Review - God of War Ascension


Review - God of War Ascension
Kratos is back but has this deity-hating brawler run its course
Sony Computer Entertainment
Santa Monica Studio
Release Date:
Age Rating:
2005s God of War was a game changer - bringing incredible production quality and intense combat to the middle years of the PlayStation 2. God of War II took that promise and improved on it, delivering a visually stunning and increasingly thrilling title that was a fitting swansong to Sony’s system.

In 2010, the series made the leap to the next gen with God of War III, which delivered everything you would expect from a system-spanning update, including the highest graphical fidelity yet, not to mention some of the most slickly presented ultra violence we’ve ever seen (click here for our original review).

Now, eight years have passed since Kratos first refused to sort out his anger issues in a reasonable manner and the latest GoW has some changes on offer, as well as an all too familiar formula.

The story starts with Kratos imprisoned by the Furies, beings who take terrible vengeance on those they deem traitors. It turns out he’s betrayed the will of Ares (the actual God of War) and is set to be punished, but some clumsiness by an insect lady sets him free and it’s time for some beatings.

That present time is intercut with scenes from the recent past which show how Kratos ended up in this situation, adding a non-chronological bent which makes things less easy to follow than they might have been.

It’s probably not totally clear from the above, but Ascension is actually a prequel to the previous GoW canon, taking in the events many years before the 2005 original and even predating 2008 PSP effort Chains of Olympus. The developers have been talking up the fact that we’ll see a more human Kratos this time but there’s little real evidence of that, with the story avoiding dealing with something as raw and obvious as the death of his wife and child by his own hand.

Instead, we’re led on an adventure in anger and the K man chews through hundreds of foes with those ubiquitous chains of death, engages in some platforming and scratches his head during some environmental puzzles.

For anyone who has played a previous GoW game, this will all seem increidlby familiar. There’s the same fixed camera angles (more on that later), the same primary weapon and a mix of free-form, combo-based combat and QTEs, oven ending in horrific bloodshed. Areas are introduced with a very mid 2000s swooping camera which shows where you need to go next and you’re presented with a series of arenas for fighting or puzzle solving with the odd boss thrown in.

And man is it repetitive, not to mention jarringly old school. The insistent camera mentioned above is an obvious throwback - these days developers give you less glaring hints for how to proceed or even, god forbid, let you just figure it out for yourself. But the nature of the construction of God of War makes it resistant to intuition - climbable walls aren’t obvious and there’s no clarity to the route to your next objective, a fact not helped by some lazy backtracking.

And that’s a word which constantly springs to mind when playing - lazy. From the enemy designs to the level progression and even the visual quality, everything feels like it was slapped together from a pre-existing template. Take the story, a mish-mash of vaguely mythological elements with no clear driving force. By now, we know Kratos is just angry all the time but there’s no direction to his wrath here, no villain who we’re given any reason to get testy with. Random characters spring up for a scene or two with no context and little clue as to their allegiance until they either chat to you or try to rip out your innards with their talons.

Kratos is a people person
Kratos is a people personEnlarge Enlarge

And then there’s that camera. Without a doubt the games have benefitted from the cinematic angles possibly with a fixed perspective but there are still numerous moments where accurate platforming is impossible. Which would be fine if the game didn’t go out of its way to throw the player into situations where their destination is invisible due to a fancy camera angle. I wasn’t expecting the series to transition to a full on 3D engine but neither am I a gaming novice and if I’m falling through the same hole multiple times there’s something wrong with your mechanics - a fact that’s all but acknowledged by the overly generous checkpoint system.

Further problems dog the most basic of actions, like overly awkward inputs and even issues with the subtitles that sees placeholder text left in the final game.

Ascension succeeds better in its pitched battles, though again they’re little changed from earlier outings. Slicing and dicing is certainly slicker than before, with a new mapping for the grapple button and a flow between face buttons and modifiers which leads to easy combos and juggling of future corpses. Inventory management is simpler than before, with short term extra weapons (like hammers, shields and spears) plucked from the battlefield.

That puts the focus firmly on the Blades of Chaos but they’ve had some significant upgrades. As you progress you’ll unlock elemental magic which imbues your blades with fire, ice, electricity or souls. Each is mapped to a direction on the d-pad and can be swapped at will, giving you new combo opportunities and different abilities. Powerful attacks with the soul power will unleash ethereal attacks, while fire will incinerate and ice freeze. Each also grants you a unique magical attack, though you’ll have to upgrade each style to earn it.

The upgrade and collection system remains the same - red orbs for experience, blue for magic and green for health. You’ll even still track down Gorgon Eyes and Phoenix Feathers to extend your health and magic bars respectively. And there’s been some suggestion that those QTEs have been revamped but there’s little change - some encounters give you the opportunity to dodge attacks while eviscerating but it’s just a cosmetic change.

It’s not that the combat is poor in Ascension, it just feels a little laboured - with each encounter similar to the last and the same methods sure to secure a victory more by attrition than skill. Some pitched battles are a challenge but button mashing can still win the day.

He's not as tough as he looks
He's not as tough as he looksEnlarge Enlarge

The puzzles fare better, even though the rough transition from fighting to pushing boxes never feels organic. Ascension’s more contemplative moments go from the simple to brain-bending, with plenty of room for frustration in between. Sometimes that’s due to those treacherous jumps but there’s a rigidity to these sections, with a single correct answer, that again feels very old school. Still there’s some real ingenuity in those moments involving the new time manipulation and copying ability, with the former leading to some serious spectacle as massive ruins are returned to their former glory in style.

Spectacle and scale were always an aspect of the God of War experience and that continues to be true here, to a point. While the vistas remain epic and the monsters gargantuan, the presentation feels less impressive than before. Perhaps that’s down to more competition from other franchises or the unavoidable fact that the graphics here are no longer the best on the system, but the wow moments were less obvious this time around.

Surprisingly, it’s the multiplayer aspect which does the most to rescue Ascension, partly because it’s the only entirely new aspect of the game. And Santa Monica Studio has made a solid effort to create something more interesting than a tacked on deathmatch. As a newly deceased soldier, you’ll first choose your allegiance to one of four gods - Ares, Hades, Zeus and Poseiden - with each conforming to one of the powers from the single player that you’ll than take into battle.

There are four main game modes - Favour of the Gods, Match of Champions, Capture the Flag and Trial of the Gods - with variants that provide some decent variety. Favour is a team game where you compete for points, Match is deathmatch, capture the flag is what you think and Trial is a co-op (or single player) mode which pits you against waves of enemies.

The gameplay is similar to the single player but actually more refined as you’re generally fighting real people. The play between different attacks and blocks becomes crucial as a light attack will interrupt a heavy one and counters can make an enemy vulnerable to a decisive grapple. Visual cues help clue you in to what attack to use in a way that rewards careful attention more than frantic hacking and slashing making kills genuinely satisfying (not to mention violent). And the levels are filled with collectibles and weapons as well as interactive elements to help turn the tide of battle.

Some real work has gone into making the multiplayer portion of Ascension its own unique beast and though it remains to be seen if players will warm to it, Santa Monica Studio should be commended for the effort. But there’s a sense in which it just makes the single player look even more jaded, with tired mechanics and a commitment to a brawler genre that seems all but extinct in the AAA sphere.

God of War Ascension feels like a step too far for the series, with even its trademark spectacle losing its appeal and those uber violent kills feeling like needless sensationalism. Perhaps the formula is too ingrained for innovation, the genre and series requirements of platforming, puzzling and pulverising too rigid to allow for smoother mechanics, a cogent story or a slickness befitting space year 2013. Whatever the cause, this God of War will want to find some new tricks if he wants to stay relevant, or even in business, in the coming years.

7 Stars
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