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God of War’s cinematic mode is stunning, but you may want to save it for round two

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Are you up for the challenge?

The new God of War throws a lot at you. Even if you’re a longtime fan of the series, much has changed with Kratos’ move from ancient Greece to Scandinavia; playing this game isn’t like slipping into a familiar, well-worn pair of jeans.

God of War’s visual presentation, in particular, represents a major departure from the previous entries in the franchise. This time, Sony Santa Monica eschewed the developer-authored camera placement for an over-the-shoulder perspective that’s similar to the one used in many third-person shooters. The interface is very different, too: The combo counter is gone, and since the up-close camera always faces forward, arrows pop up to indicate threats that neither you nor Kratos can see coming.

With that new UI comes a new option: the ability to disable the heads-up display (HUD) entirely, or toggle key elements of it. We captured footage of God of War’s first two hours in what Sony Santa Monica calls Immersive mode, where there’s no HUD at all. It’s gorgeous, but the option might not be the first-time player’s best choice. Here’s why.

What is Immersive mode?

Although you have control over the camera during gameplay in God of War, this game is more boldly cinematic than its predecessors in that the entire experience plays out in a single camera “take.” There are no loading screens (unless you die) and no camera cuts. You can make it even more cinematic by choosing Immersive mode in the options, which the game describes as the “minimal setting with only critical HUD elements displayed.”

To turn on Immersive mode, go to the HUD section of the settings — it’s second in the list, right below gameplay options — and flip the HUD mode from Normal to Immersive. Right below that setting, you can see the three main interface elements that won’t show up in this mode: the compass, enemy health bars and enemy off-screen indicators. You can individually toggle each of those items on or off.

God of War - HUD settings with Immersive mode enabled
God of War’s HUD settings.
SIE Santa Monica Studio/Sony Interactive Entertainment via Polygon

Note that God of War’s Immersive mode hides plenty of UI elements without giving you a choice in the matter. That includes Kratos’ own health and Spartan Rage bars, as well as information about his Leviathan Axe and the runic attacks you’ve equipped it with. You also won’t be able to see how many arrows are in Atreus’ quiver.

Immersive mode doesn’t mean you’ll have a completely clean interface: The game will still display items such as tutorial pop-ups, quest updates and bosses’ health bars. But it’s as close as you can get to an unobstructed view of Kratos’ Scandinavian adventure.

How does it play?

It’s definitely tougher to play God of War with the HUD disabled, for some pretty obvious reasons. It’s up to you to keep an eye on Kratos’ enemies, because you don’t have any arrows notifying you of imminent attacks or projectiles. And without the cardinal directions and waypoints displayed on the compass, you must navigate the world yourself.

The Immersive UI mode works because God of War conveys a surprising amount of information through visual and aural cues. In combat, one of Atreus’ primary functions is to call out enemy locations. And aside from the fact that you can pause to check the world map at any time, you can often figure out where to go by listening to Atreus and other characters. But for the most part, you’ll have to develop a feel for how many times you’ll have to hit a particular enemy to kill it, and for how much punishment Kratos can take at whatever difficulty level you’re playing on. It’s all about paying attention and getting attuned to the feedback the game is giving you.

God of War also offers a third UI setting that splits the difference; it will be familiar to Horizon Zero Dawn players. You can choose to keep the HUD hidden until you brush your fingers across the PlayStation 4 controller’s touchpad. The interface will pop up for a bit and then fade away.

We found ourselves much more comfortable with the HUD-less option during our second playthrough of God of War’s opening, which is what you see in the gameplay video above. We already knew where to go, and what to expect in terms of enemies. It’s hard to imagine playing like this from the get-go, but fortunately, the choice is available immediately if that’s your thing.

For more on God of War, read our full review and check out our in-depth guide.