Before the God Was the Man – God Of War: Ascension Review
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 3.
The Ghost of Sparta haunts us with his presence once more, as God of War: Ascension has finally climbed down from Mount Olympus and into our consoles. Occurring before the events of the original God of War, the latest in the brutal franchise explores Kratos’ past and his reasoning behind defying the war god, Ares. Will this prequel be a myth worth bringing to life, or will it fade out of legend as a disgrace to the ancient lords?
Set about six months before the events of the original title, God of War: Ascension tells the story of how Kratos first sought to break free of Ares. Suffering from his dark past and hating Ares for what he tricked Kratos into doing, the newly proclaimed Ghost of Sparta seeks to break his blood oath with the God of War. Of course, things are never that simple, as Kratos’ attempt at betrayal set the wrath of the Furies upon him. Created from the chaos of an ancient battle between the Primordials (beings neither gods nor Titans whose dead bodies forged the many pieces of the earth), these mythical beings have only one master: honour.
Believing Kratos’ desire to break his blood oath goes against all codes of loyalty and honor, they set upon our protagonist to haunt him with visions of his dead wife and child (both of whom he killed accidentally), and warp the world around him with visions of his life in Sparta – with the end goal of bringing him to justice. These curses, however, are broken by a shade named Orkos, who pitied the fallen warrior over his unfair oath to the God of War, allowing him to partially see the truths around him. From there, Kratos sets out on a quest to seek out divine artifacts to eliminate his haunting visions, regain his honor, and begin his revenge on Ares.
With all the prevalent themes of loss and disorientation, one would expect that Ascension would be full of heart-wrenching emotions and Kratos’ signature fury at the gods – yet it distinctly lacks all these feelings. Our hero (using the term loosely) actually feels a bit more like Master Chief from the Halo series. Kratos’ lines are few and far between, and he usually only speaks to ask questions about what to do next, or give an enemy a bit of back-sass – a far cry short of his usual blind fury at everything he comes across. Even factoring in the recent loss of his family, Kratos doesn’t seem his usual self, grunting more than he speaks. This causes him to feel more like a medium to tell a random legend, as opposed to being a future god undergoing his origin story. Ascension could have been an emotional, gripping tale that explored the depths of Kratos’ innermost thoughts and feelings. Ascension should have been used as a vessel to show what forged all the hate we saw in the original trilogy. Instead, it simply gets out only what it needs to, delivering a gameplay-heavy experience, with little else to offer.
Thankfully, said gameplay truly stands out, keeping enough of the basic God of War template to make it feel familiar, yet evolving enough to make it stand out from the others. As per usual, players are able to combine both light and heavy attacks to make brutal, stylish combos using the returning Blades of Chaos from the original title. These chained short swords can also be thrown to grapple and pull in enemies, holding them still while you whale on other foes, or allowing players to perform violent and fatal finishing moves on their incapacitated enemies. Grappling like this can even lead to different mini-games when using the skill on certain enemies – such as the massive, anthropomorphic elephant Juggernaughts. In said scenes, players need to attack the grappled enemy, while watching for signs of an attack to dodge. Once you’ve won, Kratos will dispatch the foe is horrific ways, including cutting open a fallen enemy’s skull to reveal the brain, or slashing another down the chest to the stomach so the intestines are hanging loose.
As for keeping yourself safe, you’re able to block, dodge, and parry in-coming attacks – just like in previous titles. Upon killing hostiles or reaching different combo intervals (10, 25, 50 hits, and so on) you’re awarded blood orbs, which allow you to buy upgrades for the Blades of Chaos and your unlocked powers/abilities. These returning features help veteran players get right into the action, as though they never left.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a God of War title without huge environments and massive scaling. One of my favourite memories of the franchise would be from God of War II, when you step out and walk across a giant chain, holding the massive Steeds of Time. Moments like this are also brought to life in Ascension as well, such as navigating a palace built within the body of a giant Hecatonchires, riding giant wooden snakes in the frosty mountains, or ascending the wrecked remains for the Statue of Apollo. The latest in the series does a fantastic job of making you feel like a small (albeit crazy powerful) man amidst the huge monuments of Olympian legends.
Also returning are the navigation and puzzle rooms that can be found strung throughout the series. Players will need to navigate Kratos through several Uncharted-styled climbing sections, and perform Spiderman-like swinging using the Blades of Chaos. The gamer’s mind will be challenged as well, as puzzle rooms (though seemingly less so) also make a reappearance. You’ll need to adjust several pieces of the environment and move with haste in these areas, so keep your wits about you!
However, it’s the newer features that will keep players drawn in, such as elemental effects, Earthly Weapons, Rage, and, of course, the competitive multiplayer. Players will occasionally come across earthly weapons like swords, shields, and javelins, which are used as Subweapons. Each tool has its own distinct characteristics, such as the sword being fast and able to stun, or the mace being slow yet powerful and able to disarm foes. Gamers are also able to throw these weapons towards the enemy, creating various effects (like the javelins being thrown straight into the air, causing a rain of spears). Be careful though, as discarding your weapon like this is permanent – you can’t pick the tool back up! It is up to you whether you want to use it as an addition attack, throw the weapon away to hit an enemy from afar, or simply ignore your foes.
Magic is also a something of a returning feature, but this time in the new form of elemental auras that coat your Blades of Chaos. Gamers may still cast powerful spells (at the cost of Magic Points [MP]), but these must be unlocked via a Red Orb upgrade after obtaining the specific elemental power. There are four said types: Fire, Ice, Lightning, and Soul – each granted by the powers of different gods (Ares, Poseidon, Zeus, and Hades respectively). Depending what element you have selected, you’ll receive different bonuses upon killing an enemy: Fire produces health orbs if you incinerate; Ice yields extra red orbs; Lightning gives blue orbs to regenerate MP; and Soul brings forth yellow orbs to replenish your Rage meter.
Speaking of which, Rage is Ascension’s equivalent of Rage of the Gods/the Titans/Sparta from the original trilogy. Previously, Rage would bring Kratos into a godlike state, granting him increased attack, defense, speed, and unlimited magic. While the latest Rage mode still allows for boosted attack power, it’s had some large changes made to it. First off, where before your meter would fill permanently and you would manually trigger the mode, Ascension features one that is automatically started once you’ve filled the bar, and it lasts until you’re either hit or when it eventually drains. This means that players need to constantly be doing damage to enemies while avoiding all enemy attacks in order to keep this state active – quite the feat when dealing with certain enemy fighting styles. Gamers usually face multiple enemies at once, and many of these foes (especially bosses) utilize attacks that are quick and hard to block/dodge, meaning you need to be perfect in order to even get Rage mode activated.
As well, certain combos (which players could use in earlier games) are only available with full Rage, limiting the range of assaults one can pull off. However, once the mode triggers, your blades gain extra elemental powers, increasing the chance of a kill by Fire, Ice, Lightning, or Soul. You’ll also gain access to a powerful Rage attack while in this state, unleashing things like a blast of fire or a torrent of electricity – at the cost of completely draining your Rage meter. Power attacks aside, this change in setup feels like a step backwards, as you need to be incredibly good in order to use it effectively. Any player who relied on the previous Rage mechanic to get themselves out of a jam (like myself), is going to be out of luck.
One brand new feature that really sets Ascension apart from the other titles in the series is the ability to control time. After certain events in the early stages of the game, players get their hands on a magical device that allows them to heal or decay certain objects in the environment, either restoring them to their former glory or set the clock forward and put them to ruins. As you can guess, this mechanic plays greatly into the puzzle-solving elements of Ascension, while also adding to the insane scale of things mentioned earlier. Watching giant chains turn from broken, rusted wrecks back into shiny, solid tools in a matter of seconds is a stunning wonder to behold! There are a few other mechanics similar to this one as well, but as to avoid plot spoilers, I won’t reveal them. You’ll simply have to play and experience them for yourself!
Now, I must be honest. Having seen so many single-player games become ruined with terrible multiplayer ideas, I was a bit worried about how Ascension’s first shot at an online mode would turn out – a fear that seems to have been unfounded, as it delivers spectacularly. All of the basics of gameplay carry over to multiplayer, such as special attacks, blocking, dodging, magic, etc., but with a few small modifications. Special moves each have their own cool down times, you may only have one spell equipped at a time, and you can only select one element to use – which is defined by your allegiance to a single god.
Players may select one of the four gods mentioned earlier (Zeus, Ares, Poseidon, and Hades), each one being the equivalent of a class from other titles. Those loyal to Ares use fire and are effective as melee warriors; Zeus has the obvious lightning and commands his army of battle mages, who prefer spells over physical attacks; Poseidon grants the ice element, as well as support skills to back up allies; and Hades provides Soul abilities, while his assassins prefer dirty, sneaky combat.
As for game modes, players have four to fight across: Favor of the Gods, Match of Champions, Capture the flag, and Trial of the Gods. In Favor of the Gods, two teams of either two or four (dependent upon the match rules) fight to reach a target number of favor points. This can be done a few ways: kill enemies, capture altars, or open special chests. The first side to reach their target number wins. Match of Champions is simply a good old fashioned brawl, and can support either four or eight players. Players will go toe-to-toe in a battle to, once again, reach a set number of points by killing each other or opening chests – but with every man for himself.
Capture the Flag has two teams of four attempting to capture the other team’s flag, while simultaneously defending their own. As with the other game types, points are awarded for kills and flag captures, and the first team to reach the target goal wins. In Trial of the Gods, two players work co-operatively to defeat different AI controlled monsters. You’re given a time limit and are awarded with extra seconds for each skill (the more stylish, the more points). If you feel up to the challenge, you may also try out this mode solo.
Part of what makes the multiplayer so engaging, though, is the fact that each level is somewhat alive. What I mean is, various parts of different maps either automatically move or release traps, or can even be triggered to do so. For example, on one map there is a giant Cyclops who can attack players if they come near, and on another the entire level is constantly shifting around, switching out which passage goes where – all while littering things like switches for spike traps around the zone. Having these environmental hazards attack you mid-game makes you to stay on your toes, and helps suck you right into the action.
Character customization also plays a role in Ascension’s online fray, as multiple aspects of your warrior can be personalized to your play style. For starters, gamers can choose one of three weapons to utilize in combat, based upon their preferred fighting style: swords for light, quick attacks; spears for extended reach; or maces for slow, powerful blows. Different weapons in every category also carry their own strengths, such as some weapons being better suited for magic, while others for melee. For defense: head, body, and lower (e.g. boots, leggings) armour can be equipped to protect oneself on the field. Every piece grants its own augments, such as extra health, better physical/magical resistance, or overall spell power (just to name a few), and has its own distinct look. If you like to throw caution to the wind, you may also remove any piece of armour in favour of faster skill reset speeds – as apparently fighting in your underwear lets you use skills quicker.
A few other multiplayer-only customizable features present themselves, namely relics, items, magic, and aesthetics. Items are a feature unique to online play, whose effects vary dependant upon allegiance and the item itself. Some will give positive effects like healing or teleportation, others are malevolent like lengthening enemy cool down times. Regardless, each one has unlimited uses but with a large respawn time, and can be used to interrupt an enemy combo or avoid an unblockable attack – an invaluable trait. Relics, on the other hand, grant passive bonuses during combat, such as giving extra MP upon death, or granting a temporary shield upon respawn. For magic, the spells you use are heavily dependent upon which god you align with, due to the aforementioned elemental types associated with each god. Generally though, there are three different spells per class: an area of effect, and single target, and a cone-shaped blast – with different MP costs based upon how powerful the spell is. Finally, players can select some base aesthetics for their warrior in the form of skin and armour colours, allowing you to give yourself just that extra bit of flair. All in all, there is a lot for players to mess around with on their characters, bending them around their preferred play style and aesthetic preferences.
Generally, the multiplayer in Ascension is a lot of fun, but there seems to be some issues with connectivity. After my initial round, I found myself having an impossible time finding a game. Selecting Quick Match from the main multiplayer menu, I found myself being kicked from every lobby as soon as every player was connected. The level and gametype would appear, the countdown to the match start would begin, and then it reset the search all over again. After a good hour or so of this, I was finally able to get back into playing, although the match either had a bout of low connectivity or saw me removed from the game. In some rare instances, there were very little issues, but most of the time I found myself frustrated to the point of quitting. When this multiplayer works, it’s one heck of a wild ride. Unfortunately though, it is literally unplayable at times, making it hard to get into.
Speaking of Jekyll and Hyde experiences, the graphical quality of Ascension likes to jump around as well. On one side of the spectrum, we have absolutely stunning features: brilliant and creative character designs are also buffed up by fluid, bug-free animations. The amount of detail provided in both character and environment textures is also staggering – even getting right up close and personal with skins you can see incredible quality, where with most titles you start to see pixels. Add in the occasional first-person camera view during cinematics, and graphically speaking, this is easily one of the best and most impressive looking games you can play. That is to say, when the frame rate and camera shake isn’t making your screen a blurry mess. In most places while in-game, players will notice the incredibly low frame rate, making motion both very blurry and even appearing quite choppy in some places.
If anything is keeping the latest title in the series feeling authentic, it’s the audio. Voice actor Terrence Carson one again reprises his role as Kratos, and while he may have fewer lines, you will definitely get a feeling of nostalgia the first time you hear him grunt or speak. While Michael A. Reagan did not return to pen the latest score, you would swear he never left, as composer Tyler Bates (Sucker Punch, Watchmen) does an incredible job in keeping the soundtrack true to the series. Gamers will hear sharp, dark brass stings overtop a pounding percussion section, accompanied by vocal chorus and the familiar God of War theme. Overall, every sound you hear is going to ring nicely in your ears, in both new and familiar ways.
When Kratos rips out the last heart of his enemies and finally puts the Blades of Chaos down, you’ll see that God of War: Ascension is a great, though flawed, title. Sporting fresh yet familiar gameplay, impressive graphics, and an interesting multiplayer, the title is greatly held back by missed opportunities in the story, visual blurs, and online connectivity issues. If you’re a massive fan of the God of War franchise, this is one title that needs to be in your library. If you’ve yet to partake in any of the Ghost of Sparta’s adventure, I would really suggest doing so before taking this one up.
Final Score: 4.0 / 5.0 and a decent blessing from the gods of Olympus.
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