For those gamers not particularly bothered about another cowboy Grand Theft Auto, there’s only one upcoming release waggling their proverbial joysticks. The Last Of Us Part 2 approaches like a stalking giant, its hyperreal and ultraviolent trailers promising a sequel as (literally) game-changing as the original. It feels almost pointless turning on your PS4 until it gets here – if it wasn’t sort-of here already. Only, way more Norse.
The fifth main instalment of the God Of War franchise takes its surly Spartan protagonist Kratos – the sort of man/god who’d be the formidable final boss in most other games – into more new realms than can fit on any Midgard map. Retiring from his Greek God Of War duties to the lands of Norse mythology to try to raise his son Atreus in some semblance of peace, Kratos is let loose in an open world as every bit as stunning as The Last Of Us, and just as subtly cinematic. Mirroring the pace and atmosphere of Sony’s stone-cold 2013 classic, God Of War is as much about the nuanced relationship between Kratos and Atreus, the child kept in the dark about his celestial heritage, as it is about handing gigantic monsters their poison-spewing asses. The pair bicker and bond on their action-filled path to the highest peak in the nine realms to scatter the ashes of Kratos’s wife, bringing emotion and depth to a journey of axe flinging self-discovery.
The main difference between the two games, of course, is setting. You’re not scavenging bullets from the wreck of a diseased city in God Of War, you’re talking to ocean-sized snakes in a realm of magic and witchcraft with a storytelling severed head on your belt, often on a lengthy side-quest for some sort of mystical metalwork equipment. But in place of TLOU’s gritty realism, God Of War impresses with its graceful take on the fantasy genre. From the second a deceptively scrawny looking visitor knocks on your door, kicking off a literally earth-shattering opening battle, you’re cast adrift in a world more Yes album cover than cartoonish Discworld. If The Witcher 3 set the bar for believable fantasy worlds, God Of War refines the art; steaming volcanoes, ominous caverns, vibrant witches’ gardens overseen by giant mossy turtles and the dead giant with a chisel through its face are all painted in soft, naturalistic tones and, rather than the bombardment of nasties that put The Witcher 3’s Continent on Lonely Planet’s tourist shit-list, you can spend hours in God Of War simply paddling around the Lake Of Nines taking in its season-defying shores and swapping old Norse stories with your belt-head.
Not that God Of War is a gentle giant. That first battle in your own back garden is as tough an entry fight as Bloodborne’s Father Gascoigne, and GOW pitches its challenge high. Though many mini-bosses share similar formulaic designs, and though attacks and weaknesses and XP is abundant enough to fill out, relatively early on, bits of the skill tree you’ll never use, the game drops over-levelled enemies in your way at all stages, giving you the chance to git gud Dark Souls-style, if you hate the easy life. Alternatively, wimps, you could level up Atreus’s bow to the max from the off and just run away from all conflict mashing the arrow button from miles away, and let Kratos clean up all the Reaver guts.
The combat is the adrenaline pulse of God Of War, but not its soul – instead, GOW will rank amongst the best games of 2018 for the compelling filmic immersion of the experience. Like The Last Of Us, it’s a movie you can play, and marks the start of a second GOW era that will etch the franchise into the ranks of the unmissable. Until Ragnarok, at least.