NOTE: I played a rental copy of the game, and therefore did not play the multiplayer. This review will focus solely on the single player campaign.
God of War has certainly been an interesting franchise. So far, it has avoided the fate of overexposure by limiting itself to a new game once every two or three years. In fact, the last entry in the series was Ghost of Sparta, released in the fall of 2010. However, that doesn’t mean the series isn’t in danger of getting long in the tooth. God of War III successfully brought Kratos’ saga to a close, and made it so any subsequent tales would have to be prequels. The lore allowed for this, but just because there could be more games, doesn’t mean there should. Even if Ascension turns out to be the greatest playing game in the series, it has to justify its existence, otherwise we’re just circling the wagons until they figure out how to take the franchise forward.
Ascension goes further back in the time line than any game previously released. You won’t get to see Kratos rise to the top of the Spartan army though. Rather, the game picks up shortly after he murdered his family during an Ares-fueled rage binge. Disgusted by his actions, he attempts to break the oath he has with the god of war, only to find himself assaulted by the Furies. The Furies deal with all oath breakers, and are in fact working with Ares to bring Kratos back into the fold in order to enact a plot to take over Olympus. One Fury, however, makes it his mission to aid Kratos, thus allowing the future god to break free from the illusions and break his bonds once and for all.
The story really could have been interesting, but in the end, it just doesn’t go anywhere. It’s a straight forward run to kill some Furies. There are some awkward moments where the tale goes back and forth through time, but not far enough to deal with anything before the plot. It just does this as a gimmick to throw you right into the action at the start. One bright spot is that we get to see Kratos before he’s completely lost his humanity. He sort of saves the life of a random citizen when he doesn’t have to, he bemoans shedding innocent blood at one point, and even shows regret for things other than what happened to his family. The emotional impact is sort of there towards the end, but honestly, it was done better in Chains of Olympus.
In the end, there was just no need for this story. While it starts seemingly right where the visions of Kratos’ past would haunt him the most, it comes up with silly plot reasons why he isn’t an emotional wreck. It ends with a setup seemingly poised to lead directly into the first game, but anyone who’s played said first game knows that it would be another ten years before he actually sets out to kill Ares. It feels disingenuous. Also, the game has several plot points that mean nothing. There is no sense of urgency to stop the Furies’ plan, because this is a prequel. We already know how things work out. The game also misses its chance to bring Ares back into the fold as a character rather than a plot point. While I’m sure there are some God of War stories left that are worthy of being told, this is not one of them.
Ascension is easily the most gorgeous title in the series yet. It has lost none of its lust for scale and detail. Battling skeletons on top of a titan was great, but this time you battle a number of different foes while a living prison actively tries to squish/eat you. Also, there are mid-boss battles during this confrontation, which is just beyond epic. It may not have the initial wow factor of the opening scene in GoW 3, but it still manages to impress.
As for details, the lighting is still excellent, the animations are brutally realistic, and the set design is as strong as ever. The camera constantly pans back so you can see the beautiful world rendered for your enjoyment. This causes some gameplay issues, but I’ll get into those in a bit. The real blemish though, is occasional hiccups that you just didn’t get in previous games. The frame rate can and will falter from time to time. Still, this isn’t that big an issue, especially when you see how great Kratos looks during a close up when performing a magic attack.
When talking purely about the quality of the sounds, the game is top notch. Classic voices return to breath life into Kratos and the narrator, while newcomers lend credibility to the new characters. An effort was made to have the voices recorded while the actors ran around in mo-cap suits, and such practices have paid off like always. Musically, the game hinges on classic tunes mixed with some newer stuff to capture that epic GoW feel. Even the effects are top notch, often lending an extra bit of brutality to the frequent executions. Kratos gets several different enhancements for his blades, and each feels uniquely powerful.
However, the sound editing is atrocious. Music and effects alike cut out with alarming frequency. On top of that, I’d recommend that new players immediately tailor the volume so that it sounds more even. Overall, the game lacks the polish that helped make the series one of the best in terms of presentation. The pieces are there, but they weren’t put together quite right this time around.
For the most part, the game controls the same. You have a light attack, heavy attack, and jump mapped to the face buttons, move with the left stick, dodge with the right stick, and use the shoulder buttons for magic and other special abilities. However, there are some changes. The circle button is no longer for grabs or quick time events. Instead, it is a brand new extra attack button. On default, it performs the Spartan kick made famous by the movie 300. It can also be used mid combo to launch devastating punches. When using the kick, you can knock weapons out of an enemy’s hand. Then you can pick them up and use them yourself. This allows you to use a sword, shield, spear, sling, and club that have some decent effects. Each of these weapons can also be sacrificed to perform a strong move that usually deals heavy damage while stunning all it hits. The R1 button has been reassigned to handle grapple duties, but it too has seen some changes. When grappling an enemy, you basically lodge one of Kratos’ swords said enemy’s midsection. From there, you can lay in strikes or throw the enemy as you will. A grappled enemy can not retaliate, but grappling an enemy leaves you open to attacks from its buddies.
Quick time events, a staple of the series since the beginning, have also seen some changes. For many enemies, you won’t have button prompts to push. Once you enter the QTE, your job is to attack and dodge according to what the enemy is doing. These events are pretty darn easy though, such that I never lost even a single one. A few of the context sensitive actions have been simplified. To open a red orb chest, you need only tap the button and Kratos will smash it. However, he still has to hold down the button to earn restorative items.
The blades have seen some changes. Early in the game, you’ll unlock four different elemental affinities that can charge your blades. These are fire, ice, lightning, and soul. Upgrading these affinities unlocks special attacks and, eventually, magic attacks that prove quite useful. Each affinity is also adept at netting you a specific type of orb. If you need experience, use ice. If you need to fill up the rage meter, then use fire.
Speaking of the rage meter, it has seen some changes as well. It has been completely overhauled to emphasize skilled play. No longer do you store meter to unleash a series of devastating attacks. Instead, rage builds up as you deal damage without taking a hit. When the meter is full, your gain new attacks and can unleash a special move depending on your elemental affinity at the moment. Taking a hit drops the meter significantly, as does inactivity. Skilled players will use this new system effectively, while less experienced players no longer have a crutch to get them through sticky situations.
The enemies may look different, but they really haven’t changed all that much from prior entries in the series. There are plenty of basic grunts, low level mongrels that are good for throwing, three headed dogs, big enemies that can be ridden, gorgons, sirens, harpies, and pretty much everything fans are used to. A lot of them have seen visual overhauls, though. The gorgon has a snake head instead of a human head, though that has done nothing to diminish her bountiful chest. The elephantaur, a new creation, is basically a reskinned cyclops. One can use the same tactics as before and come out on top no problem.
One area where the game simply can’t compete is the boss fights. While the opening and closing fights are suitably epic, the meat of the game never hits the notes that fans are used to. There are some boss fights to be sure, but nothing that stands out. It’s hard to care about fighting Castor and Pollux when you’re used to taking down gods. Also, they need to stop with the giant sea monsters. That premise has been played to death.
The campaign lasts about eight hours on a first playthrough. A second run through is worth the time either on new game plus or on a tougher difficulty. New game plus lets you keep your upgrades, and also allows you to use artifacts that affect a myriad of statistics. You can give yourself infinite magic, for example, or triple the rate at which you earn experience. It should be noted that you can’t earn trophies during this mode though. Beating the game once unlocks the toughest difficulty setting, and diehard players will surely want to test their mettle.
The challenge in this game cannot be found on the default difficulty setting. Even huge hits shave off small amounts of health. It takes an overwhelming assault to make a dent. It’s kind of funny that so many people have been complaining about the gauntlet at the end of the game. I beat it on my second try with no problems, and found it no harder (maybe even easier) than the typical gauntlet thrown in at the end of GoW games. The thought of a patch to make it easier makes no sense to me.
There are some nifty extras that unlock once you’ve beaten the game. You’ll be granted access to numerous costumes, most of them silly looking, that do nothing but give you something different to look at. Ascension also comes equipped with the standard suite of documentary videos that detail many aspects of the game’s development. They’re definitely worth a look.
This was the first God of War game I’ve played that had numerous bugs. At one point, all the light went out of the game. Torches still blazed, but the fire gave off no light. This issue got resolved after a cut scene, but the damage had been done. The constant audio cut outs are beyond annoying as well. It just doesn’t have the polish the previous games had.
I don’t want to say this game was phoned in. I’m sure many people worked hard and are proud of what they’ve put forth. However, as a longtime fan of the series, I find myself disappointed for the first time. While it changes several things up, the game still feels like the same old song and dance. It can be fun, because the set up is still so strong. It just does not reach the heights of its forebears. Sony has run this play one too many times. They need to mix it up with the inevitable next installment or this will quickly go from a respected franchise to an aging relic of a bygone era. It needs to evolve.
Short Attention Span Summary
I will not call God of War: Ascension a bad game. It’s not. The mechanics are solid, if a little unpolished at times. The issue rises from the game’s complete inability to establish a reason for its existence beyond making money. This story is uninteresting, and does nothing to strengthen the lore. In fact, it may end up hurting it in the long run. The lack of polish is unbecoming, and one can’t help but feel the game needed another week or two to patch some of these things up. God of War fans will still enjoy the romp through hordes of enemies, but don’t expect it to connect in the same way as the other games. The big story in God of War is finished. The side stories aren’t going to cut it. We need it to move forward. What that means in terms of gameplay or setting I can’t say, but I’m hoping they take some risks with the next installment.