A New Perspective — The Combat Design of God of War

Notes

This analysis is revolving around the combat mechanics of Kratos and Atreus alone, since analysing all of the enemies in God of War is way too much and I am not doing this to my own sanity. For combat-analysis purposes, most enemy examples will be of a simple draugr.

Additionally, I would like to express how impressed I am with the design of the game.

Lastly, I would like to mention that this analysis might be changed past its publishing, should there be new revelations which influence the contents of this analysis.

Introduction

Santa Monica Studio’s God of War, released in early 2018, is a title of critical success. Review scores mention everything from its intriguing narrative, beautiful art direction up to its smooth and responsive controls and combat mechanics.

In this analysis, I will focus on the combat design of God of War and due to every system being so closely tied together, touch upon a few topics that are closely related to it.

Attack Indication

God of War’s new combat system brings a lot of previously unexplored gameplay directions, and this previously unknown issues, with it. One of it is the new perspective, which had allowed enemies to position themselves behind or around Kratos, being invisible to the player and being able to exploit this weak spot.

The developers set the enemies up in a way that the enemies do not position behind the player in general and if they did, they would not attack him. However, there are ranged enemies that are able to attack the player or enemies that attack from the side or back if there are no other enemies coming from the front.

To categorise the incoming attack, they also colour-coded them. Attacks that are not happening in the players immediate perimeter (and therefore do not pose an immediate threat) are displayed in a light gold. Attacks that are in a hazardous range (and could therefor cause damage to Kratos, should he not dodge or block it), are marked in red and incoming projectiles from ranged enemies are marked in pink.

The Fists

Kratos, being a brute god that shines when beating the hell out of his foes, had to be able to use his fists. Santa Monica Studio found a good way in enabling him to do so by having him attack with his bare fists either when he holstered both of his weapons or when he threw his Leviathan Axe to be able to deal with enemies while the axe does its thing.

They also found a way to justify using the fists instead of weapons — when attacking with his fists in either a light attack or a heavy attack, Kratos deals more stun-damage than with his other tools. This is especially useful for enemies that are very resistant against weapon damage, but are extremely vulnerable against stun damage.

When pressing R1, Kratos will perform a light attack. This results in a faster, but weaker attack that can easily be chained to deal bigger amounts of damage. However enemies can still attack in-between light attacks and break Kratos’ combo chain.

When pressing R2, Kratos will perform a heavy attack. This attack has a slight build-up and needs more time to execute. However this attack will deal more damage and will also knock back enemies, dealing even more damage when they get knocked against a nearby wall or other obstacle.

Both of these attacks fill up an enemy’s stun-bar. When this bar is completely filled, the enemy will flash in red and will temporarily be stunned, idling about in the level. When Kratos reaches them within this time of stun and the player presses R3, a takedown animation will be triggered. Against most low-level enemies, this animation will be lethal, however when performed against bigger enemies, it will not directly kill them, but rather chop off a big amount of health. During this animation, Kratos is invulnerable against incoming damage from any other enemy, making it a perfect way to avoid additional incoming damage.

When in combat, Kratos’ Spartan Rage bar will actively fill. Generally, it takes a long time to fill up, but throughout the world, red pickups can be found, which will fill this bar faster when picked up. When pressing L3 and R3 at the same time, Spartan Rage will be activated. During this, Kratos will be able to run and attack faster and additionally deal more damage. When Kratos attacks and damages an enemy, his health will slowly regenerate bit by bit. When performing a heavy attack, Kratos will also leap into the air and smash his fists onto an enemy, dealing stun damage and pushing them back. This means that when chaining attack within Spartan Rage, enemies will have little to no chance of ever countering the player’s attacks. The combat design team from Santa Monica Studio calls the Spartan Rage mode the “Get Out of Jail”-mechanic, because players can cancel almost every action when in Rage mode, even hit reactions.

The Leviathan Axe

Putting aside his signature weapons, the Blades of Chaos, to make room for a new primary weapon was a hard decision for the team over at Santa Monica Studio.

They knew that the audience loved the original weapons and may find it hard to get used to seeing Kratos wield something else, something possibly inferior to this hulking protagonist.

This meant that they had to perfect the axe as much as possible.

Previously called the Blood Axe, the Leviathan Axe had a big spot to fill. At first, the game was supposed to be grounded, not allowing for mythical weapons to be used. This is why the axe did not have any major enchantment and had to stand on its own. Only after the switch to make the game more mythical, the developers decided to give the axe an upgrade to something more versatile and intriguing.

The axe basically operates like Thors hammer – the player can throw it and recall it again with a satisfying thump. The throwing of the axe also works on a physical level, allowing it to collide with walls, trees, etc.

When hitting a wall, the axe will stick inside the wall, waiting to be recalled. When colliding with a tree, the axe will most likely break the tree in half and fly further.

When looking at the Leviathan Axe from a design perspective, its attack possibilities are very simple, such as the fists are – R1 will perform a light attack, whereas R2 will perform a heavy attack. However the axe does not stop there.

In order to make it feel satisfying, Santa Monica Studio built in a lot of feedback into the axe. When hitting an enemy, Kratos will play his attack animation. But due to a built-in IK Pinning system, the axe will stick inside a hit enemy for a few frames. This results in a way more juicy feedback to the player and makes Kratos’ attack feel more brutal and direct. Another technique used for a more satisfying impact in games and movies alike is a Hit-stop. This means that on impact, one or more frames will be skipped in order to give the attack more punch.

Lead Gameplay Designer, Jason McDonald, talked about the design of the Leviathan Axe at GDC 2019 and already after the first few minutes of his talk, it was clear what the axe was supposed to become: a new weapon for Kratos which needed to feel at least as powerful, if not more than the Blades of Chaos. The impact feedback mentioned above helps a great bunch, but there was something else that needed to happen in the game – players needed to have fun while using the axe. Every attack needed to feel special and needed to allow players to play with their enemies. For this to happen, Jason reinforced the thought of enemies being punching bags. This meant that enemies should not die after one attack, but withstand multiple hits from the axe in order for players to experiment with combos they chain up and state-changes to try out.

To get a satisfying feeling while fighting, most attacks or other reactions needed to be cancellable to have pressing the Attack Button not be a risky move. Attacks like the Air Launch on R2 should be able to be cancelled at almost any point in the attack, be it at the end of the hit frame or directly before impact, resulting in enabling to rethink combat strategies and allow for a change of mind throughout a combat encounter.

The light attack on R1 was designed to be the most basic offense that players could use against enemies. It is quick and deals enough damage to justify using it. It locks enemies in their reaction state, which allows players to attack again afterwards without interrupting the combo. The other possible thing to do with the light attack is an enemy stagger. When staggered, the enemy will have a longer recovery time in which he can get hit again.

The heavy attack on R2 is not only a more powerful, shield-breaking attack, but also gets named the setup-button. These setups are reactions from the enemies that encourage follow-up attacks and can change the enemies state at any time.

Enemies can enter the following reactions when receiving a heavy attack either directly or by a heavy axe throw:

The launch, which enters enemies into an air state in which they cannot attack but are just flying in the air, allowing for the player to attack afterwards which will result in juggling as long as the enemy is kept in the air.

The spin, which will happen when hitting enemies with a heavy axe throw and turns enemies around to expose their back. This means that the player does not need to reposition and can focus on attacking the exposed back, which fills up the enemies stun bar faster.

The trip, which will occur when throwing the axe onto enemies feet. This forces enemies onto the floor, disabling them from attacking for a short amount of time and allowing for crowd control.

The flyback, which will knock back enemies and can cause them to get ringed out or to hit walls. When hitting a wall, the enemy will be set into a wall slump, which will fill the stun bar and the enemy himself will enter a long recovery state during which he cannot attack, not reposition. Another possibility instead of the wall slump is the wall bounce, during which the enemy will enter the air state, similar to the launch.

The last state that the combat designers mention is the twitch. During this state, the enemy will react to the impact, but can still attack the enemy. This state was created so that the player will not feel almighty all the time, but have a state during which he can still be attack in order to make him feel weak.

Most of the things mentioned above primarily apply to melee attacks. However the axe was designed with being able to throw it in mind. Similar to the R1 and R2 attacks for the axe, the player can also perform a light and heavy throw with the axe while pulling aim by holding down L2. And not only do melee attacks cancel most recoveries, but also aiming with L2 and recalling with triangle do.

Light throws can result in basic hits, which will cause normal reactions by enemies. Precision hits on the other hand will cause setup-reactions. A headshot will cause a spin reaction, exposing the enemies back. A leg shot will cause a trip reaction which needs a long recovery.

Heavy throws take time to throw due to a charge-up animation. A heavy throw will deal great damage, however it will not cause any precision hits. When hitting an enemy, he can transition into a frozen state. When in this state, the axe will be pinned to the enemy, freezing him as long as the axe sticks. While frozen, the player can use this to setup the enemy for further attacks. He can kick him into other enemies to slow them or he can kick him into a wall to straight up shatter him.

When throwing the Leviathan Axe and hitting an enemies weak spot, such as the head or another clearly marked spot, the axe will bounce off, fly into the air and flash. During this time, the player can recall the axe, leaving the enemy stunned and vulnerable to a following throw which will deal frost damage and cause a frosty explosion on impact.

However, the axe is not only lethal on a direct impact. Recalling the axe is as dangerous as throwing it. When recalling it, the axe will fly in a curved way towards the player, hitting enemies in the back when close to the recall-curve. Hitting an enemy in the back will make him trip and also cause stun damage.

The final point of the combat design regarding the Leviathan Axe are the runic attacks. Every weapon has two slots for these – one for a light runic attack and one for a heavy runic attack. Additionally, runic attacks can also be upgraded, increasing their effectiveness and damage output. Runic attacks are special weapon skills which can result in increased levels of physical damage, elemental damage and/or stun attached to each attack. There are different attack types such as area attacks, line attacks and melee attacks. Runic attacks are limited by cooldowns however, requiring the player to make good use of them.

The Leviathan Axe channels the frost element, opening up the runic attacks to a selection of frost-based skills. These range from “Charge of the White Bear“- a quick dash with a follow-up strike to “Hel’s Touch” – a burst which interrupts enemies and knocks them back, for light runic attacks to. “Ivaldi’s Anvil” – an AOE attack that freezes nearby enemies to “The River of Knives” – a line of ice spikes that launch enemies into the air on contact.

The combination of these runic attacks is where it gets interesting. Players are able to customise their runes in order to find their perfect playstyle. They can create a build that deals massive damage against individual targets, which is great for boss fights. They can however also create a build that focuses entirely on crowd control, allowing all of their runic attacks to deal lots of AOE damage.

The Blades of Chaos

Although Santa Monica Studio scrapped the Blades of Chaos for Kratos’ main weapon, they soon felt like they were missing in the game. Since the game had a new focus on 3rd person combat, the blades needed a new design – something that worked as an over-the-shoulder weapon, but still felt like the iconic weapon from the many games that came before.

It was not easy for the team to adapt the weapons, but the design principles they had settled on for the Leviathan Axe were a great help in adapting the Blades of Chaos. The blades are not useable from the beginning of the game, being only available in the second half of the game. This resulted in players already having learnt advanced techniques of the Leviathan Axe and now having to learn a second weapon with unique skills and a different combat flow.

However the team managed to transfer the Blades of Chaos perfectly into the new games framework. They added the same way of attacking with a light and a heavy attack and also enabled one of the blades to be thrown. However this blade would not fly endlessly and stick wherever thrown, but remain tied to its chain and only have a reach within close range. The blades do offer another way of combat, though. They are more focused on crowd control than the Leviathan Axe. When the player attacks with the Blades of Chaos, Kratos flings them around him in circular patterns, hitting every enemy around him and not only the ones directly in the line of his attack.

The Blades of Chaos are not only a nice-to-have in the game, but they are also required in some puzzles throughout Helheim and especially against ice enemies. Where Kratos once had to fight with his fists, he can now use the blades to finish off Hel-Walkers.

The runic attacks also differ to the ones that players can equip on their Leviathan Axe..

The Blades of Chaos are imbued with the power of the Underworld and channel the burn element, opening up the runic attacks to a selection of skills that cause burn damage. These range from “Rage of the Titans” – a rapid attack that ends in a devastating swipe which launches enemies into the air to “Spartan Charge” – a dash attack that slams enemies with a fiery shield and inflicts burn damage, for light runic attacks to. “Fire of Ares” – an attack that lets out one (three if fully upgraded) fire waves that deal lots of burn damage to “Meteoric Slam” – a slam attack that rains down fire in a wide arc, inflicting lots of burn damage.

The Shield

Another new addition to the latest instalment of God of War is the shield. It is an uncommon thing for Kratos to actively wield a shield, so they did not show it constantly by hiding it in his gauntlet. The shield would then only appear when actively pressing L1 to trigger it.

The shield has two main skills — blocking and parrying.
When blocking, Kratos will hold his shield before him, blocking incoming attacks. When the attack is strong enough, the shield will retract and needs to be re-deployed by the player again in order to block again.

In order to perform a parry, the player needs to block an incoming attack perfectly on the impact of the enemies attack. When performing a successful parry, the enemies attack will not go through, he will get pushed back and stunned and time will slow down for a short duration, enabling the player to land a counter-attack on the enemy. Additionally, close-by enemies within melee range will also get knocked back and will get a small amount of life subtracted.

In theory, the player could constantly counter attacks and kill enemies without them landing any hit. However this would slow down the combat and would not be a whole lot of fun. Additionally, other enemies will still try to attack Kratos.

Combat Movement (Dodging & Evading)

In the latest rendition of God of War, Kratos got older, more muscular and overall had more to carry with him. This is the reason (maybe Santa Monica Studio had other reasons, but this explanation sounds reasonable) why Kratos cannot jump on command anymore. The only moments in which he is able to perform a jump is contextualised and only available near marked ledges or bridges.

As a replacement for Kratos’s jump, the developers of God of War thought of something new – Kratos can now dodge with a top on the X button and roll with a double tap. This allows Kratos to quickly evade enemy blows and proves especially useful when facing against fierce attacks that would otherwise pierce his defense. The dodge also allows him to traverse certain hazardous

A dodge will cover less distance, but also takes less time so the player will have the chance to attack quicker. A roll however covers more distance, but also takes more time to execute. Another feature is the combination of a dodge and a roll. This means that the player can dodge, realise that this does not cover enough ground and additionally roll to evade an incoming attack. Another situation in which this could be useful is when the player dashes into an enemies direction but decides to evade again by pressing X again to roll back into a secure distance.

Additionally, a dodge is not only useful for evading enemy attacks, but also for attack cancellation. When setting up an enemy but realising that the next attack triggered a few frames too late, a roll might be the best solution to an otherwise inescapable situation in which the enemy could land a heavy blow on Kratos. When dodging or rolling, Kratos will have so-called i-frames (invincibility frames). This means that while Kratos is evading an attack, he will not be able to receive damage from any enemy, encouraging a more aggressive playstyle in the long run.

Atreus

One of the new additions to God of War is the supporting character Atreus – both narratively and mechanically thought to be a breeze of new air into the lone combatant Kratos’ fighting style.

Santa Monica Studio knew it was impossible to outshine the undying god, so they did not design Atreus in the way that he should outshine Kratos, but to support him. He is supposed to be this tactical companion that allows players to mix up combat when things get tricky or when there is just too much stuff happening on screen at once.

When watching Hayato Yoshidome’s talk on the Combat Design of Atreus, he mentions the four main pillars that were set in place to channel the design of him: he should support the player, not hinder the. player, his actions should always be helpful. and the player should not be required to do any kind of micro-management to utilise Atreus in combat. Would one of the last three pillars not be done right, Atreus would not be a good supporting character anymore, but a mere frustration due having to babysit him.

And Atreus is also not only thought to be an extension of combat, but also to help with environmental puzzles by gathering multiple types of arrows throughout the storyline which will help in overcoming puzzles that are scattered along the way. However, there is no doubt that the main use case of Atreus in this installation of God of War was to be a way to outsource combat from Kratos to him – he can distract enemies by shooting at them which would otherwise be chasing down Kratos and overrun him by sheer masses. Atreus does not only distract enemies, but he also deals stun damage, which fills up enemies’ stun bars and enables Kratos to do Melee Takedowns (analysed in “Fists”).

Additionally, Atreus helps the player as an audible guide – he calls out enemies and warns the player when an enemy is short before striking. This is especially useful when players decide to disable the in-game HUD in order to play in immersive mode, since no Attack Indicators will be visible anymore and Atreus basically replaces this and also gives out hints about the players health status.

It is not as easy as that, though. There are a lot of things to keep in mind, especially with Artificial Intelligence and its behaviour: positioning and collision.

In order for Atreus to be helpful and reliable, he needed to be present inside the players field of view at any time. Santa Monica Studio achieved this by using warping – a technique with which they teleport him into the combat action, unnoticed by the player since Atreus is always spawned a slight bit out of the players vision cone. This allowed the developers to make Atreus be available at any point in combat, but they did not want him to be roaming around the scene, nor running across Kratos’ field of view, ultimately blocking important things. Because of this, they let Atreus always be positioned behind focused enemies by calculating a cone shape behind moving enemies and trying to redirect Atreus to be inside this cone at any time.

However this also opened up the possibility for Atreus to be standing behind obstacles, such as trees, low walls or other things. This meant that realistically, Atreus’ arrows should not be able to hit their target, but rather the obstacle in his way – however this would negate the pillars of “his actions should always be helpful” and “no micro-management”.

When being asked about the matter, Senior Staff Combat Designer Hayato Yoshidome answered that due to play fun and smoothness of combat, Atreus is allowed to ignores such obstacles and just shoot through them, whereas Kratos would just be stuck when trying to run through them.

In order to make all the combat mechanics, such as pin-downs, callouts, etc. work, Santa Monica Studio built in an invisible “Danger Meter”.

This Danger Meter allowed Atreus to evaluate the current combat situation based on the following variables: the count of enemies on screen, the players health and the combat actions that the player performed – a more offensive play style made the meter rise up, a defensive play style reduced the meter again.

Most of the features analysed above are passive behaviours. However, Atreus also allows players to be controlled with a dedicated button – Square (lovingly called the “Son-Button”). A press on this button immediately lets Atreus shoot the currently equipped arrow (should its stock not be depleted at the time) at the enemy that is the most in focus.

In case the regular arrows are equipped, Atreus will shoot at the enemy. However this arrow deals little to no damage and only acts as a way of distraction and stun.

Should the player equip one of the two runic arrows (yellow or blue), Atreus’ attacks would have more effects. For one, runic arrows aggro enemies and apply a temporary stun. The aggro allowed players to see enemies’ backsides and the stun allowed for extended combo-chains. Additionally, the yellow runic arrow allows to deal link-damage by dealing damage to enemies near the hit enemy.

The action of shooting on command (button press) is supposed to be reliable at all times, however there are multiple ways how Atreus can also be disabled temporarily.

The first is by running out of arrows, which will result in Atreus running into melee range and attacking with his knife. This allows him to regenerate arrows, however it also puts Atreus at the risk of being attack and knocked down. This means that he cannot be used for a fixed interval and needs to get up in order to be utilised again.

Another feature of the Son-Button is holding square. This allows Atreus to use “heavy attacks” or so-called Runic Summons. These let Atreus summon wolves out of his bow which run over enemies and deal runic damage to them. However these attacks are only available at a later stage of the game when players evolve Atreus’ skill tree enough.

The skill tree is what allows players to customise Atreus’ play style in general.

The vision of 2018’s God of War was to have some kind of teaching within the game, which resulted in Atreus being customisable and upgradeable by different armour- and bow-upgrades and the different paths on the skill tree. These allow for Atreus being evolved into a healer, a sharpshooter, a crowd-controller or a stun-inflicter.

In conclusion of this chapter, Atreus is best explained as a natural extension of God of War’s combat. His presence does not feel forced, nor unnecessary to the combat flow.

He is the exact counterpart to Kratos, since he primarily fights in melee range, while Atreus is more versed in ranged combat. This results in a feeling of synergy, or: “I will support my companion with his flaws while he assists me with mine”. Atreus is something that players actually want to use, not something that the developers enforces upon the player.

Some of the things that the developers had to cut from the final build of the game definitely did not fit into the current setting of the game. Atreus still is not aware of the powers that he possesses and cannot control all of them.

Santa Monica Studio now has the opportunity to show a progression in Atreus’ training by giving him some of the abilities that they planned on adding before. They only have to be careful to not put him into the position they were trying to avoid in this title – the main crowd controller, because this would weaken the effect that the player has on his enemies.

However Atreus also gets to equip runic attacks to his bow which already make him a lot more powerful. Atreus’ other name is Loki. Loki, in Norse Mythology, is a god associated with lies and deception and also with being able to transform into animals. Because of this, Atreus is able to equip so-called runic summons. These allow him to summon different animals from his bow, such as “Boar Stampede” – a runic summon which summons a stampede of spectral boars (two additional boars if fully upgraded) that trample enemies in their path or “Bitter Squirrel” – a runic summon which summons the spectral squirrel, Ratatöskr, which gathers Health pickups if Atreus has the blue arrows equipped and Spartan Rage pickups if he has yellow arrows equipped.

All of these runic summons that Atreus can equip are great for supporting Kratos by either allowing Atreus to handle crowd control or for helping out Kratos directly by buffing him.

Armour

In this installation of God of War, Kratos can find, purchase, and upgrade various sets of armour. Armour comes in various sets that include chest armour, wrist armour and waist armour and usually favours one or more stats. Armour can be upgraded to further increase its capabilities.

Besides armour for Kratos, the player can also purchase armour for his son, Atreus.

While some armour can be found in hidden armour chests, most armour can be purchased from the Brokk & Sindri with Hacksilver, and often needs additional crafting resources as well. However, most upgrades usually need a lot less Hacksilver to enhance.

New to the series are Kratos’ stats, which can be influenced both by his power level and by weapons and armour that the player can purchase and upgrade via crafting.

Each stat is important in it’s own right and the player needs to pick his purchases wisely to balance out Kratos properly. The stats that can be influenced by equipping and upgrading different sets of armour are:

  • Strength: increases damage for all standard attacks
  • Runic: increases both runic attack and elemental damage
  • Defense: reduces all damage taken
  • Vitality: increases max. health, decreases severity of hit reactions from enemy attacks
  • Luck: increases perk activation chance, increases XP and Hacksilver gains
  • Cooldown: reduces recharge time of runic attacks, runic summons and talismans

Additionally, armour parts have enchantment sockets. The higher the level of the part, the more sockets this item will have, with the most sockets available in an armour part being 3. When upgrading an armour piece, it can potentially also get an additional enchantment socket. Enchantments themselves will provide the player with a perk, such as reduced damage from certain enemy types, or low perk activation of some type whenever you pull off a specific move with your weapon. They can usually be found in chests or as enemy drops, and they can also be bought from either Brokk or Sindri. When having enough enchanted dust and Hacksilver, the player can also create a random one when talking to either of the blacksmiths.

These enchantments can range from something like “Tyr’s Shard” – increasing luck by 10 and every other stat by 6 to “Heart of the Valkyrie” – increasing runic, defence, vitality and cooldown by 8 each and each hit having a low chance of activating the ‘Protection of the Valkyrie’ buff, which gives 50% resistance to status effects and being staggered.

Skills

One could say that the new God of War feels like an RPG — and they would be somewhat right. Although Kratos is not doing grindy quests in which he has to kill 50 boars in order to level up, the developers added a bunch of elements which “RPG-ise” the game.

A lot of Kratos’s skills are attached to the weapon he wields instead of being innate abilities. These weapon skills encompass both Kratos’ and Atreus’ weapons and can be purchased and unlocked once the wielded weapon is on the required upgrade-level.
When unlocked, the skills for Kratos’ weapons allow the player to perform new combos in order to unleash new attack or increase existing stats and abilities.
Due to the lack of experience points in the beginning of the game, there are not a lot of intriguing skills to unlock. However in the second half of the game, the player is able to unlock a wide array of different devastating skills to use against enemies and bosses.

The first skill worth to unlock is probably the “Pride of the Frost” which allows the player to perform an area-of-effect finisher after the third attack from a standard Leviathan Axe-combo. When fighting against a single enemy and suddenly getting overrun by more enemies, transitioning a combo into the Prise of the Frost is great for immediate crowd control.

Following to this skill are skill, such as “Block Break” which allows the player to break an enemies shield blockade and “Executioner’s Cleave” which is a slow wind-up attack that deals great damage.

The skills range from “Rage of the Titans” — a rapid attack that ends in a devastating swipe which launches enemies into the air to “Spartan Charge” — a dash attack that slams enemies with a fiery shield and inflicts burn damage, for light runic attacks to “Fire of Ares” — an attack that lets out one (three if fully upgraded) fire waves that deals lots of burn damage to “Meteoric Slam” — a slam attack that rains down fire in a wide arc, inflicting lots of burn damage, for heavy runic attacks.

For the endgame, God of War offers some more damage-inflicting and stat-upgrading skills. Some of those are “Returning Storm” which lets Kratos immediately recall the Leviathan Axe and perform a powerful slam attack when bare-handed and “Essence of Athena”, “Essence of Zeus” and “Essence of Ares” which boost Kratos’ stats by 10 permanently.

Enemies

There are a lot of enemies in Santa Monica Studio’s God of War, but analysing all of them would be far too much for this condensed analysis. This is why the author is focusing on general enemy behaviour only, not on any special behaviours, such as boss fights or Valkyrie fights – the latter will only be briefly touched upon.

Lead Combat Designer Mihir Sheth summarises God of War’s combat design in 3 stages: Tracking, Targeting and Fighting. Fighting will not be extensively discussed in this part, since most aspects of it are already discussed, especially in the Leviathan Axe section.

The first part of enemy behaviour is tracking. This means that the combat system detects which enemies are threats and divides them into aggressive (actively attacking) and non-aggressive (hanging back and waiting). All of the enemies in the level will get assigned an aggression score which looks something like this: 0–00–0–000. The first section of the score is an indicator which tells whether or not an enemy can become aggressive or not. The second section is the aggression priority, meaning how aggressive and foregoing an enemy is. The third section’s value means if the enemy is the players current target or not (if the players aim is on them or if they last damaged this particular enemy) and the last section is the action rank – a combination of the following factors: is the enemy on- or off-screen? In which angle relative to the camera is the enemy? How far away is the enemy to Kratos?

Enemies will then be sorted according to this score and will be signed aggression tokens from a fixed pool in order. This pool is a fixed number of tokens that can be given out. Additionally, different enemy types can claim different amounts of tokens depending on size and aggression in order to signify size or importance. When all tokens are given out, every enemy that did not get any token automatically switches to a non-aggressive state.

The combat designers of God of War iterated many times through the combat behaviour of the enemies. They walk on a nav-mesh, a computer-generated plane which tells enemy AI where they can walk and where they cannot, either because there is an obstacle in the way or the paths simply ends.

On their first attempt, the developers generated a grid that moved with the player. The enemies would move around in on this grid. This was extremely complicated, resulted in constant invalidation and did not allow for players to build a mental map of where enemies were and how they moved, resulting in no real confidence when fighting and playing in a rather passive way.

On their second attempt, they built a fixed grid on top of the nav-mesh. On this grid, the enemy AI had 2 major things to watch out for: a positional constraint (where do I want to stand) and a separation constraint (how much space do I take).

There is also an aggressive positional constraint in front of Kratos – a crescent shape in which the enemy should position, should he be aggressive. Aggressive enemies also have a circular separation constraint around them in which no other enemy can stand. Non-aggressive enemies rather have their separation constraint in a shape of a curved rectangle. This enabled more enemies to crows in non-aggressive range without taking as much space as a circle would.

This resulted in a much simpler system, less invalidations and was also visually pleasing. However there was still some awkward positioning of enemies and players still had trouble in making a mental map. To solve this problem, the combat team created a quadrant system around the player. When the enemy is inside the from quadrant, they would be in aggro-range. Outside of this aggro-range, enemies would stay in Kratos’ flank to avoid awkward positioning. This resulted in the ability to make a mental map and more confident play overall.

To implement some helpful combat indicators, the developers added some nifty features. First, they added enemy off-screen indicators. In their first attempt, they added red feedback on the screen edges. However this looked like Kratos would get damaged and started bleeding, rather than understanding that this meant that an enemy attack is incoming. Because of this, they switched the indicators to arrows, mentioned in Attack Indicator. Additionally, they added a camera assist for tracking. Not using the right stick and only walking with the left stick will track the most relevant enemy and will adjust the camera orientation to follow this enemy.

The second part of the combat is targeting (target selection). In the old God of War titles, targeting was left-stick driven. This means that wherever the player walked, he also looked and attacked. For the latest installation, they aimed to make it similar to a shooter. However this attempt was not working for them, so they had to iterated upon the system. Kratos will not attack directly in front of him, but will rather attack the closest enemy in Kratos’ range. When only looking around and rotating the camera with the right stick will not change the players target, but only when also using the left stick and positioning himself into the direction of the targeted enemy. This resulted in a mix between the following: the camera facing (performed through the right stick – counting if an enemy is on- or off-screen, the horizontal angle to the camera from Kratos’ position and a bonus if the player is in the centre of the screen), player intent (left stick – movement and positioning), the enemies distance from Kratos and if the enemy is already the current target.

When letting play testers finally play the prototype and test out the combat, the team noticed that most people had a wrong perception of depth – they thought that an enemy was already in range and attacked, while the enemy was still a few units away. To resolve this, they used a technique utilised in God of War: Ascension. This was called the ‘Suck to Target’ – feature. This allowed Kratos to ‘suck’ towards his target, making it easier to hit enemies, each having the following attack specifics: range, speed and stopping distance. The distance from which Kratos can suck to enemies was also heavily reduced in the ‘Give me God of War’ difficulty mode to make the game feel even harder (thanks Santa Monica Studio, it was a pain…).

Conclusion

Summarising the combat experience of God of War is certainly not an easy task, but needs to be done for this article nonetheless…

The combat design and the mechanics that tie into it feel amazing, new and innovative. It puts a spin on the God of War franchise that hasn’t been there before, and it refreshes the series a lot. Even though all the systems in place could be considered RPG-systems, the game still does not feel like a Role Playing Game, but manages to continue its streak as one of the best, if not the best action adventure title out on the market.

The developers surely did not had an easy task at hand, but managed to tie all the new combat mechanics into the project, connecting it flawlessly it its adjoining systems, such as inventories, skills and so many more.

It all feels fresh, innovative and explored, but yet unexplored enough to make players curious to what will be next. The team over at Santa Monica Studio now has the chance to make small adjustments and additions for the next instalment in order to make it feel even better.

Outlook

Santa Monica Studio created an amazing game and with it an incredibly extensive base to build upon for the next titles down the line.

The combat design is very solid and provides the designers with endless possibilities to extend it, add new skills and modify the entire combat with new weapons, new enemies and new bosses.

It would only make sense to base the next instalment shortly before or directly within the Fimbulwinter, followed by the beginning of Ragnarök.
Followed by the death of her son, Freya could make a return as the mother of valkyries. This would put the current valkyries out of their end-game loop and add their mechanics as a mainstream boss fight that everybody could experience, not only the players that sought after a challenge after the main game.

Freya could combine the powers of all valkyries and combine them with her godly powers, which would result in a spectacular and incredibly challenging boss fight. This could maybe happen at the end of the game after Freya hunts down Kratos and Atreus throughout the storyline and may result in the death of Atreus as taking revenge for the death of her son Baldur.

Additionally, as teased in this title, Thor could and should make an appearance as a boss. Due to his almighty hammer, Mjölnir, Thor would be an incredibly strong enemy whom even Kratos might be powerless against and needed to reside. This would ultimately result in Kratos consulting with Brokk & Sindri to have them forge a weapon that is equally strong to defeat Thor. In case they could not forge such a weapon, they could hint Kratos into the direction of Freyr, Freyas brother and wielder of the magical sword which was thought to be able to fight on its own. This sword is also the weapon which is supposed to defeat Surtr, the fire giant which resides at the edge of Muspelheim, waiting to come back as soon as Ragnarök starts.

Another boss could be found in Hel. This boss would be Hela herself — originally the daughter of Loki but probably another individual in this narrative thread. She is the queen of Helheim and could lead an entire army of the dead into the epic fight of Ragnarök. She would possibly be a boss with multiple stages with one of them being a boss with multiple stages with one of them being a stage in which she would attack similar to Máttugr Helson, the bridge keeper of Hel, meaning that she would be able to teleport to the player when attacking, so the player would need to dodge her attacks. Another fight stage would be one in which she herself does not fight, but leaves the fighting to her allies, the dead from Hel.

To summarise the possibilities for the next instalment, there is a whole lot more of enemies and weapons that Santa Monica Studio could add.

Considering God of War’s Creative Director’s (Cory Barlog) comment, a lot of boss fights needed to be cut, so some of these boss fights might even have been in a stage of planning or even production, resulting in some bosses being able to be transferred into the new project.

Whatever Santa Monica Studio does with their next installation however is unclear, but they teased a whole array of possible settings for the next titles to come, including ancient Egypt, the Mayan Era or even Feudal Asian era. All of them would offer unique locations and even more unique deities to fight.

Writing about Game Design 🎮