Can you really get too much of a good thing? If God of War: Ascension is anything to go by, the answer is a resounding…….maybe (brave journalism, no). On a base level, this is yet another extremely well made slice of action adventure videogaming. It’s polished, the gameplay is tight, the visuals fantastic and atop the solid single player campaign lies a surprisingly robust multiplayer component that feels anything but tacked-on. Alas though, despite the many obvious positives to be taken from Sony Santa Monica’s finest, the laws of diminishing returns are clearly starting to take their toll on this once great series.
The biggest problem is that, despite providing a comparable experience to God of War III, Ascension does absolutely nothing new with the now well-worn template while, in terms of scale and balance, actually feels like a step down from the highs of its immediate predecessor. To make matters worse, Microsoft’s own first party prequel, Gears of War: Judgement, has managed to keep the essence of that franchise while taking the experience in a refreshing new direction, something that Ascension doesn’t even attempt. Sony Santa Monica had a great opportunity to do something genuinely unique with the God of War franchise so close to the end of the generation but have instead opted to play it safe. Far too safe.
As I said though, this is still solid stuff and, if you’re a fan of the God of War series, there is certainly a lot to like about Ascension, it’s just that, after three core releases and two more all but identical portable iterations, the God of War template is starting to feel decidedly long in the tooth. For all of the visual bells and whistles, this is still, for all intents and purposes, the same game you were playing on the PS2 back in 2005.
The combat, with its impressive animations, smartly signposted attack patterns and usual elemental upgrades is as slick and enjoyably as you would expect – it certainly isn’t going to worry the Dante’s and Bayonetta’s of this world, but the solidity and core simplicity (even if it does have a fair degree of depth lying just beneath the surface) is perfectly befitting of the material with the resultant bloodletting on screen once again providing God of War’s signature aesthetic of stylised character design and absurdly high levels of gore.
God of War has always been a visually and thematically brutal series and has certainly never shied away from spilling its fair share of virtual claret, but some of the QTE-enabled kill animations are pretty grim (even by the series own high standards of imaginative slaughter). Still, if you’ve played a God of War game before, there’s unlikely to be anything here that will truly shock you……oh, and don’t worry, for anyone easily offended by Trophy awards, the now infamously entitled ‘Bros Before Hos’ Trophy has now been changed to the far more P.C. friendly ‘Bros Before Foes’ via the magic of the online patch – thank God somebody thought of the children.
God of War III never quite topped that opening in which Kratos scrambled up the body of the Titan goddess Gaia as she herself scaled Mount Olympus. It was an opening as outrageous and as visually spectacular as any game before or since and sadly, Ascension never gets anywhere near to reproducing that level of sheer, unabashed spectacle – how could it? This is still big bold stuff and technically is arguably a step up from God of War III, but in terms of leaving an impression and generally delivering that sense of awe and wonder that the series is famous for, Ascension simply can’t compete. God of War III felt like the pinnacle of what could be achieved by the series in its current guise and, despite being a very solid game in its own right, Ascension does very little to make me think otherwise.
While the uneven quality of its campaign and its inability to match the highs found in previous games in the series does leave the single player component stuck with an overriding air of disappointment, the multiplayer, which, I think it’s fair to say that most gamers weren’t expecting much from, has actually turned into something of a revelation, one that, along with Platinum Games’, Anarchy Reigns, proves once and for all that large scale, melee-based multiplayer combat is not only viable, but also a genuinely competitive alternative to the plethora of shooters currently flooding the market.
Underlying depth aside, God of War has always been somewhat famed for its button mashing sensibilities. There are an array of different techniques and moves available for those looking to dig a little deeper, but unlike, say, Ninja Gaiden, success can usually be achieved off the back of a few basic combos and a bit of common sense. The multiplayer though, that’s a different story. This is unquestionably skill-based stuff. You go into battle smashing the buttons like an enraged chimp and any player worth their salt will take you to the cleaners in no time at all.
Despite having all the core moves from the single player offering available for multiplayer battle, the speed of combat has been wisely slowed down so that a much more tactical approach can be taken into battle. Like the single player battle system, Ascension’s multiplayer uses a colour-coded attack scheme as to give eagle-eyed combatants the chance to respond to an enemy’s oncoming attacks. Be it an incoming unblockable attack or your opponents openness to a grab, Ascension’s multiplayer always favours those with superior skill with any fears of online battles descending into mindless button-mashing quickly dismissed amid its cultured pace and refined mechanics.
With unique classes linked to specific Gods allowing the opportunity for different approaches, maps that are well designed throughout and upgrades and bonuses that can genuinely change the flow and subsequent outcome of any given battle, God of War: Ascension’s multiplayer proves the surprising jewel in an otherwise slightly dulled crown. Ascension’s single player campaign may suffer from being stuck in the series’ past, but at least we can all revel in the multiplayer’s glimpse into the series’ future. I expect to see nothing short of an overhaul for Kratos’ next vengeance fuelled adventure but I’d be more than happy to see more of the same of its quite brilliant multiplayer component. There’s room for improvement, sure. But what is here is fast, fun and quite unlike anything else out there.
God of War: Ascension finds itself with one foot firmly stuck in the past while the other strides confidently into the future. The campaign, for all of its slick gameplay and visual sheen simply doesn’t do enough to push the series forward, leaving the single player story feeling robust but ultimately stagnant. The multiplayer though, that additional extra we all expected to be a bit of a turd, has turned into something of a stunner, one that easily makes up for the campaign’s lack of ambition. Sony Santa Monica have given us a glimpse of the series’ future, I just hope they give us the full view next time around.
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