Around the bend and behind the back wall of the Playstation space at the EB Expo started the queue for God of War: Ascension. The lines were never really huge, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s because many couldn’t find it. But I thankfully did see the queue and got in with about thirteen others to simultaneously try it out. The portion playable was the level that started on the docks, shown for the first time at E3 this past June.
Pressing start and seeing the camera turn and lock into the game perspective with that signature God of War menu transition reaffirmed to me that I was about to have that classic God of War experience. Speaking of, the one mechanic that has been debated over the years is the camera control, or lack there-of. It is still locked with the roll-dodge still assigned to the right analog stick. There are some significant control tweaks that I will detail throughout this hands-on account, the first of which occurs immediately. A dying man with a massive sword in his back lies ahead. Pressing the ‘circle’ button picks this weapon up, but it is also used to attack with said weapon. Holding R1 and pressing ‘circle’ does a special attack unique to that weapon. These weapons that you will find over the course of a stage are temporary, and disappear after a certain number of uses. This does not necessarily mean that your long term attainable weapons have been scrapped in favour for more momentary ones, but it’s a nice way to add more variety in the long run without overwhelming the player in giving Kratos too many “tools” to swap between at any given time. What does the ‘circle’ button do when you are not carrying a special weapon you ask? It is used as a melee attack that can be used in a combo with your other takes, but on its own works as a push-away thrust kick.
Button prompts show up to tell me the basics of the gameplay, and it quickly becomes apparent that, because of the new ‘circle’ button assignments mentioned above, the grab and finisher capabilities have been re-mapped to R1. Upon thrashing a gathering of the goat-like Satyrs (which show up during every battle in the demo…pests!), a red, curved light displayed above their heads indicating the opportunity for a finisher. I promptly finished one off by lifting them overhead and ripping them apart using R1 which, as those astute gamers out there will realise, is a different kill animation from the one shown at E3 where Kratos grabs them by the horns and rips their head off. In the course of finishing off the rest of the Satyrs, I accidentally pressed L1, which initiated the new “Life Cycle” mechanic. This magic emanates a green hue and manipulates time; in this case it freezes my enemies in time for a few seconds. In the midst of all this, a Satyr General jumps down to join the battle, whom I also dispatched handily. The more elaborate finishers for bigger enemies still utilises the quick-time event to complete it, however the colouring of the button prompts, while still showing the face buttons’ shapes of course, are no longer complete replications of the actual buttons on the Playstation controller. Their base colour is a series signature sandy brown, and they were less noticeable, mostly because the environment was of a brownish tint and it blended in.
After attempting to grab a spear jutting out of a dead soldier’s body, an in-game cut-scene plays showing the Kraken-like Charybdis throwing a broken boat at Kratos and destroying part of the dock with an elevator. This leads into the first opportunity to “Heal” space by using Life Cycle. To do this, I stood in a green highlighted spot and held L1. This reverses time to a point where I can traverse the broken pieces of the dock to get across to another Life Cycle anchor point and finish the re-construction. After using the elevator and reaching the next level, Kratos picks up a Satyr-thrown spear, which I then use until it runs out. The Charybdis interrupts once again, and after a quick button-mash to avoid being crushed, Kratos is thrown to another platform where two Hades Talos successively break out of their pose much like their ascendants, the Stone and Bronze Talos (or descendants seeing as this is a prequel?), swinging their fiery hammers. It is here that I discovered the ‘Elemental Magic’ ability mapped to R2. Its use unleashes a satisfying circle of bursting fires that does massive damage. Your ability to pull off this manoeuvre is governed by the returning “Rage” meter. At one point I had ignited and every enemy I hit caught fire, which must have been the result of the now automatic activation of the Rage meter once it’s full. But, I did still notice a prompt next to the meter on the bottom right of the screen to click both L3 and R3 together. Although I never used it, I assumed that it corresponded to using the Rage ability manually, so that the player would still have the option to use it when they want, although it would last shorter.
After a small climbing section, I came across the demo’s boss – the Elephantaur. The strategy to use against him is essentially the same as the Talos, except that he will grab you if you are unlucky, at which point you must mash ‘square’ and/or ‘triangle’ to get out of his grip. Beating him leads to a final cut-scene with Kratos attacking the reappearing, and unrelenting, Charybdis head-on. And so it was time for me to reflect as I finished playing first in my group and began to watch the others finish their play-throughs. Ascension is definitely the most transformed between all of the God of War titles; it’s controls have been somewhat significantly altered, although it still plays like God of War. It’s as easy as ever to pick up and play, and the new control scheme will not distract from that fact for those familiar with the old one. Graphically, it’s better than ever with noticeably better lighting and earthier, grittier tones. The demo was also really well-paced too, like every previous game in the series. In my opinion, it seems like Sony’s Santa Monica studio has done it again, and although it will be hard to top the mammoth scale and set-pieces of God of War 3, they may just have some “oh my God!” moments waiting in the wings that will once again raise the bar for the franchise. Looks like March of next year could very well be a busy, and expensive, month for me.