Any time a game publisher puts out a sequel that’s a lot like the last one, they’re tempting fate – will people buy it because they want more of what they know, or will they give it a pass for that very reason? God of War: Ascension is the perfect example of game that has to answer that question. It’s the same thing we’ve seen over three core games in the franchise so far: gory hack-and-slash action set in the, literally, epic world of the Greek pantheon. Whether you enjoy more of the same in this latest instalment depends on whether or not you’re tired of that premise.
When last we saw our protagonist Kratos in God of War III , the grunting, pale-skinned, chain-sword-wielding Spartan was putting an end to the reign of the gods by chopping Zeus himself into pieces. It’s hard to escalate things when a story has run its course so the developers at Santa Monica Studio did the only sensible thing: they went for the prequel.
In the first God of War (2005), Athena recruited Kratos to kill Ares, the titular deity. Ares had given Kratos great power in exchange for serving him, but he also tricked the Spartan general into killing his own family. The manipulative Athena decided to harness that bad blood to further her own vendetta.
In Ascension, which takes place some years before the first game, Kratos must deal with an even more powerful force than Ares or Zeus – the three Furies, who govern the fate of all gods and mortals. It seems the sisters are all twisted because our hero has betrayed his oath to Ares. If only they could somehow foresee that the Spartan is not to be trifled with.
Let’s pause for a logic check. So, if Kratos ends up killing the Furies, how will the subsequent three games even be possible? Can the gods continue on without the fates to watch over them? And how does one go about defeating supposedly all-seeing, all-knowing beings?
Luckily, story has never been God of War’s attraction and the game can survive a plot as nonsensical as Greek mythology itself. If we come to play Kratos for spectacle; we stay for the gore.
Ascension has all the epic stage setting of the earlier games, starting with giant, sweeping vistas and mammoth monsters and machines plodding around in the background. To get to the Oracle of Delphi, for example, Kratos must activate and ride on the back of giant mechanical snakes, which twist and turn around an enormous pillar that extends a bridge to the temple.
Further along, he must rebuild a giant, Statue-of-Liberty-like monument to Apollo, then relight its lantern. By my guess, the sun god’s statue dwarfs Lady Liberty at least a hundred times over. Undaunted, Kratos jumps and climbs along its huge rib cage, and rides flaming elevators up its torso. Like I said, it’s epically epic, awe-inspiring stuff.
Along the way, there are plenty of mythology-inspired creatures to dispatch in the trademark shockingly bloody manner. Combat is fast and fluid and the finishing moves are hilariously nasty in their garishness. Giant centaurs, elephant-headed ogres, flying harpies, snake-like Nagas – all of them eventually falling prey to Kratos’ flailing Blades of Chaos. There’s nothing quite so satisfying in video games as ripping open an elephant-headed ogre’s head and pulling his brains out.
This is obviously a game for a particular demographic, which is somewhat refreshing to see. My wife, for one, thinks it’s horrifying, which I actually find extra satisfying. In an age when everyone is watering down their franchises to appeal to the widest possible audience, God of War is very much sticking to its roots.
Ascension is also packed with some fiendishly difficult puzzles. With no guiding markers or arrows to speak of, the game doesn’t hold your hand through these tests, which usually involve moving blocks and columns onto mechanisms that activate doors. Spicing up the puzzles are a pair of magic artifacts that Kratos acquires; one lets him repair or decay objects while another lets him create a shadow doppleganger that can fight or hold levers on his behalf. The puzzles, if you can figure them out without looking online for cheats, switch up the pace of the game by giving you a chance to catch your breath in between the frenzied fights.
And it wouldn’t be a God of War game without a whole lot of timed button mashing. Most of the big battles and set pieces are predicated on these quick-time events, which require split-second timing to pass.
On the one hand, this is the franchise that popularized the quick-time phenomenon so it’s to be expected, but on the other, it’s become a tired and over-used mechanic.
The downside to these quick-time events – especially their rapidity in Ascension – is that they’re relatively easy to pass, but only if you’re paying close attention to the on-screen prompts. And if you’re doing that, it means you’re not watching what’s actually going on in the background, which is usually some pretty incredible stuff, (like, say, Kratos swinging around and hacking away at a giant sea creature’s tentacles). If you decide to take in the scenery and your attention strays from watching for button prompts, it’s curtains.
Nobody seems to win in this scenario – not the players, because they’re not having fun, and not the developers, because the players aren’t watching the amazing scenes they’ve put so much work into creating.
The quick-time-event issue highlights the niggling problem with Ascension: There’s nothing really wrong with the game, especially if you liked previous entries, but it’s time for the franchise to evolve and grow. It needs some new tricks, the ones it has come to rely one are getting stale.
Part of the solution could be expanding on the promising multiplayer mode introduced in Ascension . The play here is surprisingly deep, with plentiful customization options. Players initially choose allegiance to one god: Hades, Ares, Zeus and Poseidon, with each conferring different abilities and weapons. From there, they can choose from five different play modes: free-for-all battle, team deathmatch, domination, capture the flag and co-operative horde.
A few of the maps are simple, dull arenas, but some are amazing in their level of interactivity. One map has teams battle for the privilege of stabbing a giant Cyclops, chained up in the background, in the eye with a javelin. Another puts players in two huge, multi-leveled cube-like structures, which periodically rotate, thereby disrupting all the action. Meanwhile, traps are continually going off while monsters are popping out of nowhere. It’s one thing to survive your opponents; it’s another to avoid the multiple hazards thrown at you by the environment.
While this manic multiplayer probably isn’t enough to sell the game on its own, the deep advancement system – where you can unlock and advance armor, relics, magic items, abilities and more – is enough to wring plenty more hours out of Ascension. I actually enjoyed it more than the single-player mode and only wish there were additional modes and maps.
Rather than feeling like it’s tacked on, like many multiplayer modes do in their games, this one breathes some new life into God of War. Here’s hoping that new life spreads into the single-player mode in the next instalment. With any luck, Sony will take the series in a new direction with the upcoming PlayStation 4.