How God of War’s impressive PC port came to life

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Lately Sony has been increasingly open to putting previously PlayStation-exclusive games on PC, and today’s release of God of War is the most notable yet. One of Sony’s premier franchises since the original game was released for the PS2 in 2005, all subsequent titles — a 2007 spinoff for mobile phones aside — have been locked to PlayStation hardware. Santa Monica Studio’s 2018 God of War is one of the most acclaimed games for the PS4, and now it’s available to a new audience for the first time.

I’ve spent some time with the PC version and found it to be impressively well-tailored to the platform, which is not always a given. I spoke with Santa Monica’s senior manager of technical production Matt DeWald and lead UX designer and accessibility lead Mila Pavlin to find out more about the process of bringing God of War to PC.

“It was about two years ago that we decided to look into whether it was possible,” DeWald says. “So the idea came down of like, Okay, let’s let’s think about whether we could do a PC [port] — we have a custom engine, we haven’t actually released a PC game, let’s get it up and running and just see what are the issues that we’re going to have and how much work is this going to actually take.” Santa Monica tasked Jetpack Interactive, a studio in Vancouver that had already been working on other internal collaborations, with figuring out the scope of the project, and ultimately it got approved.

“They’re integrated into the team, so they’re not really a typical port house where we offload something and throw it over the fence,” DeWald says of Jetpack. “They’re working out of our code bases, they’re on our Teams channels and they’re communicating with our team, they’re part of our standups.” Four engineers at Jetpack handled primary development of the port, with DeWald serving as producer and other Santa Monica members like Pavlin making additional contributions.

“[PC players] want it to feel like it was built for the PC rather than being a port,” says Pavlin, who worked on the project’s UX and controls. “So a lot of the work that we did early on was about hitting those points on the graphic quality, making sure that the graphics quality were up to standards and that it was responsive on the PC platform and then making sure that the controls were customizable and felt good in the native configuration.”

I can’t speak to how God of War will run on everyone’s PC, of course — and as a hypothetical, DeWald wouldn’t be drawn on how it’ll perform on the Steam Deck — but my experience with the game on a five-year-old machine has been positive. There are a lot of graphical options and performance has been more or less in line with what I’d expect; I average about 50 frames per second on a 1440p ultrawide monitor with G-Sync, and that’s using a Skylake Core i5 processor and a GTX 1080 with a mixture of settings. Each visual option can be run in “original” mode, which basically gives you PS4-level quality, and you can crank them up or down from there.

While you might not immediately think of it as a good fit given its heritage as a console-based action game, God of War on PC can be played with mouse and keyboard controls, and the scheme is surprisingly well thought out. Actions like aiming and throwing Kratos’ axe, for example, feel more natural if you’re used to playing FPS games with a mouse. Pavlin points out that the commands aren’t mapped one to one from the list of controller actions — for example, on the PS4 you jump with the same context-sensitive button that’s used to interact with the environment, but on PC the jump command is handled separately by the space bar, like most other PC games. There are also options like auto-sprint, which can be more comfortable for many players. Personally, I would still lean toward using a controller, but I’ve finished the game on the PS4 so I’m already used to it. For newcomers who only play on PC, the mouse and keyboard scheme is a thoughtful addition.

“I found it very comfortable to use because I’m used to that from my other games — I play a lot of PC games,” Pavlin says. “It feels like a very native and fun way to play the game. It kind of changes up the whole way that you approach combat. I found that I was able to target very easily using the mouse because the precision was so good that I was able to do things like get headshots and make sure that I’m, you know, knocking out the legs of the dragon and doing those precision shots that maybe with a controller I would find a little bit more difficult or have to use an aim assist for. So I do think that there’s advantages to it.”

Another strong addition to the PC version is support for 21:9 ultrawide monitors (as well as the taller 16:10). This is more interesting for God of War than it might be for other titles because of the game’s signature one-shot technique, where the camera essentially never cuts from the beginning to the end of the game. I wondered whether expanding the field of view presented any challenges in terms of revealing things that maybe weren’t intended to be on-screen originally.

“[The ultrawide support] revealed all the little hacks and cheats we were using to kind of move people into position or have somebody come on from off-screen,” DeWald says. “They might not be fully animated. So that was a manual process that required just kind of going through the entire game.” Cutscenes, too, sometimes had to be reframed to better fit the expanded content that’s being rendered by the engine in real time. The results are impressive — I never felt like anything looked out of place, and Kratos’ AI-controlled son Atreus follows along with you just as convincingly as he did on a 16:9 TV.

Unfortunately, though, you’ll need to run the game at ultrawide resolution if you want a wider field of view, because there isn’t a conventional FoV slider. DeWald says it introduced bugs that the team didn’t have time to fix, with the game basing certain logic on what’s on- or off-screen at a given moment.

God of War wasn’t originally designed as a PC game, and the experience of going back and making it feel native to a platform has prompted Santa Monica Studio to reexamine its workflow. “Moving into the PC space really got us to think, not just about PC releases, but also our entire pipeline,” Pavlin says. “So looking at how we make things more adjustable and customizable from the get-go with the way that we’re building our code base and our assets. If we know that we’re going to have a large range of formats that we’re going to move into or we know that we’re going to need to have control customization, the programmers actually need to know that very early on in a project so that they can build the code base in a way that’s more flexible.”

That will also allow Santa Monica Studio to help make its games more accessible, with Pavlin citing the example of how the way God of War was initially only designed with hard-coded PS4 controls in mind caused a lot of work for the team to rethink its inputs on PC. “This is very important not just for PC ports, but also you’re moving forward with accessibility and making sure that you are supporting additional control functions, controller customization, or keyboard customization. And in future projects, we’ve learned those key lessons here that we can take into actually designing our games better for them to be more flexible for the future, to make it easier on everyone going forward.”

Santa Monica Studio is currently developing God of War’s sequel, God of War: Ragnarok, which is set to be released on the PS4 and PS5 this year. There’s no word on whether it’ll ever make it to the PC, but Pavlin’s comments suggest that God of War’s PC port could have a positive impact on even the console versions of Ragnarok. For now, it’s simply the best way to play the game and well worth checking out whether you’re a new or returning player.

God of War is out on Steam and the Epic Games Store today.

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