Kratos is back. But he might not be the same person you remember from the tumultuous goings-on in God of War III. God of War: Ascension isn’t a continuation; it is actually a prequel to the original game that takes place a few months after Ares played a trick on our anti-hero. Kratos is reeling from his mistakes and hounded by visions. The Ghost of Sparta is pursued and imprisoned by the three great Furies for breaking his blood oath to Ares. Breaking free from his shackled nightmare, Kratos takes his first steps on the long and bloody road to freedom and redemption.
God of War: Ascension trips early on in the proceedings. While the initial scenes of Kratos making his way through a twisted prison are magnificent and suitably grandiose, the rest of the campaign buckles under the pressure of setting such high expectations. The visuals are certainly a tour de force; it’s the most beautiful God of War game ever made and perhaps the most attractive PS3 game that I’ve set my eyes on in quite a long time.
God of War: Ascension tries to impress you with its sense of scale but falls flat when it stretches too far. At the times the camera pulls backs cinematically to show you the grand occasion, in true God of War style. While it’s a breathtaking spectacle, these scenes also happen to be the weakest points in the game. Our protagonist becomes a speck in the picture, and trying to pick him out becomes something like searching a “Where’s Wally?” illustration. Battling enemies in this far-out view becomes difficult and often turns into a button-mashing frenzy just to find yourself in the space, much less attempt to hit anything. And it’s not like the camera is of any help, but I should have known that. I forgot that it was fixed, and was forever trying to use the right analog stick to survey the world (Ed: SURELY by this time they should have fully realized environments for God Of War? I can understand the limitation for the PS2, but the same doesn’t apply now–does it?). For the most part, the dramatic camera angles don’t get in the way, but there are occasions where the camera does get stuck, in corners during combat and you have to roll away and hope your enemies are lured to your new location. It also happened in a puzzle section where I was prevented from seeing Kratos, and couldn’t get to the next location to trigger a cutscene.
The combat in God of War: Ascension has been pared down from God of War III but switched up in other ways. Gone are the Nemean Cestus, Nemesis Whip, and Claws of Hades. Instead, Kratos’ arsenal has been reduced to the the signature chain blades, although he can disarm enemies or pick up secondary weapons lying around the environment. Magic makes a return in God of War: Ascension and the blades of chaos can be imbibed with different elemental energies relating to the gods Ares, Hades, Poseidon, and Zeus. The fire of Ares kills your enemies with fire, while Poseidon’s ice freezes monsters dead in their tracks. Using these different attacks results in different coloured orbs being released from your fallen foes, filling up your different meters, and encouraging you to mix up your attacks. A rage meter fills up as you make successive hits on your enemies but depletes the moment you’re attacked or avoid combat for too long. When the rage meter fills to its max, new combo attacks become available to you, provided that you’ve upgraded the magic elements. Unlocking your full potential requires some skill, and depending on yours, the combat moves that you perform can be a little limited. The gut-busting action carries on at a decent pace, but never reaches any frantic levels. If you’ve been spoiled by the combat in Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, God of War: Ascension seems like it’s playing in slow motion.
For 90% of the game the difficulty is balanced, and then without so much as a warning, never mind a by-your-leave, it just crashes through the roof of Mount Olympus. There is a certain stage—the now infamous Trial of Archimedes—that requires you to beat three waves of enemies without any chests to boost your beleaguered health or any save checkpoint after any of the waves. Skillful players should be able to extract all they need from felling the foes in the waves. However, gamers worldwide have vented enough of their frustration that developers Santa Monica Studios are looking to patch it. Todd Papy, the game director said he “didn’t mean it to be so hard”. On the topic of difficulty settings, one of God of War: Ascension’s other failings is the inability to switch the difficulty at any time. With its current implementation, the difficulty is set from the very beginning and cannot be changed unless you start the game afresh.
Speaking of fresh, God of War: Ascension introduces fans to a new world of online competitive and cooperative play. Like artists and their patrons, the multiplayer tasks a player—or the “champion”—to choose one of the four godly benefactors. They can pledge allegiance to Ares to become warriors, or align themselves with Zeus to be battle mages, and so on. The process of creating and customizing your character is surprisingly deep allowing you to change your weapons, armour, abilities, magic, perks, and outward appearance. Upgrades come through the ascension of XP levels and the accrual of skill points.
In “Trial of the Gods”, friends can tag-team their way through five waves of enemies, each with a temperament worse than the last. It’s like horde mode with an added time crunch. A clock counts down the time you have to get past the five rounds. Slaying enemies adds time to the clock, but fail to get the job done and it’s right back to the start. Failure here doesn’t mean you go empty handed though. If you’re the solitary type, the mode can be played alone and any grinding you do here adds to the XP of your multiplayer champion.
There are three competitive modes, two of which are team-based missions where players earn points for kills, capturing alters, and busting open chests. “Match of Champions” is the free-for-all deathmatch, where players go head-to-head, getting points for lopping off heads and otherwise killing each other off. Here, brutal kill animations are so much more rewarding and certainly add insult to injury. This is and quite possibly the most fun. It is also the *only* mode to which I was able to connect. During my time with the game, finding players and starting a match proved to be a struggle. Even if three out of the four players required for a deathmatch were found, it wasn’t a certainty that the game would start. More often than not, you’d be dumped back into the lobby and the search for more players would start again. Rinse, repeat, frustrate.
God of War: Ascension is the seventh entry in the God of War series. There isn’t that much left to do when all you have is an angry man swinging blades at some very bad people. The story here doesn’t have the heft that the other titles did where Kratos was at odds with the fiery Ares or launching a monumental attack on very home of the Olympian gods. God of War: Ascension seems quite pedestrian in that respect. It’s also feels quite familiar. Playing it feels like visiting a friend’s house that you haven’t been to in a while. While it may have had a new coat of paint on the outside, a sense of déjà vu sets in the moment you step into the home. The puzzles in God of War: Ascension provide some head-scratching moments, the locales are gorgeous to look at, and the monsters are…monstrous. It’s still incredibly violent and brutal, so all the hallmarks of the God of War series are present. With its RPG underpinnings, the multiplayer provides something new to contrast the familiar single-player campaign, although at times I found the online play to be hit and miss. If the original God of War was a roaring fire, Ascension is like a smouldering coal. It is lacking the extra spark to propel it into the lofty heights occupied by its predecessors.
Final score: 7 spartan prawns out of 10.
Developer: Santa Monica Studio
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Platform: PlayStation 3 (reviewed)
Age Rating: 18