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God of War: Ascension review: Slick, brutal, but a series treading water

Kratos goes back, the game stands still

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Here, you'll throw down with up to seven other players in multi-tired arenas from a fixed-cam perspective, scoring points by killing, raiding chests, and capturing alters. To start, you're plonked in a great sky rotunda and told to choose your allegiance: Ares, Hades, Zeus or Poseidon. Each grants different powers. Ares enables enhanced melee and the use of fire magic, while Poseidon gives players damage resistance and lets them freeze foes solid. Effectively, this gives you four unique incentives to play, upgrades aligned with one God not carrying over to the next.

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It also means new players will start with a disadvantage. There are three categories of upgrade: armour, weapons and abilities. For newbies, all are lowest rung. The first helmet you unlock, for instance, will have half the elemental resistance of one you unlock later. Your standard spear is nothing next to one bestowed by Zeus himself.

The special ability powered by your magic meter, letting you conjure a wall of impassable lightning or burst into the sky and crash down for wide-ranging attack, won't match the force of one upgraded, using skill points, to its second or third level. God of War: Ascension plants players on uneven footing, and while it's not the first game to do so, here it feels extra potent.

GODS AMONG US

There's nothing like a couple of matches in which to improve, though, and here the flagship is Favour of the Gods. In it, one team of four attempts to beat the other to a points target. Points are given through popping chests (a little), killing (more), and capturing alters (most). It's a curious concept, part way between a beat-'em-up and a third-person actioner and quite unlike anything else in recent memory - except perhaps Dreamcast gem Power Stone, on a larger scale.

Fighting's central, but there's room for tactics. Scattered around levels are traps dealing damage from distance; you might wait around a corner with a flamethrower turret, or defend an altar with a mortar. Towards the end of the match, traps change the complexion of the level entirely.

One level allows you to take control of Medusa, but using traps makes you vulnerable

In a night level set to the backdrop of a besieged Troy, for example, you can manipulate a gigantic catapult to fire at a statue of Apollo - whichever team destroys it wins a thousand points. In the great labyrinth built by Dedalus, sneaky players can crank a handle beneath the central structure and turn the level on its head, sending others to their doom. One level set in an idyllic garden even allows you to take control of Medusa's famed, er, laser eyes and melt enemies in one hit. Keep in mind, though - using traps makes you vulnerable. Weapons scattered around also mix things up. Like in single-player, the Circle button lets you strike with warhammers, spears or shields, while holding it down in conjunction with L1 launches it at the nearest player, in the process relinquishing it.

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Both weapons and traps come into play during Trial of the Gods, where two players co-operatively kill increasingly tougher waves of AI enemies to extend a time limit, as well as Match of Champions, where only kills count, and then finally during Capture the Flag. The latter is the strongest of the bunch, typically tailored to first-person-shooters but here made to fit third-person. Flag-carriers are slower, and their positions alluded to by trailing icons, but they aren't defenceless, able to perform rudimentary attacks and shake pursuers.

A neutral flag also enables players, who don't fancy marching into enemy territory, to grab a little glory, albeit for less points. Combined with warp tunnels, and a little light platforming where players bound up certain glowing structures and grapple from glowing green spots, players are offered multiple options besides flailing with weapons.

SMACK AND SLASH

But flailing with weapons is sadly what multiplayer comes down to. It's all too easy to get stuck in a corner whilst two members of the opposing team alternately hack your defenceless body to bits, smashing you with heavy hits and juggling your body in the air while you redundantly hold block. You can employ the same tactic against them later, but it doesn't make it any less cheap.

While the L3 button sprints, legging it is pointless since anyone chasing can simply grapple you back like a naughty dog on a lead, and though enemies about to launch an unblockable attack glow red, the dazzling spectrum of colours in the heat of battle makes it impossible to tell, eeking any nuance out of solid combat mechanics. One-on-ones work because you've got the time and space to feel each other out, jabbing with spears, double-bluffing your blocks, and luring them over chasms ready to punt them into the abyss. The minute others wade in, so begins the button bash. Sometimes you'll win, sometimes you won't, but a measured contest becomes a lottery.

Multiplayer works fine, but it lacks that special hook

Ascension's multiplayer shares a similar sensibility with Uncharteds 2 and 3: both are primarily single-player games attached to an initially ill-favoured online component which, as it turns out, works... fine. It works fine. Nothing remarkable, but perfectly functional and, just like the Uncharted games, potentially packing a dozen or so hours of entertainment. But those dozen hours are summed up by boring words like 'practical' and 'solid' - and the real truth is that multiplayer lacks that special hook.

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And yet despite samey combat and a story low in scope, Ascension remains a visually stunning reminder of PS3's pulling power, its sprinkling of incredible set pieces and time-refined combat laid on top of a familiar - too familiar - blueprint. The QTE's, the gore, the rampant nudity, it doesn't move the franchise forward in any meaningful way (the robust if uninspiring multiplayer mode definitely fails in its remit where that's concerned), but it's a new God of War, and, even at three-quarter power, that makes it worth seeking out.

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The verdict

Book-ended by two incredible set-pieces, and perfectly solid in between, single-player Ascension is God of War on autopilot. Meanwhile, the new multiplayer delivers breadth, if not depth.

  • Near unparalleled visuals and animation
  • Guts-spilling, brain-carving gore
  • Brutal, time-refined combat
  • Multiplayer brings some interesting ideas...
  • ... but is never anything more than solid
  • An inessential story, a kinder Kratos
  • Few new combat mechanics
  • Lack of big-scale Titan gameplay
7.5
Format
PlayStation 3
Developer
Sony
Publisher
Sony
Genre
Action, Adventure

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