God of War: Ascension struggles to find interesting situations for its refined, button-mashing combat
God of War: Ascension feels like the by-product of a generation that has gone on for far too long. After God of War III wrapped up the trilogy, Ascension attempts to bleed the well of Greek mythology dry even further. The third prequel in the series - and first not on a handheld device - Kratos’ latest violent adventure could be best described as unnecessary without causing too much fuss. With Zeus and his holy pals put on the backburner till later in the timeline, our angry antihero feels less motivated than he was in his rage-fuelled quest for revenge in God of War III - an aspect that’s unfortunately reflected in the game design in what is a fairly by-the-numbers affair.
With most of Greek mythology’s favourite gods and monsters having been exhausted already, Ascension introduces the antagonistic Furies to the fray. A type of mythical police force, these three goddesses punish those who break oaths and sever promises, imprisoning and torturing the hapless fools for all eternity. With Kratos in their bad books Ascension’s narrative weaves an incoherent tale of gruesome proportions, but it never really moves beyond being anything other than superfluous. When Kratos isn’t incredibly pissed off at everything in sight there isn’t much to him so his character is a basic non-entity throughout. He doesn’t say a single word for long periods of time and the story lacks any sense of purpose, essentially serving to move you from one combat situation to the next.
That combat has remained true to what you expect out of the series, foregoing any sense of finesse for raw aggression and buckets of blood. With his signature Blades of Chaos in hand Kratos rips and shreds his enemies every which way and that with fantastic ferocity. The series’ combat has been refined, replacing multiple weapons with elemental abilities that are tied to the Blades of Chaos, allowing you to switch between them on the fly, racking up big multi-hit combos with familiar attacks. It’s brutal, tactile and incredibly satisfying, but issues arise when Ascension has to find engaging situations for it. There are plenty of enemies to fight, both new and old, but when the massive spectacle is lacking it quickly becomes bogged down in uninteresting scenarios that drag on for far too long.
Ascension’s front and backend is punctuated by the kind of impressive scale and phenomenal spectacle that showcased God of War III’s technical supremacy. Gargantuan enemies fill the screen, intricately designed and suitably grotesque. They pummel the environment with lavish attacks as the floor beneath your feet shifts and moves; each battle culminating in an assortment of traditional combat, sweeping cinematic shots and non-intrusive quick time events. The art design is often times beautiful, providing a stark contrast to the macabre, yet stylistic violence on show. It’s a mightily impressive production - though the sound does have a tendency to cut off at times; unfortunate considering the quality of the score - and these moments remain Ascension’s best. But once they’re over it struggles to ever find a consistent groove for Kratos’ Blades to wreck havoc.
This is none more evident than in the game’s final third as its bag of tricks grows ever wearisome. You find yourself locked in arena after arena, fighting ever increasing waves of the same enemies as even the combat begins to lose its appeal. Suddenly a drastic difficulty spike appears out of nowhere, swinging wildly out of line with the rest of the game, and only proves to highlight its flaws. Kill one enemy and it’s instantly replaced with another of the same ilk, repeating maybe four or five times before new enemy types are introduced and the same happens with them. Ascensionstruggles to deviate from this tired routine, quickly running out of ideas as it trickles towards the next big set piece waiting at the game’s conclusion. This lack of variety is less apparent in the game’s first few hours as the combat holds its allure, but that doesn’t last forever as it eventually succumbs to repetition.
Puzzles and platforming sections are sprinkled throughout to ease the load on the combat, though lever pulling and crate moving doesn’t exactly relieve the monotony. Fortunately, Kratos soon gets his hands on the Amulet of Urobotus, a device that allows you to highlight specific pieces of scenery and either rebuild them to their former glory or reduce them to rubble. The effect is spectacular and leads to some of the best riddles yet seen in the series, offering a welcome respite from the familiar routine.
Although that’s not the only new addition. Curiously, multiplayer has also been introduced to the series for the first time and it’s not the tacked on atrocity you may have expected. It lacks depth, for sure, but it’s such a novel experience there are still hours of enjoyment to be found in its hectic battlegrounds.
You begin by selecting an allegiance to one of four gods – an esoteric way of choosing a character class. Warrior, Stealth, Mage and Support are your options, each class coming with its own mannerisms and weapons to be learned and mastered. While the single player experience rewards button mashing and a disregard for anything else, the multiplayer opens the combat system up, revealing a much more tactical and thoughtful style of play. Light attacks can be blocked but heavy attacks must be either dodged or parried. That parry is difficult to time but vastly rewarding when done right, allowing for devastating counter attacks on dazed opponents.
Each act is colour-coded; red when someone is performing an unblockable attack, blue when they’re open to a counter and white when they’re momentarily invulnerable to attack. You instinctively begin to react to these colour-coded tells, adapting to what’s around you and acting appropriately. Skilled players will always have the upper hand in this finely balanced dance of death, swaying battles in their favour with intelligent use of the combat system’s flexibilities.
There are only a handful of game modes but maps offer chances to use traps, some of them altering their layouts as the match progresses or introducing monsters to upset any who venture near. It’s a surprisingly refined multiplayer suite that showcases an outstanding combat system that excels in a competitive context. It offers something new where the single player fails to.
After all, the God of War series hasn’t changed too much since its debut. God of War III introduced the scale and spectacle capable on modern hardware with a massive budget, but without the same wads of cash and sense of purpose Ascension feels like a step back. A safe bet that’s simply going through the motions, padding out the end of the PlayStation 3s lifespan with one last hurrah for its angriest protagonist. And yet it’s away from Kratos where God of War: Ascension truly shines; in its multiplayer warzone, where the combat is at its most refined, offering something different. As unlikely a conclusion as there ever was.