God of War: Ascension Review
God of War: Ascension is a game that often subscribes to a different design philosophy than its predecessors. There have been changes made to some of the most intrinsic tenants of the series, and everything from the combat mechanics to the progression of the story has received alterations to strike a new chord with its audience. Multiplayer was even added, granting the game a new element of replay value and promising to expand the series’ appeal to new players.
Unfortunately, these adjustments and additions add up to a product that is ultimately less than spectacular. While God of War: Ascension is a good game, it never ascends to become a great one due to a combination of misguided design decisions and a general lack of polish that sporadically derail the experience.
The story of God of War: Ascension is set just after Kratos's attempt to break his blood oath with Ares, the God of War, after the murder of his family. The Furies, goddesses/sisters tasked with restoring justice between mortals and the gods, begin to haunt Kratos's mind and produce illusions of his slain family with the goal of driving Kratos to a point of desperation. He agrees to resume his service to Ares in exchange for the visions to stop.
Many of the game’s areas are presented through a series of flashbacks which lead up to the Furies’ successful capture and imprisonment of Kratos. The story is furthered by a series of cut scenes that bring us back even further in the God of War timeline to the days when Kratos was a Spartan warrior with wife and child intact. The story has an interesting premise, and that makes it all the more disappointing that its execution does not live up to its ambition. For instance, it feels as though the flashback sequences exist solely as ways to extend the length of the game rather than to illuminate new mysteries and revelations about Kratos’s condition.
Furthermore, the story often feels disconnected from the established God of War lore, neglecting to illuminate Kratos’s fascinating origin story as a Spartan warrior and subsequently failing to provide a convincing circumstance for the continuation of Kratos’s journey in the story-sequel, Chains of Olympus. The final moments of the story do stand out in a positive way by providing a rare glimpse of Kratos’s humanity but fail to make a strong impact due to how late they occur in the overall experience.
The most significant departure from past God of War games in Ascension is the way in which combat is handled. No longer is Kratos free to unleash long strings of combos at all times; instead, a new system has been implemented which utilizes the rage meter to unlock the full potential of Kratos’s attack options. God of War veterans will be familiar with the rage meter, which would continue to fill up with successive hits until maxing out, when it could then be activated to unleash extremely powerful attacks over a short duration.
However, its usage in Ascension differs considerably and not to the benefit of the experience. Without a full rage meter, the available combo attacks are restricted in both length and variety, meaning that battles tend to devolve into a repeating (square+square+triangle) combo that proves to be successful but monotonous to execute. While the elaborate combos of past games are still present, they require a full rage meter to perform, and since each enemy hit removes some of the rage meter it was rare that I was ever able to max out the meter and utilize the most powerful combos in the heat of battle.
God of War: Ascension maintains the 4-weapon system that was introduced in GOW 3 but handles the mechanic in an entirely different way. Instead of opting to provide the player with four distinct weapons, each weapon is an augment of Kratos’s blades with a different elemental variety.
Unfortunately, there is hardly any differentiation between the elements aside from a few special attacks, making the decision on which one to use more of an aesthetic choice rather than a fitting of play-style. Luckily, the developers have introduced world weapons that can either be picked up throughout the environment or taken from disarmed opponents. These limited-use weapons bring a welcome sense of variety to the otherwise repetitive combat; it’s a shame though that the player doesn’t have the option of holding onto a weapon as a permanent part of their inventory.
New items are also granted to Kratos through this latest adventure with the highlight of these being the Amulet of Uroboros, which allows us to manipulate time and even revive decayed buildings and structures in certain occasions. While their usage feels slightly forced and predictive during the game’s puzzles, they come into their own during combat and give Kratos more fighting options besides the standard weapons.
The usage of enemies in God of War: Ascension has been adjusted in concert with the fighting changes as well. Enemies in this game tend to resemble sponges that require substantial damage to take down, which is different from past installments whose foes overwhelmed the player through numbers rather than by sheer bulk. God of War: Ascension is a game of very few boss encounters, but as a consolation of sorts, many of the larger enemy types from past games have been turned into full-fledged mini-bosses which require skill and planning to defeat. For not including many actual boss battles, this is a welcome consolation prize.
However, the real prizes in God of War: Ascension are the actual boss battles. The bosses in Ascension are fantastic across the board, showcasing an incredible sense of scope and variety as well as a fine understanding of the elements that make boss fights so compelling in this series. These boss encounters are undoubtedly the pinnacle of this game in every conceivable fashion, from the graphical fidelity of the arenas and characters to the substantial challenge they present to the player in combat.
Furthermore, the boss designs clearly pay homage to some of the greatest battles of the series’ past entries, albeit with a fresh coat of new ideas and technology layered on top. The only criticism that I could levy against the bosses in Ascension has to do with Sony Santa Monica’s handling of the final encounter. While the final boss is admittedly a technical marvel and an exciting encounter on its own, it is unfortunately one of the easiest fights in the entire game and doesn’t extend the legacy of having a very difficult Ares/Zeus-type showdown in its final moments.
Regrettably, what has become just as memorable as the game’s fantastic bosses to me has been the mishandling of other aspects of its design, both as a result of intentional design choices and an over-arching lack of proficiency in the way that this game has been constructed.
For instance, despite the developer’s insistence that Ascension was built upon an enhanced version of the GOW 3 engine, the game’s fidelity doesn’t quite live up to that masterpiece. Take for instance the lighting palette, which occasionally appears flat and lifeless next to GOW 3’s incredible dynamic lighting and shader technology. Also, consider the game’s texture work, which is typically solid but tends to have a lack of clarity in certain areas when viewed up close. Compounding this lack of fidelity is a frame-rate that feels consistently sluggish, curiously becoming the least fluid during cut-scenes and areas with little action on-screen.
Perhaps most problematic of all, the game’s fixed camera system often fails to provide a clear view during battle, leading to a few situations where I was fighting enemies who I couldn’t see because they were situated outside the range of the camera. In addition, the camera never seems to properly showcase the intricacy of each area, a notable contrast from God of War 3 whose camera served to meticulously highlight the subtlety and scale of the incredible environments that the developers had created.
Another significant flaw in the game’s presentation has to do with the way the heads-up display (HUD) elements are presented on screen, namely how distracting they are. Take the “auto save” indicator, which has replaced the need to manually save the game but has the unfortunate side effect of constantly popping up in the corner of the screen and distracting one’s gaze. Also, consider how the game repeatedly shows tutorial and button prompts instructing when to use certain items during puzzles and combat, taking some of the impetus away from the player to discover the solutions on their own and disrupting the flow of some of the game’s most exciting combat sequences, most notably in the final boss fight. The developers have designed these elements with the apparent assumption that the player would not understand how to use their items in unfamiliar situations, but in their attempt of hand-holding they have put a damper on the game’s feeling of discovery.
Furthermore, many of Ascension’s climbing sequences revolve around precisely timed button presses to grapple across chasms and bridges, and with the inconsistency of the grapple indicator's on-screen prompts, I often mistimed the execution and encountered a number of cheap deaths.
Overall, the game feels as though it is funneling the player through the experience by presenting a very specific sequence of rules through the HUD, and this feeling is compounded by level design that often feels very narrow and punctuated with invisible walls to force the player to approach each situation in manner that feels very predetermined.
This lack of freedom in God of War: Ascension’s levels is unfortunate because the game otherwise provides a convincing aura of exploration with its varied settings and pace. As a matter of fact, Ascension has a very similar feeling of progression as the first God of War. Both games open with an epic boss battle followed by a low-key journey through a small town, eventually working their ways to a second half taking place on a huge creature/statue such as the Titan Cronos or the Statue of Apollo.
Kratos’s journey takes place in a number of other refreshing environments also, such as a temple hovering precariously on the peak of a snowy mountain or an ancient island in the center of a vast ocean. Backtracking through these environments plays an important role in Ascension as well, as there are many instances where Kratos will visit an area lacking the item needed to progress only to later acquire that item and revisit the area to complete a specific task.
The newest element of God of War: Ascension and the one that has rightfully received the most scrutiny leading up to the game’s launch is the newly added multiplayer component of the series. The variety of game modes and maps offered means that almost anyone will be able to find the game-type that suits their interests and enjoy them in the same graphical fidelity as the single-player offering.
However, the combat mechanics have been changed somewhat from single-player, introducing a new learning curve that requires the player to become proficient at using a new set of magical powers and weapons. Unfortunately, some of the same issues of the single-player campaign appear again in multiplayer, such as a less-than-ideal camera and a sluggish frame-rate.
The question must be asked then, was Ascension’s multiplayer component a successful addition to the series? Viewed on its own terms, the multiplayer definitely has enough variety and fun-factor to be a relevant addition to the PSN’s online landscape. However, it can debated that the considerable time spent developing the multiplayer component took away the team’s focus on creating a single-player experience with the impeccable craftsmanship and polish of its forbearers, and in that respect I believe that the team would have been better off creating a familiar but incredible game rather than a merely good one that pushed the series into new territory.
God of War: Ascension is ultimately a game that strives to push the series into new directions with mixed results. The changes to the combat system, storytelling concerns, camera issues, and lack of polish bring down the overall experience to something that doesn’t fully live up to the series’ namesake. However, the refreshing environmental variety, interesting puzzles, and terrific boss battles make a strong case that even a merely good God of War game can still be a valuable addition to anyone’s PS3 library.