The God of War demo that Sony showcased this E3 took me by surprise. When I heard the orchestra playing in the Shrine Auditorium to kick off the press conference, I knew right away that God of War was coming up – there's only one Sony-published series with that sort of bombastic sound – so I was prepared for a frothingly angry Kratos to pounce onto the screen, rending enemies limb-from-limb in an orgy of bloody rage. I wasn't terribly excited about this – certainly, games like that have a right to exist. But they're so common, so safe that "angry bald dude kills things" is practically a punchline to describe any number of high-profile games.
So imagine my very pleasant surprise when half of the God of War demo was Kratos bonding with his son in a way that felt genuine and interesting. The demo begins as Kratos gives his son a knife, instructing him that he must go out to hunt, and it ends with him helping his reluctant boy mercifully end the life of a deer that the child mortally wounded with an arrow.
John Davis, lead level designer on the title, explains the shift in tone. "This is the next path for Kratos. We've called it God of War [with no numbering or subtitle] because it's a new beginning for Kratos, where he's joined by his son on a new adventure."
I ask Davis why they chose to make Kratos's child such a key part of the game. "It's kind of an interesting story. Cory [Barlog, creative director at Sony Santa Monica] came back to the studio and had this really wild, crazy pitch. He'd had a son himself, and he sort of came in and said, 'I'm going to take apart every piece of God of War and start putting it back together.' What came out of it were things that he was passionate about. I think where his narrative passions lie are the journey of a father, the journey of teaching someone to become a warrior."
While the player controls Kratos, his as-of-yet-unnamed son is every bit as pivotal to the game as he is – and the gameplay is built around this fact. The camera is deliberately set at a low, third-person, behind-the-player angle, Davis explains, so as to keep Kratos's son in view at all times. It also serves to showcase the new environments he and his kid will be traversing: where previous games had Kratos taking on the Greek pantheon, the new game features a (not open) world and a conflict based upon Norse mythology.
"It's a very harsh landscape that provides an ideal backdrop for a father/son adventure," says Davis. Said harsh environments are laden with things to explore and do: items to find, collectibles to amass – and, of course, containers to smash. Kratos's actions don't just affect him, either: certain actions allow his son to gain valuable on-the-field knowledge and build up his skills.
'God of War', E3 2016 reveal trailer
Of course, only half of the demo involved Kratos being a dad. The other half was familiar territory to series fans: Kratos hacking away at enemies, including a terrifying giant troll, with his new axe weapons in typically intense fashion. It looks spectacular, and it's here that we see Kratos able to once again unleash his full fury, climbing atop his titanic enemy's head and tearing off its horns before wrestling its head to the ground with a bone-crushing crunch. One thing worth noting is that Kratos's attacks are now mapped to the PS4 controller's shoulder buttons – a rather atypical scheme seen more in first-person shooters than "character action" titles.
Even in the heat of combat, though, Kratos's son plays a key role: he's in the background, attempting to support his father as best he can. When multiple enemies are onscreen, he's helping Kratos manage targets. By pressing the square button, the player can have the boy fire special arrows at foes, which can help interrupt attacks and put enemies off-guard.
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The final cinematic of the huge troll battle has Kratos trying to hold the beast down for his son to land the killing shot, only for the youngster to miss and hit his dad in the shoulder instead. Davis also points out that in other situations, Kratos will be able to use his in-game rage meter to protect his son from danger.
After seeing a more in-depth look at the demo and talking with team members, I really feel that the new approach that the Sony Santa Monica team is taking with this title is a welcome one. This is a God of War game that feels like it's matured past the stereotypical young-person power fantasy of being angry at an unfair world and wanting to tear your foes apart. We are seeing Kratos allowed to visibly care for another person (albeit in his own aloof way) and be responsible for their well being throughout the game, opening him to true vulnerability. The potential for a fantastic combination of gameplay and emotional intensity is ripe here – I'm looking forward to seeing more of the new life path Kratos and his child will be forging together.