So who pissed him off this time? Ares! Might’ve known. It seems Kratos wishes to break his blood oath with the God of War Ares. His reluctance to servitude causes the God of the Underworld, Hades to set The Furies on him. They seek to imprison Kratos in the Prison of the Damned - a prison re-purposed from the petrified body of the Titan who betrayed Zeus, Aegaeon. Ascension opens with Kratos bound in chains having been tortured for months. Tormented and plagued by visions of his wife and child, he aims to break the oath and seek revenge by first escaping the titanic prison and then to forge a path of havoc and revenge.
God of War always stood out from other action games for numerous reasons, one of which being the combat. Instead of focusing on the complexity, speed and style of say Devil May Cry or Ninja Gaiden, its main focus was brutality and violence. While the combat in this game is gleefully brutal, the core mechanics have been reconsidered and refined. At a fight’s onset your Rage Meter will be empty and it needs to be at MAX before your full set of combos are available. To fill it you need to connect a fair few attacks, however, taking damage reduces it. This makes a drastic difference to combat as it changes your approach every encounter. Basically, you need to do damage without getting hit.
This layer of strategy is by far the most important change in Ascension and it raises the calibre of the fighting mechanic by some margin. The magic system marks another change, whereby you gain one of four elements: Fire, Ice, Electricity and Darkness (Hades) which bestow your Blades of Chaos elemental properties. Fire is your go-to attack but Hades is the most interesting as certain attacks open up potential strategies for groups of enemies. One attack sees a giant hand from the Underworld reach up from the ground and slam down on your enemy after you have finished your combo. This lets you do extra damage or keep an enemy at bay a little longer, giving you time to use one of the different attacks on offer.
At any given time you afforded options that are instrumental to the resounding success of Ascension’s combat
One of these are the many sub-weapons you can equip by finding them in the environment or stealing them by disarming an enemy and come in different varieties; sword, spear, sling, shield and club. These all have different applications for scenarios and add an element of choice to every fight, quite the achievement due to the fact so many action games have pretty much perfunctory sub-weapons. In lieu of one of these weapons, Kratos will punch or Spartan Kick an enemy which often stuns and sometimes disarms an enemy.
To compliment the elemental magics and the sub-weapons are 2 super-handy abilities; The Amulet of Uroboros and Oath Stone of Orkos. Both are acquired around mid-way through the game and handily coincide with some overall increases in difficulty. The amulet creates an area of effect that slows down enemies, while the Oath Stone creates a shadowy doppelgänger that moshes around the arena. On harder difficulties these are essential; slowing enemies down gives you time to get your bearings or focus on other enemies and the doppelgänger can interrupt or stun them, allowing you to perform one of the many, delightfully brutal grab-attacks.
At any given time you are afforded options that are instrumental to the resounding success of Ascension’s combat. On easier difficulties they provide lots of fun ways to mash your way through throngs of demons, however, on harder ones they provide some much needed strategic elements. This is an outstanding balancing act that should be celebrated, if only for the fact it’s so rare in action games yet so bloody good when done right.
One more well designed aspect of combat are the parry and block moves. Parry allows for an advantage when properly timed whereas block allows you to stay safe and react to an enemy. In previous games this wasn’t designed well and once you were committed to an attack you were vulnerable but, in Ascension, you can block immediately from many basic attacks. During your attacks you need to be watching the enemies to see whether you need to block an incoming attack or continue your combo to unleash some of the series’ trademark devastating attacks – all the while cognisant of the afore-mentioned Rage Meter. This risk-reward system is brilliantly implemented and sets the combat of Ascension head-and-shoulders above that of the previous games.
Where the previous games, especially God of War II, out-perform Ascension is in the dialogue, story-telling and puzzle design. The story is pretty threadbare, often-times leaving huge passages of gameplay before any meaningful interaction or plot development. When they do come, though, it reminds you of the brilliance of GoWII and makes you want more. This is detrimental to the single player and diminishes any sense of progress or dynamics. Too often are you left without a story-based incentive to carry on, however, you are never without a reason to keep playing.
From start to finish, the game is utterly beautiful.
Similarly, the puzzles aren’t crafted with the same inventiveness or aplomb as the previous games. GoW I and II have some of the best puzzles and level design I have ever encountered, often leaving me stuck for just the right amount of time before the Eureka moment upon figuring it out. This is what took both those games from ‘Very Good’ to ‘Great’ and served as a perfect respite from the visceral action. While the puzzles in Ascension certainly break up the action well, they vary in quality decidedly. With that said, the really good ones use the new Heal and Decay mechanic.
Certain structures can be highlighted to either Decay or Heal them. While the decision is, more often than not, binary, it’s a really great looking mechanic. Watching giant chains ripped from their links or whole structures broken into detritus makes for incredible viewing while adding a layer of depth to puzzles.
From start to finish the game is utterly beautiful. You are taken from the gargantuan prison to small, fire-lit townships by night – from snowy, mountain-side passages to underwater ruins and everywhere in-between. The changes in locale, weather and time keep the game from feeling overly familiar and add a layer of atmosphere and mood reminiscent of classical paintings. The lighting throughout, such as the blonde colouring of sunset, or the metallic surfaces in any of the huge structures, is just incredible. The Art Direction is exemplary.
The re-tuned combat has been extended in to the all new Multiplayer: a first for the God of War series. The modes available are surprisingly robust and range from standard team-based Capture the Flag to 2-player Co-op. 4V4 levels are almost like Super Smash Brothers type mayhem, all based around a Scissor-Paper-Stone mechanic which adds an element of luck to the skill-based use of combos, abilities and magic. There are a few classes to choose from, each having their own set of skills and abilities, so choosing between a support class or warrior type is important depending on which mode you are playing. Upgrades come by way of the familiar Call of Duty XP bonus and allow you to unlock new weapons, armour and upgrade skills and items.
Levels themselves have a variety of environmental hazards, are often vertically multi-tiered and have subweapons, items strewn around them making the levels feel somewhat random and offering a good amount of choice. The unlocks and upgrades will keep you playing for a while and playing with friends will no doubt where the online will be at it’s best. It is quite an achievement and fans of action games will find plenty to keep them amused for hours. If Santa Monica support the online aspect of Ascension then this could become something really engaging and lots of fun to play. As it stands it’s a great addition and your mileage will vary depending on how much you enjoy the core mechanic.
The vastly improved combat and visual resplendence compared to the de-emphasis of dialogue, story and puzzles means it couldn’t be clearer what Sony Santa Monica’s vision for Ascension and Kratos is, which will either please or disappoint you. Either way, it cannot be argued otherwise: Ascension is a brilliant game. Combat-wise the series has never been better but, if you liked the storytelling and pacing above all else, you may be left wanting.