With 2018’s reimagining of God of War, the team at Santa Monica Studio had a very particular design problem: making the combat feel right even with a very zoomed-in perspective. And it worked. Despite the game’s close-up camera, which isn’t common in action games, controlling Kratos in battle felt appropriately heavy and satisfying. For the sequel, the upcoming God of War Ragnarök, that main problem has already been solved. So the designers took on a different focus. According to lead combat designer Mihir Sheth, one of the main goals with Ragnarök was to give players more ways to express themselves with Kratos’ murderous abilities. “We’re expanding choice,” Sheth tells The Verge. “But we’re more interested in how players use all of the tools that are available to them.”
I’ve been able to play through the first four hours or so of the game, and this idea of choice is present very early on. In the original God of War, you spent most of the game wielding a trusty ax that let you wallop enemies and recall it just like Thor’s Mjölnir hammer. (Somewhat ironically, one of the main antagonists in Ragnarök is Thor himself, and he does indeed wield the Mjölnir.) It wasn’t until later in the game that you got Kratos’ iconic Blades of Chaos, which are essentially big knives attached to chains. But in Ragnarök, Kratos has both weapons right from the beginning, so you can switch between them even in early battles.
“We’re expanding choice.”
“We want you to feel in control of your weapons; Kratos is in charge of everything at his disposal,” Sheth says. “So just thinking about using those two things means we might have to lower the burden elsewhere. We have to shift where you’re thinking. Because if we just add everything immediately, you might be overwhelmed as a player. So it definitely requires a shifting of focus.” It also means that the game has to be designed right from the beginning to take advantage of both weapons. Initially, I primarily used the ax, but I then came up against some little lizards that loved to scurry around. My ax was too slow, but when I tossed out the blade, Kratos caught the lizards like wiggling fish. (He would then pop them in his hand, which was very satisfying.)
According to Sheth, every seemingly small addition like this means the team has to rethink how the rest of the game works — and often the changes have an ulterior motive. For example, in Ragnarök, players have access to a larger array of shields, which meant creating enemies that encouraged blocking. “The fundamental question we had was: how do we make you care about the L1 button,” he says. “Some players just don’t want to block. But what if we could make you care about that button a little bit more? Would you have a more engaging time with the game? And that requires breaking down defensive choices in a way that then culminates in new shields in the game.”
“How do we make you care about the L1 button”
The combat feels faster to me from what I’ve played so far, but it’s still unmistakably God of War; there’s a heft to the attacks that’s just right for the perpetually angry Kratos. And of course, it’s also brutally violent. In my short time with the game, I’ve already hacked plenty of monsters to pieces with an ax and participated in my fair share of decapitations. It’s also just a lot of fun: even the smaller encounters let you pull off huge, satisfying combos and moves with little effort. (The PS5 version also has some nice haptic feedback to make the combat feel a little more visceral. You can even feel which direction the ax is flying from when you recall it.) Sheth describes the style of combat as “Kratos playing with his food.”
Sheth, a big fan of action and fighting games, also really wants to get more people to understand the genre’s appeal. And part of that comes through the level of challenge. Ragnarök has five different difficulty levels, one more than the original, starting with a relatively breezy story-focused mode. But even on the lowest difficulty, combat remains a huge part of the game.
“Our goal is to get as many players as possible to enjoy our game,” Sheth says. “And combat challenge and difficulty is part of that. We want a game that’s fun regardless of player familiarity or skill level. As a combat designer, I love combat and I want to introduce more players to that. I want to show players why that is a type of gameplay that’s a blast. And doing that well requires a lot of work when it comes to tuning.”
There are a lot of other things to dig into with Ragnarök. There’s the continued story, where Kratos’ son Atreus is now older and trying to learn about his past and future amid an impending war among gods; a larger and more diverse world of fantasy realms to explore; environmental puzzles that seem much more cerebral this time around; and some truly spectacular boss battles. You can even collect poetry (take that, Ghost of Tsushima). But early on, the thing that has struck me most is just how good it feels to be Kratos again. There’s still nothing else in games quite like throwing that ax and having it whizz right back into your hand. The sequel simply gives you more ways to capture that feeling.
“It’s a combat system that’s very improvisational,” says Sheth. “You can change your mind at any moment and do something different. As a sequel we want you to feel more powerful.”
God of War Ragnarök launches on the PS4 and PS5 on November 9th.