God of War – the 2018 sequel for PlayStation 4 – has finally received a patch for PlayStation 5, and in common with similar updates for Days Gone and Ghost of Tsushima, it opens the door to a classic game running flat out at 60 frames per second – and in common with those other Sony first party juggernauts, the impact is indeed transformative. It’s almost like the final piece of the puzzle: the original release was hugely impressive with its 4K graphics, extreme detail, phenomenal lighting and excellent performances. A nigh-on flawless 60 frames per second is the final flourish for a game that pushed PS4 and PS4 Pro to its limits.
In fact, before we talk about the raw performance numbers, we should probably address what you might call the quality of life improvement. In extracting so much from the last-gen silicon, Santa Monica Studio inadvertently ran head-first into another issue – the cooling design of PS4 and PS4 Pro. God of War actually became our title of choice for testing power draw, acoustics and thermal performance of PlayStation hardware. On the noise front especially, this game caused the fans to spin up to an obtrusive degree, depending on which iteration of the hardware you have. Beyond what’s happening with the software, God of War on PS5 is a much more pleasant experience simply because a nuanced story of profound loss and parenthood plays out without high-pitched fans running at max speed in the background.
And in returning to God of War, what struck me was just how risky this title would have been for SIE and Santa Monica Studio. A number of gambles here pay off spectacularly. A series that began life as a technologically state of the art arcade brawler with set-piece bosses has slowed down, there’s a genuine story here and fully fleshed out characters. By comparison, the older God of War titles almost feel like exaggerated word-of-mouth legends. Regardless, Santa Monica Studio has moved on, the story has moved on and maybe the audience has moved on too.
The point is, the franchise is re-invigorated – not rebooted. I say that because everything that made God of War so epic in prior instalments is still there in 2018 – the fantastical environments, the gigantic beasts, the visceral, ultra-violent fighting – and of course, Santa Monica Studios’ state of the art rendering. But while the studio has clearly moved on, God of War 2018 is a game that respects its technological legacy in extracting the most from its generation of console hardware. The 1.35 patch for the game is fascinating – the 4K and 1080p modes of the Pro version (targeting 30fps and 60fps with varying degrees of success) are gone, replaced with straight 30fps and 60fps modes still using 2160p checkerboard rendering. Not surprisingly, the 30fps mode is totally locked from start to finish, tidying up some relatively minor slowdown exhibited on PS4 Pro, but the revelation here is just how solid the 60fps experience is.
Let’s put it this way, across one hour and 45 minutes of play, just 33 frames were dropped from a total in excess of 378,000 – and those were in a non-playable cutscene. I didn’t even notice it to be honest, as the ‘handheld’-style camera used by God of War is by its very nature a little inconsistent. You can expect the tiniest of performance drops elsewhere within the adventure, but nothing you’re likely to notice. We often talk of a ‘locked 60 frames per second’ but there are usually exceptions to the rule – God of War is basically flawless and combined with a presentation like this, it’s an experience not to be missed.
There is some further spice to the story though, in that it’s actually been possible to play God of War at checkerboard 4K 60fps since day one of the PlayStation 5’s hardware launch. In common with a handful of other games – like The Last Guardian, for example – version 1.0 gold master code basically runs with an unlocked frame-rate already. It’s not ideal on either PS4 or PS4 Pro as it basically exceeds 30fps anyway, and this style of presentation was patched out in one of the day zero patches Santa Monica Studio rolled out during the review period. But the gold master disc code still has it and PlayStation 5 exploits it, delivering effectively the same result you’re seeing with the 1.35 patch.
Of course, that presented problems: if your save games came from later code, they didn’t work. Plus you missed out on the bug fixes and optimisations Santa Monica Studio made to the title post-launch. Still, the unlocked frame-rate also offers up some interesting data: we can more precisely compare scalability between the 1080p and checkerboard 4K on PS4 and Pro systems and how well the developer balanced performance on both consoles. On Pro, it’s also possible to compare 1.0 4K unlocked performance with 1.35’s 1080p mode, and to get an idea of scalability there. I’d always assumed that the performance mode could not lock to 60fps owing to CPU limitations on the last-gen hardware, but the comparison suggests bottlenecks across the board.
But it’s the PlayStation 5 experience that takes centrestage here and to put it frankly, it’s terrific – and easily accessible too. If you own a PS5, chances are you own the game by default. God of War joins the similarly enhanced Days Gone in the PlayStation Plus Collection, a series of games that PlayStation 5 owners receive as bonus extras if they’re signed up for Sony’s subscription service. Both games are refreshed and reinvigorated with their 60fps upgrades and although it isn’t part of the same collection, I do highly recommend checking out Ghost of Tsushima too – it’s terrific. It’s just a shame that The Last Guardian has yet to be patched for 60fps on PS5 – we know it’s possible, because the disc code does it and the increase to performance is even more profound, as we’ve discussed in the past. It would be great to see this game get a similar update, but realistically, we need to accept that porting older titles across to the most recent SDK isn’t always so simple.
And of course, there is the elephant in the room. What’s going on with The Last of Us Part 2? Why hasn’t Naughty Dog’s epic received a similar 60fps upgrade? What we can say with some degree of certainty is that the other titles are reasonably easy to unlock, to give you that extra frame-rate – but that doesn’t assume it’s as easy on other games. Different engines are architected in different ways. If you look at the effort that went into getting Death Stranding running at high frame-rates on PC and the difficulties encountered with Horizon Zero Dawn doing likewise, it’s clear that simply removing a 30fps cap won’t guarantee auto-magic results. I’m wondering whether Naughty Dog may be going for a full remaster in a similar vein to Marvel’s Spider-Man: Remastered – but I’m sure that all will become clear in the fullness of time.
In the meantime, it goes without saying that revisiting God of War on PlayStation 5 is an experience to be savoured and sets the stage beautifully for the sequel, apparently set for release later this year. If there’s one possible criticism you can have with this patch, it’s that while it exercises the power of the PlayStation 5, it’s still the same game with the same visual features – it’s a pure performance lift. Ragnarok will be designed with the hardware in mind – and the prospects are mouth-watering.