Ascension retains the series' trademark sense of scale

Playing God of War: Ascension is a lot like riding a bike after a brief hiatus: for a few fleeting moments the gameplay feels foreign, but then everything clicks into place. Sony Santa Monica’s fourth outing in Greek mythology bashes you over the head with the many combos you’ve spent years perfecting, and then it invites you to execute them all over again in a beautifully tropical setting. But while Kratos’ origin story may feel familiar on the surface, there are a number of improvements hidden beneath the sequel’s visually stunning exterior.

For starters, you no longer need to mash your controller in order to open chests. It never made sense that the beefy protagonist should have to exert such energy to collect concealed green, blue and red orbs anyway, and so the developer has done away with it. Furthermore, the illusion breaking Circle buttons that previously highlighted interactions around the world have been removed – replaced by much more subtle semi-circles that command your attention without pulling you out of the experience.

Our demo – the same one that was first shown at E3 earlier this year – eased us into the experience by letting us slash through a slew of basic grunts along a glittering pier. The action is fast-paced and familiar, but it’s packed with all the charming one-shot animations we’ve come to expect from the series. Ripping the horns off a downed foe is a particular highlight.

Like a record, baby

But this wouldn’t be God of War without epic set-pieces, and it quickly transpires that there’s a sea monster lurking in the water surrounding us. The beast tosses a rock at a nearby wall, forcing it to collapse and destroying our pathway up a nearby complex. This gives the developer the opportunity to introduce some of Kratos’ new abilities; the character can now rewind and fast-forward time in order to rebuild the structure and construct a pathway. It’s not too dissimilar to the mechanics introduced in Braid, but there’s plenty of potential for Sony Santa Monica to experiment with the idea further. Indeed, the ability can also be used in combos, locking enemies in mid-air to create new juggling opportunities.

One of the most interesting features of the demo was Kratos’ taste for different weapons. During the course of our 15 minute session he switched between swords and spears, both of which have completely different attacking styles. It will be interesting to see if the full campaign features the same variety as our short hands-on. The iconic Blades of Chaos are selectable, too, of course.

There were also a slew of boss fights littered throughout our demo, culminating with an epic face-off against an enormous elephant creature. The animation and visual fidelity is sublime, and while the set-piece never comes to close to matching the epic Poseidon fight from the opening of God of War III, it’s hard to imagine the full game not featuring something similarly jaw-dropping. Indeed, once Kratos has finished cutting open the trunked monster’s noggin, the demo does hint at a face-off against the aforementioned sea monster – but unfortunately the screen fades to back before we get to see what happens next.

Out of the way

Thankfully, though, that wasn't the end of our demonstration. We also got to check out a couple of rounds of God of War: Ascension’s controversial multiplayer mode – and came away pleasantly surprised.

While there’s been some frustration from the franchise’s faithful fan-base over the mode’s inclusion, we think it’s going to prove a welcome addition. Assassin’s Creed has demonstrated that there’s a place for unique multiplayer modes, and God of War: Ascension is definitely doing some incredibly interesting things.

Online matches maintain the isometric viewpoint from the single-player campaign, giving the maps quite a claustrophobic feeling. Playing as either a Spartan or Trojan warrior, your objective is to capture three altars around the map. Combat plays out similarly to the single-player, with light and heavy attacks initiating different combos. The action feels a bit button bashy at close quarters, but we’re putting that down to our limited time with the game. We suspect that players that invest heavily in the multiplayer will find a lot more depth than merely hammering Square, Square, Triangle.

What’s most impressive about the multiplayer is that it finds a way to recreate the cinematic feel from the single-player experience. As you’re fighting in the foreground, the titan Polyphemus will watch on from afar. It’s impressive how good the game looks with eight players on screen. The frame-rate is a little inconsistent at this stage, but it’s not a deal breaker.

One on one

Capturing the aforementioned altars earns your team points, but so does opening chests and racking up kills. At the end of the round you have the opportunity to fight over a spear, which is used to land a final strike on Polyphemus. This is particularly interesting in closely contested matches, because the team that captures it will win the round. This also gives struggling teams the opportunity to turn a game around, so it keeps matches tense until the very end.

However, we’re a little concerned that the set-pieces will get tired. It’s hard to imagine God of War: Ascension having too many maps – especially when you consider the sheer amount of work that’s gone into Polyphemus’ character model alone – and so, while it’s fun watching the titan’s eye being ripped out for the first time, we can’t imagine it will stay interesting for the 40th or 50th time. This is a very interesting challenge Sony Santa Monica must address.

Ultimately, though, we really enjoyed our time with God of War: Ascension. The single-player is packing just enough refinements to pique our interest, while the multiplayer is an altogether more risky idea. The title’s clearly a stop-gap between the series’ inevitable next-generation reboot, but the prequel’s certain to bring a beautiful and very bloody end to Kratos’ reign.