It was never in question whether God of War would return. The franchise is one of Sony's most successful exclusives of the past decade, and the main trilogy of games were both critically acclaimed and hugely popular. But the conclusion of God of War III seemed to put a pretty definitive end on the series while the relatively lackluster prequel God of War: Ascension that came a few years later showed that Sony had pretty much run out of ways to continue telling the story of its antihero, Kratos.
That is, unless developer Santa Monica Studios made a break from the series' past, changed the gameplay, left Greek mythology behind and, most important, showed us a more human side of Kratos than we'd ever seen before. Judging from the preview of the forthcoming God of War that kicked off Sony's E3 event, that's exactly what's happened, and it completely reinvigorated my interest in a series that felt like it had nothing left to say.
Just don't call it a reboot. In a conversation I had with God of War mastermind Cory Barlog, he made it clear that this is indeed the same Kratos whose fate was up in the air at the end of God of War III, but he's in a radically different place in his life. "As a writer, I think the interesting thing to do is to take the challenge of somebody who has a very difficult past, a very difficult image and put the audience in the position that they're going to root for them," Barlog says. "And they're going to root for them because they're failing -- because they're getting back up. You're not inspired because they succeeded, you're inspired because they succeeded after a thousand failures."
That sense of redemption permeated the new God of War that Sony showed off this week at E3. Kratos is watching his son, and that makes the former Spartan far more sympathetic. It felt like there was more character development in the God of War preview than there was in the previous trilogy, and it doesn't just come in cut scenes. It comes in small moments of exploration and discovery between the big battles and the more in-depth story moments.
The old one-dimensional, rage-filled Kratos is an important part of the story. He was once the petulant child of Zeus, but now he's a father, trying to reign in his worst qualities while still being true to himself. "Kratos was the Hulk all the time," Barlog says. "I think watching The Avengers and hearing [Mark] Ruffalo's line: 'The secret is I'm angry all the time' ..." After taking a pause, Barlog continues, "That was so powerful because it did make me realize that is Kratos, but he doesn't have the connection with his Bruce Banner. The kid pulls the humanity out of him."
The child is truly the anchor of this game, and while Barlog says you don't play as him, he will be a constant companion for the majority of God of War. For lack of a better word, there's a "child" button that will bring him more fully into whatever you're doing at a particular moment. "He'll open a door, he'll participate in a cooperative puzzle with you, he'll go over and attack somebody," Barlog explains.
But the child's importance goes far beyond gameplay: He's what keeps Kratos from being the wrathful God of War. In the gameplay demo, the child disobeys Kratos while trying to hunt a deer. You can see some of Kratos' trademark Spartan rage begin to show, but he manages to pull it back and teach instead of scream. He's still cold and distant, unable to bring himself to comfort the boy after helping him kill that first deer up close with a hunting knife. But when the boy is unable to make the killing cut himself, Kratos takes his hand and guides the knife with him. He's not perfect, but he shows more empathy and care in a 10-minute demo than we saw in an entire trilogy.
"That, to me, is parenting ... and that's being a kid," Barlog says after noting that he put more of himself into this game than any other he's made thus far. "I failed all the time, my relationship with my parents is so weird, and my relationship with my kid is the same thing. I see in him all the weird facets of myself that I wish I could change, but I can't. But I can help make his next day better, and that's where Kratos is at."
The idea of Kratos trying to help make someone's next day better is entirely foreign, and that's why the new God of War is so enticing. We have no idea what the actual story narrative will be thus far, but there's a lot to be hopeful for. It doesn't hurt that the new combat system looks like a blast: You can throw Kratos' axe, fight with your bare fists and magically recall the ax to your hand at any time. And despite the series' new camera angle that puts you right behind Kratos' shoulder, the action still feels familiar and fluid.
Between the new camera and fighting styles, the signature massive monsters, and the undeniably gorgeous visuals, there's a lot to be intrigued about here. But what's most interesting to me is the story and the mystery: What happened to Kratos between his destruction of ancient Greece and its pantheon of gods and his new life in the north? (Barlog says the game doesn't fill in all the blanks but will address what happened after God of War III in some capacity.) Who is this kid, anyway? Is Kratos a friend of the Norse gods, an enemy or something else entirely? It's going to be a while before we find out, but for the first time I'm more excited about a God of War story than the action.