(PlayStation 3 Review) God of War: Ascension

Developer: Sony Santa Monica
Publisher: SCEA
Genre: Action / Platforming
Players: 1-8
ESRB: Mature
Reviewer: George Damidas

Overall: 7 = Good

As a general rule, we review games as is out of the box, so that we experience the same thing as players who pop in their copy fresh from the store. That has become more difficult as of late, with the prevalence of day-one patches not only fixing lingering bugs but also adding modes that weren’t finished in time. It’s tough to know when to draw the line, and that was the case with God of War: Ascension. We received our copy after the game had launched, and before I was able to finish the campaign, a patch was announced—and then another. Each patch has not only addressed a specific concern—a severe difficulty spike, audio bugs—but also tweaked mechanics and added increased multiplayer functionality, which meant that the online game was evolving as the review was being written, necessitating even more time to be spent on trying out the latest changes. Needless to say, the line was eventually drawn, and the game has been reviewed in its current state, as it is at the time of this writing, after two significant patches have been released.

I should also point out that most of my time with the game was played prior to the second patch. However, I did go back through and play some of the story and several multiplayer matches afterwards in order to test the second patch’s main audio fix and multiplayer tweaks. While I didn’t experience any audio problems during subsequent sessions through various chapters and online modes, I will say that I wouldn’t be surprised to hear about another patch coming along soon.

God of War: Ascension is set prior to the events in the original God of War.  I thought the prequel territory was well covered in God of War: Ghost of Sparta, which went back to Kratos’ childhood and introduced his brother, but that was a sequel with extended flashback sequences rather than a true prequel, whereas Ascension is set entirely before the original trilogy. Given that God of War III wrapped up the storyline, Sony Santa Monica went to the only place left: the beginning. After breaking his oath to Ares, Kratos is being punished by those who mete out ethereal justice to oath-breakers: the vengeful Furies. After breaking free from his confines, Kratos vows to track them down the sisters to extract the truth. From here, the story skips along a very small timeline with back-and-forward jumps spanning days to weeks, slowly revealing what led to the oath being broken. All the while, Ares’ minions are working to break Kratos down mentally and physically so that he will once again swear allegiance to the god of War.

As the game’s title implies, Kratos is not yet the infamous deity-slaying death machine but a mortal warrior at the early stages of his ascent to the manic, violent heights that he’s brought to bear on the gods since 2005. It’s a short trip. Before he showers marble floors and gold statues in geysers of centaur blood, Kratos must first acquire the skills necessary to last against some of the most persistent and deadly beasts in the Greek pantheon. Mechanically, this translates into a weak Kratos who is on the receiving end of a whole lot of pain for a sizable portion of the game. Players coming from God of War III will find the step down incredibly jarring as he starts at the lowest of lows, largely unable to perform many of the core moves they’ve relied on for years. His anger powers his most potent moves, and although Kratos is angry throughout Ascension, he’s usually not angry enough. To hit that euphoric height of madness, he must build up a Rage Meter by attacking enemies and strategically dodging blows; however, the meter depletes if he goes too long without landing an attack, and it sinks like a rock whenever he’s hit. This leaves him in an incredibly vulnerable state that will see even some of the grunt enemies—I’m looking at you, satyrs and weird exploding bugs—giving him a run for his drachma.

Sony Santa Monica painted themselves into a tight corner when they chose to go so far back in time. The period might expand narrative possibilities, but it also limits the mechanics available to players. The results are quickly felt. Even after the accumulated weapon-and item-upgrading red orbs have been spent, the combat system is very meat and potatoes for about half of the game. Unlike previous entries in which Kratos finds himself the keeper of an expanding arsenal, he is now limited to two story items, four elements, and World Weapons. Now, instead of having access to a standard set of secondary weapons, Kratos is limited to the hammers, javelins, shields, and swords that are lying around. These weapons are handy in a pinch, and help to break up an otherwise restricted system, but they have a limited life of a few swings or a single toss for a heavy-damage attack. The element system is similar to the spells in previous games, but these now have a greater effect on the Blades of Chaos by enhancing them with additional effects. The elements naturally tie to the god whose power they invoke, with lightning representing Zeus, fire for Ares, ice for Poseidon, and dark souls for Death. The basic attacks are the same regardless of which power is equipped, but the combo finishers and more involved attacks that invoke the elements differ. At the end of a heavy combo, lightning will electrocute enemies, fire will cause an eruption, ice will send forth a glacial blast, and souls will cause giant arms to come up from the Underworld and swat at enemies. Light attack combos also invoke the elements, but their finishers are much less exotic. The element-based special attacks augment magic to further expand Kratos’ move list; lightning can be sent as an electrifying ball or summoned as a massive charge that strikes enemies the more the shoulder buttons are pressed, while a long-range wave of dark-energy souls can also be used to summon multiple arms to flail around. The elements do wonders in opening up combo possibilities when paired with the enemy-slowing Amulet of Uroborus and short-lived clone summoned by the Oath Stone of Orkos. The problem ends up being now how useful the new additions are in aiding Kratos on his quest but in how long it takes for them to become available.

For hours of the journey, players are limited to a handful of moves and few spells, if any. Numerous roadblocks have been erected to artificially lower Kratos’ abilities: the Rage Meter locks away some the series’ traditional extended combos, while the more effective moves are locked behind several upgrade layers, and the powerful elemental spells are the very last set of unlocks. The Blades of Chaos are separate from the other abilities and have their own set of unlockable upgrades. This means that tens of thousands of red orbs will need to be retrieved in order to have access to a respectable move set, much less one on par with previous titles. This approach might make sense thematically, with a less-experienced Kratos still coming to grips with his power, but it drags down the beginning of the game with incredibly tedious encounters. Adding to the morass of combat is the allocation of parrying to a separate button, splitting the mechanics among too many inputs and further bogging down the encounters. A camera that is more focused on cinematics than functionality often means it is next to impossible to tell when to block, much less parry, with far too many zoomed-out views and crowded close-up angles. In a game that is as demanding as Ascension, especially with its additional timing mechanic, this makes for an especially irksome design dissonance.

Things improve significantly about halfway through the game. After nearly five hours, Kratos has leveled enough to provide a pace and challenge on par with GOW3 and Ghost of Sparta. The World Weapons, unlocked abilities, and a new mini-game keep combat fresh and maintain the momentum that was oh-so-slowly building throughout the first half. Quick-time events are now one of two mini-games, and operate as before, with timed button presses allowing for incredibly cinematic encounters. They remain simplified and restricted to buttons, thankfully, aside from one anomalous instance where an analog stick comes into play as it has in previous entries. The other, called Promptless, is a new attack for stronger enemies, in which Kratos impales them with one blade and assaults them with another while dodging their attacks. These are incredibly easy thanks to the generous window given to react, but that is a tradeoff I found more than fair as they felt far more natural than simply tapping a button over and over.

The difficulty lowers somewhat in this period, but it picks back up when moving into the final act. However, the challenge rarely dips to that experienced in the first half, which is a good thing given that the previous difficulty was often born out of cheap enemy placement and lack of moves rather than finely crafted setpieces. There are moments throughout the game that will frustrate, though. Enemies will frequently be in mid-attack once an animation ends, allowing them to get in a hit while their cohorts then quickly follow through with even more attacks. Due to the Rage Meter’s requirement for continuous combat, the need to continuously engage often means being bounced around by enemies that fill the screen with long-range attacks, ground attacks, and everything in-between. Whenever the difficulty picks back up, it’s largely from lengthy encounters that stretch on for several waves. One of these, the now-notorious Trial of Archimedes, was tweaked with the first patch, and while it still might take a few tries to complete, it’s no longer the controller-shattering gauntlet it once was. There are also more puzzles than in GOW3, which I can’t imagine exciting anybody given how they always bogged the other games down rather than punctuate the combat with something meaningful. Ascension’s are, on the whole, not too bad. As with the combat, they improve around the half-way mark, with even the more involved ones offering a decent payoff.

This is also around the time when the technical glitches begin to taper down. The only problem I experienced in the second half of the game was the clone being stuck in mid-pose, floating around the screen until I re-summoned it. Before that, I fell through solid objects, fell to my death because the camera failed to keep up with Kratos, saw enemies freeze in mid-air after loading, failed sections due to misaligned story triggers, and had interactive objects not react to inputs. I had to repeat one particularly trouble-prone spot over a dozen times because I had to figure out how to address each of the multiple problems in turn before I could finally proceed. After so many stable releases, it’s genuinely surprising that there are still issues two patches later from a studio with the record of Sony Santa Monica.

Surprisingly, the multiplayer component, the most significant addition to the series since its inception, has proven to be more stable than single-player. In addition to the solo Trials of the Gods, there are several versus modes, including a free for all, two teams of two, and two teams of four. Favor of the Gods, playable with four to eight players solo or on teams, has players battling each other as they attempt to complete objectives to reach a set amount of Favor. Capture the Flag is an eight-player take on the classic mode with two teams of four attempting to defend their flag while stealing the other team’s. Trial of the Gods returns, with one or two players battling waves of enemies to earn more time to continue playing, with each successive wave more difficult than the last. The handful of modes are supplemented by some nicely designed maps that feature traps and other hazards, as well as extra weapons and orb-filled chests, that keep players on their toes and the action frantic.

Taking a page out of the Call of Duty playbook, every item the player can adorn and wield—helmets, greaves, leggings, breastplates, spears, swords, hammer, relics, etc.—levels up throughout play. The experience earned by the player is applied to Skill Points which are used to unlock and upgrade spells. When playing with four to eight players, the game has a feel very similar to Power Stone 2, with a layered, though not overly complex, combat system underlying chaotic bouts made all the more raucous with interactive environments and environmental hazards. Standard light and heavy attacks are augmented by two special moves, as well kicks, throws, a magical ability, and World Weapons. The number of each attack types is limited, but the variety is enough to offer numerous combinations, which give the fast-paced action a respectable amount of variety. It’s a sweet thing to kick a troublesome rival off a ledge. The fact that the patches have increased the replayability by upping the level cap and tweaking weapon stats bodes well for the future.

God of War: Ascension might deliver a grander experience than comparable action titles, but that is largely due to the robust foundation created by previous releases, on which Ascension rests rather than builds upon. A rocky first half and litany of annoying glitches makes this one of the more disappointing God of War titles to date. While things pick up nicely for the last half, and the multiplayer mode ends up being a surprising compelling addition, it’s still hard not feel as if the series has taken a step back after running up against so many conflicting design decisions, shaky camera work, and glitches that have survived two patches.

(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)

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