As a complete package, God of War Ascension has its fair shares of excitement and disappointment.
Now, there could be plenty of reasons behind this. One of them could be based on the fact thatGod of War III closed the story arc on Kratos with a satisfying conclusion to his three-part adventure (or five-part, if you include the PSP games). Do we really need another God of Warthis generation? Especially one still set in Greek mythology? While that's a hot topic between fans, the fact is that Ascension is here, and is once again pitting Kratos against familiar and unacquainted foes alike.
Ascension takes place before any of the other God of War titles and begins with Kratos chained up in the Prison of the Damned. Kratos is held in this massive housing jail against his will by the game's main antagonists, the three Furies, whose job is to incarcerate anyone who tries to break an oath with the Gods. The story features a less raging Kratos than you have come to know – in God of War III, he was completely blinded by hate and anger for the gods – and he even at one point actually shows some emotion. The problem with the story is that it's so flipping hard for Sony Santa Monica to best the over-the-top, ridiculous action that was inGod of War III. We've fought and killed Zeus and some of the most famous Greek Gods, so there's really nowhere to go than delve deeper into Greek mythology and bring some of the lesser-known characters to the forefront for Kratos to slaughter. That's Ascension's main problem – it feels like it ran out of stars and is left to C-tier monsters to run the rest of the show. It doesn't hit you with that instant jolt of awe that past titles have and its campaign suffers because of it.
That's not to say that Ascension is without any of the franchise's trademark set pieces. It has them, and somehow it manages to bring in even bigger enemies than the Titans, but that doesn't necessarily make them better. There is a slight problem with these humongous set pieces, such as the Hekatonkheires (translates to "Hundred-Handed Ones") Aegaeon, who is tasked to kill Kratos as the game's first boss. This fight includes parts that are so zoomed-out that Kratos looks like a tiny speck on the TV screen, making it difficult to see where the smaller enemies are to the point that you just hammer attacks and hope for the best. It's a problem that happens occasionally throughout the game and puts a dent in the overall quality of the large-scale battles. There is no doubting that at a graphic and technical standpoint, this looks great, but it would have been better to leave this showcase to scripted action scenes, rather than during the middle of the combat and hindering the player's view.
Combat has gone through some alterations that remove the ability for Kratos to equip other weapons that are not the Blades of Chaos. This does not mean you are solely stuck with the blades, as along with the light and heavy attacks, Kratos has the ability to use a physical attack. At first, he uses his fists, but the button also allows him to use enemy weapons he finds on the ground, such as small swords for up-and-close personal attacks and javelin spears that you can launch at enemies from a distance, while the shield can be used to bump them away. There are a few of these smaller weapons scattered around the world, but you can only carry one at a time. Each one has a destruction attack that breaks the weapon in exchange for a huge explosion, causing enemies to be blasted away – great for when you are cornered by a wave of beasts.
While the excitement of receiving a new weapon has gone (I loved the Nemean Cestus in God of War III), in their replacement comes four powers from the Gods. During the course of the game, Kratos will find powers that are based on elements. Ares blesses with fire, Poseidon with ice, Zeus with lightning and Hades with the power of undead souls. Each one is assigned to the D-Pad and can be changed on the fly – although, this is nothing like Ninja Theory's DmC: Devil May Cry combat system, so don't be expecting to chain them together to continue ridiculous combos. Elements all have their uses. For example, the magic attack for Poseidon's ice makes a whirlwind of sharp, cold air spin around Kratos and freezes enemies on the spot. Hades, on the other hand, brings up souls from hell, such as giant hands, that help deal additional damage. On top of that, each of the four elements will increase the chance of a specific coloured orb appearing from a fallen opponent, which is very handy on the harder settings, as it allows for players to gain back health, magic, experience orbs or rage orbs.
On top of this change to the combat mechanics, Kratos also finds new items throughout his eight-to-nine hour adventure. One such item is the ability to destroy or repair specific environments, often used for puzzle segments that are some of the strongest the franchise has included. In combat, this item elevates enemies into the air, causing them to be immobilised for a short period of time and giving a perfect opportunity for Kratos to use his roping ability and pull himself towards the foe for extended combo chances. The use of items is assigned to a press of a shoulder button along with one of three face buttons, making it easy access for a player to activate and get right back into dealing damage. Overall, combat is still solid and does become slightly challenging towards the end of the game, but it's not the boss battles that offer the increased test of skills; rather, general enemies that come in waves upon waves, as if the developers were taxing your knowledge of the combat system to see if you were simply button mashing your way to the finish line.
For anyone wondering about the tone of the combat, you need not worry. While it doesn't reach the heights of some of the visceral deaths in God of War III, Ascension does have its fair share of gut-wrenching fatalities. Intestines will fall out of Ogres as Kratos slashes their stomach open, skulls will be slashed open with brains shown on display, and faces will be split in half. To mix up the action, some of the death animations are no longer quick-time events, but rather a small mini-game that brings the camera behind Kratos as the player is left to tap the attack button, while dodging any incoming attack by tapping a direction on the Stick. At first, these seem cool, but as you make your way through the game they become more of a chore on the player, taking longer to down the foe than a quick-time event would.
Kratos also fancies himself to be a bit of a Nathan Drake, as the game will often put Kratos through death-defying feats of climbing that would not be out of place in an Uncharted game. Along with that, he will frequently slide down slopes, using his chains as a way to control his speed and angle. These new features are a nice inclusion, and I can see why they put them in to break up the pacing, but they are used slightly too often and don't "feel" like they are part of the God of War formula – not that this is necessarily a bad thing, just more out-of-character for the series.
Closing on the topic of single-player, I felt somewhat disappointed in the offering. Yeah, the combat remains tight and as brutal as ever and the puzzles are better than what they normally consist off, but the set pieces and pacing have their ups and downs that don't quite makeAscension's solo efforts as awesome and smooth-flowing as the last three main God of War games. Fans will no doubt enjoy it, but it's coming to the point where the theme and location is beginning to wear its toll. After this title, the series really needs a drastic change to bring it back to its best. Saying that, Ascension does make a start on what seems like a potentially cool future addition for the God of War franchise, and that is the multiplayer.
Multiplayer gives you the option to align with one of four Gods (same as the ones in single-player) that offer different abilities for your multiplayer hero. You are not locked to this selection, giving players the chance to easily switch to any of the other powers during downtime between online matches. A level-up system is in place that will unlock additional skills and powers to equip. Also, you can equip armour and pick from one of three different weapons types, all which level-up and will change certain attributes on the player's character, such as offering more strength instead of magic power or more health instead of physical damage.
There are a variety of game modes, such as capture the flag, free-for-all and cooperative time trials, but the one that stood out the most is the "Favor of the Gods" mode. This can be a match of two vs. two or four vs. four, and has the teams fighting off against each other as they try to take over control points on the map, similar to Conquest mode in Battlefield 3. Players have to earn favour points to hit the required amount for victory, which can be gained from taking over the control points, kills, using traps or smashing open red orb chests that lay around the arena. Environmental hazards litter these levels, such as the giant Cyclops that will pummel anyone who goes near it, or the huge gorgon head that pops out of the temple and turns a player to stone, giving any passerby an easy kill. Some of the level design is fantastic, showcasing either the scale of the players against some of these mythical creatures or genius level design, such as the God of War III-inspired Labyrinth of Daedalus.
Fighting in multiplayer is more restrictive than what's on offer with Kratos' move set. You still have fast and slow attacks that have charge versions if you hold down the button, plus you can use L1 to do a special move associated with the type of weapon. But more often than not you will be doing the same combo. The parry function is extremely important in multiplayer, and if you miss the timing then you are left with a cooldown that leads to an opening for an opposing player to combo you. It seems that battles often result in people button mashing their way to victory, which for me felt like that I wasn't getting to show my mastering of the combat system that I had gained from the single-player portion of the game. Refinement is certainly in order before it arrives to the same standard as the amazing multiplayer brawling in Anarchy Reigns.
As a complete package, God of War Ascension has its fair shares of excitement and disappointment. There is no doubt this is a good game with fantastic-looking graphics, quality combat mechanics and a fun, if somewhat experimental, multiplayer; but the problem lies mostly with the single-player. I feel that compared to the past three console releases of God of War, the single-player experience here is probably the weakest of the bunch, which is brought along because of the prequel aspect of the story and its C-tier Greek mythology list. I can still say fans will enjoy what's on offer and I have no disagreement to recommend it to them, but I can see why this was given a subtitle rather than a numbered sequel. For me, Sony Santa Monica need to figure out what to do with Kratos and the God of War series next, because another prequel or Greek setting is going to hamper the overall experience that we have come to know and love with the franchise.