'God of War' PS4 Hands-On Preview: For (Emotionally) Mature Audiences

The new "God of War" turns a bloodthirsty demigod into a thoughtful father, and the franchise has never been more exciting. Check out our hands-on review, ahead of the release, here.

It starts with his axe. You feel the heft of it, hear the grit of the wood as it slides across your dry palms. Then there's the thunk. A stiff, satisfying sound as you plunge the axe deep into a tree. You do this again and again. The tree falls. And now Kratos' latest story, God of War for PS4, has begun.

God Of War PS4 Kratos: A New Role For A Familiar Face

god of war ps4 preview review impressions when is 4 coming out
Kratos and Atreus anchor the new God of War to a thoughtful, engaging story. Check out our hands-on pre-release review, here. Sony

Many of us know Kratos. The lead of the God of War franchise has been a mainstay across Sony platforms for more than a decade. He is a larger-than-life icon, in-game and otherwise. His quest for revenge after having been tricked by Ares into killing his wife and daughter spanned seven games and took fans from Sparta to Mt. Olympus, heaven and hell and beyond. All the while, Kratos raged, anger personified, supplanting Ares as the god of war and tallying a body count worthy of the title. Kratos knows how to be a warrior, a hero and an actual god among men. What he doesn't know how to be is a father.

Now that's your job.

God of War for PS4 marks a new direction for Kratos. He finds himself isolated in Viking country, a strange god in a strange land whose sole responsibility is caring for his son, Atreus. From the very beginning of the game (the span of my 2.5 hour demo) Kratos seems uncomfortable, out of his element. Not angry, not brooding. He is a resigned, hesitant presence even when required to perform lots of violence. Because you do encounter plenty of combat on the journey. It's not called God of Paternal Chit-Chat. The magic of these alien lands seems to have a special dislike for this foreign god, despite Kratos' best efforts to keep a low profile. Trouble literally knocks on his front door. But he does not revel in the thrill like he used to (neither will you) and frequently cautions Atreus against losing control.

God Of War PS4 Combat Changes: A More Mature Kind of Action

God of War's combat system is an elegant one, with plenty of rhythm and thoughtful balance, tempered by deep skill trees and crafting. Fighting remains incredibly fun in this installment of the franchise, but the tone has shifted. There's a noble purpose driving Kratos, not blind vengeance. You have a son and an obligation to be better than you were. If you're expecting a game full of quick-time orgies and take no prisoners cruelty, I'm sorry, but this isn't the God of War you remember.

Does it need to be? It seems no coincidence Kratos has matured along with the God of War audience. Some of us (including Game Director Cory Barlog) who revelled in the blood-drenched, sophomoric adrenaline rush found in the early days of the franchise even have children (myself included) and find ourselves confronted with a changed person each time we look in the mirror. And because of that this new Kratos, quite intentionally I think, becomes so much more relatable. Has life kicked your ass a time or two? Are you different now? Then you'll get this new Kratos.

Atreus Rising: A Focus On The Next Generation

Perhaps this is what drives his son, Atreus, to the foreground of your curiosity as you play God of War. He is a new character, a clean slate, and you find yourself wanting to learn more about him because you already know Kratos so well. Even if you haven't played the previous games, you recognize in Kratos familiar "tough old man" tropes. Think Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon.

But Atreus feels like a new type of character altogether. At times timid, at others crazed, he is both Kratos and his mother at once. And while most fans know everything there is to know about Kratos, we know very little about Atreus' mother except what gets revealed by the boy himself. You learn who she is by seeing him behave in ways that are very unlike Kratos.

God of War does a masterful job with the character in this sense, and the interplay between Kratos and Atreus changes in those moments. When Atreus lashes out in anger, you see a controlled and nurturing Kratos emerge. He understands the rage and cautions his son against it. But Atreus has a tenderness to him, and a connection to life and the natural world you've never seen in Kratos. In those moments you see Kratos soften and observe his son with bewilderment and even love.

Kratos and Atreus work together in God of War to cross frozen wilds and ancient ruins through a mix of combat, exploration, crafting and puzzle-solving. My demo gave me a fantastic sense of the characters and world-building, but didn't leave nearly enough time to get into the nitty-gritty of the extensive skill trees and crafting menus. Numerous hidden rewards encourage you to take a closer look around, but levels are not vast open spaces. The game manages to be linear without feeling forced, and whenever you get a sense the game wants you to turn right, more often than not you'll find something by turning left.

In two-and-a-half hours I felt I got to know this new Kratos, and started to know his son, Atreus. What I didn't get to know was how God of War will navigate the themes it works to establish early. Is Atreus more than just half-god? What happens when he finds his power? Will Kratos repeat the failures of his father, Zeus? And what of the Norse magic working against Kratos? Will it intensify and unleash the Kratos we once knew? Or worse, will it unleash that wrath in Atreus instead?

It will take a lot of time, a lot of fighting, a lot of granular skill-tree tweaking and loadout crafting to get to the bottom of it. And I am more than OK with that.

When Is God Of War 4 Coming Out On PS4?

God of War releases on PS4 April 20.