Since its debut on the PlayStation 2, God of War has been Sony’s premier franchise and has been one of the most polished and consistently outperforming brands in the hack and slash genre. The God of War Franchise has had three console and two portable games under its belt; each garnering critical acclaim as well as retail success. Does the latest iteration to the series hold up to the lofty standards of its predecessors, or is God of War: Ascension a disappointment to its heritage?
If you are afraid that the latter might turn out to be true; you can lay your fears to rest. God of War: Ascension brings back the staples of the franchise in full force and in doing so, adds a bit its unique personality into the mix.
Though the game returns to the series’ tradition of Greek Tragedy setting, it does so with a narrative that is much less epic in scale and much more personal in scope.
The story of God of War: Ascension acts as a prequel to the prior God of War games and follows Kratos 6 months after his family was slayed and he forsook Ares. Having broken a blood oath with a god, he is being pursued by the Furies, to answer for his transgression. Instead of focusing favors and revenge, the tale focuses on Kratos’ quest to find the truth and stay one step ahead of his pursuers.
The difference even comes across in how the narrative is presented to the player. While the previous games threw players right into the mix of epic battles with Hydra, Colossus of Rhodes and god of the seas; Poseidon, God of War: Ascension starts off with Kratos bound and chained.
This change is not only present in the start but follows across the length of the game in how the game presents its tale. Whereas the first God of War was entirely a flashback, and the other games followed Kratos in the present, God of War: Ascension takes a non-linear approach to storytelling where players are taken from present to past and back and forth, to find how Kratos got to where he is and what he does next.
The novel approach in the tale’s execution, however, does not make up for the importance of the content of this narrative. While the portable sequels of the past have provided a glimpse into Kratos’ past, the core trilogy followed a story of tragedy, betrayal and vengeance that culminated in its third installment and finished most of the major plot threads. Seeing as the main story has concluded, does the prequel tell a tale of such import that warrants development of next iteration on the console?
Although the story of Ascension does a commendable job of showing the state of mind Kratos was in prior to events of Chains of Olympus and the first game, I feel, that it does not offer much that is of great and lasting consequence to the main God of War saga. In my opinion, if the events of God of War: Ascension were to be removed, the events of the past and the events of God of War Trilogy still align without need for any further exposition.
While the narrative has always played a role in the God of War franchise, what has always superseded it in each game is the gameplay. In this respect, God of War: Ascension is no different from its predecessors.
The first God of War introduced players to engaging hack and slash gameplay with amazing visuals, orchestral sound, epic boss battles and polished presentation. God of War II offered everything the first one did; only bigger and better. God of War III brought the epic scale of the graphics, sounds and boss fights of the franchise to an unparalleled next-gen level. What significantly new experience does this next iteration in GOW franchise has to offer in its single player campaign?
If you were looking for an overhaul of the game’s system or a ground-breaking addition to the God of War gameplay, I am afraid you might be left a tad bit disappointed. SCE Santa Monica Studio takes the ‘don’t fix if it isn’t broken’ approach with God of War: Ascension.
Just like God of War III, Ascension features gory and over the top, hack and slash action as its primary concern. As ever, the relentless action takes places across various levels with, meticulously created, gorgeous landscapes, broken up by occasional platforming and puzzles, and routinely book-ended with epic boss battles that feature changing environments and a healthy dose of Quick Time Events.
Kratos still wields the Blades of Chaos, and players are able to return to form with a control scheme similar to the previous games. Relying on quick attacks, heavy attacks, dodge, block, jump and grab to tackle every obstacle and enemy the game can throw, players also use R2 for magic attacks, L3&R3 for attacks utilizing the returning rage meter and R1 as context-sensitive button.
Though fear not, while the gameplay tends to follow the lead of its precursors, it still has elements that are unique to it.
While the action is fluid and polished as ever, the gameplay in God of War: Ascension has been tinkered just a little to streamline the gameplay. These changes include little changes like additions of intuitively controlled minigames replacing few Quick Time Event finishes, that effect minutes of game experience and a large one that affects the gameplay of the entire game.
That large change comes in the shape of primary weapon mechanic. No longer does Kratos have to shuffle with different weapons with different play styles. Since most players tended to gravitate towards the Blades of Chaos, the developers of God of War: Ascension, have decided to focus exclusively on them for the entire game. Instead of changing between blades, gauntlets, claws and whips, players get to switch between different powers that affect the abilities of the Blades of Chaos.
Ascension also offers secondary weapons like swords, clubs, shields and spears spread across the level and often dropped by specific enemies. Players can use them with the circle button, in a manner akin to how sub-weapons are used in Castlevania series.
However, despite these few changes, the developers have stuck to everything staple to God of War. While that may be a blessing in most cases, there were a few instances where the game could have done without the God of War III gameplay. The chief amongst these issues in God of War: Ascension is the return of clunky platforming from the past games.
While the development team of God of War III was hard at work working with a new engine and focused towards increasing the scope and scale of the franchise, the developers of God of War: Ascension had no such excuses. If the concessions to improvements were made due to shift in resources to the development of the multiplayer element, then this example would validate the apprehension of gamers when it comes to addition of multiplayer to a singleplayer focused franchise. The game could have benefited greatly from an updated platforming and to improve upon the system that, in its current state, is a cause of inadvertent deaths on more than one occasion.
Speaking of deaths, the difficulty of God of War: Ascension adheres closely to the God of War games of the past. Puzzles can take a few minutes to decipher but are never frustratingly mystifying. The action is hectic but fair and the difficulty only ramps up when different enemies decide to gang up of Kratos in a narrow space.
There is a particular level, quite late in the game, where the difficulty ramps up to an unprecedented degree and while I was lucky enough to survive, on the 1st try, with the skin of my teeth, some players might succumb to death repeatedly and find it very frustrating. However, players need not to worry. This kind of situation is not reoccurring, and neither is it so difficult that it becomes cheap. With clever use of dodges, magic and combos anyone can get through that pickle.
This adherence to the standards of God of War III continues into the presentation aspect of Ascension. However, in this case, it is not something to complain about. Though it does not top the graphical standards of its predecessor, it does seem to match it blow for blow. Seen as God of War III is still a graphical marvel; one can hardly fault the developers for that.
God of War: Ascension pulls no punches to wow the player by its graphical prowess. The backgrounds are vast in scope and rich with detail. The environments are rich with color and filled with particle effects of dust and smoke, or lighting effects of burning torches and reflective floors. The levels are filled with gangs of monsters and some of the levels even move around during the actual gameplay.
Ascension also offers the players with its assortment of enemies. While the scale of the threats is decidedly small, there are several new and innovative creatures that the player can battle and a plethora of huge, screen covering bosses.
Though it is during these skirmishes with giant enemies and moving platforms that the game decides to celebrate the vastness of it graphical achievement and pans out the camera to display the spectacle. This overindulgence in attention to the background often takes the focus away from the action at hand and makes it very difficult to judge the movements and actions of Kratos and his enemies. Though this situation is not a mainstay of the whole game, but it reoccurs enough times to signal the fact that it was there by design. If that is so, then that is a very poor design choice.
The aforementioned visual spectacle of God of War: Ascension is accompanied by an equally rousing soundtrack. Whereas puzzles and platforming are accompanied by quite, soft music, thundering tunes take over the senses when a battle gets underway. The voice actors do a commendable job with the dialogue and each threat, scream, roar and grunt is crisp. Overall, the sound in Ascension is no better or worse from what was offered to the players in God of War III.
The game took me a little under 10 hours to complete. Those are 10 hours spent on the normal difficulty, trying to get from A to Z with as many red orbs and upgrades as possible. There are still items to find and two harder difficulties to experience. Moreover, the multiplayer section of the game promises to offer countless additional hours of gameplay. Whether that promise is kept, depends on the performance of the actual component itself.
It is this multiplayer segment of God of War: Ascension that is the key element where the game branches out from the, all too familiar God of War formula, and manages to differentiate itself from the prior games in the franchise.
The multiplayer section offers the staples of what players expect from modern online multiplayer and puts the God of War spin on them. The game offers support for up to 8 players in its variations on the classic Deathmatch dubbed “Match of Champions”, Domination mode called “Team Favour of the gods” and Capture the Flag, and up to 2 players for “Trial of the gods”; Ascension’s Horde mode.
The players are provided with standard classes to choose from; Warrior, Mage, Assassin and Support denoting the “Allegiance” to gods; Ares, Zeus, Hades and Poseidon.
The game also offers online multiplayer staple of a leveling system where the players can further customize their characters with Relics, which are this game’s perks, as well as weapons and armors which are unlocked by leveling up and completing challenges that are dubbed “Labours”
Players are then thrust into one of the several, multilayered maps that are littered with items, chests, context sensitive objects and traps. Each level is vast in scale and offers the similar quality of audio and visual spectacular that the players get used to in the single player campaign. Not only are these maps gorgeous to look at and highly detailed, they are also home to set pieces that make a return from the singleplayer to the multiplayer portion of the game.
At first glance, all this seems quite overwhelming and very chaotic. However the game developers have made a wise decision by providing simple yet effective color-coded cues to help the player stay focused amidst all the chaos.