"Kratos was an asshole in God of War II and III," said Todd Pappy, game director of God of War: Ascension, as our presentation began. This fourth console release, and earliest GOW prequel, gives Sony Santa Monica Studio a chance to colour god-slayer Kratos in a very different light. The team is emphatic that this is their most ambitious game yet, and it's easy to see why. The scale and cinematic quality that are synonymous with the series have been mirrored, now appearing in a new, single-player campaign and being brought over to power the game's first multiplayer outing. While developers on hand admitted that the move from a one-player game to an experience that players can share with each other means redistribution of time and resources, they also believe that the result will be what fans have long been crying out for.
Our demo began with a black screen, as winds howled around us. A tight zoom of Kratos revealed the titular hero making his return in this adventure, although, as the game takes place prior to the events of the console trilogy, his body appeared bronzed, rather than ashen white, not yet carrying the shameful mark of his slain family. Draped over his body was a colourful tribal outfit. As the camera panned around to show us the scene, he pulled on a large helmet to protect his skull. He's not yet a god, and the security it affords was an early indication of his frailty.
The action kicked off immediately as a small Cyclops burst through a corridor doorway. With no Blades of Chaos with which to lash out and grab our target, we rushed forward with a huge, ornate sword in hand. It was impressive to watch as the pair began to tangle; animations appeared smooth and natural. A second warrior joined the fray, running interference and baiting the beast as we performed a deft flanking movement to attack it from its unprotected side. We took it in turns with our brother in arms, eventually pinning the Cyclops down and carving deep gashes into its stomach, watching as its insides unravelled, spilling out on the ground below.
We didn't hang around long to marvel at our gory handiwork. Our guide proved that this was a live demonstration by shaking the weapon in midair and activating a rousing battle cry. We broke through into a larger, multi-storey space. In the background, a huge Cyclops was being held captive in a collar and wrist chains. Our goal wasn't immediately apparent, and there was no HUD to speak of, but the combat was distinctly God of War as we began to cull handfuls of enemies. A large spinning cog was connected to two circular platforms, keeping the monster in check. It was a good thing, too, with each of our characters about the size of one of its giant fingernails.
We swatted the smaller opponents away like flies, performing a flashy combo that in one fell swoop cut off one hand in its upward motion, and finished the job with a lethal downward blow. The result put daylight between the two halves of our victim, and reminded us of the T-1000 in Terminator 2, as the unconnected body parts flailed around with their new bifurcated status. The familiar coloured orbs of previous games were scattered around the zone and were accompanied by series staples, such as loot chests and traps. Looking for a better vantage point, we climbed a nearby wall, moving diagonally rather than shimmying up a simple linear path as we would have previously. Interactive surfaces were subtle and gave us a real sense of freedom as we scampered around.
While other players dashed around us on the battlefield, the camera remained focused exclusively on our character model. Some of our compatriots swung massive, weighty hammers, while others played support for the squad, dropping to their knees to throw out a group heal. Hades, Poseidon, Zeus, and Ares will each have their own unique combat styles, but they also play into classic combat archetypes, such as melee, ranged, healer, and tank. This is light role-playing, and, as a result, the design team hasn't yet nailed down whether GOW: Ascension will go as far as to include a buff system. They did, however, suggest that teams that opt for a more rounded group of fighters would better those who favour multiples of the same unit type.
The mode we saw, tentatively named Team Execution, featured two groups of four players battling to secure a point. The first team to complete the objective activated their cog, dragging the Cyclops down to within striking range on a platform so that the victorious side could harpoon it. Once done, they plunged a glowing spear directly into its eye. There won't be any finishing-move quick-time events to end the fight, but the player who performs best during the game is given the glory of being the one to land the killing blow.
Beyond the notoriety of being the one who gets to stab something big in the face, the most valuable player of the match is also rewarded with bonuses based on his or her performance. A persistent multiplayer mode will allow you to level up your Troy or Spartan soldier and give you access to a range of perks, weapons, and abilities. A range of spoils will be delivered from the gods, with a mixture of found items and unlocks from your own talent trees. Perks will be character specific and can be activated either in combat by achieving a particular goal, such as reaching a designated number of kills, or more passively by giving you increased stats from the outset of a match.
While the development team is remaining tight-lipped on any other game modes for the moment, they did confirm that not all types will be based around four-versus-four battles. A range of objectives and smaller maps will also be available to accommodate a range of group sizes.
What is clear is that God of War: Ascension looks to be taking a page out of the book of fellow Sony franchise Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception. The latter set the goal of bringing the scale and urgency of its single-player, cinematic-driven moments to multiplayer, and GOW: Ascension is following suit. But the question remains: Is multiplayer really the feature God of War fans have been calling for? Stay tuned for more details ahead of the game's 2013 release date.