When the megacorporation The Ascent Group collapses, so too does the whole arcology built on the foundations of its absolute dominion. With such a power vacuum in Cluster 13, and so many people suddenly freed, the whole cityscape naturally carves itself up into factions and starts vying for control. It’s into this powder keg of a situation that Xbox and PC exclusive The Ascent drops you, tasking you with blasting your way to the truth.
Dystopian futures are a dime a dozen these days – heck, we might even be living in one, for all I know – and The Ascent certainly draws on a lot of cyberpunk for its visual stylings, but it’s not quite cyberpunk, as developer Neon Giant has thrown alien races and other sci-fi elements into the mix on the planet Veles.
Whether that’s a big enough distinction to stand apart is in the eye of the beholder, but there’s no denying that the game is gorgeous. There’s neon signs everywhere (of course), countless adverts plastered on almost every surface, and the game makes great use of blooming lights to illuminate the grimy surroundings. The game looks fantastic, and while most of the action plays out from an overhead, top-down view, there’s plenty of finesse here for the camera to pull in and use lower and closer angles during cutscenes and when talking to people.
While previous demos of the game have focussed a lot on the explosive action – and we’ll get to that in a bit – the world is not immediately hostile to you. Areas such as the Night Road are filled with NPCs that honestly couldn’t give a damn about you and the unnervingly large gun that you’re running around without in the open. Neon Giant’s co-founders Arcade Berg and Tor Frick were keen to emphasise that these were just people going about their days, creating the feel of a living world and maybe chatting about events kicking off in the city as you run by them, but trying to do so in a naturalistic way. They aren’t there for your benefit, even though you, the player character happen to be walking by.
However, outside of the safe hub areas, it feels like things can kick off at the drop of a hat. There’s a broad open world out there, and you’ll discover new map segments through your exploration of the world, you’ll be following missions, sniffing out treasure and loot – having a high-end Cyberdeck to hack locked doors is sure to be beneficial – and filling in parts of the world map and the city as you go. You’ll be able to zip around the world using trains as a free method of fast travel, or taxis if you’re happy to pay the fee.
Combat looks powerful and punchy. A stream of bullets from an SMG-like weapon might not have the most meaningful impact on enemies, but a grenade kick of pleasing area of effect explosions, and you can set enemies on fire. Cutting to later in the game, and the combat becomes wilder, as enemies balloon in size before exploding, and you unleash small armies of spider bots, bouncing bullets and more. You’ll face off against bigger, better-equipped enemies, and brutish alien characters in the process.
And if you want to go somewhere that you’re not meant to go? If a faction consider your presence offensive? Well, you can try to find another route, or you can just go in all guns blazing. It certainly feels like a guns-blazing approach is preferred in this game.
The fundamentals of the combat are those of a twin-stick shooter, giving you plenty of flexibility to roam around and blast away while strafing or backtracking. However, The Ascent also has a somewhat novel mechanic where you can raise and lower your weapon height, in addition to crouching and standing. For many enemies, taking a hit higher up deal more stagger damage to them, which is one advantage to raising your gun to eye level if you’re dealing with an onrushing crowd. Another is the ability to crouch down behind cover and raise the gun to fire over the top. It’s an interesting wrinkle to the explosive combat of the game.
Defining your character and their abilities in combat is down to how you spend your skill points, and not about picking a particular character class at the start of the game. Funnelling points into skills like Tactical Sense, Evasion, Balance, Vital Signs will all improve your abilities, attributes, resistance to status effects and more in various ways. If you’re not particularly happy with how your character is turning you, you’ll be able to rebuild them like they’re a six million dollar man. All you have to do is visit a Grafter in the hubs, and everything from changing your hairstyle to refitting your augmentations and modules will be available to you, letting you change up your passive and active abilities.
Where some games now lean on procedural generation and randomisation, everything in The Ascent is tailor-made. Every augmentation and module, every weapon’s look, description, stats and progression is handmade – an impressive undertaking. Another nice tweak in this regard is that, for the game’s co-op gaming, loot is shared between players, so you won’t be bickering over who deserves what weapon.
There’s a lot to like about what we’ve seen of The Ascent so far. The grimy cyberpunk-inspired world is still appealing, especially with a few added twists, and there’s the intriguing promise of its sprawling open world, and the combat looks high-paced and bombastic. The one thing we don’t like (but totally understand) is that the game’s release date is simply set for ‘sometime’ in 2021. But then, we’re impatient.