Monday, March 18, 2013

Review: God of War: Ascension!

It’s a shame that God of War Ascension arrives so late in the life of this current generation of consoles to have the shock and awe of its predecessor. I remember when footage of God War III was first shown and people marvelled at the graphics, especially amazed by the seamless transition between cutscene and gameplay. Ascension has all this and more, but there seems to be a general feeling of ambivalence for this Kratos prequel, easily dismissed as “more of the same”. And that’s true, to an extent, (excluding the addition of multiplayer) but if your enthusiasm for blood, boobs, disemboweling and giant mythological beasts hasn’t waned, then Ascension is a grisly romp that still packs some punch for the diehard fan.

To find out what I thought - especially in regards to multiplayer - join me... after the jump!

Perhaps the campaign’s biggest problem is that it’s a prequel. Across all forms of entertainment it is rarely ever satisfying to move backwards and, as such, Ascension lacks the momentum and urgency of the previous game. God of War III was an earned climax, beginning with Kratos riding a Titan to Mount Olympus and exacting his horrific vengeance on each God one by one, progressively arming himself with their surrendered treasures. Ascension occurs long before all that and Kratos’ main enemies are the Furies, intent on torturing him for breaking his oath with Ares. Kratos is determined to learn more about his past but I felt distanced from him throughout, and apart from one brief moment of unexpected tenderness towards the end, I was never really invested in his quest. If they were going to go back in time then I’d rather play a game called Baby Kratos which begins with a quick time event as you punch your way out of the womb.

But one thing I don’t want to imply is that the game feels lazy or rushed into production. There’s far too much detail and love poured into the environments and battles for me to get that feeling. I feel like Ascension is a sincere attempt. For me, the over familiarity mostly stems from fighting waves of monsters that we’ve already fought many times before - gorgons, centaurs, harpies, cyclops - and really it’s there that the game needs to find something fresh. And as this is prior to your wacky God weapons, all you’ll have for this adventure is the Blades of Chaos (admittedly infused with new switchable elemental powers). But, that said, at times it still manages to trump anything we’ve ever seen in the series. For example the final climactic battle is easily the most visually spectacular and inventive so far, and it's these moments of brilliance that keep my faith in the franchise.

It may also be interesting to note that this is the first game in Australia to receive the R18+ classification. It’s certainly gory but no more so than its MA15+ predecessor (in fact many of the grosser kills are the exact same). There’s also the requisite boob-filled sequence but no sex mini-game - which is probably for the best in this instance. I’ve always found it odd that Kratos - a guy who is mourning his dead wife - has a lot of random sex with strangers. I think that the effectiveness of this new 18+ restriction is going to be reasonably transparent, dependent on how many kids start showing up in the voice chat on multiplayer games.

Speaking of multiplayer, I'm getting totally into it. 

Kratos takes a breather while you create your own unique character, firstly by pledging allegiance to a specific God who will govern your play style. I chose Ares, transforming me into a brutal melee fighter who looks like Masters of the Universe's Ram Man. My weapon of choice is a mighty war hammer that currently looks like a bull's head. As you level up and complete challenges you can further customise your armour, weapons and relics to best assist the way you choose to play.

Arenas range from larger multi-level stages based on iconic scenes from previous God of War games (such as the desert, the Gorgon bog, and that crazy mechanical labyrinth made of wooden boxes), to smaller traditional arenas that support 3 or 4 players. There's also an arena where you can play co-operatively with another player as you survive waves of enemy creatures and (I believe) some former bosses. Some of the matches are free-for-alls and others pit teams of Spartans and Trojans against each other. I've really only been using the quick match system and taking whatever I can get - there doesn't appear to be a huge population of players yet and often you'll be waiting for a few minutes between matches.

You have a full range of physical attacks and grapples, plus there's a strong blocking, countering and block-breaking mechanic to keep things unpredictable. You can also activate your specified magic, and pick up and use items that are spread across the levels. For example there's a relic that affects time, allowing you to make a bridge crumble to dust under an enemy's feet or repair a broken barrier. Most levels have huge interactive creatures that you can use to your advantage and in a few of the smaller arenas I was able to ride creatures into battle. You're definitely faced with a whole lot of options.

I play a reasonable variety of console games every year but never excel in any of them. What I liked about Ascension was that, even as a relatively casual player, I was able to hold my own in these multiplayer battles. Some of the skirmishes are quite epic and I felt my bloodlust rise each time I delivered a brutal kill. My proudest moment by far was when my girlfriend observed me yelling, "THIS. IS. SPARTA!" triumphantly right before successfully managing to kick an opponent into a circular pit. Not many games get me yelling at the screen but I was having a blast with this one. It's so unrelentingly violent that it's bordering on comical and I loved the vivid, pumped-up mythology of the environments.

So Ascension ended up winning me over, although I appreciate that it is not a game for everyone - or at least not an immediate priority for everyone, especially in a month jam-packed with giant releases. It kind of depends on who I'm talking to here. If you're on a limited budget and have to carefully pick and choose then you may wish to wait a while for this one. If you're comfortable and pick up a lot of things then go at it! Although, overall, I do feel the core audience may have mostly moved and on and I almost wish that the GoW team had bided their time and developed something for release with the upcoming PS4. I think we may have needed that leap forward in technology to truly shock and awe us again.

But there are far worse ways to spend some afternoons. Ascension is on par. I'm going back to multiplayer.

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