God of War: Ascension Review
God of War Ascension is billed as a prequel to the God of War trilogy (let's ignore Kratos' PSP adventures for the moment) set ten years before the events of the original God of War. However, it's not so much a Kratos origin story as it is another of his adventures that happens to be set at a point in the series' timeline that they tell you it is. Kratos' issues with Ares, particularly the one having to do with Kratos being tricked into killing his family, have been revealed in previous games, so Ascension opens with those events already in the past. In the logic of the gods, Kratos was the bad guy in that whole affair and so he finds himself a prisoner of the Furies and condemned to eternal torture at their hands. Needless to say, Kratos soon breaks free, turning his chains of bondage into his trademark weapon, the Blades of Chaos.
For a prequel, there's not a lot of new insight into Kratos' character to be gained from the story. Kratos is out for revenge and kills everyone and anything that gets between him and his goal, all the while growing more and more powerful ... which also happens to pretty much sum up the plot of all of the previous God of War games. If you're a big fan of the series and have been paying very close attention throughout the previous five God of War games, you'll probably glean some interesting tidbits from Ascension's story. Otherwise, and doubly so if you're new to the series, you'll just have to go with the flow and not worry too much about why you're killing everything that crosses your path. Luckily the game doesn't spend a lot of time in cutscenes and does a great job of keeping the action moving, seamlessly transitioning from one battle to the next.
The hallmarks of the series, the fast, fluid, bloody combat and the immense sense of scale, are very much a part of Ascension. The sheer scale of some of the monsters you'll face is impressive, as is the fact that you can defeat them as the comparatively tiny Kratos. Chaining together devastating combos is relatively easy and the number of ways in which you can dispatch enemies with limited set of attack controls is pretty remarkable. Beat down an enemy enough and a red halo will appear over their head. If you can move in on the enemy while the halo is active and press the R1 button, then you'll initiate a zoomed in final kill that's unique to the enemy type and always gruesome.
Ascension adds a new elemental system in which you can specialize your blade attacks. One of the four elemental magics, fire, ice, thunder, and soul, can be active at a time, and each adds a specialized status effect to your attacks. Each element also has a powerful magic attack tied to it. As with the Blades of Chaos, the red orbs collected from defeating enemies and treasure chests can be spent to upgrade the elemental attacks as well.
You'll be able to pick up additional weapons as you make your way through the game, such as swords, clubs, and spears. Each has a unique profile that makes it useful in different situations. For example, the sword is a fast weapon that is easy to chain into combos with other attacks, while the club is slow but offers a hard-hitting charged attack. These weapons aren't game-changers, but they certainly add additional variety to a game that has to be careful about becoming repetitive.
It seems that the developers were intent on keeping Ascension from devolving into an endless series of indistinguishable battles, and their efforts go beyond adding elemental powers and weapons to the game. First, Kratos has to do a lot more work to get around the game's environments. Wall climbs and traversals that evoke at least a passing thought of the Uncharted games are relatively common in the game. Next are the puzzles, which go well beyond your typical action game lever-flipping (well, OK, there is lever-flipping in Ascension, but that's not all). The puzzles get progressively harder as you make your way through the game and new elements are added, such as the ability to restore destroyed sections of the environment or to duplicate yourself for some solo co-op-style puzzles.
As fluid and dynamic as the battles can be, it's surprising that the boss battles remain so pattern-based. The bosses certainly look impressive and are by no means total pushovers, but it just feels that these confrontations should play out more like epic battles than efforts to repeat a few actions a few times without screwing up. The game's overall difficulty feels like it's been kicked up a bit since God of War 3, though - there were some parts of the game that required a few more attempts to get through than I care to admit.
Ascension continues the game's tradition of using fixed camera angles. It was an understandable technique for the game's PlayStation 2 releases because it allowed the developers to push the graphics quality above and beyond what most thought was possible for that system. One would think that the PS3 would have the capability to produce a good looking God of War game with a user-controlled camera, and the game's fixed camera feels somewhat antiquated.
Ascension delivers the gameplay God of War fans love, but it also adds something new to the formula: multiplayer gameplay. I can't say that I've ever thought that this was a game franchise that really needed multiplayer gameplay, but apparently someone did. Ascension's multiplayer game in some ways shares more in common with multiplayer shooters than it does with other action games. You begin by pledging your allegiance to one of four gods, Ares, Hades, Poseidon, or Zeus, and your choice is tantamount to selecting a class. Each allegiance comes with its own set of strengths and drawbacks that make them fit to a particular play style. An experience system is in place that allows you to upgrade your skills and magic as you play, and you can equip different kinds of weapons and armor.
Multiplayer modes include a competitive mode in which individual players or teams compete to earn "favor" by actions such as defeating other players, finding chests, and controlling altars. These additional actions and the size of the maps prevent multiplayer matches from devolving into dog piles of Kratoses pounding buttons until someone dies, although player fights often do feel like button-mashing contests. There's an inherent issue here in that when every player is an over-powered god of war it's not quite as much fun as it is when you're the only super hero in the room. As such, the multiplayer game provides some fun when played now and again, but you probably won't put nearly as much time into it as you do the single player game.
The multiplayer Trial of the Gods mode fares a little better in terms of staying power, especially if played with friends. This is an endless-wave mode in which players work together to fend off waves of increasingly more challenging enemies. The maps are smaller in this mode, which keeps the action more focused than in the other modes. You earn experience in this mode as well, so you can stick to Trial of the Gods and still earn new gear and abilities.
Overall, God of War Ascension is another good game in a good game series. The single player game delivers the epic environments and battles the series is known for, as well as adding more depth to the puzzles than in prior games. The multiplayer game is enjoyable enough for a bit, but it doesn't have the staying power of other multiplayer games and as such makes me wonder if the single player game would have been even better without it to distract the developers. Still, fans of the series as well as those who enjoy action games but are new to God of War shouldn't hesitate to pick up Ascension.
Final Rating: 90%. The God of War series is still going strong.