God of War 2018 is both a blessing and a curse upon it’s franchise. From one point of view, it’s a bold departure for an established series, but looking at it from another angle, it’s a safe product, filled with contemporary design trends. While some changes are for the better, others seem pointless, or at worst, counterproductive. On the one hand, it’s admirable to see a developer willing to rethink a series which was already past the point of stale, but on the other, it’s disappointing to see that accomplished by pushing it more towards a sort of generic middle ground between everything else. There’s potential in this new God of War series, but it’s hard to imagine it ever reaching those heights if it continues to spread itself so thin. My goal in this video is to demonstrate the value of focus by comparing this game to a variety of others, showing how it implements many good mechanics, but suffers from disjointed priorities. First of all, it makes sense to compare God of War 2018, which I’ll be calling Norse God for the sake of clarity and brevity, to it’s predecessors in the same series. An uncharitable view of the new game would be that it betrays it’s origins by abandoning the over-the-top spectacle and brainless fun in favor of something a little more grounded and story-heavy. This would be missing the point, however. The original Greek God of War was among the games that sprung up in the wake of Devil May Cry, and while it’s fair to say it owes some inspiration to that game, its focus wasn’t identical. Even from the very beginning, Greek God’s appeal lied in its more cinematic moments, such as the Hydra fight, which kicked off the series with a heavy emphasis on scripted behavior and quick time events. “That’s the whole idea behind God of War, it’s not just a game, “it’s— it’s— it’s an adventure like a movie.” In this sense, the new God of War is very much in line with the old one. The appeal hasn’t really changed, only the subject matter and execution. Most notably, Kratos as a character has diverged from his previous incarnation. This too could be construed as a slap-in-the-face to fans of the old games, but again, that seems like a harsh interpretation. Yes, Kratos in the original series was seldom anything more than a ball of rage, often misdirected rage. There was more to him than that though. At times, he could be quite sullen and remorseful. Let’s not forget how the series opens, after all. [Kratos] “Now there is no hope.” It wasn’t so long ago that some held this up as a high watermark for storytelling in games. Much of that praise was owed to its presentation rather than its fairly standard revenge plot, but that’s alright. Kratos’s almost unrelenting anger might be one-dimensional, but as a whole, the game drew on that rage as its focus. It nailed the tragedy angle, and that’s about all it had to do considering its story was mainly an excuse for cool set pieces. Norse God’s script has loftier ambitions, and much of the time it hits them. The relationship between Kratos and Atreus is about as well-written as anyone could hope for. It walks a wonderful line, keeping you guessing how much of Kratos’s responses is yet more misdirected anger, and how much is just tough love. That said, for a game with so much emphasis on its story, there are some problems which are hard to excuse. When Atreus learns of his godhood, his character does an abrupt reversal, which might be forgivable if it went somewhere, but his change back to normal is just as sudden. This whole arc seems mishandled, and it’s downright nonsensical if you leave your side-questing until this point because his dialogue remains the same for those. Another moment that rings hollow happens when Atreus is sick. Kratos lacks urgency here, which is somewhat understandable to begin with, but even when he gets to Freya’s house, he stands outside yelling for her rather than barging in. Even the meekest person alive might be tempted to kick the door in under these circumstances, let alone Kratos, who isn’t exactly known for his good manners. The central plot also revolves around chasing a series of MacGuffins, which robs the finale of its catharsis. If the entire play-through was spent actually climbing the one mountain, reaching the top would have been much more gratifying. Teleporting from Tyr’s Temple to the peak of Jotunheim just doesn’t have the same weight to it. Some smaller issues exist as well, like if you hand in a quest with another one pending, the dialogue does that thing where the characters start talking to each other as though they haven’t just been speaking. It’s nice that Mimir has lines for when his stories are interrupted, but that effort is wasted when the transition between the two often doesn’t make sense. As before, we could say the story exists more to prop up a series of experiences for the player to go through, but it’s clear that some of those moments stood to benefit from another revision of their script. It’s from this experiential point of view where the new camera system makes the most sense. One major goal this time around was to pull us into Kratos’s mindset, asking us to consider what’s going on in his head, and allowing us to better associate with the events going on around him. For whatever psychological reason, it seems as though camera distance plays a vital role in this. When we’re amidst the action, it’s natural that we connect to it more easily. If Norse God had the detached camera system of The Wonderful 101, we’d be pretty far away from Kratos’s struggles and thus less inclined to feel for him. This is why The Wonderful 101 pulls its camera in for cutscenes, so we can see and relate to our heroes more closely. Norse God’s camera successfully places us in Kratos’s boots, giving the experience more emotional weight at all times. Of course, combat represents a huge chunk of that experience, and it’s in these moments where the flaws of this perspective become all too clear. Bad camera systems are nothing new for 3D action games, but the genre has undergone some improvement over the years. In terms of perspective, Norse God resembles God Hand with both fixed behind the character. One of God Hand’s weakest points is its camera, but as bad as it can be, it has at least one major advantage over Norse God. God Hand is… *repeated comical grunts* …unapologetically gamey. It has no cinematic ambitions whatsoever, and as such the camera is free to ignore walls in order to provide a consistent behavior, no matter the terrain. Norse God opts for standard clipping behavior instead, forcing the camera back into the game world so as not to break the illusion. An irony here is that films often do build sets in such a way that the camera exists outside of the scene in order to get a better shot, but anyway, even older games offer a reasonable compromise. Disappear behind the pillar in Devil May Cry, and it turns transparent, allowing you to see through without denying the fact that it still exists. When it comes to combat, comparing Norse God’s camera to God Hand is the most advantageous position you can take. Even the Greek God games gave a better, more consistent overview of the action, and even those kinds of cameras pale in comparison to the simple, but beautifully effective viewpoint of The Wonderful 101. Norse God fails to keep threats on screen and gets caught on the terrain. Lock-on breaks when enemies pull simple evasive maneuvers, and if you choose to avoid using it, you’re left to babysit the right analog stick. The Souls series is, or was, also focused on experiential moments more so than pure combat, and while its camera system is flawed in its own ways, it presents a better middle ground. Most of the time, it’s pulled out enough to give a decent overview of the environment, while also being close enough to immerse ourselves in the experience of our character. This balanced perspective might be a major factor in that series’ success. Anyway, it’s obvious that a trade-off is happening in Norse God. Combat suffers from limited vision, but many other aspects benefit. This would be fine, except that combat is the most involved portion of gameplay, so if the combat suffers, the game as a whole is substantially worse for it. It’s hard to connect with the events on screen when we’re juggling several roles, one of those being a cameraman wrestling against subpar equipment. The Last Guardian is another game spent in the company of an AI companion, and it too has a disappointing camera. That said, it doesn’t matter so much when moving your character and controlling the perspective are about the only two things you do. The fact is, we can only care about so many problems at once, and this is how games like The Last Guardian or Journey can justify their more simplistic mechanics. Pulling off sick combos isn’t conducive to emotional involvement in some grand narrative, which isn’t to say that complex combos are bad. Far from it! They’re just a very different type of engagement, which doesn’t mesh well with some other kinds. If you’re trying to watch your flank, punish the guy in front of you, track your cooldowns, and form a strategy about what to do next, then you’re probably not thinking much about Atreus’s well-being, and the opposite is also true. It’s up to the designers to ask themselves what they want the player to care about at any given moment and take an approach which best supports that goal. This is why other action games use different camera systems for gameplay versus cutscenes. Of course, Norse God’s refusal to do so arises from the desire to frame the entire experience as a single camera shot, but this strikes me as a misguided goal. On the one hand, I don’t want to dismiss this just because it’s not a movie. Films are very difficult to do in a single take, but games can be too, maybe even more so. They’re just difficult in a very different way. Considering the complexity of the world and the action scenes, it’s impressive how smoothly it transitions between them, and that it’s done without traditional loading times. No doubt this resulted in a lot of extra work on behalf of the level designers and engineers, but we could easily frame all that effort as a negative. All those man-hours could have been spent on more beneficial tasks if they were willing to let go of this idea. I’ll be the first to admit that many set-pieces benefit from abandoning cuts. Countless other action scenes have been butchered by chopping all over the place, leaving you unsure what’s happening which drains the scene of its tension. In Norse God, you get a consistent view of each battle, which is sometimes used to brilliant effect. That said, these moments could still have been presented the exact same way without forcing every other scene into the same mold. Rather than taking the positives and discarding the negatives, this wholesale approach seems more like a statement than anything else, which is pointless because it’s nowhere near unique. Apart from some brief load times, Gordon Freeman’s worst day on the job could also be considered a single shot, and plenty of older games like Outrun accomplished the same thing. You might say that Outrun doesn’t count because you select your music at the start, but in that case, Norse God doesn’t either. In series tradition, even the main menu screen doubles as an establishing shot, but you can still die, something the 2008 Prince of Persia addressed by recontextualizing fail states. Even if you only count third-person, over-the-shoulder games, look no further than Dead Space, which took the additional step of making its menu systems diegetic. Norse God’s inventory and leveling mechanics incentivize you to open a menu on a regular basis, breaking continuity. Even if you’re careful to avoid doing so and manage to play without dying, you’re still forced to use the fast travel menu at least twice. The amount of effort put into something doesn’t necessarily determine its quality. It’s just good or bad depending on how it turns out. The fact is this stylistic choice comes with serious drawbacks. Combat suffers, fast travel is slower, since it has to keep rendering in the meantime, some scenes might have benefit from cuts, and it represents a huge opportunity cost for the development team. On balance, It just doesn’t seem worth it. If the camera was the only issue then I’d have an almost equally large grievance with God Hand, but Norse God’s combat is littered with problems, which other action games have already addressed. First of all, the biggest difference between combat in Norse God and most dedicated action games is what I’ve decided to call “move assist”. Just like aim assist, which will nudge your cursor in the right direction, combat movement in Norse god is funneled through move assist. Here’s an example. Right now, I’m about to attack. Under normal circumstances, if Kratos were to swing now, he’d miss. Except he doesn’t, move assist nudges us towards our target allowing us to land the blow. On a surface level, This might seem like a good thing, and maybe for less experienced players, it is a good thing. But if you’re familiar with action games, this kind of move assist is poison. What this means is you can never be sure where Kratos will end up after any attack since the angle and degree of move assist will change depending on your placement relative to the target. This becomes insufferable when multiple enemies are involved, then you find yourself assisted to the wrong one putting you in a position you could never have foreseen. Then again, positioning loses much of its importance because enemies also benefit from move assist. During their attack animations, they’ll glide towards you as though the battlefield has somehow turned into an air hockey table, making attacks which should have missed hit without fail. Knowing this, when you see an enemy telegraphing an attack out of range, you have to assume it’ll hit anyway or else you’ll most likely take damage. All in all this makes positioning less valuable, hampers your capacity to assess enemy threats, and destroys your ability to attack with precision. Move assist alone is a huge problem, But the issues only begin there. There’s a massive over-reliance on “epic” slow-mo to emphasize how cool certain attacks are, which undermines your ability to time them within a small window. For example, if a Draugr is running towards you, it’s needlessly difficult to gauge whether you have enough time to interrupt them with a special skill because as soon as the animation starts playing, you’ll slip into another time dimension. You end up having to correct for the slow-mo in your head, which can be difficult to do when every Runic Attack has a different amount of it. In other cases, this effect is simply too repetitive for its own good. Reflecting a projectile for the first time feels great, but you might find your eyes glazing over after just a few more. At its worst, this can disincentivize players from using certain techniques since they disrupt the flow of battle. This isn’t a deal breaker, but it’s not exemplary combat design either. Combat systems are complicated, and there are no perfect rules you can lay down which work for every game, but generally speaking, two major priorities should be clarity and consistency. In other words, the battlefield should be relatively easy to read and everything should behave in a consistent manner. This allows you to test what your limits are, then apply them at will in the middle of a chaotic situation. Norse God fails both the clarity and consistency tests time and time again. Metal Gear Rising Revengeance used two types of enemy flashes to denote danger: Red for attacks that could be parried, and yellow for ones that should be dodged. Maybe this sounds familiar. As with many of the things Norse God lifts from other games, it gets the surface details right without seeming to understand why such a system was built in the first place. In this case it was about removing guesswork. Instead of happening at the beginning of an attack, the flash indicator will sometimes happen right at the end, leaving you unsure whether you should block or dodge until it’s too late. This is compounded by the RPG mechanics, which depending on your level, changes the properties of these attacks. Walk into an area at one point and enemies will be unparryable. Tackle it later, and those same animations will bounce off your shield. This means even if you’ve already fought an enemy multiple times, you can’t be sure what level their attacks are until you start seeing the flashes again, which leads to boring defensive play at the outset of every battle. On max difficulty, this is even worse because enemies can level up mid fight, throwing everything into uncertainty again. Leveling also affects hit reactions, leaving you unsure of your axe throw will successfully freeze or trip the enemy instead of bouncing off. This heavily disincentivizes the use of more complex and enjoyable attacks because you rarely know for sure if they’ll actually work. In general, the higher difficulties leave a lot to be desired, because the main change is that enemies have their health buffed to a ridiculous degree, turning every engagement into a protracted exercise in boredom, as you wail away on a single target for an unreasonable amount of time. Higher health does mean more difficulty, but it also means more tedium. New Game Plus introduces Draugrs with randomized enhancements, which is a much more engaging way of increasing the challenge, but by that point the RPG mechanics have eroded all sense of balance. Still, this is a step in the right direction, it’s just a shame it’s exclusive to New Game Plus and that it sits on top of the health buff rather than replacing it. Games like Bayonetta ditch this kind of number tweaking and instead build their challenge in much more interesting ways, which I won’t spoil here, but it would suffice to say that it’s both far more difficult and far more enjoyable on its highest difficulty than Norse God. Increased enemy health makes the most damaging moves even more valuable, which reveals more problems. One of the best techniques is to freeze your opponent with an axe throw, before kicking them into a wall for massive damage. If they can be launched, you can even go for a wall pin which results in an instant kill. This would be great, except that you never know whether these effects will occur, because the terrain is more concerned with looking nice than providing a clear battlefield for you to work with. If you don’t know beforehand, then you can’t make informed decisions about what action to take in combat. One counter-argument I anticipate here would be that this is supposed to be realistic or something, but it isn’t, because if you knocked a frozen person into a small pile of rubble, they’d at least tip over, not do nothing. Collisions can also happen against ledges, which would even look weird in a cartoon. Again, I’d like to contrast with God Hand which has some unquestionably ugly environments, but those primitive surfaces work the way you’d expect every time. That’s why they are the way they are. Another one of the best techniques is to parry an attack, then go straight into an Executioner’s Cleave by holding R2. This is trivial to accomplish, unless you buy the Countering Crush which overrides the R2 button in this instance, meaning you now have to time the cleave more carefully. Similar problems arise elsewhere. Buy the running heavy attack, and you’ll be forced to pause at the end of a sprint if you want to do a normal launcher instead. One of the post-dodge moves causes Kratos to dash backwards, putting you further away from your target at a time when they’re likely to be vulnerable. Some other action games foresee these issues, and allow you to switch off potentially troublesome techniques if they don’t suit your play style. Norse God has no such option. While we’re on the topic of Executioner’s Cleave, as far as I can tell it’s lacking invincibility frames at the end and can’t be canceled into a dodge during that recovery. This seems to apply to other cinematic moves as well, like when you go into a grapple against a stunned opponent. If an enemy attack happens to coincide with the end of these animations, you will get hit, and considering how long these are, it’s never safe to do when unless an enemy is isolated. Anytime you use these techniques in a crowd, you’re taking a gamble; one that often pays off, but sometimes doesn’t. This might be an acceptable limitation for powerful attacks, except that these moves are one of the few ways to do appreciable damage against the inflated health pools of max difficulty. “Give Me God of War” implies that this is the ideal way to experience the game, but I don’t think even the development team actually believed that. Runic Attacks are another good source of damage, but making the most of them requires frequent weapon swapping, which is nowhere near as smooth or enjoyable as it could be. Devil May Cry 3 expanded its combat by allowing players to instantly swap mid combo, whereas Norse God forces Kratos into an unsheathing animation instead. Maybe this is another concession to the camera, since at this kind of magnification, it would look pretty strange for weapons to be materializing in and out of Kratos’s hands. Whatever the reason, it’s hard to get a feel for the timing on this, and there’s little point in doing so, because for a game with only three main weapons, there’s not much variance between them. The shield, with its emphasis on hit reactions and building stun, feels distinct from the other two but the Axe and Blades are more or less analogous to each other. There’s very little you can do with one that you can’t do with the other. Runic Attacks are the biggest difference between them, but they operate on cooldowns which are often avoided in action games and with good reason: they’re highly exploitable. It’s bizarre to see this in a series with its own version of Devil Trigger, a mechanic that only granted players more powerful attacks as a reward for dealing damage or cheekily taunting the enemy. By contrast, the cooldown system allows you to use the most powerful techniques over and over again as long as you’re willing to stall for time: Something which is simple to do in this game since throwing the axe is an incredibly safe, effective way to deal damage. Relying on Atreus is another safe strategy. With a few upgrades, he becomes a crucial asset in combat, but unless you explicitly aim at something, which costs valuable time and limits your options, you’re reliant on the AI to target the right thing. To be fair, this works more often than not, but it’s nowhere near close to consistent. This becomes vital when Revenants are involved, my vote for least enjoyable enemy encounter. As if constant teleporting wasn’t annoying enough already, their poison projectile is horribly telegraphed. Not only does it make no sense that these are blocked by a shield when they clearly travel along the ground, but using these kinds of emissive particles for attacks is usually less than ideal anyway. With a 3D model you can make an estimation about where the hitbox should start and end, which allows you to dodge it with precision. An amorphous cloud just introduces unnecessary guesswork. Bayonetta understood this. Notice the trumpeter’s attack isn’t some vague stream of music, it’s a solid sphere. You can tell exactly where its hitbox is even if you’re seeing it for the very first time. By the way, listen to what happens when this little trumpeter fires. * audio cue * In Bayonetta, attacks can only start if the enemy is on screen, but knowing that this one would be arriving from a distance, it was given a distinct audio cue as extra warning. Bayonetta 2 relaxed the on-screen rule, but this enemy’s attack demonstrates a good compromise: By highlighting the ground under Bayonetta so it remains visible no matter what. Norse God’s audio cues are shockingly poor, especially considering the over-the-shoulder camera means this should have been a priority from early in development. Instead the half-assed solution is a radial attack indicator which tells you nothing about the incoming danger, Sometimes highlighting a projectile seconds before it arrives, which will then curve to hit you anyway. Call-outs from your companions suffer from the same problems, except with the added delay that language adds to the process. I could go on, but I think you get the idea by now. Every combat system has flaws, but the ones in Norse God are so pervasive, they leave little left to be enjoyed. The Greek series may have been more simplistic and definitely had more than its fair share of aggravating enemy designs, but its combat is a net positive overall. With so many problems, I’m not sure I could say the same for Norse God, but at least there are some points in its favor too. Kratos’s animations are top-notch and apart from the move assist problem, they feel fantastic. Enemy hit reactions are a cut above many games, even other standouts in the genre. Attacks can freeze, trip, sweep, stun, spin, catapult or launch enemies, which at times can be enjoyable to play around with. Stun builds much faster from behind and performing these executions often inflicts a status ailment on anyone else nearby, which is the kind of nuance that can really flesh out the strategic side of combat. Getting hit while in Spartan Rage reduces the amount of active time, which rewards players who stay alert without sacrificing the invincibility feature to achieve that. Using arrows resets the timer on your weapon buff, which is a bit weird, but good because it encourages players to think about when to use arrows, rather than just hammering the button whenever is easiest to do so. And lastly, dodging has two variations presenting a risk reward decision every time it’s used. Enemy move assists and questionable hit boxes discourage you from using the shorter dodge, but the system itself is interesting. Hopefully by now you understand what I mean when I say there’s a lot of potential here, but there’s also far more flaws. Outside of combat, the experience falls down in numerous other ways. Huge chunks of time are occupied by the sort of walkie-talkie sequences you’d find in Uncharted or The Last of Us. Naughty Dog’s games deserve some flak for over-relying on these kinds of moments, but the ones in Norse God are sometimes even more frivolous. Carrying a boar for a full two minutes is just a pointless chore. Maybe this section exists so that the reveal of the turtle will feel more impactful outside of a cutscene, but crippling the gameplay to accomplish that defeats the purpose. Hunting deer is another example. In The Last of Us, we do this ourselves and the controls are identical to the core gameplay, Whereas Norse God ceases taking a backseat and goes into a restrictive button prompt. Climbing is the biggest offender; being handled like Uncharted, which is about the most boring way to tackle the problem in an interactive medium, since it basically plays itself with no skill or peril involved whatsoever. This is a clear step back from the Greek series which had rudimentary but tense platforming done under the player’s control. That said, as much as I hate these moments in Uncharted, they were often part of a grander set piece which at least looked cool. Norse God’s climbs most often take place against normal rock walls without even the tension of having enemies nearby that might discover you, and not only that, but now you sometimes get to experience the joy of going backwards through the parts you just traversed. These borderline uninteractive moments are even more prominent if you factor in the boat, and the unfortunately slow fast travel. Normally, I’d be open to defending such sequences as a way of building an emotional bond between you and the boy. In my experience, game playing audiences are too quick to balk at any kind of hassle, or moments intentionally designed to induce negative emotions. But the problem with Norse God is that it wants to have it both ways. Let’s compare with Ico. At times, the boy has to separate from Yorda, then call her over to another location. What you might notice here is that the game doesn’t take any shortcuts. Yorda has to physically make her way around which is a hassle, but it serves a purpose. because it reinforces her as a character separate from you who must behave within the constraints of the game world. By not taking shortcuts, your partner’s existence is made all the more convincing, to the point where you might not even be able to tell which parts are scripted or what happens thanks to AI. Probably the biggest failing with The Last of Us is the way it cheats during stealth sequences, allowing hostiles to ignore friendly characters for the sake of a smooth gameplay experience. Rather than avoid using these kinds of tricks, which should be much easier to do in a game without stealth, Norse God cheats constantly. We know the kid is teleporting all over the place whenever we’re not looking, even if we never see it directly. This is why you’re always forced to point that objects before interacting with them, so Atreus can come in from off-screen. Jump onto a wall and he’s always conveniently right there so as not to slow down the gameplay. Needless to say, this makes it harder to care about him since he’s so obviously artificial. This is an example of how the game’s desire to be a smooth action romp is working against its desire to be a serious emotional journey, but it may have been possible to reconcile these two goals. The father-son relationship lies at the center of everything, and while it has well-written dialogue, a script is only a small subset of most games. The bulk is interactivity. In that aspect, the ways in which we bond with Atreus are dubious. We insert into this story as Kratos, who already has a strong attachment to his son, but as a player, we have no reason to care about him from the outset. No more than any other random kid at least. Maybe by the time most players see the credits, they find themselves more attached to the little mischief maker than they ever would have imagined, but it probably doesn’t resemble a parental bond. In gameplay, the most obvious and common way Atreus makes an impression on the player as when he assists during combat. But this is achieved by leveling up through a menu, not by passing the torch in a way a parent would to their child. Dragon’s Dogma has such a system. Pawns act as a player’s companion who they can train to behave certain ways based on the actions they perform. Norse God could have taken some cues from this and what’s really frustrating about it is that when you start looking for these opportunities, they already are built into the combat system. One of Atreus’s most useful skills is the ability to trip enemies. Coincidentally, Kratos can also trip enemies. Rather than using an abstract menu, It would have been much more impactful if the player had been encouraged upfront to experiment in combat, since Atreus can learn from their actions. Then, when a player trips an enemy, dialog could play to indicate that Atreus is learning. Maybe there could even be a fun back and forth between them where he tries to trip someone, fails, and Kratos has to do it again before he finally gets the hang of it. Now apply the same thinking to other techniques like juggles, finishers, guard breaks, kicks, weak points and anything specific to certain enemies. It doesn’t even have to be limited to combat: If you habitually break crates and pots to look for health, maybe Atreus could do the same. The sky was the limit here, and if you ask me, this is the most effective way Norse God could really have elevated itself. This would bring gameplay and narrative into harmony with each other, encouraging players to use all their skills by rewarding that with Atreus’s growth. In the end we’d have directly shaped Atreus, forming our own parental relationship with him in the process. Instead we get a game torn between its two halves. Many other games have this problem, but they also have a crucial advantage: The split is usually between cutscenes and gameplay. Even Metal Gear Solid 4, with hours upon hours of cutscenes can be enjoyed fully for its gameplay systems, because almost everything else can be skipped. If they had focused on improving the combat, Norse God could be an action game worth mastering. But as it is now, you’d have to be insane to replay it on a regular basis because you’ll be forced into the same lengthy dialogue sequences every time. Even with the ability to skip cutscenes, it still takes 10 minutes from reaching the Black Breath to arriving in Alfheim, and this is just one example. Being charitable, we can assume that many unskippable moments are necessary to mask load times, but this poses another question: When does a game look too good for its own good? Presumably, if The Witch’s Woods’s didn’t have quite so many unique assets, we’d have shorter elevator rides to endure. The trip to Thamur’s Corpse seems to be masking a major load, and Tyr’s Temple’s drawn-out animations probably are as well. To an extent, this is clever design, but developers these days should be aware that their games will be preserved by ports to future systems. It’s a safe assumption that Sony’s next piece of hardware will have faster access speeds than the PS4, in which case these sections will squander the player’s time for no reason. Even the Realm Between Realms delays the opening of the exit portal until the current dialog is finished. If it seems far-fetched to you that technology might improve to such a drastic extent in the future, you haven’t been paying attention. There’s already an example of it in this very video. Half-Life was cutting edge at the time of its release and its brief load times weren’t so quick back then. Sure, this might seem like a petty complaint right now, but Norse God will spend the majority of its lifespan on systems much better than the PS4. This period of time could be considered the launch window in the grand scheme of things. With that in mind, this approach to loading seems pretty short-sighted. Credit to all the environmental artists, Norse God is a feast for the eyes. No doubt a lot of effort went into the graphics, but while beautiful scenery is easy to appreciate, it also comes with plenty of downsides. It’s important to recognize that developers do actually have a choice here. Using more simplistic or stylized visuals can cut down on requirements allowing for faster loads or a better performance. Do it well and it might even look better too, especially in the long run. On top of the aforementioned issue with inconsistent wall splat effects during combat, some areas are poorly fenced off, relying on you not to question why Kratos refuses to step over in knee-high obstacles. Maybe this is a false dichotomy, but I presume if the environments weren’t quite so detailed, the level designers would have been able to smooth these issues out more easily. We’ve already established that the most kind way to think about the camera is to imagine the developers wanted to put us in Kratos’s position, but it’s a bit rich to ask us to ignore so many invisible barriers if that’s the goal. For me, the worst of these kinds of these inconsistencies is seeing the God Of War reduced to a slow jog by carrying an item light enough to float on water. Obviously this weight disparity is a simple oversight, but even if we imagine that crystal is as heavy as solid rock, surely this should pose no problem for a man who can flip a golden temple upside down. What annoys me about this is that it should have been a slam dunk in the game’s favor. Rather than having to enjoy yet another a protracted walking sequence, we could have sprinted with the object in hand, laughing at how slow and boring this task would be for a regular mortal. Maybe instead of heaving open gates, Kratos could just fling them aside as though they’re nothing, cutting down on wasted time in a way which is true to the character and differentiates him from other protagonists. Maybe if we spent less time in these animations, we’d be less inclined to question why these gates can only be opened from one side in the first place. I’ll play Loki’s advocate yet again and say that these issues arise because the Greek God games were equally stupid in this regard, but that’s just all the more reason why a fresh start might have been for the best. These huge chunks of time spent opening chests and hunting down seals to open more chests almost seemed like a fruitful endeavor until you realize that all this stuff only exists to prop up the unnecessary RPG mechanics. Luck is pointless since if you’re willing to sell your old equipment to get a reasonable supply of Hacksilver, even without side quests, whereas Vitality and Defense are only useful if you get hit, which means if you’re looking to capitalize on your skill as much as possible, you’re left with three stats: Strength, Runic and Cooldown. Even prioritizing Cooldown, you’ll be lucky to shave more than a third of the recharge time off your favorite attack by the halfway point of the main quest. If the goal was to give players the means to carve out some kind of play style, this system is a failure, but don’t take my word for it. It’s easy to collect two sets of equally leveled gear and compare them which reveals the difference to be minuscule. The biggest jumps in power happened with weapon upgrades and level ups which every player can acquire at about the same time anyway. Resident Evil 4 is another game which overhauled its series while also introducing an upgrade system. Apart from keys, every single item you pick up in that game is either a weapon, health, ammo or money. The shop then gives you the option of turning any of the other three categories into money, which is used for enhancements. It’s the devastating combination of being simple to understand but still complex enough to provide plenty of options. An upgraded shotgun gives you distinct strengths and weaknesses compared to an upgraded sniper rifle. You might end up selling one class of weapon to improve another since even the largest carry case can’t fit everything at once. Holding out on purchases can pay off in the long run as new options become available, and for a really high-risk high-reward play style, it’s even possible to ditch your Yellow Herbs for mucho Pesetas at the cost of a max health increase. For some games, even this elegant system would be superfluous, but Resident Evil already had a perfect excuse for its scavenging time. Since attacks require ammunition, every battle is a decision about which ammo type you can afford to expend. This kind of resource management lies at the core of the series, so the most beautiful part of Resident Evil 4’s shop is that it adds barely any more time or hassle to the experience because players would be scouring for ammo anyway. All of this is to say that interacting with inventory and RPG mechanics costs time, which should pay off by enhancing the underlying gameplay in some way. That’s really the whole point, But many games get away with tacking them on regardless, because seeing the numbers go up is a shortcut to your brain’s pleasure centers. Combat systems that are good for their own sake don’t need leveling mechanics. In fact, they’re better off without them because a consistent level allows the designers to fine tune enemy encounters with precision. Assuming that players actually want to engage with, and improve at combat, skill trees alone provide plenty of options to satisfy a sense of growth, but that does require a charitable assumption about the player. To find out just how highly Norse God thinks of its players, look no further than its puzzles. I’m sure I’m not the only one who sees a resemblance between the puzzle solving items of the Zelda series and certain power-ups unlocked over the course of Norse God’s campaign. In the beginning, you’re limited to pushing and freezing objects, but later you acquire the Light Arrows, Shock Arrows, Blades of Chaos, and Hel’s Wind which are used for more environmental interactions. Zelda puzzles are at their best when they involve an item, which can be used in multiple ways: For example, shooting an arrow through a torch to ignite it so we can burn down a distant object. Other puzzles are made more interesting by the dungeons they are embedded within, forcing you to consider how to make progress through a more complex environment. Norse God obviously has nothing comparable to Zelda’s dungeon mechanics, and the abilities are all analogous to the worst Zelda items, which have specialized uses that are telegraphed heavily by the environment. The Leviathan Axe starts out well; manipulating some mechanism, freezing it at the right point, and then recalling the Axe when convenient is a great little interaction, but it loses its charm when you do it over and over and over again with no meaningful difference. There are a few exceptions: The traps in Tyr’s Vault at least introduce some timing and danger, but for the most part, each puzzle-solving item acts as a color-coded key. Once you get the Blades of Chaos, you can burn away bushes that are otherwise invulnerable. That’s it. See some Hel’s Bramble, take out the right weapon and burn it away. The decision makes itself. Hel’s Wind is marginally better with its ten-second restriction, but these small tests of skill aren’t exactly going to tax your intellect. Zelda doesn’t push its combat or puzzles as far as I’d like either, but it still stands as a shining example of how to navigate this minefield of varied gameplay elements, because while each game has a little bit of everything, there’s always some kind of focal point; something that risks rubbing people the wrong way. Majora’s Mask is a race against the clock, and this is not a popular decision with a lot of people, even among those who love the series as a whole. Each time a Zelda game comes out, Nintendo implicitly say to their fans, “If you don’t like it, tough luck. Maybe next time.” Funnily enough, the Zelda series itself shows abundant courage. At this point, it should be clear why puzzles in Norse God are brain dead simple. You’re not trusted to solve anything more complicated. You’re not trusted to be perceptive, so Kratos has to back out of of comforting Atreus not once, but twice within the span of an hour. You’re not trusted to care about Atreus if he even mildly inconveniences you, because this is just a game, which means you’re the center of the universe. You’re not trusted to explore for it’s own sake, so quests are doled out with map markers, telling you exactly where to go to cross everything off a big, magical checklist. You’re not trusted to get better at combat, so resource gathering just makes you stronger. You’re not trusted to traverse the environment, so all the perilous actions are automated, like the whole of Midgard is child proofed. Hopefully, you get the point by now. Before wrapping up, I’d like to acknowledge how harsh the comparisons have been. I’ve been contrasting Norse God against games which are absolute standout examples of the craft. Few games have the emotional impact of Ico or Journey. Few, if any of even attempted to outdo Dead Space’s inventory. Few action titles are as well considered as Bayonetta, and none have a camera to rival The Wonderful 101. Ironically, I’ve pit Norse God against gaming’s own pantheon of sorts. Any game would have shortcomings compared to the best counter examples you can find. Maybe this whole exercise was unfair, but hopefully the point will become more clear if we reverse the premise. Imagine that this whole video was about a different game instead. For the sake of argument, imagine I had spent the last 40 minutes comparing Batman: Arkham Asylum to a bunch of other games. If I had, no matter what topic I was discussing, I would NEVER have referred to Norse God as an example of anything. Because everything it does is better represented elsewhere. That’s the problem. Many other games do have some kind of component you can latch on to. In marketing speak, we might call it a Unique Selling Point. Arkham Asylum’s combat is essentially just glorified Quick Time Events, but in spite of that, overall the game does a great job of making you feel like Batman. That’s why despite all the problems I have with it, I’d have to admit that it at least accomplished its most important goal. Similarly, in spite of their flaws, the original Greek series offered you the experience of becoming the God of War on an unstoppable rampage through the battlefield. There are brief flashes of this in Norse God, but that feeling has been pushed aside, with nothing left to fill the void. You get a little bit of everything, but it’s also unfocused and unrefined. It’s one shot at redemption was to tie all these systems together into something greater than the sum of it’s parts, but instead, they’re disjointed at best and detrimental to each other at worst. Nice graphics hamper exploration and combat. Exploration hampers narrative pacing and consistency. RPG mechanics are cumbersome and time-consuming. The single shot camera is technically impressive, but it’s a gimmick the game would be better off without. Basically, it’s all over the place, but to be fair, it’s easy for me to sit here and criticize this game, even though it costs millions upon millions of dollars and years of work from a bunch of talented, driven people. The whole cottage industry that sprung up around criticism deserves a taste of it’s own medicine, myself included. Cynically clawing at the monumental efforts of others is a cushy position to be in. I should know. I’m about to imply that God Of War is mediocre, and there really is no more smug a position you can take. From the moment this game was revealed, I could already hear the Youtube contrarian engine wearing to life. I just never expected to be part of it myself. Despite having made some highly critical videos in the past, I’ve never gone out of my way to play something I think I won’t like, and this game is no exception. Although I had some reservations to begin with, mainly about why the developers would choose to reuse Kratos, over time, I started to think that Norse God could be just what the series needed. In a way, it was. I would never have made this video about Ascension because I didn’t bother to play it. My interest is the only reason why this video is about God of War 2018 and not the countless other mediocre triple-A games released year-in, year-out. That has to count for something. At least it’s not some heartless multiplayer vehicle built to push loot boxes. Developers don’t deserve charity just because they sink a lot of resources into a project that ultimately disappoints, but we can at least recognize that people invest so much of their lives into the games industry because they want to make something great. My problem isn’t so much with the developers of God Of War, I’m sure they tried their hardest to make the best of what is fundamentally a bad situation. I don’t know what the budget for this game was, but factoring in marketing, it’s safe to assume across the 50 million dollar mark. Maybe closer to 100 million. Think about those numbers for a second. They say pressure makes diamonds, and while there’s some truth to that, get too much pressure going and things just start to implode. Sony Santa Monica did a good job not to collapse under that weight. If you’re listening to this, thinking YOU could have done any better, you’re almost certainly wrong. Still, I’d be lying if I said I thought the end product was worth it. You might have noticed that this video is labeled a case study, and that’s because while it is about God of War, it’s also about the homogenization that’s been happening in triple-A games development for far too long. I can’t say for sure why this game is the way it is, but it’s hard not to see it as part of a larger trend. Those who’ve been hoping that games would attain a level of success on par with film should be overjoyed to know that their wish has come true. Games are more like films than they ever have been, not just because they shoehorn in shaky cams and other filming techniques, but because the business itself now mirrors the Hollywood machine. Budgets have gotten so big that games have to cram in a bunch of extraneous tick box features, or comprise on their vision to recoup costs. If God of War was nothing more than a puzzle platformer-y trek up a mountain with an AI companion, I’m pretty sure it would have been a better game. Not a better God Of War game, but a better game. Likewise, if it had dialed back its narrative ambitions and focused on refining its combat mechanics, I think it could have been an impressive take on the genre. Instead, like many big-budget games, it’s pulled in too many directions, so that none of them end up fully fleshed out. Naturally, games receive a huge spike in attention when they release, but the more important thing is what comes afterwards. Now that God of War is sitting among the gaming pantheon, if you scan your collection for something to play, why do you pick THIS one over everything else? For all the other games I referenced in this video, there’s a pretty clear answer to that question. At this point, a sequel seems inevitable, so I can only hope that Sony Santa Monica are willing to continue making substantial changes, because while this first one is not some kind of disastrous mistake, there’s really not much to love about it either.