God of War: Ascension is the strange type of title that could only exist at the end of a console’s lifespan. The prequel to Sony Santa Monica’s savage Spartan series thrives on years of iteration, delivering the slickest entry in the series yet. But it’s also bankable, and as a non-numbered instalment in a long-running franchise, predictable in places. It leaves the game in an odd position, boasting the beauty of Aphrodite without the precise purpose of a Greek God.
That’s not to say that the action hasn’t been refined in Kratos’ latest eight hour adventure, though. The combat feels faster, partly due to an increased focus on the character’s blades. You can now latch onto enemies from a distance, instantly closing gaps in an almost Batman: Arkham City-esque manner. The series’ familiar Rage mechanic has also been adapted, allowing you to build up special attacks more frequently during combat encounters, rather than save them up over the course of multiple battles. It’s arguably the most satisfying that the action has ever felt but, at its core, it still boils down to the same blend of right analogue stick dodges and Square, Square, Triangle inputs.
Fortunately, the combat scenarios are so well designed that you won’t have time to focus on the familiarity of the action. Smart pacing and clever enemy parings mean that you’ll always have a new headache to solve; swift lightning imps are particularly difficult to deal with as Gorgons are attempting to turn you to stone, while fast-moving ground troops can create real crowd control challenges as Harpies target you from above. Thankfully, you’ll have a few new tools to deal with these problems: the Amulet of Uroborus allows you to suspend targets in midair while you dish out some serious punishment, the Stone of Orkos offers the opportunity to summon a doppelganger who will temporarily fight on your side, while the Eyes of Truth augment you with the ability to push foes back if you need a little breathing space.
Each of these elements factor into the campaign’s puzzles, too. With the Amulet of Uroborus, you can heal and decay marked structures in a nod to Braid and forgotten first-person shooter Singularity. The mechanic itself is perhaps best implemented in a furnace area towards the end of the adventure, as you rebuild a burnt out coal fire to set alight a colossal mechanical construction. Meanwhile, the Stone of Orkos allows you to summon a mirror image who can sit on switches or hold cranks while you complete other activities. The Eyes of Truth are introduced late in the game, and aren’t really used much, but they offer the ability to overcome the illusion of the Furies – the mythological race central to the plot.
While there aren’t a great number of puzzles throughout the adventure, the few that are included are well designed. You’ll feel like you’ve hit a brick wall the moment that you come up against them, which makes finding a solution all the more satisfying. It also helps to break up the pacing – spending a few minutes pushing blocks and turning cranks gives you a much needed breather before the next big fight. The game is extremely good at putting space between battles, and making them feel more exciting as a result.
The developer certainly hasn’t lost its penchant for flamboyance, either. An early boss battle against a Titan-sized brute known as the Hecatonchires will go down as one of the greatest technical achievements of the generation – and the set-pieces only get more impressive as you charge towards the end of the campaign.
The game in general benefits from years of technical experimentation on the PS3 hardware, boasting image quality and attention to detail that’s on an entirely different plane to other current generation games. The frame-rate – which hovers around the series’ 60FPS benchmark without too many hiccups – gives the animation an extraordinarily believable appearance, which is particularly noticeable when the camera zooms out on antagonists large enough to fill the screen. There are moments where the scale is so big that it becomes a detriment to the actual gameplay – fighting on the back of an enormous mechanical snake as it races through a collapsing ice cavern is one such area – but it’s hard not to appreciate the spectacle as you zip through the world.
It’s arguably the most colourful of the God of War games, too, which perhaps reflects the title’s position in the overall series’ timeline. Seaports and sunny islands replace the bleak underworld settings of previous entries, allowing the studio to really showcase shrubbery and serene oceans for extended periods of time. We suspect that the bright colours are designed to contrast the supposed sadness in the storyline – we can’t be sure, because the narrative is messier than the trail of blood that Kratos leaves in his wake.
While the developer has expressed its desire to humanise the antihero in the past, it ends up getting lost in its own ambitions. There are signs of the protagonist’s struggle as he tussles with his inner demons, but the promise of learning about the character’s roots is never really realised, and the game ends up feeling like a missed opportunity as a result. There was a real opportunity to pull back the curtain on the brute before he was blinded by revenge here, but instead we’re introduced to a slightly disturbed warrior who conducts himself in much the same way as he’s always done – by cutting everything and everyone into tiny little pieces.
In truth, it’s a difficult plot to follow, even if you’re a long-term fan of the series with a deep understanding of all of the fiction. The quest hops between different points in recent history, showing the protagonist’s pursuit of the Furies, a trio of female warriors who have been tasked with capturing the character due to his broken oath to the existing God of War, Ares. There are some nice scenes in which the antihero’s true personality is temporarily uncovered, but it never really explores those themes deep enough, and it certainly doesn’t portray the character in a more likeable light. It’s a shame because everything the developer discussed pre-release sounded intriguing, but it never really comes to fruition here.
If there’s any area that helps to highlight the protagonist’s roots, it’s through his ability to pick up weapons in the world. Rather than have multiple side-arms, you can now carry one unique item throughout the course of the game, which brings some variety to fights. Weapons such as the club, sword, and javelin each boast unique attributes, unlocking new combat options throughout the course of the game. The removal of specific sidearms puts the emphasis back on the blades, with multiple elemental upgrades introduced as you progress.
Depending on the ability that you have selected, you can now deal additional damage through the use of these gifts from the Gods. Ares augments your blade with fire, Poseidon with ice, Zeus with lightning, and Hades with spirits. While these don’t necessarily change the core combat dramatically, they do open up some new attack options, and once upgraded with red orbs, unlock themed Rage and magic attacks.
They also play into the multiplayer component, which is easily the biggest new addition to the game. Here you’re prompted to align with one of the aforementioned mythical beings, allowing you to construct your own gifted Spartan warrior with which you’re able to earn the favour of the Gods. The online component is heavily customisable, allowing you to equip a seemingly limitless roster of armour and weapon types in order to both personalise your character and fine tune your statistics. Depending on which side you align with, your abilities will be biased in an appropriate manner. For example, Zeus characters are extremely proficient at elemental attacks, while the Hades class is exceptional at draining health from enemies. Elsewhere, Ares’ alignment offers some serious melee buffs, while Poseidon characters are exceptional at offering support, boasting some solid resistance skills.
You can switch between these classes at any time, and give each of your four protagonists different load outs. Tuning your Ares character with extremely powerful weapons makes sense, while you may want to improve the elemental aspects of your Zeus protagonist. Impressively, there’s a treasure trove of loot to unlock for each, some of which needs to be manually discovered in arenas by opening up white chests. Each type also comes with its own roster of magic powers, special items, and relics; you can equip one of each of these components at any time, and everything can be upgraded as you level up and acquire skill points.
Unfortunately, despite being pitched as perks, the usefulness of the relics is difficult to discern in battle. These essentially give you different buffs – tuned specifically to your character’s attributes – as you complete various tasks in battle. For example, tethering an enemy may give you a temporary melee boost, while successfully parrying could reward you with a small health upgrade. However, during the heat of combat, these mechanics are disappointingly unpronounced, and you’ll find yourself constantly referring to the character customisation screen to see what your power-ups are actually supposed to do.
A similar complaint can be extended to the multiplayer experience in general. The online component simply tries to do too much at times, and it can be hard to keep track of the action as a result. The primary Favour of the Gods mode is particularly guilty of this, with dozens of sub-objectives all vying for your attention at once. The main goal of the playlist is to earn points by slaying your opposite numbers, but the eight-player game type sprinkles in dozens of additional mechanics on top – many of which are unique to a particular map. In the Labyrinth of Daedalus, for example, you’ll be given the option to raise a crank which turns the entire structure – a suspended cube – on its head, allowing you to scoop up some easy kills as other players fall into the looming abyss. Meanwhile, another map, the Bog of the Forgotten finds you fighting over a shield with which you can resurrect a lurking Gorgon. You can then later take control of the mythical creature, allowing you to slaughter opponents around the map.
The amount of thought that’s gone into each individual arena is seriously impressive, but you will spend your first few rounds scratching your head. The issue is distilled slightly on some of the smaller four-player arenas, but there are still chests and traps to deal with, in addition to the combat itself.
The action doesn’t stray too far from the core God of War formula, giving you access to both light and heavy attacks. However, the gameplay is built around parries and counters, which is where the underlying depth comes in. You can button bash, but you’ll get slaughtered by more experienced opponents who know exactly how to deal with your attacks, and so the combat becomes a game of cat and mouse as you attempt to predict your counterpart’s next move. If you parry too early, you’ll be left wide open to a flurry of attacks. However, if you time it just right, you’ll earn yourself a window with which to initiate a deadly combo.
The mechanics work well in one-on-one situations, but it does fall apart a bit when you’re getting ganged up on. Thankfully, you always have a number of escape options at your disposal, which help to get you out of particularly hairy situations.
In total, the game boasts three main online modes in addition to the aforementioned Favour of the Gods: Match of Champions is a free-for-all bloodbath available in four and eight player types, Capture the Flag is a mythological reimagining of the classic first-person shooter mode, and Trial of the Gods is a melee-focused twist on the popular co-operative horde mode. In the latter option, your executions are rewarded with time, with each particular round – or wave, if you prefer – graded on account of your pace. The combination of time-trial and combat arena gives the mode an interesting dynamic; you can’t simply hack away without thinking as you’ll be punished by the AI, but you need to be efficient when you do strike because the clock is always ticking. Interestingly, you can play the mode solo – but it’s best experienced with a friend.
The production values throughout the multiplayer remain impressive, with some daring visual effects on display. The textures and overall graphical quality do take a hit with up to eight-players on the screen, but the maps are still brimming with detail and the performance remains relatively stable despite the appearance of gigantic Titans on the screen. If there’s any particular problem, it’s that the bombastic soundtrack can get a bit tiring during extended online sessions, and coupled with the exhilarating nature of the action, the component can be seriously fatiguing at times.
Irrespective of its title, God of War: Ascension is not the colossal step forward for Kratos that was promised – but a surprisingly refreshing online component and some of the most spectacular set-pieces in the series make the adventure worth traversing all the same. If you’ve already tired of the franchise’s familiar formula, then the prequel may leave you as cold as Poseidon’s breath – but if the prospect of more brutal boss fights and high-octane combat has you fired up like Ares in a furnace, then this is more than worth your reserve of red orbs.