Kratos is not a good man. In fact Kratos is a very, very, VERY bad man. It is hard to believe that even after six games, the entire tale of the Ghost of Sparta hasn’t been told. Sony has plenty of great franchises, but few spark the excitement that the God of War series does, or at least did. Kratos’ latest adventure is just as much a proper entry in the series as any that came before it, and the multiplayer actually isn’t as terrible as I expected.
The story of Ascension is a peculiar one. It takes place shortly after Kratos was tricked into murdering his family, but before the events of the first game. In response to Ares’ deception, he cuts ties with the God. Not one to be defied, the God of War sends his three horrific sisters, the Furies, after Kratos. Over the course of the game, Kratos is captured and tortured by the Furies, and as you can imagine, this makes our favorite Spartan a little angry.
Sony Santa Monica has done an outstanding job of crafting the story for Ascension. Just when I thought that there couldn’t possibly be more lore to squeeze out of the series, they deliver one of the most epic tales in the franchise. The narrative moves between time periods in an effort to explain Kratos’ origins. It is off-putting at first, because powers still progress normally regardless of the chronological jumps. I began the game with just the Blades of Chaos, but by the time I circled back around to that segment later in the game, I had even more tools at my disposal. It is a disconnect, but one I could look past as a design choice.
God of War has always been known for epic set pieces. Ascension continues that tradition with several breathtaking vistas along the way. The opening sequence of the game is one of the most intense, and visually stimulating I have ever witnessed in a game. It’s on the same level as original Medal of Honor’s Normandy. While the rest of the game fails to ever reach the heights of the first moments, it certainly isn’t a slouch. I have always enjoyed the God of War teams’ level design. Whether riding on the backs of massive snakes or traversing the side of a massive statue, the locales are awe-inspiring.
Graphics are another area in which God of War always excels. I still consider God of War 3 to be the pinnacle of this console generation’s graphics. We can argue Uncharted 3 all day long, but the sheer scale that delivered in Kratos’ first PlayStation 3 outing was. Ascension continues that trend, albeit with a much brighter color palette, and some not-as-memorable bosses. The Furies are the most memorable, alongside the massive Hecatonchires in the opening level. Beyond that, the rest were somewhat forgettable. Average enemies, on the other hand, are still as varied as ever.
In each God of War game, I have always appreciated the pace in which new enemies are introduced. Ascension continues this trend, and each encounter felt fresh, whether ripping open the skulls of upright elephants, or splitting open the centaur to spill its guts. New enemies required new tactics, which kept the action from getting stale.
Ascension delivers on the basics of combat, but falls short when it comes to new weapons. The Blades of Chaos are the weapon of war from beginning to end. I understand why Sony Santa Monica did this, as some of the later weapons would not make sense in a prequel. Instead, Kratos has can pick up secondary weapons such as swords, spears and shields that he can then use in combat. Kratos also earns four elemental modifiers for the Blades of Chaos:. Fire, Ice, Lightning and Soul, (all based on various Gods and selected with the d-pad). I didn’t find these powers useful, as none of them are required for most enemies, and seem to only exist for the sake of variety. They do come into play, but not as much as I hoped when considering the possibilities of expanding the already deep combat.
Ascension does introduce an ability that is most unique and enjoyable in the history of the series: the ability to decay and heal the environment. I absolutely loved the mechanic, as it added a new dynamic to the puzzle solving. The amulet can also suspend enemies in the air during combat. It is a great addition to the series, and helps make up for the lack of an expanded weapon roster.
Kratos seems to have been spending his off time with Nathan Drake. There is more climbing, and scaling in Ascension than in all the past games combined. There is also a new sliding mechanic that I liken to the classic Mario 64 penguin race. Kratos can certainly get around in Ascension, and it breaks up the monotony of simply walking or being carried by the game’s many cut scenes.
At the end of the day, this is still a God of War game, and that can be both relieving and detrimental. Gamers who are exhausted with the series are likely to find little to recharge their batteries in Ascension. Some of the new features are strong additions, but they don’t carry the experience beyond the series’ standard hack and slash combat. I also found issue with the camera, even more so than in past games. Sometimes during combat it zooms so far back from the action that Kratos becomes a mere speck on the screen. Losing him on the screen often meant unavoidable damage, all in the name of dynamic camera shots.
The most obvious change for Ascension is its online multiplayer. I waited to write this review until the game hit retail shelves to see how it handled in the wild. I am happy to say that as of publication, the community is healthy, and the games are packed with players interested in experiencing a new take on online combat.
The multiplayer starts off with a character that is pretty much a blank slate. There are four Gods to whom allegiance can be sworn (Ares, Zeus, Poseidon and Hades) with each taking template warriors down different paths over time. Each choice comes with different strengths and weaknesses, just as in any class-based online game. There is also a hefty skill tree and plenty of armor to unlock that will keep me playing for quite a while, or at least until the community dries up.
The gameplay reminds me a lot of what a modern-day PowerStone might be like. The combat is exactly what is found in the single player, but when it is combined with a room full of Kratos wannabes, it becomes something so outlandish and fun, that it just works. I found myself constantly coming back for more, loving every kill and truly relishing the fact that this was not just another shooter with a tacked on bullet-point. This is a fully featured online mode, and it feels great.
God of War: Ascension is a conundrum. The online is more than it should be, and the single player is well executed, but I couldn’t help but feel fatigue with the series set in from time to time. Still, when one of those “only God of War can do it” epic moments arose, I had an ear-to-ear grin that I could not contain. If you love the series, I see no reason to skip out on Ascension. It is just as well made as the previous entries and includes a fresh take on the online experience.
Review copy of game provided by publisher.