God of War: Ascension hands-on

Much ado has been given to the highly-publicized multiplayer component of God of War: Ascension, leaving longtime Kratos fans to wonder whether the titular Spartan anti-hero’s story will be left by the wayside. I’m not sure why Sony Santa Monica has been so tight-lipped about Ascension’s solo adventure, but I’m happy to silence the doubts. After playing a 45-minute section of the game’s earliest moments, it’s clear that Santa Monica Studios has been hard at work iterating on the God of War formula with the same care and attention given to its ground-breaking multiplayer. New systems and surprises abound, and the result is a God of War game that’s strikingly familiar but not afraid to experiment.

As my demo begins, the changes to the God of War you know are immediately evident. Kratos has been captured by one of the three Furies, and what seems like a simple quick-time event quickly evolves into a fluid mini-game. I’m dodging the Fury Queen’s slashes with the left analog stick while ripping my chains from the wall, and before long, I’m free of her clutches. The battle is only just beginning; the Fury Queen flees, leaving a trail of destruction that proudly demonstrates the dynamic environments I was promised in a pre-demo presentation. God of War’s levels are no longer static boxes; enemies will make Kratos’ life difficult by knocking over pillars, removing safe havens, and moving entire buildings while Kratos fights within them.

A striking example comes midway through my demo. While giving chase to the elusive Fury Queen and fighting her recurring boss minion – a four-story creature with enormous blades for arms – I find myself in a prison hallway where other captives beg for my help. Suddenly, the prison begins to shake, and the camera zooms out to reveal an enormous hand ripping out an entire section of the building’s foundation. As Kratos, I tumble and hold tight as the giant hand – that of the titanic Hecatonchires – turns the prison. Goat men soon appear to challenge me, and after slaying them, the arena shifts again. I’m fighting on the floor, then the wall, then the ceiling – as more enemies arrive and destruction leaves me less room to manuever, the only rule of this fight is to expect the unexpected.

The same rule applies to the game’s combat, which flips the table on God of War conventions by giving Kratos access to five new weapon types that can be stolen from enemies or otherwise acquired. This “World Weapon System” encompasses swords, clubs, shields, spears, and slings, and each brings unique combat properties to the devastation table. Swords can stun enemies for follow-up grapples and finishers, spears act solely as projectile attacks, and every weapon can be used in sync with Kratos’ signature Blades of Chaos for extended combos with unique finishers.

The unique applications of these weapons to a historically “tap, tap, dodge” combat system cannot be overstated. Thanks to the World Weapon System, enemies can be dispatched through any number of creative combinations. The aforementioned goat men, for example, are susceptible to long-range grapples (or, tethering). A more ambitious gamer might decide to give one of the bucks a powerful Spartan kick, disarming them and leaving their sword open for grabs. I try the latter, and with sword in hand, I slice my way through the crowd by mashing Circle, leaving a trail of stunned and slain goat men in my wake. A later attempt to block and jump at the same time causes Kratos to leap upward, sword in hand, before coming down and unleashing a stun shockwave. This sense of discovery – and the sheer number of weapons with which to experiment – is undeniably exciting, and makes me second-guess the simplicity I’ve always associated with God of War.

Thankfully, the weapons you can rip from your foes don’t replace the ones Kratos unlocks through the course of the game. Santa Monica Studios isn’t ready to talk about what those are just yet, but elemental properties – fire, ice, and the like – will augment their power in yet another combat twist. In some ways, the additions are fitting; this is a younger, less world-weary Kratos, and the context of his origin story will no doubt provide a narrative anchor for the abilities and arsenal he acquires.

In a way, the ease with which Kratos topples the seemingly gargantuan foes of chronologically later games makes sense. Ascension looks to be more epic in scope than any previous title, and one view in particular left my jaw hanging. As I exit the innards of the Hecatonchires – a beast too massive to show on camera -my view pans down over a ledge. I’m so high off the ground that I can only barely make out the grid patterns of farms and roads below. The reappearance of my blade-armed nemesis brings my sightseeing to a screeching halt, and suddenly I’m thrust back into a multi-stage boss fight that makes all the riveting action of moments before seem inconsequential.

My time with God of War: Ascension left me wanting more. I went in expecting more of the same, and came out impressed by new mechanics and ideas that bring a familiar experience to the next creative level. And for a series entering its eighth year, there’s nothing more important. God of War veterans and newcomers alike should have plenty to celebrate when God of War: Ascension launches on March 12. Kratos may be his youngest self, but his gameplay has never felt more mature.