In the run up to God of War Ascension’s launch, two of the top dogs on the development team have been on a whistlestop tour of Europe, giving interviews left right and centre to tie in with the launch and review date for the game itself.
So, in addition to Al’s review which has just gone live, we can bring you an interview granted to TSA by Jason McDonald (Lead Combat Designer) and Mark Simon (Lead Game Designer) from the team behind God of War: Ascension.
TheSixthAxis: For the handful of people that don’t know what God of War: Ascension is about, where is it set? What’s going on? Where in Kratos’ life have we come to?
Mark Simon: So, we start about 6 months after he kills his family, and after he’s made a bond with Ares, which he’s trying to break. Where it is in terms of the series, is before all of them, so before Ghost of Sparta and before God of War 1.
The reason why we’re telling this tale is that it returns Kratos to a point where he’s much more human than he was at the end of God of War 3, where he was this raging, maniac demigod seeking vengeance against all of the gods. Instead we go to a time where this can be more of a grand odyssey, taking place in all of these exotic locations, at a point where the gods are not all mad at him, and they’ll provide abilities for him.
Where Kratos starts at the beginning of the main trilogy, he’s on the boat, cursing the gods and saying, “Why are the gods tormenting me? Why am I having these nightmares? Make them stop!” and you’re trying to figure out what he’s talking about.
You figure that it has to do with the loss of his wife and child, which you find out later in the game, right? But I think that you also find out in Ascension why he’s having these nightmares, and what was tormenting him long before he got onto that boat, and you’ll get to live that out with him.
TSA: Was part of this move, making him a more relatable human again as opposed to a murdering machine, was this perhaps a reaction to what people said after God of War 3?
MS: I don’t know if it’s a reaction, but I definitely think that it’s more of the story that we wanted to tell. We wanted to tell this side of Kratos and give you an understanding of why he became what he did. The word that I was able to find on this trip is ‘empathy’. You’ll understand why he is the way that he is, because you’re going to go through it all with him and be like, “Man, that sucks. I totally get it now!” You know what I mean?
TSA: [Laughs] I’d be about that angry!
MS: Right, right! That would put me in the same position, and I think that’s what is cool with him as a hero, because he’s not the guy that’s saving the princess in the castle, just because he has to save the princess in the castle. It’s because he’s put in this incredibly difficult situation, where you’ve got to break this bond which he shouldn’t have made in the first place, with this horrible god who’s basically the devil.
Doing that basically puts him at the mercy of these primordial, crazy powerful creatures called the Furies, who are like beyond gods, they’re so powerful. So that is going to be a formidable task on this adventure, for him to try and overcome.
The cool thing is that players who have never played these games can start with Ascension. It’s the first game for them, they’re not going to miss anything, not going to have anything spoiled for them and it’s going to set everything up nicely. Then players that have played other parts of the trilogy are going to be able to come back to this and it’s going to explain a lot to them, as they play with a more relatable Kratos, I think.
TSA: You already had such a perfected gameplay formula, with the combat mechanics and the presentation. How have you gone about adding new elements to the mix, and still keep that same feel?
Jason McDonald: We’re always trying to refine the combat, so right after God of War 3, the first thing people did whilst we were still figuring out the story and the details, was just like, “What can we do to make things better, right now?”
We know we’re going to make another God of War, so lets start doing things we’ve always wanted to do, or add things that we think will make things better.
So we played around with his blades a little bit. We have them tethering into things, and using enemies as a ball and chain, slamming them around and things like that. We added blending to his attacks, so if enemies are in the air, Kratos will just aim up and get them, something that’s very natural and something that when we put it in there everyone just keeps saying…
MS: I love it!
JM: That we should have just had this in every God of War…
MS: Play a different game that doesn’t have it, and you’ll be like “Dude, that needs that!”
JM: Then there are some ideas from the past that it was a good time to introduce, such as the weapons system. Kratos can now pick up weapons off the ground and use them, or disarm enemies. We had ideas like that in the past, but for this game in particular, since we’re going into his past and to a younger Kratos who is more likely to have some of his Spartan roots, where he uses a sword, uses a shield, and these things. So him picking up the weapons in this game made a lot of sense.
In addition there were a few things we wanted to change as well, to make the moment to moment a little more interesting. We added a ‘Rage’ system, so that when you’re fighting you build up this rage meter, and when it gets maxed out you get powerful and can use stronger attacks. What that did to the combat was that instead of having this ‘God Mode’ which you’d save up over multiple fights and never use it, now you’ll build that up every single fight, use it every fight, and it’ll feel more satisfying.
TSA: Do you think you’ve managed to match or even beat the spectacle of God of War 3? I played the first half hour, with the Hecatonchires, and it was like it’s a big titan, but he’s got more arms!
JM: Well, you’re right! I mean, the Hecatonchires, as we were in the beginning of production, we read about this guy and were like, “It’s titan size, it’s got multiple limbs, we’ve got to do it!”
In this case, we built a level on top of him, as well as him breaking apart as you’re fighting him. Something a little bit bigger that what we were doing in God of War 3. But I don’t think that we were always trying to outdo the scale, it’s just that we’re trying to do something big, and if it happens to do that, then great!
TSA: Do you think that you’ve really, really, really hit the end of the PS3, in terms of what you can get out of it?
MS: I don’t know! I mean, people ask us that, which I think is natural, and at the end of God of War 3 people asked if we’d got all we could get out of the architecture and how we can graphically display stuff. Then we rewrote our renderer, added in a new way to do lighting, added a layer painting system, this thing called Wonder Tech, which gives you two different layers and one light turns one off…
TSA: That’s a good name for a piece of technology!
JM: It’s wonderful!
MS: Because when you see it, you just think “I wonder how they did that?”
But we added animation blending, which Jason was talking about. IK systems, so that when you climb around on walls, Kratos’ hands are moving around on a rock wall which is organic and not flat, like it was in previous games. So you take all of those technological advances from game to game and you give our team three years, the same hardware, you don’t make us rewrite it to go to next generation, and we’re able to really make a huge gain.
That’s all beside the fact that we also have multiplayer, where we had to take the entire game code from underneath and rewrite it so it will run across a network.
JM: And the PS3 has been pretty good to us for that. Whenever we decide to add all of these systems, we can do it. So, we’ll never know if we’ll reach a limit until we actually do.
TSA: Speaking of multiplayer, it’s always quite a contentious decision when studios and publishers add multiplayer to a traditionally single player game. What do you guys think you’ve managed to bring to the title with MP.
JM: Like you said, a lot of people fear that when you add multiplayer to a game. You might be doing it for the wrong reasons, that some dude in a suit came into the room and said you’ve got to do this, or that you’re going to affect the single player and stuff like that.
Basically, at the end of God of War 3 we did some tests, and played a little multiplayer with just some Kratos’ in an arena fighting each other. What we found very quickly was that it was kind of fun, but a different kind of fun to what you’re used to in the single player combat. So it was something that was really compelling and something that we wanted to pursue, and that’s what drove the decision to do it.
We knew that if we were going to do this then we can’t affect the single player, because it’s a known thing and we just can’t mess that up. We really enjoy Kratos’ stories, and don’t want to screw it up!
At the same time we wanted to do this too, because it’s very exciting and new. So we went down that road, and tried to aim to make the multiplayer feel like the single player, in terms of the brutality and the epic scale, and I think we did it.
TSA: If there was one thing you could say to the sceptics, what would it be?
JM: To the sceptics? Just to play it! [laughs]
MS: Just play it, yeah!
The thing is, for the sceptics, there will be something there for them, and that’s important to us. We wanted to create something unique, which you haven’t played before. You’ve played some shooters, no doubt, and some fighting games, but you have not played this.
The reason why I say that is because in Team Favour of the Gods you have awards for objectives, like holding a domination point or opening chests, that’s worth points, killing a guy is worth points, assisting on a kill is worth points. Classic multiplayer stuff.
How you kill them, though, maybe by ripping their head off? That’s worth more points. Knocking them out of the arena, or into a set of spikes? Yet more points.
So all those things are for the glory of the gods, in a way, like if you were a gladiator. You’re trying to get the attention of all the fans watching from the stands, they’ll love you more if you do it in a spectacular fashion. It’s the same thing for the gods.
[Lets say that] Jason is the combat specialist so he’s the fighter, he’s the brute on the team, and maybe I’m good at objectives, just running around, grabbing all the chests and doing the gathering. What that does is makes us a formidable team in the game, and I think that’s pretty much unlike any other game. We didn’t copy anybody, we made our own game.
JM: And it’s a living, breathing game too. It’s one where if players do play it, they should give feedback, post on the forums and we will respond. Right after this trip, we’ll probably be going right back to work, to do just that!
TSA: Along those lines, what kind of reaction have you seen from the public beta a few months back?
JM: It’s been very positive, actually. There’s always comments on basic tuning and features which they wanted, like a party system, and we didn’t have that in the open beta. We will have that at release.
I think the feedback’s been very good, and actually showed a lot of passion from people. They wrote very longs posts about descriptions of and large arguments about certain things, and we look at that and make adjustments based off it.
MS: It’s crazy hard not to look at that stuff, you know what I mean? You see this guy has spent an incredible amount of time detailing issues that he finds to be offensive, that he wants to be fixed. A lot of them, you’re reading and just saying yes, yes, yes…
JM: And that’s good and bad, when you see that. You see things that we agree with, and we’re already doing them. You’re just sad it wasn’t there during the open beta, but we’re glad that it’s being mentioned, and we’re glad that we already did it.
TSA: And going forwards, DLC is always a big thing. Have you got plans for DLC?
MS: Yeah, we’re not going to stop working on the game, essentially. It’s continuing to evolve as we. Just because we get released, doesn’t mean we’re done working on it.
TSA: So maybe more levels, or more gods… It’s all up in the air?
TSA: I think finally, what have you got left for Kratos do? I mean, to keep the pattern going you need two Vita games and two PS4 games. Who have you not killed?
MS: [Laughs] Well, the nice thing about the ancient mythology is that there’s a lot of different mythos that we have barely tapped.
Now obviously, you think of the gods, and you think Kratos has killed every god, but Kratos really hasn’t killed every god. Or that he’s faced every titan, but he really hasn’t faced every titan. Now, the really big ones people are going to remember from their classes which they took in school, those are ones that he’s dealt with.
JM: Even then there’s still a few big name ones we haven’t touched.
TSA: I’d not heard of the Hecatonchires until this game…
MS: Right, right! But the cool thing in this game, and one of the main facets was that we wanted to look at some of the places that you were familiar with, but that you’d never been able to visit. This game promises it and it delivers it. We’re able to take you to these vastly different locations. We wanted it to be like this odyssey where you were going from way on the top of world, to the bottom of the world to the edge of the empire to some crazy island you’ve never seen before.
We wanted that to be this kind of grand scale and scope, and we wanted it to feel that way. That’s more of a return to the way God of War was in the beginning, where you always saw what was like the carrot out in the distance. You always saw it off in the distance, and you were like, “Dude, I’m getting closer.” and you were! It’d get a little bit bigger, and as you get closer, as you’re peeling back the layers, you feel like you’re getting closer and closer to the end and to the answer. I think that’s compelling…
Back to the original question with the mythos, I don’t think we could ever be limited by something that has so many different places, creatures and really spans across multiple mythos.
TSA: So there’s more on the way?
JM: [Laughs] Pretty much!
MS: [Laughs] You’d be insane not to make more games with Kratos in!
TSA: [Laughs] Thanks a lot.
JM: He just spoke for like 10 minutes!
I like it when we get to laugh in an interview. Thanks to Jason and Mark for taking the time to chat about their new game, and I hope you’ll also check out Al’s review of the title here.
God of War: Ascension hits the shelves next week, on the 12th of March in the US, 13th of March in Europe, and on the Ides of March in the UK. Yes, I realise that’s a Roman thing, and not Greek… but it was about as stabby.
JM: [Still laughing]