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God of War on PC delivers nearly everything we’d hoped for

Enlarge / “Boy.” “Yes?” “You are ready… for the PC port.” (This image was directly captured by Ars from the game’s PC build—as were most of the other images in this article, unless otherwise clarified.)
Sony Santa Monica

While headlines have suggested that Sony’s PlayStation division is more invested in the PC gaming space than ever before, its track record of releases thus far has been a bit shaky, even if the future looks promising. Sony’s combined PC-porting studios stumbled in mid-2020 with Horizon: Zero Dawn, although the company eventually massaged that game into decent shape months later. Meanwhile, Days Gone arrived in 2021 with a solid number of PC-specific bells and whistles. That’s only two bona fide PlayStation “hits” on PC thus far, leaving plenty of popular series missing.

Sony continues its PC-porting streak in 2022 by announcing two more titles. The first, 2018’s God of War reboot, is emblematic of the company’s PS4-game-porting aspirations. (Uncharted: Legacy of Thieves Collection, coming later this year, is the second.) Sony Santa Monica provided preview code for God of War‘s PC port a full four weeks before the game’s $49.99 launch this Friday on Steam, the Epic Games StoreHumble, and other PC gaming storefronts. Based on what I’ve tested thus far, that level of confidence is warranted.

Tiding PC players over before the non-PC Ragnarök

God of War official PC port trailer.

Before digging into God of War‘s PC specifics (and my recommendations for settings and toggles), let’s recap why I care about a port of a four-year-old PS4 game. When the God of War reboot arrived in 2018, the series’ original run had accumulated a mix of baggage and fatigue that cooled my initial expectations. It didn’t take long for Sony Santa Monica’s gorgeous, massive, emotional adventure to change my tune, and the game finished third on Ars’ 2018 best-of list.

The reboot is still a damned good game. It incorporates the lessons of the modern 3D adventuring era while maintaining its own identity (and, crucially, avoiding Ubisoft-like issues with open-world bloat). Its sequel, God of War Ragnarök, is slated to arrive sometime this year, so you might look at this 2018 game’s port as an advertisement for Ragnarök (currently exclusive to PS4 and PS5 consoles). But whatever Sony’s motives are, it’s doing the gaming world a favor by finally breaking this fantastic reboot out of its console-only shackles.

Even with a higher resolution on the PS4 Pro and higher frame rates on the PS5, God of War 2018 still left a few graphical upgrades off the table—especially since its PS5 port didn’t add a single visual touch-up to the admittedly handsome PS4 base. Can this game be prettier and run more efficiently on PC? Does it have any cool tricks up its sleeve?

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Mostly great news

Enlarge / Record scratch. Freeze frame. Another day in the life of murderous Kratos.

In short: yes and yes.

I use a mid-high performance laptop as a baseline in PC gaming tests. This machine—fitted with an Intel i7-9750H, RTX 2070 Max-Q, and 16GB of RAM—reaches an average of 68.5 fps in a 1080p benchmark sequence at the game’s “high” graphical settings default. This test included a generally steady frame-time chart, albeit with a “1 percent low” measurement of 46 fps—admittedly below the same sequence’s nearly locked 60 fps refresh on the PS5. (That measurement shows how the worst 1 percent of performance will play out in ways that a flat average might not.)

If you’d like to guarantee the same machine stays closer to 60 fps the whole time, GoW‘s PC port offers two nifty performance-enhancing options: Nvidia’s deep learning super sampling (DLSS) technology, which is exclusive to “RTX”-branded GPUs, and AMD’s FidelityFX super resolution (FSR) technology, which works on many more GPUs. Both toggles process and upscale lower-resolution imagery, and they raise the performance on my laptop to at least an 80 fps average (84 fps for DLSS) for this benchmark sequence. Meanwhile, the 1 percent low measurement creeps up to 49.9 fps.

Outside of my choice of benchmark sequence (the first cinematic showdown between Kratos and a mysterious stranger in the game’s first half-hour), spot checks of battling performance on this laptop generally showed even better numbers. The 3D engine managed certain particle-filled effects with only occasional stutters. I do wonder if GoW might eventually be updated with preboot shader compilation, a process that slows down a game’s first load in order to process its selection of shaders, to reduce GoW‘s current midgame stutters on PC. No such process exists in God of War‘s prerelease build.

A general victory for PC upscaling—but not perfect

How you’ll feel about either DLSS or FSR, as compared to a native pixel resolution, will likely depend not only on your own preferences but on where you’re looking in GoW. The console version leans on Sony’s “checkerboarding” method of rendering half of a 4K signal (1920×2160) in every other frame, then cleverly stitching the results together to make the whole thing appear closer to native 4K. Sony’s method proved to be surprisingly effective in the face of GoW‘s intense graphical detail, particularly in pixel-precise fur and beard effects, but those elements could falter in motion. Checkerboarding isn’t available on any of Sony’s PC games, though.

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In motion, FSR better resembles Sony’s console-exclusive method, albeit with more noticeable blur by default. It’s still a solid option and retains more visual detail if downgrading in-game resolution for higher performance was already in the plans. It’s a nifty way to get a weaker 1080p machine somewhere near a full HD signal, though the further you push FSR, the more its upscaling blur becomes apparent, so don’t expect it to be a magic wand for your 1440p or 2160p monitor.

DLSS, conversely, currently struggles with a prominent visual element in GoW: beard hair. Nvidia’s DLSS system has difficulty taking a lower-resolution render of beard hairs and upscaling them properly, especially with GoW‘s lighting system impacting each portion of Kratos’ full beard in different ways. Considering how often the game’s cut scenes linger on bearded, stern-faced hero Kratos, that’s no small fumble.

Yet other fine details, especially fur on outfits and highly detailed texture patterns, hold up better in a DLSS upscale, especially in motion—and they’re a solid reminder of why DLSS stands out as an often superior-looking option to standard temporal anti-aliasing (TAA). Nvidia reps acknowledged DLSS’s issue with Kratos’ beard ahead of this article’s publication but did not respond to my questions about the problem.

Improvements, options, and ultrawide support

On my most powerful testing rig—which sports an AMD Ryzen 7 5800X with an RTX 3080 Ti and 32GB of DDR4-3600 RAM—the previously mentioned system-stressing benchmark runs at an average of 70 fps at maxed-out settings in 4K resolution. That average gets even higher with the highest-detail versions of DLSS (92.3 fps) or FSR (88.9 fps) enabled.

When comparing the maxed-out PC version to the PS4 Pro code running on the PS5, the differences can range from subtle to striking. The biggest difference comes from a large boost to shadow resolution and quality, whether in the form of higher-res shadow maps, more objects casting significant shadows, or a fuller, richer pass of ambient occlusion across more surfaces. Volumetric effects like dust clouds, shattering structures, and magical effects also benefit from higher settings on PC.

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Enlarge / I wish this preview box was bigger so players could better see the likely difference between settings. But it gets the job done, especially as it shows useful comparisons of the available shadow settings.

While I’m a bit limited this week in terms of providing full-blown settings comparisons, I can confirm that GoW on PC ships with four presets: “low,” “original,” “high,” and “ultra.” From what I’ve compared, the PC’s “original” setting aligns almost exactly with the PS4 Pro and PS5’s visual makeup. Anyone who owns a weaker gaming PC can essentially start at “original,” then stack additional visual perks on top until reaching an ideal refresh rate.

PC players will be pleased to know that God of War on PC supports up to a 21:9 monitor ratio, and the game certainly translates well to the ultrawide format. Since all cut scenes are rendered within the game’s engine, you’ll never see a single extraneous black bar, as the entire game has been reframed to fit appropriately on wider screens. (Should your monitor be any wider than 21:9, however, prepare for black bars.)

The B button, as in,“Boy!

My biggest complaint thus far about God of War‘s PC port is its adherence to its gamepad control default, which allows players to alternate between melee, ranged, and magical attacks by using button combinations. Had the game been coded by default for PC, it might have included alternate attack methods as discrete, selectable weapons, which players could toggle between with a mouse wheel, a number row, or a smattering of buttons on a mouse. I would have much preferred scrolling my mouse wheel to switch Kratos from melee-attacking mode to ranged.

Enlarge / “Boy, read that letter aloud to me.” “It says… B.” “B? What madness is this?”

Without such fine-tuned customizations built into this port, I find GoW harder to play on a mouse-and-keyboard setup, though it’s still absolutely doable—and I appreciate this port’s inclusion of dual key binds for every in-game command. Whatever control method you use, GoW includes appropriate on-screen button prompts for each. (After spending so many hours with GoW‘s PS4 Pro original, it still bothers me to see a keyboard or Xbox button prompt for tearing off a foe’s head.)

That’s really it as far as nitpicks go, unless you take umbrage at the game’s $50 price this many years after its original release—and that price doesn’t include additional story-based DLC, since the PS4 original never got any, either. As far as the above-and-beyond touches I generally expect from PC gaming, at least, the combined teams of Sony Santa Monica and Jetpack Interactive appear to have gotten this port right. And perhaps it’s selfish to encourage you to try it on PC, but higher sales might mean more PlayStation classics eventually get ported. How many more? Well, a web-slinger can dream.

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