"Where can Kratos go from here?"
Considering that we all asked this question after finishing off God Of War III, just imagine how Sony Santa Monica must have felt. Trapped by the epicness of their own internal mythology, all eyes were on the veteran studio, eager to discover how they planned to continue the series and develop their way out of a bit of a pickle. In what seemed to be a bit of a cop-out at the time, the solution was to create a prequel. How trite. How predictable. How... wait, did Kratos just kill a goatman with another goatman?
God Of War: Ascension takes place 6 months after Ares tricked Kratos into murdering his own wife and child, back when the Demigod was just an exceptionally skilled Spartan general on the path of conquest. Tucked into Sony Europe's private meeting room at E3 2012, I was able to get a guided tour of the demo level, a desperate defence of a coastal town overrun by bestial satyrs and patrolled by a titanic sea monster. After being walked through the new combat mechanics, redesigned platforming and myriad improvements, I can happily report that Ascension may be a prequel, but there's nothing primitive about it.
God of War's combat has gradually evolved throughout the three major PS3 titles, and Ascension packs perhaps its most substantial update to date. My guide, Ascension's technical director, explained that the retooled mechanics will focus on Kratos' status as an experienced Spartan warrior, emphasising his military skill with any and all armaments. Kratos can now pick up any weapon he fancies, either from the environment or fallen enemies, each providing completely unique combat styles. Swift swords, tricky spears and ruinous hammers all have their uses, whether it's parrying a Satyr's blade or cracking through armoured plate like a sledgehammer to a walnut. Tire of a weapon, and you can discard it in the most badass way possible - throwing it directly at an enemy, stunning them in the process. Failing that, Kratos is also more than happy to wade into the fray with his own two mitts, punching and kicking with devastating effect. Coupled with the Blades Of Chaos for long range crowd control, Ascension's combat is uniquely versatile even for a God Of War title, and will be even more intuitive and fluid thanks to new menu-less weapon selection.
Instead of orbs, Kratos will gain experience in a more traditional manner, which we suspect can be used to power up different martial styles.
A new Rage system functions much like Rage Of The Gods ability from the original God Of War, except that it's powered up through skilful combat. Parries, blocks and dodges all contribute to filling your gauge, meaning that technical players will be rewarded by outrageous damage output. Elemental battle magic, such as the radial fire element blast, will also make an appearance.
Kratos is much more willing to manhandle his foes in Ascension, yes, even by God Of War standards. Once sufficiently brutalised, human-sized enemies can be tethered with the Blades Of Chaos to use as (in)human shields or makeshift weapons; there's nothing quite like laying out a squad of goat-like Satyrs with one of their own. You can swing or throw dominated foes, usually dishing out a stunning effect on contact, all while attacking normally with the other blade.
Or, should you choose to, there's always the time-honoured QTE finisher.
Though plenty of horrific QTE attacks still remain, including sawing through an Elephantaur's skull (think Minotaur, only an elephant) to expose its quivering brain, Ascension will introduce button-less reaction sequences. When picked up by this hulking brute earlier in the fight, for example, players can move Kratos' body and attack in real time; dodging with skill rather than ingrained reflex. Sequences like this should freshen up the combat no end, and increase immersion exponentially. Since Kratos is still very much human - or at least, that's what he believes - having to desperately fight his way out of these situations makes him feel like a more vulnerable, if not exactly relateable, protagonist.
Let's face it: Kratos will be doing a lot of killing. But there's more to God Of War than just wholesale slaughter - not a huge amount, I grant you - and Ascension has a few extra tricks up its sleeve. Kratos will be able to repair or decay structures with his new Life Cycle ability, aptly demonstrated by a scene where the grizzled Spartan repaired a collapsed siege tower halfway to form a series of platforms. Climbing has also been completely redesigned to make it more natural and freeform; you'll be able to pick your own way to your destinations instead of being guided by a strictly linear path.
Just in case you feel that this preview has been a little too violent for your tastes, I should probably mention that Ascension will showcase Kratos' softer side. Seeing a Satyr throw a spear at a panicking civilian, Kratos casually pushes him out of harm's way. Kratos hasn't yet become the "beast of God Of War III," and we'll get to see some of his humanity, indeed, potentially some more of the driving forces behind him becoming a rage-fuelled monster.
God Of War: Ascension is due in March 2013, and will feature an expansive multiplayer mode wherein players will pledge allegiance to one of four gods, participate in enormous battles against colossal enemies and level up their avatars. It may be a prequel, but Ascension is shaping up to be the most refined and innovative God Of War yet.