Ascension charts Kratos’ story as a Spartan, not a god. It’s more grounded, more human, but every bit a God of War game.
Imagine how Dance Dance Revolution would play if the little arrows didn’t scroll into view, but suddenly appeared without warning, randomly and without any sense of rhythm. And imagine if you missed an arrow the game dumped you unceremoniously to a Game Over screen and forced you to wait for the last checkpoint to reload. Quick Time Events aren’t normally regarded particularly highly, but God of War: Ascension’s fondness of unpredictable reflex tests borders on obnoxious.
And even when you get it right first time it’s rarely obvious whether you’re supposed to keep tapping the button (to attack, for example) – if you don’t when you’re supposed to it’s game over. If you aren’t supposed to but do and end up tapping a button you shouldn’t, it’s game over.
It’s frustrating niggles like this threaten to spoil Kratos’ opening story, being that Ascension is set before all the other God of War games. Silly QTEs aren’t the only problem: there’s a few instances of disappointing level design that put the player at a curiously wasteful dead end too. Take, for example, the hole you need to drop through to progress that’s not obvious because normally – and immediately around it – such holes lead to nothing more than another trip to that “You Have Died” screen.
Not a great start, there.
Thankfully, there’s nothing else as glaringly problematic, the rest of Ascension plays nicely enough. But is there room for another entry in Kratos’ story? Sony seem to think so, shoehorning Ascension in before every other game in the series, and creating something of a foundation for everything that happens afterwards. If you’re a fan of the series, Santa Monica’s latest (and last) PS3 God Of War game hardly strays far from the beaten path, but does at least attempt to inject a little bit of diversity into the story.
A little. This is still very much the same God of War game as the rest of them on the surface, but there’s also a glimpse of the personable angle seen in the PSP games here, and it’s actually most welcome.
Don’t go in expecting Heavy Rain, or anything deep, of course. This is means-to-an-end storytelling, an exposition thin with details in order to keep the plot advancing down the same linear route they always do. There’s a nice little sidestep or two with the chronological order here, but don’t arrive hoping for something deep and meaningful – that would dilute what these games are about and, quite frankly, any nuances would get lost among the fury and destruction. This might be a younger, mortal Kratos, but he’s still deadly and just as capable of slicing and dicing.
That said, whilst the story will be fresh enough, it should be obvious enough that if you’ve played the first God of War, Ascension needs to end with largely a blank slate – no spoilers, but don’t be expecting to take any new-found buddies past the credits screen.
And although this game is set before Kratos was a god, despite a couple of minor tweaks to the control method (circle’s now used for secondary, temporary weapons you find littering the floor, for example) Ascension plays exactly as you’d expect it to do. Your blades still whizz around, the upgrade path remains familiar and the introduction of magic touches to your Blades Of Chaos (the only main weapon) is hardly a shock. Is Kratos less powerful than he becomes later in the series? Yes. Does it make a massive difference to the gameplay? Nope. Does it matter? Of course not.
You see, whilst Ascension doesn’t ever threaten to really subvert everything we know about the series, we wouldn’t want it to. There’s enough in the way of new features to keep things interesting, and enough subtleties to the combat to make it feel fresh whilst adhering to the formula we know so well. For example, Kratos gains the ability to repair and break certain large-scale items and structures in the environment, which leads to a couple of interesting puzzles, and there’s a second-half mechanic that, whilst a little under-used, offers up a cute way for players to get some assistance.
But this is a stripped down, rather more grounded God of War. Kratos only has his Blades, and there are only three abilities to gain, one of which is only used just once or twice at the very end. You can pick up a few real-world, short term items like swords and spears, but they’re always ancillary rather than part of your arsenal. Rather, Ascension focuses on players upgrading the Blades’ four elemental attributes, which can be switched at will and form a simple binary battle system where players can learn which element works best against which enemy.
Combat feels familiar, but tweaked. Kratos will now automatically attack upwards, for instance, and switching between attacks and combos feels more fluid. There’s still largely a lack of visible contact, though, the Blades flailing around with abandon rather than sticking to enemies as they circle the player, but there’s enough variety in the movesets now with the elements that just having the one main weapon doesn’t actually feel that restrictive – indeed, you actually become quite attached to them before the game finishes. The Rage meter also plays a tactical part – fill it by landing hits without being hit and you’ll unlock a temporary boost of damage whilst unlocking new moves.
It’s a game that attempts to include perhaps too much though. The puzzles are actually quite enjoyable (there’s a couple of head-scratchers but nothing too pace destroying) and the combat as good as it has ever been. There’s a shortage of epic-scale bosses though beyond the intro and outro – Ascension focuses on the size of the environments rather than Kratos’ foes – and there’re few surprises in the enemy designs. The main antagonists, a trio of Furies sent to bring Kratos back to Ares, flit in and out of the plot with regularity but only once actually really challenging the player. These are the Erinyes, they should be terrifying to face but instead it’s hard to see past their dodgy acting – it doesn’t help that the game opens with you making easy work of one.
Instead, one small endurance section towards the end of the game’s thirty levels actually proves to be the most difficult (at least, more difficult than anything else that doesn’t involve QTEs) with health only attainable from downed enemies rather than from absent chests which are bountiful during the rest of the game. Checkpoints are normally quite fair, but in this one section it really is down to the player’s skill to make it through in one piece – doing this on Titan will take some effort.
And, as ever, Ascension relies on the player upping the difficulty level to get the most out of it. On the easiest the game is largely a case of just mashing the buttons, but there’s a need for deep tactics as you move up the curve – the blocking and countering system takes practice, and you’ll need to be constantly dodging and switching the element attributes on your Blades to survive. It’s a finely honed, hugely enjoyable test of skill and nerve.
And then there’s the visuals. Ascension sports a reduced frame rate from previous console God of Wars – it’s about half that of God of War 3 and as a result the action feels less smooth, sometimes stuttery, and rarely consistent, dancing up and down at will. In place of such a luxury though are some of the best graphics ever seen this generation, and it’s without hyperbole to say that some sections look like CGI. Get up close with some of the bad guys and the fixed camera and beautiful use of motion blur and high resolution textures make Ascension look positively next-gen.
And when it really flexes its muscles, like with a rather grandiose multi-level look at one Greek God that has only been mentioned in passing in the series, you can’t help but stop and stare. The battles might be generally more down to earth, but some of the locales are incredible.
That’s not something that can be said about the entire game though, sadly – at times it looks sparse and basic (one section with a sailing boat looks like it was pulled from a PS2 game and it’s directly following one of the more impressive segments Ascension has to offer) but it does, just as much, look breathtaking. The lighting is superb, the image quality about as good as we’ve seen, and with a properly calibrated TV set the game really shows what the PS3 can do in the right hands.
Our copies had serious audio issues though. Music frequently cut out, speech was often out of sync and the mix felt completely wrong – some sound effects were inaudible and others far too loud. Let’s hope that’s fixed for launch.
Otherwise, yes, this is a proper God of War for God of War fans that want to see how the story starts. It’s not perfect, but it’s engaging enough and barring a couple of silly bits of level design and the over-reliance on inconsistent Quick Time Events, Ascension is probably exactly the sort of game you think it is. A decent length adventure, one probably more fun to dash through with the generously boosted New Game+, but one that could have done with a little more tweaking.
It’s good, but not up there with God of War III. And that’s largely the issue here – alongside the aforementioned issues there’s the omnipresent notion that the game never quite manages to reach the lofty heights of the other games in the series.
It’s still definitely worth playing, but there’s a nagging feeling that it could have been better.
Yes, it’s visually stunning – definitely a showcase for what Sony’s first party studios can do – but it simply doesn’t quite draw you in like it should and without that investment from the player it’s one set piece after another.
When it concludes, with the first God of War all set up storywise, Kratos finally gains his anger. Before then, it’s all illusion and confusion which quickly grows tiring, the same rug being pulled at least once too many times. It’s a fun ride – there are some lovely set pieces – but it’s largely a ride to a conclusion we already know and without enough focus to make it an unforgettable experience. Kratos’ backstory is fleshed out, his motivations explained and the rest of the series built on solid foundations, but is this really an essential slice of the story?
It doesn’t feel as relevant as the PSP games, nor as necessary, but it’s more God of War, and for some that’s probably more than enough.