Is it just me or was this year’s E3 a bit of let down? Maybe I’m just dead inside, but I’m finding it harder and harder to get excited by it each year. A Ubisoft game that is now needlessly open-world. Check. An HD remake of Skyrim that no one really asked for. Check. A new console arms race that’s about as fleshed out as present day Richard III. Check. The next check on this list is the one I want to talk about – new, rebooted franchise. Check.
I’m talking about God Of War here. Let me start by stating that as someone who primarily plays games on my PC, I’m not an authority on the PlayStation exclusive God Of War titles. However, I’ve played and seen enough God Of War to know that what was shown at Sony’s E3 conference this year was quite the departure from the series’ roots.
Early reaction on Twitter labelled this latest entry ‘Dad Of War’, with others drawing comparisons with Naughty Dog’s The Last Of Us, a game that transcended the medium of gaming to become part of a larger discussion surrounding art and popular culture (it’s hard to think of another game in recent history that has had the broadsheet media commentary of TLOU). If The Last Of Us was an example of high quality drama, that other massive Sony exclusive (also a Naughty Dog creation), Uncharted was a high quality blockbuster, the kind even sniffier publications would give four stars and label as ‘brainless guilty fun’.
So with Sony looking to strengthen their grip on the ‘games as art’/cinematic experience, in comes God Of War (we know it’s serious because it doesn’t have a number at the end of the title). The previous God Of War games have been about ridiculous spectacle. They took the combo-based, fast-paced fighting mechanics of games such as Devil May Cry, and removed the Japanese design quirks for a pure, heavily scripted spectacle. God Of War is visual excess at its core. Everyone is furious all the time. You play as wrecking ball Kratos and your goal is to murder all the gods of ancient Greek mythology so you can use their various totems as weapons or items (you use Helios’ severed head as a flashlight). Naturally, there’s a tacked on revenge subplot, but story is the least of God Of War’s concerns. If this sounds like a slight against it, it really isn’t. There are plenty of games that are fantastic but essentially abscond with story. For some games, story is secondary to gameplay mechanics, and that’s totally fine.
There’s no question that the God Of War reboot gameplay at E3 was impressive. It looks stunning with great attention to detail (with nice small touches like the boy knocking snowflakes off a tree), and visual direction on par with any recent fantasy blockbuster. I’ll accept that it’s difficult to really get a feel for gameplay in footage this staged (in all likelihood, this level may not even appear in the final product), but this didn’t feel like God Of War to me. The close camera on Kratos, the more realistic animations (slower and more laboured), the tenderness – it just feels off. If ever there was a game that doesn’t need subtly or nuance, it’s God Of War. I appreciate and support the idea of developers taking risks with franchise if they become stale (someone needs to relay this message to Assassin’s Creed), but only when it feels necessary. It feels strange to be arguing for less complexity, but on this occasion, I’m saying God Of War doesn’t need to be The Last Of Us; it’s a franchise I don’t need ‘feels’ from.
Maybe I’m wrong, and they’ll completely nail a delicate balance of complex character development and emotional drama with gory action, but my fear is we get a title that doesn’t have the rage-fuelled madness of previous games or the depth of something more narratively complex; at worst, we’ll end up with something pretentious.
All that said, it’s early days and I’m only going off a gameplay video. I’ve no doubt Sony will be trawling through every response to the God Of War reveal and will seek to reassure fans (expect a massive battle in the next gameplay video). While in theory I welcome the idea of more developers using The Last Of Us as a standard for more complex games, I’ll take my God Of War loud and stupid please.