I can honestly say in all my years of gaming I’ve never had to fight off a dozen bleating, spear-wielding goat-men from inside the belly of a python. Nor have I ever had to square up against a giant of a man who happens to have the face and arm of a frightening-looking old geezer protruding out of his side like a conjoined twin and who speaks like Gollum from The Lord Of The Rings. But hey, that’s God Of War for you, the only series I’ve ever played where you never know what freak of nature is around the next corner and where gutting a Minotaur or pulling out the eye of a Cyclops feels so strangely empowering. Predictably then, God Of War: Ascension follows suit and lives up to the no-holds barred violence and bonkers combat of its predecessors with a rich cast of unsavoury enemies and an array of moves and finishers that asserts Kratos’ standing as the most brutal badass in PlayStation history.
That’s right, the freak-bashing extravaganza is back with a vengeance, but what’s interesting about this latest iteration is that Kratos actually has a tender side, so it’s not solely all about cracking skulls in a variety of gruesome ways. In between bouts of knocking ten bells of shit out of indescribable, mythological monstrosities, he actually shows his human side and proves he’s not just a mindless thug who gets a kick out of thrusting his Blade of Chaos through the eyes of lolloping giants and revels in bloodshed. There is actually some meaning behind his madness.
Set ten years before the original God Of War, and serving as a prequel to the series, there’s a firm focus on ‘redemption’ and building back-story in GoW: Ascension. And through some lavishly produced and superbly directed cut-scenes, we learn how Kratos was tricked into slaughtering his own family before he was imprisoned by God Of War, Ares. With Kratos’ blood-tied to Ares, he seeks to sever the tie by killing the Furies, the guardians of honour and enforcers of punishment.
There’s a lot we learn about the Greek demi-God and for the first time in the series I found myself empathising with his character as I discovered what actually made him turn into the kind of guy who seems to enjoy bathing in the blood of others. In truth though, that empathy I felt during certain sequences didn’t last too long because the action in GoW: Ascension speaks far louder than the narrative, though fans of the series should enjoy his "vulnerable" moments and how things pan out. Told with the high-quality production values that we expect from the Santa Monica studio, we learn how Kratos became the man he did and was moulded by Ares to take down the walls of Olympus. In this latest tale, the killing is personal and it’s refreshing to see a different side to the legendary Spartan general.
And what a man-mountain Kratos is, a huge hulk of a character whose presence alone is a powerful thing on screen. When controlling him you almost feel his wrath through the way he moves, slices his opponents in two and displays such strength in battle, as well as his meaty array of moves. Combine this slick animation with eye-popping visuals and some powerful sound effects, such as the stomach-churning “slurp” of the slicing of an Elephantaur’s cranium, and you’ve got a game – and indeed a series – that cannot fail to leave you impressed with the creativity of its violence and its high production values.
Indeed, GoW: Ascension sounds and looks fantastic throughout the entire campaign. From the fine animation of some of the violent finishing moves to the detailed character design, from the ornate palaces and sweeping vistas to the elaborate mechanical structures that dwarf the surrounding mountains with their grandeur, there’s an overdose of eye-candy to enjoy. But it’s not just how it looks, it’s also the way that characters move and interact with the environment, using every inch of an arena’s space to try and gain the upper-hand. Kratos does this best, ramming goat-men into a set of wall spikes or grappling enemies and slamming them around an arena like a strongman pounding down his hammer with force in the ‘Test Your Strength’ game at a funfair. Combat not only looks brutal, but with every neck snap and ground slam, it feels so raw and so powerful.
Sony layers the impressive graphics and animations with lavish set-pieces in the form of QTEs that bring you right into the action and show off some of the gratuitous finishing moves, as well as the finer details of the enemies. Superb lighting effects help give the environments real depth, while the use of multiple camera angles that move in, out and around Kratos create a cinematic experience that is similar in scale to the Uncharted games. ‘Epic’ is probably the best word to describe the detail and the creativity that has gone into conjuring up Kratos’ fantasy game world and roster of horrible beasts.
Despite my obvious love of the way GoW: Ascension looks and sounds, it does all feel and look instantly familiar and, subsequently, it’s not as jaw-droppingly impressive if you’ve played any of the God Of War games, yet it’s still one of the best-looking games on PS3. Gameplay once again involves combat, platforming and puzzle-solving. Ripping open the chest of a Cyclops with the Blade Of Chaos or slicing open a skull to leave brain juice dripping onto the stone floors and covering Kratos from head to foot, is once again part and parcel of the experience and still incredibly satisfying to watch unfold.
As with past games, it’s the combat that’s the star of the show thanks to a comprehensive move-set that comprises of light and heavy attacks, blocking, dodging, parrying and chain-grappling manoeuvres, as well as no mercy brutal kills (when prompted). Kratos’ weapons are bound by elemental properties (Electricity, Soul, Fire and Ice) and as you progress you get access to the likes of the Fire Of Ares which incinerates enemies, the Ice of Poseidon which freezes foe, the Lightning of Zeus which electrocutes the bad guys, and the Soul of Hades which vaporises them. Power-up Orbs that can be found in chests or spouting out from the bodies of dead enemies enable you to power up each weapon and open up new moves, such as the Cyclone of Fury, which Kratos pulls off when airborne, rotating his blades at the speed of light to slice through enemies.
Each weapon has a dozen or more moves associated with it that showcase a different visual effect in battle; and the fact that you can switch between these elemental weapons with a simple press of the d-pad means you now have access to an unprecedented amount of moves. As a result, combat is a hard-fought, flurry of flashes that produces a kaleidoscope of colours, inevitably leading to the chance to run in close to a downed enemy to trigger a short QTE, perhaps pulling their sword from out of their grasp, slicing their legs off and then ramming it through their skull.
Though there’s much fun to be had with experimenting with the array of weapons and their unique powers, I did find that most of the time I stuck with the Blade of Chaos as it was the weapon I’d chosen to power-up the most and I wasn’t ever really forced to change. Though there are some instances where you might counteract a fire demon’s attack with your ice weapon, those moments aren’t frequent. Consequently, the elemental powers do seem like a style-over-substance approach to combat that give you the ability to entertain yourself through the various visual effects they produce but, in truth, you could stick with one weapon and use it through most of the campaign. Nevertheless, it is good fun switching between the huge array of moves that each weapon boasts.
The combat system is fleshed out further with the ability to punch and kick foes. Once again, this isn’t something that I choose to do very often as it’s actually far more satisfying to use a weapon, but I did enjoy picking creatures up and using them as a ram, or smashing their heads violently into a wall. What I really liked though was the powerful Rage attacks, executed with the R2 button. When the blue magic metre is full, these powerful attacks are aligned with whatever weapon you choose; for example, the Ares Inferno sees Kratos raise his blade in the air before slamming it into the ground causing everyone around to fall over and catch on fire.
Another great new addition is the ability to steal enemy weapons, thus giving you even more ways to smack enemies around. Kratos can steal clubs, spears, shields and more, and use them as a secondary weapon. Combining his elemental weapons with traditional arms adds to the chaos and variety of moves you can execute in fight sequences, which are made all the more exciting by the range of enemy types you face.
Sony has pulled all the stops out once again to deliver a hellish cast of creatures, mini-bosses and big bosses, some of them so weird that I’ve struggled to think of words to describe them. Take the Hecatonchires chapter as a prime example. Here, after wandering through what appears to be a brothel, a gigantic stone skull with teeth intact and mouth wide open appears to be nothing more than an elaborate entrance to the next area. A lady with spider legs jumps on the eye of the statue and flies crawl out of her skin and penetrate the stone head. It then comes to life, but now this giant head has giant spider legs coming out of the gaps in between its teeth. It then uses those spider tentacles to pick up the platform that you’re standing on and it’s up to you to hack at its pressure points to make it let go. Words don’t do the sequence justice, but when playing it, it’s one of many times where you’ll be shaking your head in disbelief at how some of the crazy scenes play out.
With such incredibly fluid, fast-paced and brutal combat providing most of the thrills, the platforming and puzzle-sections do occasionally feel a little dull as a result. There’s a lull in the action a few hours into the game where I seemed to spend most of the time engaged in on-rails sections where I had to move left and right to avoid obstacles while waiting for on-screen prompts to jump over gaping chasms. There’s an overload of these sections at a certain juncture in the campaign and a fair few areas where climbing, grappling and shimmying across ledges gets a little tedious and rudimentary.
That’s not always the case as some platforming sections serve to showcase the environment from a variety of angles and perspectives, displaying the scale and detail of the graphics superbly. When that’s the case it works really well – once again I’ll compare it to Uncharted’s platforming in terms of clever level design and integrated set-pieces – but personally I’d have preferred more fast-paced boss battles than slow-paced, ledge-hopping.
I have the same feeling about some of the puzzle-elements in GoW: Ascension. The switch in pace from fighting a dozen Furies to, for example, the section where you meander around an aqueduct wondering what on Earth you’re supposed to do, pulls you right back out of action and feels empty in comparison. During this particular section, in an area with a huge broken water-wheel, after reading clues from notes scattered around, I presumed the puzzle was to fix the wheel, but after an hour of banging my head up a brick wall not knowing what to do, I discovered that I simply had to bypass the whole section by shimmying across a thin ledge in the far corner of the area which was difficult to spot. There’s a few of these sections where I’ve just thought, “can I just get on with it, rather than fanny around with pulling levers and moving statues around." I’m not saying that GoW should be free from platforming and puzzling, but I do think these sections need to live up to the rest of the game in terms of immersiveness, and that’s not always the case.
Nevertheless, there are some stand-out puzzles and interesting mechanical-based conundrums to get stuck into. The best puzzles undoubtedly come from a brand new feature in the series, dubbed the ‘Life Cycle’. This enables you to manipulate time, either to ‘heal’ or ‘decay’ objects, perhaps a collapsed bridge or a broken pipe. There are also instances where you need to both heal and decay to progress, perhaps bringing a crumbled building half-way to resurrection so you can climb up it and reach a ledge before bringing it to its full restorative state so you can now walk across the bridge. There are also complete areas that transform for a certain period of time giving you a chance to explore and work out what you need to do before time changes back to normal.
Away from combat, platforming and puzzle-solving, there’s plenty of collectibles to look out for, such as Gorgon’s Eyes and Phoenix Feathers, which give you an extra layer of power, perhaps adding to your health or magic bar. Generally though, the path is linear and despite the scale of the environments there’s usually only one way to reach the next area. That linearity really isn’t an issue though because each area, be it the catacombs, chambers, grottos or villages that you journey across, are so visually appealing.
After the campaign is complete there’s more skull-cracking to enjoy courtesy of the series’ first multiplayer component. Though God Of War is a franchise that doesn’t really need a multiplayer mode to complete the experience, Sony Santa Monica has done a great job at bringing the universe into the online arena; and the action is just how you’d imagine it would be with up to eight players smacking each other about.
After choosing which God to side with (Zeus, Ares, Poseidon, or Hades), players are given a boost to various attributes and there’s the option to customise your character with weapons and armour that you unlock as you progress. Then, it’s into the arena to face your foes in one of four game modes, one of which – The Trial Of Gods – we haven’t yet played. Aside from the typical deathmatch mode, the highlight comes from Team Favor Rush, a four vs. four battle where players have to capture and hold altars while taking down opponents.
There’s some nicely designed multi-tiered maps that allow for strategic play and Sony has made clever use of the environment, littering them with traps to spring on enemies. There’s also sections where it has brought in some of the bosses from the campaign, such as the Cyclops who smashes down his fist when you go near. It’s fast-paced and exciting, though it does pay if you really understand your move-set and study the maps before you enter the arena, otherwise you can feel a little out of depth playing with those who know exactly what they’re doing.
Initially, the multiplayer mode felt like the first time I played PlayStation All-Stars online. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing as there’s a lot of action going on at one time and a hell of a lot of jumping around. Turns out it’s much more strategic than I first thought and smashing your away around like a drunk in a pub isn’t the way to get the most out of it. It’s all about well-timed combos, dodging, using load-out items effectively and using special attacks at the appropriate times. You can launch opponents in the air, pick up weapons lying around and use them and make use of the chain-grappling mechanic that Kratos has become renowned for. Basically, you can do everything that Kratos can do in the campaign.
My concern is that it may not stand the test of time. Unlocks are gained by progression and completing tasks, essentially playing the game, and by gaining XP you become more powerful. This could mean that before too long the really hardcore players will have maxed out their powers while those who play less frequently could get overwhelmed. Personally, I would have liked to have seen a matchmaking system that balances skills and pits the best players against each other. Nevertheless, multiplayer is definitely not a tacked on feature. I’ve enjoyed playing it so far and dishing out typical Kratos punishment on real people in some challenging bouts is a definite bonus to the single player campaign that fans should could get a kick out of.
Overall, GoW: Ascension is a fine addition to the series, offering a tremendously extravagant adventure that, like the warm duvet in your bedroom, fits snugly into the whole universe. The familiarity and snugness of that blanket, however, means it doesn’t quite hit you with as many “wow” moments as some of the previous games, but still, the quality of the production and set-pieces is something to behold. Though my personal choice would be to see less of the platforming and puzzle-sections and more of the fighting, it’s a change of pace that many may enjoy, and fans of the series should be pleased with the unfolding narrative and how it leads up nicely to the series as a whole. Kratos may be in touch with his human side in God of War: Ascension, but he’s still one hell of a bad, violent and blood-thirsty mutha.