Ascension is a prequel and expands on Kratos' story from before he became a God. Some parts of the story we already know, that is Kratos, facing overwhelming odds on the battlefield asks (demands more like) Ares to step in and save him; in return Kratos pledges a blood oath to him. Some time later Kratos is tricked into an act that changes his life forever - the murder of his wife and child. Kratos turns his back on Ares, but blood oaths to Gods are enforced by three monstrous sisters known as The Furies, and they soon capture and torture Kratos. It is during his imprisonment that Ascension kicks off.
If you've played a God of War title before you know what to expect from the gameplay, which remains largely unchanged in Ascension. Kratos has the deadly Blades of Chaos at his disposal once again, and he uses these to savage anything foolish enough to challenge him. There is no shortage of blade fodder for Kratos, from humans to harpies, juggernauts (like minotaurs but with an elephant upper-body) to trolls, gorgons to chimera, enemies queue up for their chance to be cut to ribbons.
Some elements of combat remain unchanged – you have light and heavy attacks at your disposal, and killing enemies without being hit fills up a Rage meter that, when filled, unleashes even more powerful attacks. You can evade by rolling with the right-analog, as well as block (L1) and parry (L1+x) attacks. Your suite of attacks is limited initially, but grows as you upgrade your blades with the red orbs that spew out from defeated opponents.
Like previous games in the series there are some enemies that, when nearly dead, have a flaming circle appear above them. By grappling them (with R1) you enter into a quicktime-event (QTE) where you follow the on-screen prompts in order to dispatch them even more brutally than normal. For some enemies you don't get the standard QTE, instead Kratos will latch onto them while the camera zooms in nice and close. In these sections your job is to attack like crazy and dodge incoming attacks with a flick on the analog stick. It's fun, mostly thanks to the up close and personal view of whatever beast you happen to be fighting.
Magic is handled a little differently than in the past; instead of getting magic spells your blades are instead imbued with an element – fire, ice, electric and soul (which doesn't seem elemental just quietly). You change the element with the d-pad, so like the recently released Devil May Cry you can change on the fly.
Disappointingly the different elements don't appear to have strengths or weaknesses against enemies, even those with the same elemental power as you have equipped. Upgrading magic unlocks new attacks for that particular element, with the final upgrade unlocking an extremely powerful magical attack.
Another artefact creates a clone of Kratos that can be used in puzzle-solving, by getting it to hold a rope or lever for example. Both these artefacts can be used in battle too; the clone mimics your attacks, effectively doubling your attack power, and the Uroborus amulet will temporarily stun an enemy opening them up to attack.
There are more traversal sections breaking up the action in Ascension than in previous God of War games. Jumping, climbing and clinging to walls is now a common theme. While there's nothing new in that, Ascension adds some downhill sliding sections that are both new, and used frequently. There's not a lot to them really; you simply guide Kratos away from any obstacles on the path and jump when prompted.
Ascension adds multiplayer for the first time in God of War history. Once you redeem your online pass you're free to pick one of four gods, Zeus, Ares, Poseidon or Hades to align your character (a generic looking fellow, not Kratos himself) with. Each god has its own unique combat style which you must consider when choosing which god you wish to follow.
The last game mode, Trial of the Gods, is played either singly, or in 2-player co-op. Here you defeat waves of enemies within a certain timeframe, with time restored every time you kill an enemy. In co-op you can resurrect your fallen comrade by grappling them though this comes with a tough 15-second time penalty.
As you level up you earn skill points used to buy new powers and abilities. You can also upgrade your weapons and armour, either by finding them in arenas, using them repeatedly, or leveling up. Relics provide perks such as getting some health back with every brutal kill, or increased power when your health is low, and can be either bought or found. The same goes for items which have useful effects like stealing enemy health.
Overall these game modes are decent fun. The versus game modes do show the limitations of the combat system, which seems to reward button-mashing and superior weaponry (which is to say higher-level characters) as much as finesse or tactics. Trial of the Gods was more my style, and it is difficult enough to keep you busy for a few hours. It's hard to say how many hours the average game will spend on these modes, but my gut feel is hours or days rather than weeks. Still, it's a welcome addition that should be expanded on in the next God of War title.
Ascension is one of the first R-rated games to be released in Australia, and the first we've had a chance to play here at Futuregamez. Does it wholly deserve its R-rating? You bet your ass! This is evident from the moment you split open a troll and watch the intestines fall out, or crack open the skull of an elephantine juggernaut to reveal their still pulsing brain. Not to mention the room full of topless ladies you come to at the end of the first level. Yes, this is definitely not for kids.
Riding giant ceramic snakes around beautiful mountain vistas is another highlight of an already visually spectacular experience. There is also some mighty fine texture work, as evidenced by the dirt smears that build up on Kratos, as well as his intricate facial expressions. There's more gore than ever too. Basically, while it's not a big step up from God of War 3, Ascension is still a visual tour de force.
Which leads us to the games issues, that is underneath the technically fantastic exterior lurk some out-dated game mechanics. From the fixed camera to the quick time events to the decades-old combat system, much of what the franchise is built on is in need of an overhaul. Strictly speaking the fixed camera is not an issue in and of itself, thanks largely to the fact that Santa Monica Studios move it around themselves, so it's not truly fixed. However this does lead to a grievance, which is that the camera often pans out so far that it's hard to see where Kratos is, or what exactly is happening. These moments occur frequently enough to be off-putting, though not enough to sour the experience too much.
While God of War does make the most impressive-looking QTE's out there it's time to lessen the games' reliance on these moments. Many enemies and most bosses are disposes of this way, and it does become a bit tedious after a while.
So far as combat goes it's disappointing that attacks can be blocked while enemies face the wrong way. It's also annoying that enemies can attack you through almost all of your attacks, while the same isn't true in reverse. Even after launching the most powerful magic attack in your repertoire enemies barely recoil.
One last issue is that the Amulet of Uroborus can actually break your game, forcing you to quit the game. This happened to me when rebuilding a bridge almost as soon as I got the amulet. By rebuilding the bridge all the way, rather than stopping at the midway point, I could no longer get onto the bridge. It couldn't be decayed either, because I was too far away and thus couldn't activate it. Quit, reload, grumble, grumble.
Dramatic orchestral tracks once again make up the bulk of the music, a role they seem perfectly suited to. Kratos is more mellow this time out, and to be honest I appreciated the break from his usual barking. It's not like he isn't angry, but he doesn't shout all of his lines any more. The sound effects are great, just as grisly as you could want, and there are some nice touches like echoing footfalls, and weapon scrapes as Kratos wanders through a huge hall.
Ascension is a fine game in its own right, but as far as meeting or exceeding expectations goes, it falls a little short. It is just as technically dazzling as God of War 3 was, and some of the level design is truly exceptional. However this can't hide game mechanics that are showing their age and in need of refinement, if not a total overhaul. The multiplayer component is fun, but perhaps not deep enough to bring you back for more than a few days. If you've enjoyed previous God of War games there's no reason to think you won't enjoy God of War: Ascension, but it is not quite the game we were hoping for.
Review By: Dave Warner