding (not for everyone) and Days Gone (not perfect), and we've learnt that the measure of a port is "how badly have they fucked this up?"
Because although the aforementioned were shining examples of stability and performance, the process doesn't always go smoothly. Horizon: Zero Dawn, the other PlayStation stablemate to be brought over, was a dumpster fire on launch. We never got round to it for precisely this reason. There are no such concerns with Santa Monica Studio's God of War.
Sadly, it's not often that you can describe a video game as "magical" – but God of War fits the bill. Santa Monica has been developing the series since 2005 on the PlayStation 2, where it started as a hack-and-slash action game with a fixed camera view, but the PlayStation 4 entry, which shares the same name with the debut, is a soft reboot of sorts, a fresh beginning and new direction. You can safely start here without having touched the previous titles.
The franchise follows Kratos, a Spartan warrior who becomes a Greek tragedy after being tricked into murdering his family by the war god Ares. He goes on a rampage driven by rage and vengeance, slaughtering much of the Greek pantheon over the course of three games. It transpires that he is a demigod and a son of Zeus (the chief deity's habit of raping mortals is well documented).
Now hiding out in Midgard – not the literal "Earth" as such but a representation of the realms of Norse mythology where gods, dwarfs, elves, dragons, and other monsters dwell – Kratos (now voiced by Stargate SG-1's Christopher Judge) appears to have cooled down a bit, grown a sick beard, and fathered a son, Atreus, whose mother has died under unexplained circumstances at the beginning of the game. Her dying wish was to have her ashes scattered from the top of the highest peak in the realms. Therein lies your quest. It sounds simple, but the resident gods have become suspicious of Kratos's presence, and the journey turns out to be anything but.
This God of War switched things up by shifting to a third-person, over-the-shoulder camera (à la The Last of Us) where the player can freely look and go anywhere. As such, it could be loosely defined as an open-world game. There is a large hub-like map that can be explored, where you'll find a substantial but not overwhelming number of side objectives become available as the story progresses, ranging from dungeons to collectibles to optional bosses.
One of the more material changes, however, is Kratos's weaponry. Ashamed of his past, his "Blades of Chaos" have been shelved in favour of the "Leviathan Axe", an enchanted heirloom he inherited from his deceased wife, though the blades are forced to make a reappearance down the line. In a nod to Thor's hammer, Mjölnir, the axe can be aimed and thrown at enemies, zipping back to the wielder's hands with a button press, as well as being used as an outrageously powerful melee weapon. The visceral mechanics surrounding the axe are some of the best in the gaming and never get old.
The approach is more grounded than the older titles. There's no crazy jumping around, though Kratos can vault obstacles, lift up huge rocks to pass beneath, and scale cliff faces. During combat, however, he will often be surrounded by many varieties of enemies with different attacks and abilities at a time, meaning you sort of have to multi-task – being aware of what is behind you, who is about to hurl a magic projectile at you, blocking, parrying, dodging, and rolling before counter-attacking to stay alive. So the hack-and-slash element has been preserved but it can also feel like a brawler (Bayonetta, Devil May Cry) – just heavier, more brutal, slower-paced.
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On that note, God of War is gleefully violent. One of the earliest boss fights – and another up there with the very best of gaming – is between Kratos and a man who cannot feel pain. Though his identity is shrouded for the sake of the narrative, students of Norse mythology should be able to work it out. This guy bangs on the door of Kratos's house and starts casting aspersions, luring him into an almighty brawl where the attacker is smashed through a house and a hillside, crushed by a huge crag of rock, and has his neck broken. He walks it off. Alongside health, enemies and bosses also have stun bars, which are most efficiently built up when Kratos sheathes his axe and takes them on with his bare fists. When filled, the player can trigger a variety of brutal execution animations – like so (I think my expression says it all).
But on top of the ultraviolence, progress in God of War has depth and intricacy. You don't "level up" simply with the accruing of experience points – those are used to unlock button combos and attack abilities. Instead there is a crafting system, with the help of the dwarves Brok and Sindri, to create or upgrade armour, weaponry, trinkets and talismans, paid for by hacksilver and rare items dropped by vanquished monsters. The better the item you equip, the higher your level will be – so it's important to be on the lookout for drops that can help craft rarer equipment (denoted by the classic MMO colour code of green < blue < purple < orange) as the story unfolds and enemies get tougher.
Onto the graphics then. Goodness me. It was stunning what the devs could achieve with PlayStation 4 hardware (now last-gen and superseded by the fifth iteration of the console), and this is where the port shines. Midgard is a wonderfully dramatic and colourful place, ranging from lush enchanted woodland and valleys to snow-capped mountain peaks, and now you don't have to play with the framerate locked to 30fps!
Certain set pieces really stand out as capturing God of War's magic – your first encounter with Jörmungandr, the World Serpent, a truly spectacular entity of Titanic scale, or the colossal tortoise anticlimactically named "Chaurli" who lives above the wood witch's home. It's like reliving The NeverEnding Story in video game form. Bosses too can be towering, with trolls and ogres regularly ambushing Kratos and Atreus. The latter can be ridden when weakened and used against other foes.
Then there's the central hub machinery, sunken in a lake, a mysterious set of buildings and towers constructed by the gods for the purposes of realm travel (there are nine worlds in Norse mythology). Once Kratos has the Bifröst (the rainbow bridge of the old tales but in the game a key-like item), he can interface with a representation of the cosmic tree Yggdrasil. The process of travelling to another world is pure eye candy, with the tree's roots writhing into a bridge. Just… take it from me. Everything in the game is pure eye candy.
There are a few graphical settings with finer granularity that can be tweaked if necessary. "Original" is the PlayStation appearance, already fantastic and with the unlocked framerate to boot. If your rig can't handle that there's "Low", otherwise shifting to "High" or, even better, "Ultra" will push the port to its full potential. We played on "Ultra" and performance was flawless. We opted to use a gamepad, just because it was more familiar since we played the original, but the keyboard-and-mouse controls feel perfectly viable too.
So as to "how badly have they fucked this up?" the answer is: not at all. It was a perfect action-adventure game on PlayStation 4 that's only been made better by the port. I couldn't find a single bug or oddity anywhere, and honestly the PC gaming community should jump at the chance to play. It'll fascinate fans of Norse mythology with its many references to Eddic lore and delight gamers with its meaty mechanics and Kratos's gradual development from stern and distant father to something almost resembling tenderness. God of War is set to remain in Scandinavia for the next instalment, Ragnarök, this year. We can only hope it will one day come to PC as well, otherwise it might be time to grab a PlayStation. ®
Rich played a bit of God of War on Twitch as ExcellentSword. Chuck him a follow for more video game impressions as they happen! Every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday from around 8:30-9pm UK time.