A few hours into God Of War – Santa Monica Studio's ambitious franchise refresh – Empire finds itself engaged in a gore-soaked, screen-swallowing boss battle with a towering troll. As returning mad-as-hell hero Kratos, we carve up the massive beast before plunging an axe into its torso and literally ripping the life from its chest.
If you've played any previous instalments in Sony's ultra-violent third-person action series, freeing a foe of its still-beating heart probably sounds like par for the course. The difference this time though, is Kratos' motive: rather than tearing into the enemy to satisfy a rage-fuelled quest for revenge, he's doing it for his son.
Gaming's most perturbed protagonist returns with a bushy beard and a brand new battle axe, but it's his boy Atreus that makes him a better man, and God Of War the best game the series has ever spawned. Thanks to the pair's incredibly nuanced, emotional relationship – and how it continuously evolves throughout their lengthy journey – the franchise finally has a fantastic story to match its epic action.
It's a massive, non-linear experience packed with side quests, secrets, and surprises.
While watching this unlikely, but believable, father-son dynamic unfold is one of the game's surprising high-points, the absorbing narrative doesn't come at the cost of the franchise's defining, thumb-blistering gameplay. On the contrary, God Of War's polished combat is more rewarding than ever, mixing the hack-and-slash action of past entries with a fresh focus on more thoughtful tactics.
A new over-the-shoulder camera perspective gives each encounter a more intimate, visceral feel, while a bevy of RPG-inspired features – from craftable gear and power-packing runes to upgradable weapons and sprawling skill trees – add character-shaping depth. Many of these goodies feed directly into Kratos' new Leviathan axe: an awesome skull-splitting weapon that can be recalled to his hand, Mjolnir-like, with the press of a button.
Atreus is no slouch on the battlefield either, as the boy's well-placed arrows damage and distract enemies, granting dad an additional tactical advantage. Players can command Atreus to fire at specific targets, but 'Boy' (Kratos isn't one for affectionate nomenclature) does just fine on his own, scoring head-shots and even choking foes out with his bow. Atreus' weapons and abilities can also be upgraded and tweaked alongside Kratos', so there's never a shortage of ways to slay mythological monsters with style to spare.
God Of War's engaging storytelling and sophisticated, satisfying combat stand out, but these elements barely scratch the surface of what this excellent PS4 exclusive brings to the table. It's also a massive, non-linear experience packed with side quests, secrets, and surprises, all brought to life by immaculate visual presentation and cinematic score — not to mention the rumbling bass of Christopher Judge (Stargate SG-1's Teal'c), who provides Kratos' gloriously grumpy dialogue.
The game is brimming with technical and artistic achievements, but it's how all these elements seamlessly complement each other that makes it a modern-day masterpiece. There's no question God Of War will be recognised as one of the year's best games, and it may well earn Kratos a seat among the pantheon of all-time greats.