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God of War: Ascension Review | Treading Water in the Calm Before the Storm

Author:
Brendan Griffiths
Category:
Reviews
Tags:
Action Games, God Of War: Ascension, Kratos, PS3 games, Sony Santa Monica Studios

God of War: Ascension Review | Treading Water in the Calm Before the Storm

Platform: PS3

Developer: Sony Santa Monica Studios

Publisher: Sony

Following up the cataclysmic events of God of War III must have been a terrifying ordeal for a studio to go through. However, when a series already has a prequel along with another game filling the gap between games one and two I struggled to see how Kratos’ adventures could do anything but go forwards.

In an old panel interview with the other four individual God of War director’s, David Jaffe (GOW1) said that he would have liked to see gods from around the world (think Norse and Chinese) move in on Olympus in a power vacuum caused by the death of the Zeus and his brethren. That would have been an unbelievably hot premise and the only true way to follow up Kratos’ gloriously enraged finale. It’s going to happen; it’s too good an idea to not. But sadly, I expect we’ll have to wait until PlayStation 4 as Sony are playing it safe with this prequel set before even the events of Chains of Olympus.

So where do you go after taking on the gods of Mount Olympus and even the mountain-sized Titans? Even further back into the ancient world is the answer as Kratos’ main adversaries this time are The Furies, three beings who hunt down anyone who has broken a blood oath to a god. Having recently decided he’d had enough of being Hades’ plaything, Kratos is the latest object of their affections.

God of War: Ascension Review | Treading Water in the Calm Before the Storm

Series fans may have already picked up on the fact that this story forgoes much of the reason Kratos is locked into servitude to Hades and such. I thought with this being the earliest game in the chronological timeline it wouldn’t rely so much on knowledge of the past games and I’d be able to recommend it as a starting point for any newcomers. This isn’t the case, if this is your first God of War game; you’re going to feel a bit left out. A missed opportunity to find a new audience to be sure. On the plus side, I will recommend the HD collections of the previous games as the overall series is amongst PlayStation’s very best. Right, enough newbie pandering, let’s get stuck in.

My eyes have been popping all week playing the new Tomb Raider and then this came along and essentially gave my eyes a taste of what the PS4 will hopefully provide for them on a regular basis. There’s just no gap between gameplay and cutscene, I was frequently surprised after an action scene to see nudging the analogue stick would move Kratos. Every environment glistens with a real-world sheen. Forget matte finish or flat, painted on textures, you can almost run your hands over the detail in the carved metal engravings on the wall or splintered scaffolding around the huge Apollo statue.

I felt guilty running through some areas. The detail is often jaw dropping on a simple corridor that you’ll only run through once. I have to admit, I just walked slowly through some of them, keen to take it all in.

God of War: Ascension Review | Treading Water in the Calm Before the Storm

In regards to spectacle, the game gets off to a great start, pitting Kratos against a walking city, a huge titan-esque creature with many arms, each acting like a street complete with buildings adorning them. Oh, and a nasty snake/crab hybrid thing coming out its palms. It’s a huge opening stage that raised my expectations for what lay ahead. Unfortunately this is an example of a game blowing its load all too soon as this encounter outclassed the rest of the game.

For all the trailers and pre-release chatter, don’t expect any great revelation or deep insight into Kratos’ character. He’s a bastard throughout, borderline unlikable. The PSP title Chains of Olympus did a much better job of showing the ‘father’ side of Kratos with its touching Elysian Fields chapter. By the conclusion, I didn’t feel like I’d learned anything important ahead of retackling the other games again.

Gameplay

The camera is locked-in throughout as we’ve come to expect, with the right stick reserved for energetic dodge rolls. This sometimes gives the world a bit of a movie-set feel as you’re always looking from a forced perspective. That’s not a huge problem; however, I do have a major issue with the camerawork that infuriated me on a regular basis.

God of War: Ascension Review | Treading Water in the Calm Before the Storm

With the cinematography keen to emphasise the large scale of the world, the camera frequently zooms out leaving Kratos as an angry ant in the distance. This is fine when there’s not much going on, but when you’re in the middle of fight against a group of enemies it becomes incredibly difficult to see what you’re doing. Forget timing blocks and parries; just bash buttons until the camera decides to come back after its helicopter tour around the ancient Greek isles.

With this being a prequel we thought Kratos’ move set may have been altered but it’s still alarmingly stripped down with only a handful of combos available. The cyclone of chaos has been cruelly adjusted to a button hold rather than Square and L1, making it less responsive and the move itself has been toned down. Boo. Fucking. Urns.

Kratos can now pick up selected weapons from the battlefield and yield them with the circle button. These include swords, spears, shield and heavy clubs. With no combos available for them, there’s a good chance you’ll forget they’re there.

God of War: Ascension Review | Treading Water in the Calm Before the Storm

The variety in the combat comes from the upgrades to your chained blades. You’re given access to all four varieties in quick succession, which you can swap between with the d-pad. These include fire, lightning, ice and wraith. With the same combos available for each, you at least don’t have to memorise different move sets. The controls may be the same, but there are some slight differences in their weight and physicality.

Without any health bars over the enemies it’s frequently difficult to gauge which blade enhancement is more effective. Swapping between blade-style is sometimes a little clunky and combos don’t link between them either. The only advantage is different coloured orb rewards being tied to each enhancement.

Quick Time Events are as frequent as ever in the boss fights, and to be fair, no game series does them better for keeping you in the moment. This is in no short measure to the button prompts appearing on the edge of the screen, corresponding to the face button layout, allowing you to enjoy the action and instinctively jab the correct button.

God of War: Ascension Review | Treading Water in the Calm Before the Storm

QTEs are still a part of basic brawling too. You’ll finish off Centaurs and Cyclops with familiar prompts after initiating the event with a tap of the grab button near a wounded foe. However, the involvement has been improved for some enemies. Take the gorgons, upon entering a QTE, the camera will zoom in and you’ll be asked to continue attacking with square and triangle at will, but will have to flick the analogue stick at the right time to avoid a stone stare blast or a vicious clawed swipe.

Spending red orbs that gush from enemies and chests nets you upgrades like extra damage and magic abilities. Magic is tied to the four types of chained blades, but for some reason, fire aside, they’re all buried towards the back of the unlock list. I’m sure I finished the game without even getting time to test two of the spells.

Kratos has a few new tools at his disposal. He can twist the effects of time around certain objects to age or revitalise them. Chains can be fixed, walls weakened or it can be used in combat to briefly slow down enemies. Another ability sees him summon a ‘shade’ version of himself that can hold levers in place while he makes a run for it. He’s also handy for leaving on pressure pads or distracting enemies.

God of War: Ascension Review | Treading Water in the Calm Before the Storm

Puzzles are gallingly familiar although some require an abundance of trial and error of combinations until stumbling on a solution. When you add in some of the dodgy jumping skills and unresponsive lever prompts, they can really test your patience. Don’t worry pad-smashers, there’s nothing quite as bad as the Blades of Hades to encounter this time.

The Bugs of War

Anyone that read my God of War III review may remember that I got very agitated with the platforming sections, especially the mid-air grappling hook areas that suffered from unresponsive controls leading to multiple deaths. Let’s put it this way, the only times I died during Ascension were from falling rather than during combat. Basic jumps are awkward as even jumping up to ledges from the floor often required frequent attempts to find that ‘sweet spot’ where the game would allow  you to grab on. DmC suffered from similar issues a few months back, it would seem it’s a genre requirement to having painfully poor and unnecessary platforming sections in your hack ‘n slashers nowadays. This player-detection issue of having to be in an exact position affected many of the chests and switches too.

God of War: Ascension Review | Treading Water in the Calm Before the Storm

Multiplayer

The only way I could foresee multiplayer working for God of War was as some form of separate co-op, as briefly glimpsed towards the end of Ghost of Sparta. But that’s not the angle Sony Santa Monica has gone for. Instead, players are tasked with taking a new warrior through the ranks in deathmatch, team deathmatch and capture the flag modes.

Without the iconic chained blades you’re left with swords, hammers and clubs to fight with and boy do they all feel dull compared to Kratos’ toys. Special moves that recharge after use are available, but everything feels so slow. There’s something of a rock paper scissors system going on with players flashing blue when vulnerable or red when performing an unblockable heavy move. The camera is quite keen on zooming out though and when there are five of you laying into each other at once, it’s difficult to even see which one you are.

Map design is surprisingly solid though and the inclusion of traps to activate makes things more interesting. Team modes give you points or ‘favour’ for kills, chests and capturing waypoints. In regards to latency with online lag, the game can be a bit hit and miss, which can ruin a game like this where precision and timing are key.

God of War: Ascension Review | Treading Water in the Calm Before the Storm

There’s a wave-based co-op mode for two players against the AI that had potential, but ultimately fails. You’re fighting against the clock with cleared waves and grisly finishers giving you extra time. Finishers usually take 2-3 seconds to pull off and you’re only rewarded one bonus second – go figure. Overall, the time limits feel unnecessary as they’re overly tight, there could have at least been a mode where you just had to survive as long as possible. I encountered the most technical issues here too with frequent occurrences of none of my hits registering on the AI for periods of up to a minute.

There are lots of equipable items and perks to unlock, but overall the dullness of the combat along with the technical issues mean you’re unlikely to play past your first weekend. Spending more time on the single player would have served the game better as you can tell resources were sacrificed to spend time on the multiplayer. Next time, we hope the focus shifts back towards TLC rather than DLC.

Pros

  • Erm, is this the best-looking game on PS3?
  • Combat is an enjoyable blood-splattering tornado
  • Multiplayer map design is good...

Cons

  • ...But the multiplayer combat is very dull
  • Platforming and swinging is horrendous
  • Combat and spectacle feels watered down

The Short Version: At its core, God of War has always been about the action. And despite the disposable multiplayer, plodding puzzle sections and fist-in-mouth frustration of some of the platforming I can’t deny that -as a series fan- there’s an undeniable blood-soaked magic to the combat. It’s exhilarating when you get Kratos into top gear and manage to maintain 100+ combos by leaping up and pulling enemies in with your hungry chained blades, bounce them off the floor before pulling up another for more and thundering back down to the ground in a storm of ice and fire. More than even the impressive GOWIII, Ascension just stops you in your tracks with how goddamn amazing it looks. Seriously, I often struggled to imagine where the PS4 has left to go. I tell you what though; I can’t wait to find out. I’ll see you all there.

God of War: Ascension Review | Treading Water in the Calm Before the Storm

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