God of War: Ragnarok and the Combat Philosophy of Sequels

Making a sequel to any critically-acclaimed piece of media is always daunting, and this is doubly true for Sony Santa Monica’s God of War: Ragnarok. They have to worry about not only living up to the precedent set by 2018’s Norse-flavored God of War reboot, but also whether or not their Norse duology can live up to the original Greek trilogy as a complete whole. In discussions of triple-A “Sony Prestige” single-player games though, the focus is almost always on whether the story sticks the landing or lives up to previous entries. 

Instead, I’d rather talk about how the gameplay lives up (or in my opinion, doesn’t- spoilers for the rest of this piece) to the bar set by the 2018 game. What surprised me most about playing the 2018 game was the freedom it allowed players. I had expected the linear type of upgrades typical of the genre- you get more health, more damage, maybe an extra ability or two as the game progresses. I didn’t expect the variety of “builds” and RPG-lite mechanics it allowed for. You could invest heavily into an unarmed punching build focused on Stun, you could invest into Runic and play a battlemage sort of style mostly focused on abilities, invest into ranged attacks exclusively and play keep-away with the enemies, etc. It never felt like the game was funneling you down any one path or another. It placed you in simple, flat arenas with some number of basic enemies that would behave predictably and could be taken down however you and your build saw fit.

The good old days, flat arenas and player choice. Image from Digital Trends

The sequel falls into what I like to think of as the Doom: Eternal problem- it trades in the freedom of its predecessor for puzzle-based enemies who each have one correct “solution” to take them down. Doom: Eternal was infamous for its Marauder enemies at release. Many players lamented their difficulty and the way they interrupted the fluidity of the combat. They’re hulking, invulnerable enemies who can only be opened up for counter-attacks by correctly timing your attacks to interrupt them when they flash green. To me they’re a microcosm of the design principles of the game’s combat as a whole. Many, if not all enemies, in Doom: Eternal have a weakness built in, whether it’s to a specific weapon or a specific strategy. The Marauders are one example, but the Pinky has to be dodged around and hit from behind, the Arachnatron has to have its turret shot off, etc. These weaknesses are taught to you when the enemies are introduced, which exacerbates the feeling that you aren’t “solving” a puzzle when you fight them, you’re following the scripted checklist that the developers have laid out for you.

Freedom of weapon and strategic choice is ostensibly traded for the satisfaction of identifying a puzzle and matching it to its known solution. You see a Marauder in Doom? You counter the attack when they flash and use the Super Shotgun during the vulnerability window. You see those little flying eyeball assholes in God of War: Ragnarok? You hit Square to shoot an arrow at them and hit them when they’re on the ground. Both games disincentivize creativity in your builds and having favorite weapons or strategies because you’re going to need to use everything at some point for some enemy or encounter. Marauders don’t care if your favorite weapon is the Chaingun, it doesn’t work on them. God of War: Ragnarok bosses don’t care if you like focusing on a ranged build, you’re going to have to stay close and shield bash them when they flash two blue rings.

Hit them when they flash green, dumbass. Image from IGN

For some, maybe there’s a satisfaction in the pattern recognition of matching your strategy to the color of the flashing ring on an incoming attack. Hell, that’s the whole point of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, one of my favorite games of the last 5 years. The difference in Sekiro is that the whole game is balanced around it, and it doesn’t pretend to be anything else. My problem with the implementation of these systems in both Doom: Eternal and God of War: Ragnarok is that they tell you one thing (you’re free to focus on any weapons and strategies you prefer) and enforce another (hit L1 twice when we tell you, jackass).

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