Developer: SCEA Santa Monica
Medium: Blu-ray Disc
Prior to the release of God of War: Ascension on the PS3, I would say that I have played through each of the five previous God of War installments a minimum of 2 times a piece. Yes, that includes even the excellent PSP releases and HD enhanced versions. WIth God of War III seemingly wrapping up the saga, who would have figured that the series needed another game? Well, the series itself didn’t, really. Both Sony and the PS3 probably did need God of War: Ascension in the same way that Microsoft and the Xbox 360 needed another Halo and Gears of War game. Now that I’ve spent a dozen hours or so kicking ass as Kratos once again, I suppose I’m glad they didn’t end it at number 3 after all.
Like Naughty Dog, Sony Santa Monica are gods (pun intended) among developers. There is no way that the aging PS3 should be able to effortlessly power the insane visuals and sense of scale that God of War: Ascension provides. The image quality is pristine with nary a jagged edge to be found. The texturing, lighting, special effects, character and enemy models and animation are practically without peer, especially considering how damn smooth the game runs. It’s difficult not to touch on how pretty the game is right out of the gate, so I had to just get that out of the way. God of War: Ascension is stunning, really.
I thought I sort of knew or understood the God of War story well enough, but Ascension, being a direct prequel to the first God of War title, sort of lost me a bit. And you know what, it didn’t really matter. The ancient Greek mythology-based setting still works, and there is clearly no shortage of stories, set pieces, creatures and characters to pull from. Just as a refresher — following the death of his wife and daughter (by his own hands), Kratos seeks revenge on Ares, the original god of war, and the Furies which have imprisoned him. That’s all you really need to know.
Being the sixth game in the series, God of War: Ascension does indeed try to do something different with the gameplay and combat. It’s certainly familiar enough for veterans to pick up and feel comfortable with, and also different enough for those who were asking for Santa Monica to mix it up a bit more. The end result is solid and satisfying, with a plethora of new combat techniques and strategies to master. The biggest change to the gameplay comes in the form of the new chain grapple technique (using R1), which allows Kratos to tether enemies who are weak, airborne or stunned, and drag them around, throw them, or just keep them at a distance while fighting off other enemies. The game physics behind the grapple are really remarkable, and seeing Kratos lead around a leashed enemy through the onscreen chaos is quite impressive, especially when you start whipping and tossing them around like a ragdoll. The chain grapple is also utilized for a number of other functions, including pulling switches, swinging and puzzle solving. The game relies heavily on this new technique, and ultimately alters the core GoW gameplay, so it’s worth mastering both in and out of combat.
The Blades of Chaos are still Kratos’ primary weapon, and unlike some of the more recent GoW installments, he can’t swap them out for another weapon entirely. Instead, he can temporarily pick up an assortment of enemy/world weapons such as a sword, a spear, a hammer or a sling, and use that alongside his blades by using the circle button. With no weapon equipped, circle serves as a physical attack button that can unleash a guard-breaking 300-style Spartan kick, a punch combo or a ground slam.
Instead of switching weapons, elemental effects such as fire, ice, lightning and spirit can be applied to the Blades of Chaos by tapping the d-pad once the proper artifacts are located. Each of the elements can be upgraded individually, along with the chains themselves, and their movesets are somewhat unique. The 4 different elementals also determine the magic that Kratos can unleash at any given time, and also affect which kind of orbs that enemies will release once defeated. So there’s a lot of strategy involved in determining when to switch things up, even in the middle of an encounter. Another addition to the combat that differs from previous installments is the rage meter, which fills up as combos are performed. When full, Kratos has access to new, much more powerful combos with his blades, though he can also activate the Rage of the Gods, which provides him with an even more brutal technique that empties the meter immediately.
The last of the significant additions to combat and gameplay come in the form of a trio of special items, which are used for puzzle solving and in combat as well. The Amulet of Uroborus can “heal” or “decay” parts of the environment and slow down enemies within combat, the Oath Stone of Orkos allows a temporary copy of Kratos to assist him in puzzles and fighting enemies, and the Eyes of Truth can see through illusions.
Even with some familiar moves and techniques, the combat in God of War: Ascension feels unique in comparison to the previous 5 titles in the series. I’ll be honest, the change in timing, animation and strategy threw me off somewhat during the first couple of chapters. Then it all clicked, especially once the chain grapple became second nature. Relying on old techniques and combos can only get you so far in Ascension, and most of the enemies will easily find a way to you apart if you stick with traditional square, square, style combos. Defensively rolling is essential as is parrying.
The QTE sequences and “minigames” when fighting enemies are still part of the gameplay, and other than the button icons sometimes blending into the UI and backgrounds too often, they are usually intuitively designed and thankfully short. Speaking of the interface, the menus are fairly bland and uninspired in Ascension, which was a surprise (to me at least). Visually, the only other issues I had with the game was when the camera scales way out or locks into a more cinematic angle. In these instances it’s nearly impossible to pick out Kratos from a swarm of enemies, especially when the action gets chaotic.
On the audio side, God of War: Ascension sounds like… God of War. I could be wrong, but I believe some of the effects actually originated from the very first PS2 game. They are still appropriate enough, though I feel like I’ve heard them many times before. The soundtrack, while new, sounds familiar as well. There’s a moderate amount of voice acting and it’s pretty much what you would expect from a God of War game in terms of quality. There seems to be less than in God of War III.
The single player God of War: Ascension experience should last around 10 – 12 hours for most players, which is more or less the sweet spot. Beyond one particularly challenging battle which takes place towards the very end of the game, Ascension is action-packed though not especially difficult. The boss encounters are definitely as epic as expected, even if they seem more few and far between in comparison to other God of War games. There are a few puzzle sequences that do slam the brakes on the game’s momentum, with at least one or two that may hang players up for more than a few minutes. After the credits roll there are a few collectibles to keep completionists and Trophy hunters busy.
What would a game be these days without some sort of online multiplayer component? I appreciate developers and publishers wanting to add value to a $60 game, though personally, I could have done without it in God of War: Ascension. That’s not to say that the competitive, team-based and co-op multiplayer modes (for 2 – 8 players) aren’t enjoyable or engaging. They are fun for a short time, but they don’t have anywhere near the same intensity as the single player campaign. With several gods to align with, and character customizations, rankings and upgrades, there’s has been no shortage of other players battling it out online from what I’ve seen. Some players may love the multiplayer action, however I’d rather start up a New Game+ and work through the story again.
Even though it may not be my absolute favorite God of War game in the series, God of War: Ascension is proof that there is indeed more life left in Sony’s brutal PlayStation franchise. It’s probably not the last we will see of Kratos or of the series, and by the gods, I’d certainly be totally behind a PS4 and/or PS Vita installment.