Image from Call of Duty.com (If you’re gonna do war crimes, at least be affable while you’re at it!)
Call of Duty Modern Warfare II (Infinity Ward) (USA)
Call of Duty 19 (no, really) is upon us and it’s pretty good. A spiritual successor in some respects to the original COD title to have “Modern Warfare” attached to “2” from all the way back in 2009, while also being an expansion for a refreshing take on the aging formula that was started in 2007.
I say as much when it comes to Modern Warfare II mechanically. As a FPS military shooter, there is nothing about this year’s entry that screams “OMG”, that’s so different!” nor was anyone expecting that to be the case. People just wanted a refined version of Modern Warfare 2019, and we got it. For a franchise that most everyone just wants to go away (if for awhile), there was actual demand for this year’s selection.
You get more of that patented Call of Duty multiplayer now with the mounting around cover mechanics and general feel which has made the series feel more realistic. “More” realistic, mind. Warfare as portrayed in COD multiplayer is still ever the equivalent of arming lemmings.
You have more Spec Ops which… I haven’t played any of, as I was warded away from even trying it due to the awful nature of the mode from MW 2019. I’ve heard it’s not as bad, but it doesn’t yet recapture the same sense of arcade fun that the original MW2 and MW3 featured.
You have, after the late October launch, a new version of Warzone, a giant military sandbox open world, independent of and yet maintaining features of MW2 2022 and free to play separately. And of course, you have the campaign, giving single-player enthusiasts a narrative adventure full of shooting, sniping, grenading, stabbing, sneaking and geopoliticking.
Coming into the campaign knowing full well that the majority of this game’s politics I would pretty much oppose was almost freeing. Rather than cross my fingers for something hopefully not being the expected pro-imperialist, borderline reactionary power fantasy, I just wanted to embrace what it had, see if I agreed with any sentiment expressed by the writers and well, if nothing else, enjoy what I heard was one of the best COD campaigns in recent years on a strictly gameplay level. That is exactly what I got.
I won’t bother giving a recap to MW 2019’s story as while connected in MW22, it almost feels oddly disconnected at many points. Our story begins with a reinterpretation of fan favorite character Simon “Ghost” Riley going on a scouting mission in a fictional Middle Eastern country. There, he spots an Iranian General making an arms deal with Al-Qatala, a fictional terrorist group that based on what subtext is allowed is more interested in Western powers, up to and including both America and Russia, simply going away. No real suggestion of Islamic Holy War at all.
But, Al-Qatala is working with big, bad Iran and take a wild guess what the name of the General sounds like. No, seriously, take a guess. It couldn’t sound like perhaps the only Iranian General you would be aware of, could it?
Well, yes, I do think General Ghobrani does sound like General Suleimani and to developer Infinity Ward’s credit, they did own up to the inspiration. Yes, Suleimani, the Iranian General who was actually doing us a solid by fighting terrorist factions up to and including ISIS. And yet, we performed an extrajudicial drone strike on his ass and if it wasn’t for the fact that Iran is indeed quite weaker than us and has no nuclear arsenal, could’ve been grounds for a declaration of war. Please ask yourself if you earnestly disagree with that sentiment if Iran somehow launched a successful drone strike on us in an attempt to assassinate one of our generals. I don’t think we would stop at holding a funeral for the fella like Iran did.
Of course, another one of the factors that prevented this act from causing World War Three was a once in a century global pandemic so I guess we could give Covid-19 some credit, maybe?
So, what does Ghost do when he confirms Ghobrani is there and making a deal with Al-Qatala? He requests a missile strike that you the player get to pilot! Using the very best in modern graphics, we blow the guy up and good. Then, cut to ominous opening credits. At first, I thought the new MW2 was trying to establish through the tone of said opening credits that we had actually made a big mistake. Gasp, could it be?
On some level, the answer is a quasi-yes. The assassination of Ghobrani does lead to another ner-do-well Iranian fella called Hassan (no relation to the Twitch/political guy) declaring a private little war against the West for their actions. Even worse, when the “heroes” of our story, Task Force I41 led by the ever mutton-chopped Captain Price, begin their hunt to kill or capture Hassan, they discover two startling revelations: Hassan has gotten access to American-made missiles and somehow a Mexican cartel is also involved. Dun Dun DUN.
After all this startling, I should take the time to give MW2’s campaign the first of several honest props. Despite it’s namesake and performing tribute to several visuals, set pieces and characters from the original MW2, it does not become as bombastic and nuts. There is no snowmobile chase that involves jumping over a canyon, no wild one-man push through the dense, gang filled hills of Rio’s favelas. There is no expertly realized yet still ludicrous invasion of America’s Eastern seaboard by the Russian military. Considering the embarrassing failure of Russia’s army to neutralize Ukraine this year, the original MW trilogy is indeed an alternate reality world stage on that facet alone.
There is only one set-piece that honestly would’ve been at home in the original MW2. During a desperate chase on a convoy that feels like a cross between certain sequences from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Mad Max: Fury Road, one of the playable soldiers, Gaz, is dropped out of a helicopter by an explosion. He thankfully still had his safety harness on and is now swinging upside down from the helicopter, dodging cars along with bullets. It’s pretty nutty but it also provides a novel challenge to Gaz and the player, one that I’m surprised hadn’t been done before in a franchise that will celebrate it’s 20th anniversary next year.
Aside from that, MW2 22′ is impressive in both raising the bar from the scale and scope from MW2019 while not going straight to the moon. In some odd ways, it feels even more restrained in parts, with quiet, smaller set pieces that yet feel impactful. It manages to stay true to being a depiction of well, modern warfare, where the majority of the scenarios would feel plausible to occur in real life.
Now, back to the plot, after learning that our main-ish bad guy has American-made weapons (none nuclear) and that a powerful cartel from down south is involved, it’s up to Price’s Task Force 141 to get rolling. In their ranks is the aforementioned Price with his flexible rules of engagement, Gaz with his once bright eyed but now colder outlook through a desire to just get the bloody job done.
There is also Ghost, who echoes the Mandalorian in never wanting to take his skull-mask off and due to his extreme efficiency out in the field, is granted this kind-of childish request. I mean, he does take his mask off at one point, but we the player never get to see his mug. There’s finally John “Soap” Mactavish, the original Modern Warfare protagonist at long last returned, with his Mohawk and Scottish accent thicker than ever. Appropriately, he gets the most missions to be played as.
There is no one protagonist in MW22 and there rarely is in a COD game. Echoing the series’ founding sentiments that “No one fights alone”, Task Force 141 and it’s various members and allies encompass the role of “protagonist” more than anything and structurally it works well. Upon reaching Mexico to follow up on the cartel lead they got from a super sneaky mission in Amsterdam, they meet what might be the genuinely nicest characters in the whole game and represent best Infinity Ward’s attempts to avoid accusations of taking a reactionary, xenophobic attitude towards contemporary Mexico and its people.
Alejandro Vargas, who looks like a Hispanic cross between Walton Goggins and Steven Ogg, the guy best known for playing Trevor in GTA V, and his partner Rudolfo are part of the Mexican Special Forces, operating in the fictional Mexican state of Las Almas. Contrary to many ugly American sentiments about the status of Mexico, its government and military, Alejandro and Rudolfo are steadfast in their commitment to a safer, better Mexico and would sooner die than cow tow to the wealth and power the cartels could offer them. It’s an uphill battle for them, but they are more than happy to assist the mostly British ranks of the 141 in their hunt for Hassan amidst the cartel.
One of the tricks that helps along MWII’s campaign as being genuinely enjoyable in spite of the, at best, questionable politics it still has is the successful interplay and camaraderie between the Task Force and Mexican Special Forces. Most of the team have character traits and banter that are pretty great at getting you to like them, in spite of what they do and what they on a macro level represent. Ghost has an especially dry and black British sense of humor that you know more than anything is meant to diffuse any potential anxiety his teammates may be going through. Soap has a “can-do” enthusiasm for getting the job done well and with his squad-mates alive that likely echoes his football (soccer) fandom.
Alejandro is basically a military version of one of the Three Caballeros, you know, Donald Duck and his two Hispanic bird friends from Disney. He comes to recognize rather early, that in spite of Task Force 141 being an off-the-books military unit, it’s members are on the level. The atmosphere of compadre-ship that make up their relationship is infectious and if viewed in a vacuum, is a genuinely welcome outlook for this day and age.
But, as my politically conscious mind was want to do, I kept focus enough on the many sus aspects to MWII’s worldview as a piece of media. Much like the discussion around this year’s Batman movie, it’s not only what Modern Warfare II says, it’s what it does not say that matters.
Why, again, not enough emphasis is placed on how the inciting incident that leads to a manhunt for an extremist Iranian is predicated on the mistakes of how we approach geopolitical conflict. MW2 does throw some attention to that idea while trying to obfuscate from the bigger, grimmer picture of Western culpability in the threats we face. Time for some big-boy spoilers.
The American general who oversees Task Force 141 is General Shepherd, who was in the same role for the original MW2. The original had Lance Henriksen voicing the general. Now it’s Glenn Morshower, who had voiced another unrelated character. In the original, Shepherd is revealed to be the actual big bad of the game, having assisted the other antagonist, Russian terrorist Makarov, in orchestrating a massacre on Russian soil that acts as reason for that grand ol’ invasion of the U.S.
Shepherd allowed this massive break in American defense all so he can fight a war for his country’s survival and in turn give his country a renewed sense of patriotism and himself the glory of leading its defense. He uses the original Task Force 141 to unknowingly take care of his dirty work in retrieving information that would incriminate him in what is, to put it quite lightly, one of the greatest acts of treason imaginable. In what remains for me one of the most genuinely shocking and saddest acts of backstabbing in a video game ever, he coldly murders the original Ghost and Roach, the playable character you’ve been with for most of the game, when they least suspected it, all while Han Zimmer’s glorious music somberly yet melodramatically plays over the scene.
To once again echo the original, the new MW2 has a betrayal scene involving Shepherd and his PMC group called Shadow Company. The PMC, led by a guy called Graves (Gee, maybe there’s some red flags here…), were established, like the Mexican Armed Forces, to be pretty amiable, getting along well with both Alejandro’s men and Price’s. The game attempts to fool a player who might’ve played the original that this Shadow Company won’t be so bad. When Graves takes to the field himself to assist the Task Force in the mission, during a callback to both the Tanker mission from the first Modern Warfare and the oil rigs in the second, he fights and coordinates with them beautifully.
He makes no real indication that he should be suspected of wrongdoing and seems to even be forming a comradeship with the Task Force like they did with Alejandro and Rudolfo. I was starting to fall for it, and I have every reason to be distrustful of especially a PMC. And for the record, the Call of Duty series has a consistent displeasure for the Private Military Company, as evidenced by them being the main baddies of 2014’s Advanced Warfare, led by the ever trustworthy Kevin Spacey.
This betrayal scene involves none of the task force members, let alone Ghost, getting surprise bullets to the face. It starts with Graves, who has been given permission by Shepherd to just straight up take over Alejandro and Rudolfo’s army base. Like that. Barring the fact that the Mexican government would lose all the shit over an American PMC doing this with the blessing of an American general, what really sets off the betrayal is that Graves offers Ghost and Soap, the Task Force members present, to just walk away and let it happen. Even though that means their new best buddies Alejandro and Rudolfo get imprisoned for their refusal. Of course they don’t accept and thus the betrayal that almost gets them killed leads to one of the darkest and moodiest campaign levels in Call of Duty’s history. Soap, with a bullet wound in his arm, is separated from Ghost and finds himself avoiding Graves’ men as they go through a Mexican city and begin, for seemingly no reason other than being irredeemable pieces of shit, both massacring and arresting Mexican civilians.
There is the flimsy excuse that many of the townspeople might be in league with the cartel but otherwise it’s just to show the evil PMC being evil and to give Soap and the player a novel stealth mission to get through, which basically becomes a survival horror level, not unlike Resident Evil, where the finding and managing of resources on the field is key. I get it, PMCs are bad, really bad, and Call of Duty is very correct to treat them as villainous. Just what the real life Blackwater PMC did stands as testament to that.
It’s just that for all the great writing that goes into the heroes and their interplay, that same level of writing does not reflect on the overall narrative, where villains like Shepherd and Graves have asinine reasons to reveal their true colors. They also do a disservice to Shepherd as a villainous character. In a stance which seems to support the misguided notion of our military being on some level still above board in its behavior (when it certainly is not), Shepherd is revealed to be behind the reason for the missing American missiles. Even without the knowledge of Shepherd being the antagonist of an earlier COD game, it wouldn’t take much for the average gamer to point to Shepherd and say, “He did it.”
Unlike the unsympathetic, sociopathic motivations of the original Shepherd, this Shepherd made a mistake that, ahem, came from a good place. He had Shadow Company escorting missiles through a Middle Eastern location, when suddenly a Russian PMC lays a successful ambush and steals the missiles, which in turn they give to Hassan and his cause. What Shepherd was doing was and is framed as illegal, but he still claims earnestly was for the protection of his country.
You could view this as Shepherd trying to excuse his actions and it can even be a statement that maybe, just maybe, America should stop using PMCs and doing covert missile deals without official backing of a larger governing body, but yeah I got a mixed message from this and chances are not poor you will too. For that and trying to cover it up as well as let Shadow Company try to up and murder Task Force 141, Shepherd goes to ground at the end of the game.
For the great execution and pacing of levels and things to do in MWII’s story mode, it’s built on shakier narrative ground than even the contrivances of the original 2009 game. Other actions taken by both sides of the story can upon some examination be seen as borderline ridiculous and stupid. I even think that some of these dumb narrative decisions was all to show the characters doing something that was for them out of character in following international law. For instance, mid-game the team captures Hassan and then right after are forced to let him go because it would be illegal.
Um, how much of what the Task Force has done is legal again? Why would this situational dumb action be done other than for Infinity Ward to say to a more politically awake audience “Hey, look, the good guys are doing something internationally approved!” Even when it breaks the narrative that is established and only causes further needless complications that prolongs the plot and ultimately leads to a desperate race against time where Hassan plans to missile strike Chicago.
In truth, I can’t fully complain as the quality of most of the levels in MW22 is of a high, even inspired tier. The dumb plot with not nearly as dumb characters leads to a series of great moments like having to swim down a Mexican river, using the rocks to hide behind cover while being shot at. A new intense variation on the “death from above” mission where you pilot the guns on an AC-130 plane and provide cover from the sky for the team on the ground, all in color this time.
A new take on MW1’s beloved “All Ghillied Up” level, where you must sneak through a Spanish Wind Turbine farm occupied by Hassan’s men and everything from adjusting to wind and distance, placement of yourself while hiding in the grass and many different ways to clear out the buildings are offered. A prison breakout that goes from using security cameras to guide Ghost to a breakneck fight for survival and escape. There’s even an penultimate mission involving a multi-layered assault on Alejandro’s base occupied by Graves that involves an unlikely salute to one of the least-favored entries in the Call of Duty series. Even more unlikely is that the salute actually works.
There’s the aforementioned stealth level with a wounded, winded Soap with only Ghost’s advice on the radio to assist him. There’s an earlier mission where Soap infiltrates the cartel’s headquarters, pretending to be a turncoat all so he can find the cartel leader and get him detained. Well, I should say her, as in a pretty well done subversion, the cartel leader is revealed to be a former member of Alejandro’s Special Forces team, Valeria. Despite her relative lack of screentime, she’s rocketed up to being one of my favorite Call of Duty villains due to her utter lack of giving a s**t over whatever anyone, especially Alejandro, has to say about her.
She betrayed her team, effectively her country, all so she could take power in a cartel, become a drug-lord. She shows no remorse nor does she fall for any attempt at being shamed. She’s good at her job, ruthlessly good, and she is proud of it. If ever there was proof that a strong female antagonist could work, it’s here and honestly, I hope there’s more of her in the future since she does survive the game.
The original Modern Warfare’s campaign was a series of initially unconnected levels that was, relatively late in development, given a connective thread. It mostly works though you can tell here and there that it was not planned out ahead of time based on certain plot contrivances. I can’t speak for the development process of this particular Modern Warfare’s campaign, but it does feel as if Infinity Ward was bursting at the seams with great ideas for what to do mechanically for this entry that they had a hard time reconciling their level design with the narrative context. Perhaps they hoped that you enjoying your time with the characters, going through it with their well-honed charisma would be enough and I suppose they were right.
When it comes to the plot contrivances or even holes of Modern Warfare II, at first I’m upset at the sloppiness and then I remember again all the things the ideology of this game says or does not say and then I feel a little less bothered. It’s not like Marvel’s Falcon and Winter Soldier show where it seems to be striving for the best worldview but of cowardice or obligation to the people who fund a project like that show, like the American military, it backpedals or suddenly states “but actually” because it may speak a truth that’s to the detriment of those that sponsor it.
Call of Duty, when in it’s Modern Warfare setting, almost seems doomed to not go as far in being truthful about the realities of what fuels the modern conflicts, the far less heroic reasons. It can’t be totally honest because then it would be very hard to accept Captain Price and friends for their roles. It can and does place unambiguous ire on pernicious things like the Private Military Industry but maybe as a way to take focus away from the perniciousness of what the straight up Military Industrial Complex does: waste our money, our men and women’s lives on wars and conflicts not approved by our congress on trying to maintain a global hegemony that in the coming decades may no longer matter in any respect due to the civilization-eroding effects of climate change, exacerbated by other unattended to problems like our population and the wasting of needed resources.
Not unlike an enjoyable Cop drama or buddy cop comedy like the Lethal Weapon series I’m watching fully for the first time, it’s best to view Modern Warfare II either in fragmented parts or as a genuine fantasy that has little bearing on not so much the methods of modern warfare as they are quite accurate here but the motivations and conceits of it. You can have fun in Modern Warfare II as I did, you can admire the art here from these artists. I can admire the art of one Mel Gibson and one Kanye West (though the latter has become increasingly difficult even irresponsible for me) and yet recognize the cruel truth of who they are as people in the real world. So long as you can divert your focus between the reality of actual modern warfare and the enjoyable illusion of this game, then for the record, I recommend.
Oh, right, the multiplayer is quite good if ever familiar but based on experience I’m quite poor at actually reviewing video games that involve more than one player in a non-narrative setting, so I will just echo the immortal words of the original Simon “Ghost” Riley from the original classic: Mission Accomplished, Good Work.
God of War Ragnarok (Santa Monica Studios) (USA)
Image from VG247 (They come from the land of the Ice and Snow, from the Midnight sun where the hot springs glow…)
Warning: Recap of first game included
The further adventures of both the last Spartan and surviving Greek God (that we know of) and his half God/half Jotnar (Frost Giant) son in this year’s second most beloved video game (behind Elden Ring) is my Game of the Year choice with nothing else remaining in 2022 that can challenge it.
I have not the courage nor the free time to see if the aforementioned Elden Ring could be at last the gateway I was looking for to get into not so much the “Soulsborne” genre but the genre with its attached difficulty. I have tasted of the genre’s style of interconnected level design through 2019’s Jedi: Fallen Order, and it was quite scrumptious, but I yet stayed away from the biggest game this year all the same, all on the premise that I didn’t want to put down $60 only on the possibility, not certainty, that this would be the one.
God of War Ragnarok strangely enough acts as the alternative to a “Soulsborne game” through its exacting focus on melee combat, specially crafted use of interconnectivity in the exploration of its world and by delivering optional enemy encounters that give the masses hungry for From Software’s style of challenge a place to bite into. All that, while allowing the less courageous like myself a still challenging but quite manageable adventure across the nine realms of Norse Mythology where its strong narrative, as strong if not more so than the 2018 predecessor, acts as being as important as the combat and exploration.
God of War: Ragnarok joins the likes of 1994’s Doom II and 2010’S Fallout: New Vegas in being a sequel that on the surface and especially at first seems identical to the prior game. It’s not merely a case of Ragnarok going for the “If it ain’t broke…” mentality, it slowly but surely reveals itself to be an ambitious expansion of what has come before, giving you more of what was but better and with further complexity. For some, Doom II’s near identical nature to the original Doom was saved from ridicule not merely from featuring new enemies and levels, but the introduction of one of the most iconic video game weapons ever, the glorious super shotgun, a double barrelled weapon where it indeed doubled the fun.
Does God of War Ragnarok give ever grimacing anti-hero Kratos a new weapon, to accompany his Blades of Chaos from the original titles and the Leviathan Axe brought in from the last game? Well, this is a partial spoiler review, so yes, it does do that. The new weapon, not that I will name it or give details, is not the sole thing that makes Ragnarok a superior game from God of War 2018, like perhaps the super shotgun was for Doom II. It’s one of many separate elements that add up to it being a superior title and at the same time, a companion piece of a sequel, like how Godfather part II fit that bill and in the realm of video games, Red Dead Redemption II and Last of Us part II do the same. Welcome to the club.
More importantly, it expands the number of tools or utility to what Kratos and his son Atreus can do either in combat or simply exploring and finding ways to traverse. Part of this is a consequence of all nine realms being accessible and with it, new possibilities arrive in what can be done within this Norse era for the God of War series. It might even act as something of a loose crash course on the Norse mythology, it’s ideas and iconography like how Kratos’ original six adventures scoured Greek mythology for ideas, even if it was often relegated for something new and exotic to fight.
Three or so years have passed since the end of the first game where Kratos and Atreus, while on a journey to spread the ashes of Faye, the former’s wife and latter’s mother, accidentally begin the countdown to Ragnarok, the Norse end of the world. Their journey gets them in conflict with Baldur, who himself is both obsessed with killing the father and son because it can get him back in his father Odin’s good graces and because they have made friends with his mother Freya, who in this interpretation is also Odin’s wife Frigg. Or ex-wife at least.
Freya placed a spell on Baldur, all to protect him from any possible harm due to receiving a prophecy proclaiming an untimely death. Baldur views it as a curse as the spell not only made him invulnerable but robbed him of the ability to feel anything. He despises his mother for it and her being in association with Kratos and Atreus only makes him enjoy his mission from Odin more. However, in a freak moment fighting the father and son, all while Freya tries to stop the fight, up to and including reanimating a dead giant, Baldur makes contact with some mistletoe on Atreus, neither being aware it was the only thing that could break the spell, rendering Freya’s son vulnerable but with once more the ability to feel.
Baldur is joyous and Freya is horrified that her prophesied to die son is in danger after centuries. Baldur makes her way to Freya, ready to strangle her to death for the countless years she forced him to live a miserable existence, all to protect him. Kratos, aware of the dangers of vengeance being exacted, the cycles it causes, namely because he was part of one cycle which destroyed the Greek pantheon and his homeland, takes Baldur from Freya and snaps his neck.
Freya is livid with rage at the prophecy coming true, let alone from someone like Kratos who had become her friend, and swears revenge on him. Not only does the end of God of War 2018 set up the theme of whether cycles that define us, actions we took before can ever be forgiven or made up for, but it also helps establish the greatest theme of God of War: Ragnarok, the predeterministic fear of prophecy and if fate can be challenged, let alone for the better. Baldur’s death which fulfills the prophecy Freya spent so much of her life trying to prevent, bleeds in to another, Ragnarok itself. As Baldur lays dead, Freya cradling him, Kratos and Atreus finish their journey to spread the ashes.
The first snows of Fimbulwinter begin to fall, the prelude to Ragnarok. At the end of the journey, the two arrive at the tallest peak in all the realms per Faye’s wishes, on Jotunheim. There in the realm of the giants do father and son learn a good number of things: all of the giants that had fled home from Odin’s genocidal wrath and closed the gateway to it have somehow died. A massive mural they find shows that the giants had predicted accurately the course of Kratos and Atreus’ story. That Faye was in fact, Laufey and that Atreus was all along this take on Norse mythology’s Loki.
Kratos also sees and hides from his son events yet to be, that of his own death and his son mourning his fall. Despite being a new, triumphant beginning for one of the PlayStation’s most successful franchises, it seemed to signal that it’s mascot Kratos was bound for a permanent end. I say permanent as back in the Greek era, Kratos died a couple of times but still crawled his way out of Hades.
There’s lot to unpack as God of War Ragnarok opens with fimbulwinter having fully engulfed Midgard, also known as Earth’s Scandinavia. It’s a miracle of the deft writing that it has so much to deal with, let alone as a follow-up for an earlier title, that it somehow stays in focus. That it also still manages to do justice to Kratos’ own storyline dating all the way back from the 2005 original game is an act of, well, godly proportions.
Despite the worlds-shattering, potentially apocalyptic conflict that Kratos and Atreus find themself in, it is even more an allegory than last time for the tribulations that a real life father and son will go through. Namely, when said son reaches the teenage years. So many moments, in spite of the mythic context, can play well as arguments and discussions between father and son. The son, having reached adolescence, starts to wonder what to do with his life, what his path will be and how will it connect with his father. Is his course of action right or his source of authority, dear ol’ dad, still right?
This is made further difficult by how Kratos was keeping more than a few secrets from his son out of fear over how he would view him last time around. Understandable if still the wrong move, due to the destructive actions of his old life, up to and including killing his own father, who happened to be Zeus.
Circumstances, much spoiler laden, force Loki to start keeping secrets of his own, much to Kratos’ frustration. Dad wants to hole up to avoid Ragnarok despite it being prophesied, while the son would prefer to take action, in the hopes of stopping it for one. This schism and interplay between the two that carries from the first is one of the defining strengths on both an emotional and intellectual level. It gives you something to chew on when you’re not considering which weapon to use and how in the coming fights.
Despite being a review with some spoilers, I still feel the desire to refrain from major plot beats unless there is something specific that I need to bring up. It’s a journey where father and son reunite with old friends like the Dwarven brothers and blacksmiths Brok and Sindri, make new allies in the likes of the Norse god of war Tyr, though both in action and appearance, he would much prefer the Jesus route along a considerable number of others and of course make new enemies such as the rest of the Aesir, the highest level of God in the Norse pantheon, led by Odin.
Can’t forget Mimir, the Norse God of Wisdom who returns from the last game still a decapitated yet living head who acts as the biggest expert on basically anything Kratos and Atreus need to know about the realms they visit. He is both one of the most important and for me, annoying side characters. His heavily Scottish accent can be grating to me at times though it became notably unbearable during the tough as nails optional boss encounters, where Mimir’s recycled advice and dialogue during combat became essentially an unintended weapon of the boss against Kratos and me the player. For the PC port I imagine is on the way, I hope someone makes a mod where Mimir goes quiet during combat.
Speaking of the Aesir, let’s talk about them. God of War’s depiction of Gods has always been from a cynical, “power corrupts” attitude. They’re often the bad guys or at least morally poor enough that epically fighting them as Kratos can be on some layer satisfying, even if the games also second guess Kratos’ self destructive actions.
First is Odin, who is an Orwellian control freak and more unpleasant and downright evil than Zeus, despite appearing on the surface far weaker and in behavior more affable. While Zeus only once used deception against Kratos, Odin is all about lying and tricking his ass off on anyone who gets in his way or can be of use to him.
It is ironic, intentionally, that in spite of Atreus being Loki, the God of mischief and deception, he only deceives and causes mischief reluctantly and out of desperation to protect his father and friends. Sometimes he doesn’t even realize the mischief part. Odin, all for the pursuit of knowledge at any cost and to protect his own ass from dying at Ragnarok, lies as much as Littlefinger would and does so with an even more convincing “I’m on your side or not your enemy” shtick that even I was almost falling for it. What almost did so in truth is that Atreus’ exposure to Odin gets him in contact with the rest of the Aesir on Asgard through a reckless though ultimately meaningful action on his part. He sees that not all the Asgardians are remorseless monsters, evidenced best by Thor’s wife Sif and his daughter Thrud. Speaking of the God of Thunder…
The God of War depiction of Thor not only ekes closer to the mythological Thor than Marvel’s well known version, both on and off the big screen, but as many have stated especially in light of the divisively received fourth movie, many prefer this Thor to Hemsworth’s. He’s super fat, even more so than the obese one from Avengers Endgame, though that does nothing to stop him from being a fierce opponent when confronting him in battle. He’s a recovering alcoholic, trying to get over the death of his two sons (which Kratos and Atreus were forced to fight and kill last time) and the fact that in spite of his gleeful bloodlust, feels that his loyalty to his father Odin has compromised his family situation, especially with his daughter who is indeed way too good for him.
With much evidence given in the prior game, this Thor has done many terrible things. He was most responsible for driving the Jotnar (Giants) to near extinction on his father’s orders and shows no remorse for it, in spite of he himself like Atreus being half-giant. How much of who this Thor is being his father’s influence acts as a dark counter-example to the same question given between Atreus and Kratos.
Finally, there’s Heimdall, the man who guards the great wall protecting Asgard from attack and his death in particular is when Ragnarok will be truly nigh. He is in some ways a spiritual successor to GOW’s version of Hermes from the Greek era, showcased in 2010’s God of War III. Of all the Olympian Gods, Hermes is the one meant to get on the player (and Kratos’) nerves the most. He is constantly talking, constantly belittling and demeaning Kratos, in spite of many of his barbs being ultimately true. Nevertheless, for the player’s own relief from his nagging presence when he appears, he gets one of the most drawn out and ruthless deaths in the series, for that particular reason.
Heimdall isn’t so much an annoying jester like Hermes as he is an insufferably pompous narcissist, who might be just as evil and callous as Odin, though the latter often pretends or obfuscates that reality. Heimdall is loyal only to Odin and without that, he would have no redeeming qualities if you can call loyalty in a vacuum a quality truly.
What makes Heimdall’s personality click so well is that he has the power of foresight where he can magically read both the intentions of anyone he meets as well as know when to counter every attack. From that comes his overconfident smugness. This Taskmaster-like ability makes him an unforgettable opponent when confronted in-game. His bout against Kratos will go down as one of my favorite boss encounters in the God of War series, for a franchise that is especially honored for that very thing.
More than the first, God of War: Ragnarok gives many avenues to explore the considerable suite of combat options that are unlockable over the long haul. New types of enemies appear that have defenses which negate one weapon and forces Kratos to use the other. Over time, especially when you get the new third weapon, you find that the properties of your weapons have abilities or effects, some manually set by you, that can create a great sense of discovery in how you overcome and damage your opponents. It was there last time, this element, but it is far more present now. The many challenges that awards you experience for beating enemies further emphasizes a desire to experiment in how you use Kratos’ three weapons of war.
Most of the fun doesn’t come simply from the rhythm of encounters but in how your exploration can help tailor a different feel to the experience. In several, not all, of the realms, there is a sense of continuous discovery, learning how this inaccessible place can be made so, what you discover along the way can help temper you for what could be around the corner. For every section, where you must follow the game’s direction, there are many more times ultimately where the game all but breaks the fourth wall and says to you that you can take a break and just go somewhere else, somewhere optional.
Find some treasure that can improve your abilities, allow you to upgrade your armor. Find more enemies off the beaten path that can give you the needed time to improve and iterate on certain skills. Go back to a place you’ve already been and discover new parts if it with new loot, new souvenirs and maybe even a surprising boss encounter. Or, it can be as simple as learning more about the realm you’re exploring, its history and maybe even solve a mystery here or there.
It is the sheer amount of content that God of War: Ragnarok ultimately offers you, maybe even more than the first, that helps make up for the one time where the fun slackens and you’re given something narratively nourishing, by all means quite important, but not so much when it comes to gameplay or the potential open-ended sense of exploration.
Thematically and mechanically speaking, it makes sense that Atreus is given controllable sections for the first time, away from Kratos. It makes narrative sense too. What I recognized early on was that making Atreus for some segments the player character was to represent that Atreus is growing up, that Kratos’ survival and combat training is paying off. It again reflects how whenever someone reaches teen-hood, they are more likely, with or without their parent’s permission, to go out by themselves for any given reason. It’s Independence, learning to start living part so you’re ready when your father isn’t there anymore.
While a good amount of depth is given to Atreus with his bow and arrow skills, it can never match the satisfaction of fighting with Kratos’ complement of weapons. The lack of unique animations for when Atreus finishes off an opponent also adds to his sections, few and far between as they are, feeling more dull. It doesn’t help that all of the Atreus sections are highly scripted with very little deviation from the chosen path, no matter how narratively consequential they may be. Turning control over to Atreus also signals that any ability or choice to go off the story path and on to something optional is being left with Kratos at the same time.
There are great, even impactful story moments here and that does help somewhat, but no matter how hard Santa Monica tried and you can tell they did, some part of you will likely feel as I did the impatience to get back to being Kratos. It’s a necessary evil and maybe the feedback from those sections will color in what Santa Monica Studios will do for whatever comes next, but it’s an experiment that doesn’t always work. That’s why the overall amount of content for 100% completion feels more relieving than exhausting for once as not only does it act, such as on a second playthrough and onward as a comforting reminder, but it makes you recognize that God of War: Ragnarok will be more of the game you want it to be than not.
I could look at a checklist of all the things that can ultimately be done throughout the game but many of those activities even in a spoilery review for a game that has become one of Sony’s fastest selling titles ever feels like a disservice to give away. Entire sections containing content are meant as big, pleasant surprises for those inquisitive enough.
God of War: Ragnarok, despite is grim title, is an uplifting experience. Not only does it involve more of what you love from God of War 2018, it does it better, with more layers added while narrowly avoiding the danger of running into feature creep and become like natural extensions, a bunch of branches like on the great World Tree that holds the nine realms you traverse. I kinda wondered whenever I near or reached total completion of the last God of War how much more of the gameplay loop for the series could be utilized.
Well, I got my answer and the result was much more pleasant than even I was expecting.. It is both a narrative and gameplay masterstroke, let alone for acting as continuation. It leaves you feeling like you have experienced a more complete story, like the prior game cannot exist with this one in truth and yet, against all odds, it leaves you once again eager to see what adventures Kratos, Atreus and the rest have in store for us, almost certainly in distant lands full of new pantheons to explore and go up against.
So long as there are other places with their own tales of beings greater than us in power, so shall there be the chance for another God of War odyssey. Let us hope they are half as good as what the Viking world offered us.