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God Of War Ragnarök preview: better than the original in every possible way

God Of War Ragnarök preview: better than the original in every possible way

God Of War Ragnarök's first boss sets up a brutal new adventure for Kratos

2018’s God of War did something I never expected it could do: it made me care about Kratos. Sony’s Santa Monica Studio wisely reimagined the ultra-violent God killer as a single parent struggling to free himself and his son from the endless cycle of brutality he appears to have condemned them both to. It was a bold, brilliant reinvention for the character - one that translated to heaps of critical and commercial acclaim that made a sequel inevitable.

As God of War Ragnarök - arguably the most anticipated PlayStation exclusive since The Last of Us Part II - opens, it’s clear that Kratos and Atreus are still desperately (and rather hopelessly) doing their best to keep their hands free of blood and live a relatively normal life. How long do you think that lasts?

Ragnarök wastes no time on funeral planning or father-son hunting trips. Where the 2018 game was happy to start off slowly, Ragnarök throws us into the action without a second thought, making it very clear very quickly that there are several groups out there each with their own serious grudges against Kratos and his boy. By the end of my first hour I’d engaged in a high speed chase through the woods, punched a bear square in the face, and gone toe-to-toe with Thor himself. Just another Wednesday evening for Kratos.

It won’t be a massive surprise to anyone who’s watched the trailers that Thor plays a big role in Ragnarök. He is, after all, understandably miffed that Kratos and Atreus killed his own kids in the last game, and is on the hunt for some good old-fashioned revenge.

There’s an awful lot that happens in the game’s first five hours that I’m not allowed to talk too much about, but what I can say is that the fight with Thor is as epic as we could possibly have hoped for. It’s a showdown fans have waited to see since the gasp-inducing teaser at the end of God of War, and Sony Santa Monica Studio is well aware of this.

We like to subvert expectations,” laughs Ragnarök lead combat designer Mihir Sheth. “We wanted to come out swinging! And Kratos has really met his match with Thor.”

God Of War Ragnarök /
Sony Interactive Entertainment

It’s worth noting that the opening fight with Thor is absolutely brutal, and calls to mind the first Baldur encounter in the 2018 game. Santa Monica Studio wanted to make it clear that these are two mighty gods pummeling the sh*t out of one another, and that comes through beautifully as Kratos and Thor’s initial throwdown sends them flying across Midgard. It’s a genuinely jaw-dropping piece of action that I think will be spoken of years from now in the same breath as Uncharted 2’s train sequence and The Last of Us’ opening in terms of sheer, thrilling spectacle.

The way Thor fights is particularly interesting. Unlike the chiselled perfection of the Marvel Cinematic Universes’ Thor (played by the beautiful Chris Hemsworth), this God of Thunder is violent, unpredictable, and downright terrifying.

“He likes to drink and he likes to fight,” Sheth says of their take on Thor. “And so definitely from a reference point of view, we were looking at what’s authentic to this character. Thor doesn't care what you think about him. He doesn't care how he might look in some kind of competition. He cares that he can beat any opponent that he goes up against - and we really want you to feel that. And it's almost when you don't expect it is when he's the most frightening. But that terror is real, it's authentic, and I think Kratos recognises that immediately, because Kratos doesn't underestimate his enemy and is generally very cautious and with authority you can tell as a player that Kratos knows this is a little bit different.”

There’s a real savageness to the Thor fight that somehow makes even 2018’s God of War look tame in comparison. It’s a brutality that extends to the rest of the game. Kratos hardly tickled people to death in the last game, but here, he’s impaling, decapitating, and all-round going in on his enemies like they personally left a poo under his pillow. This was no accident.

God Of War Ragnarök /
Sony Interactive Entertainment

“I think we have a pedigree with combat at Santa Monica when it comes to pushing a level of what we would now call grounded brutality,” Sheth tells me. “Playing as Kratos is a blast, and that’s something we've tried to embrace going forward. We've doubled down on what we call weapon fantasy. So now when you get a stun grab in the game, you'll notice that these are a lot faster and more brutal and they really involve your weapon. You'll see Kratos take the axe and really go to town on an enemy - but also notably use the Blades Of Chaos in the same way.”

True enough, the “executions” Kratos can pull off on stunned enemies feel way more visceral. You can tear off heads, chop bad guys clean in half, and slice them up like there’s no tomorrow. Sheth explains this wasn’t something they were able to explore too much in the 2018 game, but Kratos’ ultra-violent streak really is back with a vengeance in Ragnarök. This is a tired old soldier who isn’t fighting because he wants to, but because he needs to. And that makes all the difference.

While the basics of combat will be largely familiar to everyone who played the 2018 game, one thing you’ll immediately notice is how much slicker it all feels. From the aforementioned executions all the way through to the rate at which you unlock new abilities, Ragnarök’s combat is faster, smoother, and so much more fun.

I was particularly delighted to discover we get the Blades Of Chaos much earlier this time. While the iconic weapon was a fairly late game addition in 2018, here you’ll be able to combine the Leviathan Axe and Blades within the first hour. This allowed Sheth and the combat team the chance to really run with all the possibilities that combining two very different weapons allows.

God Of War Ragnarök /
Sony Interactive Entertainment

“One of the biggest changes in Ragnarök is getting exposed to both of these weapons early,” Sheth says. “It increases the complexity of combat significantly. In 2018 you get a lot of time to acclimate to just having the axe and throwing. In fact, you spend the majority of the game doing that. And just by having these two items with a greater level of depth and progression, we had to redesign how a player's relationship would work with these weapons. Right out of the gate. And what you're going to notice is that you’re quite capable with just these two weapons. There's a lot you can do as you switch between them.”

Fans of the older games will no doubt be glad to hear that the Blades are far more engaging this time around. While the weapon felt like a bit of an afterthought in 2018, here they’re given as much focus as the Axe. Combining the two for devastating combos and explosive effects is seamless, and it’ll soon become second nature for you to lob the Axe in a Dragur’s face before pulling them in close with the Blades to quite literally shred them open. It’s gloriously violent, and more importantly, it never gets old.

Atreus, now a moody teenager, is also a much more capable fighter in this new outing. He wastes no time getting stuck into the thick of fights, and is as genuinely useful doing his own thing as he is when you call on him to rain down arrows on your enemies.

God Of War Ragnarök /
Sony Interactive Entertainment

As grim as combat can be, Ragnarök is not a game you’ll want to look away from. Everything looks and runs beautifully on PS5, to the point where I’m genuinely amazed they’ve managed to cram all nine realms with their stunning, utterly unique vistas onto PS4. In the first five hours alone you’ll visit snow-capped ruins, sun-dappled wetlands, and a vast lake dotted with mysterious islands - each with their own optional content to explore and rewards to track down.

I can’t wait to talk to you more about God of War Ragnarök has to offer. The combat is faster, the puzzles are smarter, and the bosses far more imposing than ever before. Simply put, this is shaping up to be everything we could have possibly wanted from a sequel to God of War - and so much more. Bigger, bolder, and better: this is shaping up to be a very special game.

Featured Image Credit: Sony Interactive Entertainment

Topics: God Of War, Sony, PlayStation, PlayStation 5, Santa Monica Studio