E3 2016 was an interesting time. Microsoft announced a bunch of sequels for Xbox One and new trailers for highly anticipated titles like Scalebound. Electronic Arts unveiled a behind-the-scenes look at Mass Effect Andromeda. Ubisoft even showcased some of the upcoming Assassin’s Creed movies. Shame that there was no sequel. Nintendo also had this little thing called The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild for its first broadcast, but obviously, no one talks about that anymore.
All joking aside, E3 2016 was a pretty memorable time for Sony. It announced a release date for The Last Guardian, which debuted at E3 2009; unveiled Kojima Productions’ next big game in Death Stranding; and even debuted Insomniac Game’s upcoming Spider-Man title. But the event was perhaps most notable for Santa Monica Studio’s next game. It started with an orchestral performance, then transitioned to a young boy playing with figures, and eventually showcased a familiar face – Kratos, the protagonist of God of War. Older, more rugged, and reserved, but still containing the fury that made him Kratos.
As he embarked on a hunt through the neighboring forest with the boy, it was revealed to be more than just a cinematic trailer. There was gameplay, but not the hack-and-slash style fans had known and loved from the previous trilogy. This combat was more grounded and weightier but still retained that signature brutality. Kratos didn’t have his familiar Blades of Chaos, but there was the Leviathan Axe and his bare fists.
It was a feast of sights and sounds. The recall of the Axe. The Troll battle. The hunt for the deer and the first kill that the boy, revealed to be Kratos’ son, ever made. The dragon and wintery landscape close things out. Then the title reveals – God of War.
Of the many reveals done over the years, this remains one of the best. More details emerged shortly after – this wasn’t a reboot but a follow-up to the previous God of War trilogy. While the previous game dealt with Greek mythology, the new God of War had a Norse setting. Kratos had traveled to Midgard, married a woman named Faye, and had a son, Atreus. Cory Barlog, who last directed God of War 2 in 2007, had returned in the same role for the new title, reimagining everything we knew about the franchise.
While the overall reaction was overwhelmingly positive, there were more than a few negative responses. Some even compared it to The Last of Us due to the dynamic between the leads (hilarious in retrospect, given how different both pairs of protagonists turned out to be). Less than two years later, God of War launched for the PS4. To say that it was a success would be an understatement.
Over 3.1 million copies were sold in three days, setting a record as the fastest-selling PS4 exclusive. It crossed five million copies sold in a month, and was not only the fastest-selling game of the month but contributed to the console being the best-selling console for April. Following its release earlier this year on PC, Sony confirmed that the title had sold over 20.4 million copies as of March 2022.
But it’s still worth looking back on, and examining just how exceptional the entire experience was. We could break down the narrative, and its themes of parenthood, moving on, and making peace with the past while worrying about the future. Or its memorable characters, from the complex portrayal of Kratos, with his cursed past and desire to move forward, and his son Atreus, struggling to identify with his father as the two embark on a journey to spread Faye’s ashes from the highest peak in the nine realms.
New characters like Mimir, Freya, Baldur, and Jörmungandr make an impact in both subtle and explosive ways. The initial encounter with Baldur is considered one of the best boss fights in gaming, and that’s just the first.
We could focus on the narrative, with the single-take presentation style (seen in movies like Children of Men), immersing one in it even more than in previous titles. It remains inventive, but more than enough praise is due for the writing. Dialogue in a mythological title, especially one trying to subvert many of the things we already know about Norse myths while staying true to their essence, is a challenge. But the conversations in God of War flow so naturally and so well. The dialogue enhances the interactions and relationships, while the overall pacing is excellent.
Then there’s the world design. Upon exiting the quiet forest where they lived, Atreus and Kratos would explore the massive Lake of the Nine before arriving at Tyr’s Temple to travel to the different realms. However, the surrounding areas were full of things to see, from exciting mysteries and optional encounters to treasure. Unlike Horizon Zero Dawn, which was released a year prior, God of War wasn’t a seamless open world, instead divided into multiple realms players had to load into.
Nevertheless, its areas were massive and rife with secrets to uncover. The lush environments of Alfheim belied the danger posed by the Dark Elves. The fiery land of Muspelheim, with its trials and combat challenges. The treacherous mazes and dangerous fog of Niflheim.
Speaking of which, despite initial concerns about a more Souls-like approach, the combat is fantastic. While easy to jump into and incredibly responsive, the potential for combos juggles, cancels, and much more gave it much depth. There was also plenty of diversity in terms of abilities, gear, Enchantments, and much more, allowing one to find their play style. After all these years, the combat remains top-notch, even if the enemy and boss variety could be a little better (which the sequel is reportedly improving on).
Of course, God of War is built on moments, whether fighting a dragon for the first time, getting trounced by a Valkyrie, watching Atreus’s brief downward spiral, or just gazing upon the Lake of the Nine in all of its glory. The final goodbye to Faye and the mural on the wall depicting the future. A thunderous tease of things to come. That the game deftly builds to these, delivering more and more high-quality moments over time, is truly incredible.
God of War Ragnarok is out on November 9th for PS4 and PS5, and it’s touted as a much bigger experience than the development team initially envisioned. The sheer hype it’s generated, just by rumors alone, has been insane. To say that it’s one of the most noteworthy games of the year would be an understatement.
For all of its improvements, however, it’s interesting to look back on its predecessor and the groundwork it laid. It’s still a top-notch title that could compete with today’s best – an instant classic that few can compare to. Even if you break down and appreciate each of its incredible parts, the sum is something more, making for an unforgettable experience.
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