God of War: Ascension
Developer: Sony Santa Monica
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Format: PlayStation 3
Release Date: Out Now
Price: $59.99 USD (Available Here)
The fourth entry in the God of War series on consoles, God of War: Ascension is a prequel to the first that deals with Kratos’ attempts to break free from his oath to Ares after being tricked into murdering his wife and child. Sony Santa Monica had a large undertaking before them in raising the bar for epic moments and set pieces after the jaw-dropping Titan levels in God of War III. With its genre-breaking, series-first multiplayer addition, does Ascension break the chains of expectations or belong locked away in the Prison of the Damned?…
A prequel to the original God of War, ‘Ascension’ begins just months after the death of Kratos’ wife and daughter, Lysandra and Calliope, who were killed by his own hand. Ares used Kratos’ oath to him in order to control him and force him to commit such acts of violence against the innocent and his own kin. The game opens with a recount of history from Gaia, our resident narrator, introducing us to a chained and tortured Kratos. Refusing to comply with his oath to Ares after those horrific and tragic events, Kratos finds himself imprisoned in the Prison of the Damned – fashioned around and as part of the first oath breaker, the titan Aegaeon the Hecatonchires. Kratos breaks free from his chains and pursues Megaera – the disease-ridden Fury of the body and his punisher, whose sisters Tisiphone and Alecto are the Furies of the mind and soul respectively. After a gigantic battle at the head of the Hecatonchires, Kratos gets his hands on Megaera and the Amulet of Uroborus, which she was carrying.
It’s at this point that the player is taken 3 weeks back in time to when Kratos meets Orkos for the first time. He is at first startled by the dark figure, but Orkos only wants to help. He alerts Kratos to the oncoming threat of the Furies, who are coming to capture and punish him for denouncing his oath to Ares. Kratos has been subject to hallucinations, for which Orkos implores Kratos visit the Oracle in Delphi where the “truth waits for you”. Along his journey to the mountain range, Kratos faces many obstacles, not the least of which are the Gemini Twins, Castor and Pollux. A self-proclaimed prophet, Castor and his under-developed conjoined twin Pollux attempt to prevent Kratos from reaching a weakened Oracle. Eventually, Kratos continues on to the Lantern of Delos, where he seeks to acquire “the Eyes of Truth” so that he may see through the Furies’ magic and imposed visions.
I won’t mention any more for spoilers’ sake. I should clarify that after the aforementioned flashback, the game does switch back and forth between present and past a couple more times. I have no qualms with this narrative structure, however it is quite uneven here. Once you come back from that initial memory, you have maybe two fights and then revisit the past once again for what seemed like an eternity until the conclusion. I actually lost track of where/when I was at one point, which is especially easy when considering that Tisiphone plays mind games with us and often creates illusions of another time and place throughout. However, I love a good revenge story, and this is classic God of War. I would wager there to be much fewer a number of cinematics in this title, although that perception may be hazy as I played through the campaign on Hard and so there was more time between plot points as I continued to die, and die hard! (I’ll talk about the difficulty of the game in the Gameplay section).
The Furies are worthy adversaries for Kratos and the fact that they can play on Kratos’ state of mind means that we get to see a softer side of the big lug as they momentarily fool him into believing he is actually present with his wife and daughter. Aside from seeing how Kratos dealt with breaking his supposedly eternal bond to Ares, we are also given some more insight into the preliminary phases of the plan Ares hatched to overthrow Zeus. For any fan of Greek mythology, or the series, Ascension will present an enjoyable storyline that furthers the lore of the world. For those who are thinking of initiating themselves with the series though, even though it’s a prequel, you must have played the first game to understand many things here. All in all, the story isn’t revelatory, but is another chapter in Kratos’ saga that I appreciate and enjoyed.
Gameplay-wise, Ascension changes up the God of War formula in not quite a dramatic fashion, but a fresh one none-the-less. Returning are the trademark coloured orbs, light and heavy attacks, dodge-roll and parry, gruesome finishers, intuitive platforming and grappling. But there is a fair amount of new here too. Quick-time events also make a return, but now there are prompt-less contextual moments where an enemy rears back to attack and you have a short window to decide for yourself which direction to dodge in. They will telegraph their advances to give you fair warning; for instance, the Gorgon will straighten up and its eyes will glow before unleashes its stone-cold glare. From one welcome inclusion to another that isn’t much more than an empty traversal mechanic; the slide. Sliding is found sparingly in the game, and the developers would have you believe it a challenge to avoid obstacles as you do so, but it’s not. All but one related section requires little involvement from the player outside of pressing ‘X’ at the foot of a gap in the path.
In previous games you may have acquired entirely new weapons with different fight styles throughout the course of the campaign, but in this one things have changed. There are 5 “World Weapons” to pick up which will be in your possession only temporarily. They are: the Sword (multi-hit), the Club (slow, one-hit at a time), the Javelin (long range, a set number included which run out), the Sling (also has a set number, explodes on contact) and the Shield (can be used as a battering ram when holding down ‘O’). Only one can be carried at a time and pressing ‘L1’ and ‘O’ in combination will execute a powerful special move unique to each weapon at the sacrifice of carrying the weapon any further. All that said, there are still upgrades and new powers that Kratos attains for the long haul. Placed throughout are 4 gates with a vessel in front of each that houses a specific enhancement. These are: the Fire of Ares, the Ice of Poseidon, the Lightning of Zeus and the Soul of Hades.
Each of the above-mentioned enhancements basically imbues your Blades of Chaos with the appropriate power and can be switched between with the use of the D-Pad. They don’t alter the basic move-set of Kratos, but do come with their own specials, advantages, effects and magic attacks. For example, clicking ‘L3’ and ‘R3′ when Kratos’ rage meter is full unleashes a tornado of a freezing ice storm when the Ice of Poseidon is equipped. They each also extract different orbs from an enemy defeated by their special attacks/magic. I.e. the Lightning of Zeus yields blue orbs (magic re-fillers). This fact adds a new level of strategy to combat when you are low on any resource, whether it be health or red orbs due to you missing some chests. Let me tell you; the Soul of Hades was a God-send (apt) during the Trial of Archimedes…three levels of enemies, each with 2-3 waves, with no health/magic refills or checkpoints between them. Insanity! Playing on hard, it took me 1.5 hours to figure out how to beat that area. I can’t imagine it on the Titan difficulty mode.
Added to this arsenal are three magical items that can be used during combat and specified points in traversal. The Amulet of Uroborus is a time-shifting trinket that can heal or decay objects to a prior state. In combat, it freezes enemies in their tracks. The Oath-stone of Orkos allows Kratos to create a double of himself. In combat, the double is extremely beneficial. And finally, the Eyes of Truth dissipate all of Alecto’s inky magic which prevents the player from advancing in certain areas. In combat, it is a flash attack that disorientates opponents for a short period of time. All three have cool-down periods, some of which can be reduced via upgrades, which can likewise be made for the Blades of Chaos and its enhancements for higher damage and unlockable attacks among other things. What I love about these powers is that they have a purpose within the puzzles as well, which are outstanding this go around. They are real thinkers, which I greatly appreciated after a game like Tomb Raider featured 2-3 minute “puzzles”, if you can call them that. The game takes a couple hours to ramp up to the better brain-busters and tougher combat situations, but once they do the game becomes considerably more entertaining and gratifying, not to mention memorable as a result.
Back to the powers…the Oath-stone of Orkos is especially handy and necessary during certain puzzles. You may push a handle, only for the affected object to return to its original state/position immediately after release. But with the Oath-stone you can create a clone of yourself to hold onto the handle at its endpoint to ensure the affected object stays in place long enough for you to utilise it in whatever way is required. It also works in combination with the new tether system, which allows Kratos to attach his blade to a mechanism and pull it backwards from a distance. That integration is much like the slide mechanic – kinda pointless. But, the tether system’s real intended use is in combat, where enemies can be grappled using ‘R1’, at which point Kratos can swing his blades while keeping them in check, fling them with the impaled blade or pull them in to throw them at another baddie. One final thing of note in regards to single-player are the ‘Artifacts’ strewn throughout the levels. Unlike the discoverable journal entries of multiple characters which give background information on certain events that molded your immediate environment/situation, these Artifacts have actual gameplay implications as they each represent and empower Kratos with an advantage for use in New Game + (new costumes are also available for further play-throughs after beating the game.
And now, we come to multiplayer…because of many factors – being in Australia, few having the game before release and possible lack of interest from others? – I did not get to experience the new 8-Player maps not included in the multiplayer beta. There just were never enough people on at one single time to do it. But, having played the beta, I did give my impressions on the 8-Player Capture the Flag and Team Favor of the Gods match types then and they still stand. I did, however, get to play Match of Champions (4 Players) and both the solo and co-op Trial of the Gods match types. Rotunda of Olympus was the only new arena I fought within – which people will recognise as the “tutorial area”. I immediately noticed many adjustments made, although one most important to me did not come to fruition, and that’s a clear standing of someone’s level in the match-making process. Maybe there is an underlying system that quietly picks the right opponents for your experience level, but I cannot be sure of it. However, there is now an option to mute players in the match-making menu, which can be useful on occasion. An image on the bottom right of the menu displays the upcoming arena you will be playing in too. Among many other U.I. revisions, this is the biggest one.
There is no ability, however, to veto or pick between choices of maps. I understand that there may not be many maps to begin with, but it’s still something I like to be able to do. Onto the actual gameplay; Match of Champions (formerly Favor of the Gods) features an additional pick-up – the Chalice. Holders of the Chalice receive extra points for the duration of their possession, but extra points also go to the person to defeat them. You have to be really good to hold onto that Chalice for any significant amount of time. Trial of the Gods was the latest mode to be unveiled prior to release and is fundamentally a version of Horde mode. Time is added to the clock, which starts at 2 minutes, with every kill and wave completed. You are rewarded with a Bronze, Silver or Gold medal for a round depending on your performance/efficiency. I loved seeing Hercules jump down from his observation area to join the fight in Wave 3 in the Forum of Hercules. It can get markedly tougher to survive, but mostly thanks to the considerably short timer. All in all, I actually really enjoy Ascension’s multiplayer. The customisation options work well within their respective classes and genuinely give reasons for choosing what works best for you and your play style. Is it a little rough around the edges? Yes, but I still had a lot of fun with it.
It goes without saying that God of War: Ascension is stunning. Critics and fans alike lauded over God of War III’s graphics, but Ascension had a few moments where I literally said to myself “wow, this ALMOST looks next-gen”. The new lighting system works wonders in creating a more realistic environment/atmosphere. I did have a slight issue with the brightness levels of the game though. We all know the standard brightness setting where you alter the levels until you can faintly see a logo or portion of an image against a black background? Well, here I had to turn it all the way up to 100% with my TV’s brightness level at 50% (which has always been perfect for me). Even then, the test pattern was hardly visible. I had to turn my TV’ brightness up to 62% to meet the “requirements”, but then it was just too bright. I decided to set it back to 50% with the in-game brightness on 90%, which worked just fine.
People have talked of the non-controllable camera system synonymous with the God of War franchise with negative connotations over the years, but I’ve never found it to be a problem. In Ascension, there is one isolated situation where it pushes too far into Kratos – during activation of the Rage of the Gods power in the tighter of combat spaces – and goes through his 3D model, but thankfully that is a transitional moment where the player loses control of Kratos during the animation so it does not affect gameplay. In Delphi, there is a sequence where Kratos has a light battle while riding the mechanised Python through an ice cavern as ice walls and stalagmites pass through the foreground of the shot. Moreover, the camera pulls out a substantial amount to show scale as the robo-serpent ascends the mountains during a fight on its back, which is the only instance where the player doesn’t have as clear a sight on the action as other times. I feel these were necessary artistic choices to sell the magnificent surroundings of Kratos and had very little impact on combat.
Speaking of Delphi, the spectacle of the location is amazing. Along with the opening on Aegaeon the Hecatonchires and the Statue of Apollo in Delos, the Tower and Temple of Delphi is something to behold. Once inside; this is where the graphics engine cemented its power. In short, what truly floored me was the marble materials and their reflective properties. I haven’t seen hard-reflective surfaces like that look so good in a game before, and when you add in particle effects and the ambient light of lit flames, it really is astonishing. I actually believe that the in-game graphics are greater than the cinematics’, which is not something you hear very often. Also, I must reference the character designs, as the new enemies – including the Furies, Empusa, Manticore and Elephantaur – feel visually fresh whilst, thematically, looking like they belong in the mythos. And for anyone who is interested, Sony have included all episodes of the making-of documentary, ‘Unchained’, on-disc and unlocked from the get-go. So you can get a pretty in-depth understanding of the creative process behind everything mentioned.
This is where God of War: Ascension disappoints the most. I have never encountered such a constant, consistent level of audio bugs and hitches in a game, ever! (at least for a veeeeery long time). I have no idea how a studio this big gets it so wrong. At numerous points during the game, the background music, ambience…pretty much all sound cuts-out for a second. Sometimes it just skips and sound effects are delayed (something I mentioned in my early hands-on single-player impressions that hasn’t been completely rectified). And when we’re talking about the soundtrack or score, there barely is one. I mostly heard the same track re-purposed for different sections of the game. I maybe heard three unique tracks not counting ambience. The new theme IS great, and it could just be that every piece sounded extremely similar, but that’s a problem in itself and not an excuse. Other than the audio hiccups, I also felt like there were missing sfx and music all together.
When you run around ramming through enemies with a Satyr’s limp body, there is barely any noise being made…it’s like a vacuum. A very strange experience to play it and notice a distinct lack of sound where you’d expect it (screams? collision sounds?!). Occasionally, a section would be lacking music where it really would have been of benefit. Multiplayer suffers from the same issues, such as a battle in the Rotunda of Olympus devoid of any combat music whatsoever. The sound effects in-play, however, are visceral and fitting for the context they’re used in. Some may have been reused from God of War III, but only when there’s a familiar enemy encountered. There is one particular execution that is extremely satisfying thanks to a combination of the animation, visuals, feedback and sound especially. It involves Kratos stabbing and tearing through a Gorgon’s cranium, all the way down the chest. The foley work on that kill is insanely grotesque sounding…crazy to think you can evoke such a feeling from smashing a watermelon in a studio somewhere!
God of War: Ascension features good ol’ Kratos kicking ass and taking names…okay, more like ripping Satyrs in half and slicing open the heads of Elephantaurs, which is what I want from a God of War game. It’s brutal, violent, but also challenging, requiring strategic choices in combat and great observational and deductive reasoning skills to solve its mind-stumping puzzles. The single-player campaign does take a little while to really pick up steam in the story and combat, but the important thing is that it does get better – exponentially so. The one criticism I’d levy is that the balance between past and present tense scenes is quite uneven, as I spent so long in a flashback that I lost track of the timeline and forgot about the state of the present until I was briefly reintroduced to it before being pulled back in time for another 4 hour block.
The multiplayer is fun and the team has done a great job in transposing aspects of the solo experience in a multiplayer context. I am disappointed that there is no visual representation of the level of your opponents in match-making, as you could theoretically be easily overpowered if you are just starting out, and would’ve also appreciated the option to choose between or veto arenas. Although some of the platforming is rudimentary and the new slide mechanic was not used to its full potential, the only true sore point for me was in the audio department. Constant cut-outs, skips and flat-out perplexing omissions really broke the immersion for me. All in all, however, Ascension does rise to the occasion, impressing where it counts. It’s definitely a familiar game, but a much more refined one at that. And with it pushing the PS3 to its absolute limits, I can’t wait to see its inaugural next-gen instalment.
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