Pointed Acts of Tasteless Violence
God of War: Ascension is very nearly the best game in the series.
It also might be the worst.
Every plus is dogged with a minus. While environments are varied, expansive, and breathtaking in scale, the camera often pulls out so far you lose yourself in the goat scrum, little more than a spinning, sparking mote on ever-shifting ground. The game is gorgeous to behold, when it’s not freezing, hitching or dropping all sound. Presentation has never been better; shame that it hangs on a weightless story. Kratos has never been a compelling character so much as an effective misanthropy engine – in the attempt to give him more humanity they strip him of personality. The puzzles, art direction, traversal and level design are the best of the series, but the combat can feel inconsistent and, at times, cheap.
Questions you should ask yourself before investing: do you have any franchise fatigue? Are you feeling uncharitable about lame bugs that may or may not happen to you? Do you demand that every moment of the game match or exceed the opening of GoW III? Do you hate the very thought of multiplayer?
To the above I answer a resolute “No.” I loved the game. It sits on the top tier for me, close behind GoW II and Ghost of Sparta. I accept that it is flawed, in some cases maybe even broken (I had one crash in singleplayer, in the middle of the final boss fight; otherwise I was unaffected) – but I love it for what it does right much more than I resent it for where it fails.
Know thyself and act accordingly. If you yes’d with conviction any of the above, rent, wait or pass entirely. Sony Santa Monica is on High Alert by all accounts; three patches since launch and more on the way. As much as I am inclined to be angry at the State of Modern Games – unfinished product pushed to retail to meet a date instead of a standard – I find myself now just making choices I can feel good about. I recommend you do the same.
Down the road, I expect Sony to break out the multiplayer as standalone, free-to-play game, similar to what they did with Uncharted 3. In that event, I heartily recommend a try. I’m not a multiplayer guy, but Ascension has me hooked. The combat is meaty and tactile; the maps are often expansive, filled with traps and traversal and tiers and chests and weapons and objectives – it is breathless, brutal fun that rewards smart play as much as brute force. Win or lose you gain experience, and so does your gear; by completing meta objectives and leveling your God alignment you unlock new kit and abilities at a satisfying clip, in the beginning. Play is incentivized well enough to stoke interest, at least for now. The real story of any competitive multiplayer mode can’t be told launch week, but so far, so very, very good. This isn’t just a Trojan Horse for an online pass. It is a worthy addition to the franchise.
There is a popular myth among gamers that finite development resources mean a game can only do one thing well. Multiple modes mean one will suffer over the other, because that’s where they spent their time. I don’t know of that’s true. MP and SP were developed in tandem, and while MP seems to be less buggy, SP was far from phoned in.
Prequels are stupid. Very few are meaningful; fewer still are necessary. Prequels happen when a franchise ends but developers perceive the market wants more – or at least can bear more, will tolerate more, have enough franchise affection to buy in again. The trilogy never aspired to be more than grand, gory pulp, and the best story in the series, Ghost of Sparta, filled a gap left by intentions of the first team. Ascension doesn’t tell us a good, worthy Kratos story. It’s an excuse for more God of War. In that, it works well enough, but here’s a pro-tip for developers – when you’ve dipped in the well deep enough to dredge up “The Honkydonkeries”, you’ve maybe gone farther with your tenuous fiction than you should have.
But I’ll give them this – the whole enterprise is very well paced and fun to play. Honkydonk rivals the Titans for scale, and as an opener, for me, matches the impressive Poseidon fight that kicked off III. Each boss equals or trumps it, if not in scale than in spectacle and variety. But there aren’t more than a handful, spiced up with a few new mini-bosses and a couple old friends. And lots and lots of goats. Piles of goats.
One on one (or two or three), combat feels fantastic. It is a bit faster, a lot more tactical, and instead of new weapons you imbue your chain blades with different elements – Fire, Lightning, Ice and Soul. The only one I left out of rotation was Ice. The rest I switched through regularly.
All high-level combos you’d unlock in the other games through points are here trapped behind the Rage Meter. Successive hits on enemies build rage, and when it’s topped out you can pull off the flashy, brutal moves you know and love as well as a few, element-specific specials. Take one hit, though, and you have to start from scratch. It’s slick but unforgiving – all the combat is, to the point where it can feel cheap. The SP borrows the MP’s parry, which feels loose and frequently useless when ganged from every angle.
Still, the more time I spent, the better I got, the more fun I had – especially toward the end, where one particular trial forced me to really dig into ALL my combat options. You may have heard of it. It is as nasty as they say. But you do have the tools to triumph over it (invest points in the two quest-items you can level; use them all the time), and getting through it revealed to me how capable, if different, the new system is.
Bear in mind that, inexplicably, you can’t fail down to Easy if you die a lot. I played on Normal, and this game tested me. Now that I made it through, I’m glad I couldn’t back down to the level of Content Tourist – but if you’re just here for the show, you need to make that choice at the outset.
The story flits to and fro through time, starting near the end, moving to three weeks prior, looping back around itself a few times – however inessential the narrative, it’s laid out in a clever, engaging way. And more than any game in the series, save maybe II, this feels like a real adventure. You go places. Some dank, some bright, all different enough that even when you’re lead back through somewhere you’ve already been, you’re never too far away from something new.
Newish, at least – it is still, resolutely, God of War. There will be blood, boobs and brain-matter. For grand, tasteless spectacle and meaty, cinematic play, there are still few equals. Even with all its foibles and flaws, I came away feeling very Four Stars about it. But to get there, I let go of some things you might not be willing to. Ask yourself the right questions before diving in.