9
Nov

Forging God of War’s Leviathan Axe | Game Maker’s Toolkit


In the first batch of God of War games, Kratos
stuck with one type of weapon: a pair of flaming swords, attached to his wrists by metal chains,
that could be used for brutal combos and flashy finishing moves – at both short and long range. And after six blockbuster games, these Blades
of Chaos, and all their variants, found themselves among the most iconic weapons in gaming. And so, when Sony Santa Monica revealed that
it would be dropping these famous blades in favour of something new for 2018’s God of
War – the replacement had a lot to live up to. But luckily the new weapon confidently fits
the bill. The game’s premiere tool, the Leviathan
Axe, is tactical. Versatile. Fun to use. And satisfying to wield. And so in this episode
of Game Maker’s Toolkit, we’re gonna break it down, and explain why God of War’s Leviathan
Axe is a stand out video game weapon. The Leviathan Axe in Combat Just taken as a bog-standard melee weapon,
the axe is still pretty strong. It’s got your familiar light and heavy attacks
on R1 and R2, but the devs piled on depth by using all the versatility stuff I talked
about in this episode. So you can create combos by linking together moves – sometimes with
pauses between button presses. You can charge up attacks, by holding down the button. You
can unleash special moves, by attacking in combination with your shield. And there are
contextual moves, too, like attacking after parrying, or evading, or running. But there’s more to the axe than just lodging
it into an enemy’s squishy face. Because Kratos can also lift the axe up – and chuck
it. This almost turns God of War into a third-person
shooter, and perhaps makes it more familiar to the Uncharted crowd. Especially with the
recognisable shooter control scheme, and the game’s new behind-the-back camera angle,
which lets you go from melee combat to ranged attacks seamlessly. But, whatever the reason, the throwable axe
lets you attack enemies from long range – longer range, even, than the Blades of Chaos. So
you can biff enemies that are throwing projectiles from the sidelines, or stun a distant enemy
that’s running right towards you. You get more control of the battlefield, and more
ways to deal with faraway enemies. Because it’s not actually a shooter, the
axe reticule helpfully snaps to enemies like a magnet. But you can tweak it slightly to
make more precise throws. Head shots do more damage than body blows, weakspots can be abused,
and whipping your axe through an enemy’s legs can trip them up. Now Kratos could have had a melee weapon and
a ranged weapon, as separate tools. But – as we’ve talked about before -interesting things
occur when the same tool is used for both. Because once your axe has been chucked away,
Kratos now has to rely on his fists. These aren’t as strong as the axe, but it
does make it easier to stun enemies. And while some foes are more susceptible to the axe,
others go down faster when you punch them. Not to mention the fact that some icy enemies
are completely resistant to the Leviathan Axe’s frosty blade. So deciding when to
get rid of your axe is another thing to consider. But when you’re ready to get the axe back,
you can simply hit the triangle button to have it magically return to your hand – just
like a certain Norse god and his hammer. Making the player manually trigger the recall,
instead of having the axe automatically return like a boomerang, opens the mechanic up for
some really interesting tactical decisions of when you should recall it. You know, perhaps
you want to leave the axe in an enemy’s tummy, to freeze it in place while you deal
with other foes. Or leave the axe in a poison-spewing thingamajig to freeze it – forcing you to
fight enemies with your fists. Maybe you want to throw the axe behind an
enemy with a shield, and recall it into his exposed back. Or you can line up enemies so
the axe rips through a bunch of them on the return – God of War’s designers sneakily
tweaked the recall path so it always goes through enemies if they’re close enough. Or, best of all, there’s my favourite new
game mechanic in some time: the precision throw combo. If you bean an enemy in their
weakspot with the axe, your weapon will flash in mid-air. Recall the axe at this specific
moment and your next throw or melee attack will explode with frost damage on contact.
Mix this with the Talisman of Betrayal, which lets you slow down time while aiming, and,
well, I could do this all day. There’s just something about hitting a button
with perfect timing that feels super satisfying. It’s why counter attacks are so sexy. It’s
why nailing perfect turns in Thumper gives me palpitations. It’s why the active reload
in Gears of War never got old. Match a tight timing window with a good sound effect and you’ve won my heart forever. More Than a Weapon The really interesting thing about the axe
is: it’s not just for combat. Throwing the axe allows you to reach out and touch lots
of things in the world – like hitting it into turbines to make them spin. Throwing it into
buckets to make them drop. Using the axe’s frosty blade to freeze traps in place. Or
smashing collectible ravens from a distance. The axe is used for exploration and puzzle
solving, just as much as it’s used for dicing up your enemy’s jugulars. The only place
it’s missing is in platforming – which is a shame. Perhaps Santa Monica could have ripped
off this idea from Rise of the Tomb Raider where you can fire arrows into walls to make
disposable footholds. That’d work nicely with the axe. But still, the way the developers found so
many uses for the axe reminds me of Nintendo games, like Super Mario Odyssey which has
Mario’s talking hat play multiple roles as a weapon, a trampoline, a way to capture
enemies, and an all-purpose way to interact with the world. As I’ve said before, using a single mechanic
for lots of different purposes is a sign of really strong design. It means that mechanic
becomes more familiar to the player. It becomes this easy, obvious shorthand for how to interact
– you know, if in doubt, throw your axe. It means you can come up with loads of different
ideas, without needing loads of different mechanics. Or buttons. And it can turn the
mechanic in question into the centrepiece of the game. Though, that’s not really the case in God
of War. The beating heart of this game is Kratos’s
son, Atreus. And you can use the boy’s long-range bow both in combat, and to interact
with certain objects like light crystals and explosive spiky stuff. The focus of the game
does end up feeling a bit split between the axe and Atreus and, I mean, I wouldn’t say
it’s messy or confusing, per se – it’s all very well established – but it’s not
quite as streamlined as it could have been. Basically, if this this really was a Nintendo
game then they’d just squish these things together and Kratos’s son would literally
be a talking axe. Called Choppy. Obviously. Making an Impact While the developers obviously spent
a long time thinking about how the axe could be used, in and out of combat, they also spent a great deal of time working on how the axe actually felt. Because whether you’re ramming it into an enemy’s
prefrontal cortex or catching it after a lightning fast recall, the axe feels heavy, hefty, and
brutally efficient. So how did Sony Santa Monica pull this off? Well, classic God of War games are famously
full of “Hit Stop” – which is when the action in a game pauses or slows down for
a split second when an attack lands, to increase the perceived power of an impact. And the
new God of War is no exception, but with some major tweaks to better suit the axe. So when Kratos hits an enemy, the axe actually
gets stuck inside the foe’s body for a few frames. The enemy will react, and Kratos’s
body will keep going – all while the axe stays perfectly in place. A few frames later, the
axe dislodges and catches up to Kratos’s arm. This gives the feeling of the axe really
chopping into flesh and bone, before finally slicing through. Systems design lead Vincent Napoli writes,
“We use a combination of animation blending and a custom inverse kinematics “pinning,”
system. When Kratos connects with an enemy we pin the axe in the location of contact
(after some slight correction/prediction) and both Kratos and the enemy transition into
a completely new animation on the moment of impact with little to no tween time.” “A lot of time and effort went into making
sure these “sticks” were as fast as possible while still eliciting the feeling of connection. “ So a big part of the presentation is that
enemies really react to being hit. Instead of using a standard flinch effect, or just
having the enemy flash white, foes in God of War have almost slapstick reactions to
being sliced or hit with the axe. Finally, add in some impressive sound effects
– including lots of grunting from Kratos – and controller rumble, and every swing of the
axe conveys a great sense of strength and weight. As for recalling the axe, a huge amount of
work went into that, too. For one, the axe wiggles for a split second before returning,
to give the impression that it’s really stuck into whatever surface you’re pulling
it from. Then, as it comes back, the axe flies in a curve so you can really see it coming
– and the speed is ramped up if the axe is further away, so you’re not waiting forever. Finally, when the axe lands in Kratos’s
hand, it shunts his arm back just a little bit. “We wanted to make sure that it feels
strong, but we were very careful not to make it feel like Kratos can’t handle the Axe or
that it’s too heavy for him,” Vincent explains. “We had to strike a very specific balance
so that the catch feels casual, like he does it all the time, but still carry some momentum
through so you can feel the Axe’s speed”. The recall also has three different controller
vibrations – one on the wiggle, another in mid-air, and a final jolt in Kratos’s hand.
Plus, the spinning sound is literally attached to the axe so you can clearly hear it coming
closer towards you. And finally, the screen shakes upon impact, to really sell the moment.
Make sure you read Vincent’s full blog, if you want to learn the super nerdy details. Designing the Leviathan Axe When you see a smart design like the Leviathan
Axe, it’s natural to assume that it came out fully formed – seamlessly flowing from
a designer’s notebook to finished programming code. But nothing could be further from the
truth. While director Cory Barlog always intended
for Kratos to carry an axe, it took a beat for the designers to figure out that Kratos
could throw that axe – with Vincent saying that the team was planning to have the Leviathan
fire out projectiles, before he came up with the axe throw idea. That worked well, but presented a problem.
Here’s designer Jason McDonald JASON MCDONALD: “There was always this animation of Kratos throwing the axe that seemed like it would be cool, but it’d be like
‘well he’s gonna throw his weapon away’. What use is that gonna be, it’s just gonna
be gone, you’d have to go pick it up. Until one of our designers, Vincent Napoli, came
up with the idea, ‘well what if he called it back?’ So we prototyped that, we had him throw the
axe out, call it back, and it immediately worked very well with the camera perspective,
how to deal with enemies, pinpointing targets on them, tripping them by aiming for the legs.
So all the ideas started to spearhead themselves right after that decision was made’.” After that, the team argued whether the axe
should recall automatically or on a button press. KRATOS: The axe did not return. Cory Barlog explains on the podcast
Game Maker’s Notebook – no relation. I was here first. I’m not mad. Promise. Uh,
here’s Cory – “The first instinct they had was to put
it on a button. So they had built that and they said, “alright, you throw the axe out
and you press triangle button to recall it. Then, as they started working through the
problem they’re like “people like it if you could just keep hitting the R1 and the
axe recalls automatically”. And I was like, “no, I hate that”. They put it in and
I felt like the axe would come back and I didn’t know why, and I couldn’t have that
agency to say, “I wanna leave it out there and I wanna take care of this enemy. And just
leave it”. Basically, the Leviathan Axe is an example
of how great designs can grow naturally, as designers iterate on ideas, solve problems,
have a few arguments, and follow the idea to its natural conclusion. That’s how you go from a basic woodcutting
instrument to a versatile weapon that doubles up as a long-range projectile, that you can
magically recall back into your hand at the perfect tactical moment. Whether or not the Leviathan Axe will
be as iconic as the Blades of Chaos will remain to be seen. But, in my eyes, it’s easily
one of the more interesting weapons we’ve seen in a game in quite some time. Hey, thanks for watching! It was really fun
to go super deep on a single game mechanic like this. Hopefully I did it justice! I just wanted to say than you to everyone who started following me on Twitch. So far we’ve played games like Super Meat
Boy and Hollow Knight, with a lot more to come in the future. See you there!

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