I may have just lost the bulk of four days to God Of War: Ascension, but I don’t think I qualify as a gamer. I play games, sure, but it’s a rare occasion that I buy a new triple-A title and rarer still that I venture into the ever-intimidating realm of competitive online play which I feel (ever so slightly resentfully) has come to define gaming, and thus gamers.
I’ve been playing the same franchises since the 1990s and those are the few I’ve kept close to my heart, treasured sets of games against which all others have been measured as generations have come and gone. I’d champion the merits of Resident Evil 2 to co-workers fresh from a night’s carnage on Modern Warfare and meet only ignorance or arrogance. Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 held not the same charms north of the Millennium that it did back in 1995. In getting to a point, I was in exile, self-ostracized from a gaming community I felt I couldn’t engage with and forever doomed to re-enjoy but never supplant the small cache of titles I’d been playing for years. Then, God Of War happened.
With the release of the franchise’s first two titles on PS3 in 2010, it became my favourite series just about instantly because of its hugely appealing blend of boundary-ignorant and frequently ludicrous action, huge scale and superb appropriation of Greek myth as an educational byproduct for the millions among which I number to savour for the first time. Beyond its core appeal of gameplay and aesthetics, though, something else stood out to me. Devoid of pretension, God Of War and its sequel wore their hearts on their sleeves without delusions of poignancy or aspirations beyond their remit of shocking and entertaining on the most exaggerated and visceral levels.
Save for the frightening power of a robust engine, there was nothing going on under the hood. God Of War III added current-gen visuals, sound and depth to the series later that same year, and the handheld offerings Chains of Olympus and Ghost Of Sparta contributed not only to the ongoing saga of perma-furious protagonist Kratos’ family (and his apparent personal determination to be in some way violent or at least mean to every last member thereof) but stood tall as capable actioners in their own right, joining their PS2 brethren on PS3 in late 2011.
Across five games, Kratos had slaughtered thousands of the representatives of ancient Greek gods, traveled considerable distance in doing so, severed ties with anyone who was ever nice to him and purposely brought about the actual end of the world. Where else, I wondered, was there to go? Anyone with a rudimentary grasp of physics could figure that one out, though. If you can’t go forward, you go back.
Now, I worried that God Of War: Ascension may have taken cues from what I’ve at least observed (if not experienced) as an increasingly emotionally evocative gaming scene and saddled the grand exploration and combat with some introspection, or even, heaven forfend, character development, but I needn’t have. This is God Of War as it should be, and not even the debut of a multiplayer option can separate Ascension from its roots as the premier hack ‘n’ slash of its generation. Though there’s sure to be an category of fans to whom this failure to make significant progress is a disappointment, they’re at war with the category to which I belong whose chief argument as it comes to these games is that Santa Monica Studios literally perfected the system with God Of War II, and by definition, you just can’t improve on perfection.
For what relatively little contribution it makes to the canon, for this is a series in which gameplay drives while story fidgets in the back seat, God Of War: Ascension is successful in its addition to Chains Of Olympus’ events in the ever-expanding origins of Kratos who is introduced here under the punishment of the Furies after absconding from service to Ares. Something I’ve long felt applies across all entertainment mediums is the appeal of the journey story, and how much more compelling characters feel when they’re on the way to greatness compared to how they are when they get there, so seeing Kratos as a mortal man goes a long way in helping him feel once more like an underdog, albeit an intensely capable and nigh-invulnerable underdog with unresolved anger issues and the chip the size of Olympus itself on his granite-hewn shoulder. So, less a series for character motive and exploration than a threaded exploration of the many violent variants with which to dispatch the ancients, then. I feel by now I know all I’ll ever need to know to enjoy Kratos’ exploits. He’s mad and he’s bad and anything beyond that is supplementary. Quantic Dream’s latest this ain’t, folks. This is a game to play.
As ever, its abuse of the canon of Greek mythology is the sort that would infuriate historians but makes for a rich readymade backdrop of scenery and character to populate with a tried-and-tested blend of platforming, puzzling, QTE interaction and combat, which in particular has been the subject of an update that reads on paper more minor than it comes across in practice. Use of R1 now allows for a grapple option with which other combat options from heavy attacks to light by way of throws and kicks can be linked, making things feel a lot more seamless than before, particularly in groups of five or more enemies (which the game dutifully throws your way at the earliest opportunities).
Kratos has also begun swiping his foes’ weaponry to use against them, so a heavy sword can be pilfered to make quicker work during an onslaught with the drawback that after a few food blows it’ll shatter. Like I said, on paper this reads almost insignificant, but in action it makes such a difference that God Of War still feels just like God Of War but you’ll have a barely tangible increase in satisfaction while playing (and more annoyingly, carry the memory reflex back to previous games where it no longer applies).
The difficulty curve is as gentle as aficionados would expect, with the exception of one particular spike so spiteful that the developers have, since release, agreed to patch it for the benefit of those finding it too much of a challenge. Personally, having collected each of the earlier games’ Platinum Trophies, I enjoyed the descent into button-mashing madness once again, but for newbies this one’s truly ridiculous.
The progress of upgrade availability is also altered slightly from previous games, and you’ll need to be a little more careful in your selection of magic and melee advancements on account of the distribution of the enemy types as the game moves forward. As a result, though, you’ll offer careful consideration as to what you’re doing, which is one of the game’s greatest achievements. Its story may not make you think, but it options for dismemberment and mayhem certainly will. Curiously, the usual Challenge mode is absent, and is likely to follow as paid DLC, which is another cynical embracement of contemporary fiscal tactics by Santa Monica that I can’t get behind.
Santa Monica were never slouches when it came to visuals but God Of War: Ascension’s in another league, and come across as truly fit for the machine they’re run on. While God Of War III felt like an extension of the graphic style the PS2 games used because they were PS2 games, Ascension is beyond any such confusion, making use of a subdued and almost sepia-tinted palette that befits the game’s sombre glance back at the distant memory of Kratos’ past.
From the sheer sense of scale to the clarity of the models and the fluidity with which many enemies move across the screen within constant focus and without lag, it’s simultaneously the most impressive and the easiest on the eyes to date, not to mention a statement on Sony’s part on their machine’s capabilities so late in its life cycle. Tyler Bates provides the game’s sterling score, rich in brass and percussion and I’d go as far to say superior to some of big-screen work from the likes of 300 and The Devil’s Rejects.
While I may be unsuitable to comment definitively on the game’s multiplayer option, I thought the review would be lacking without a little investigation into what’s destined to be my least visited aspect of the disc. Though it may take considerable time to really appreciate, I can actually see its appeal considering how well it ports over the gameplay from the main game. Perhaps most endearingly, you play as a customizable generic male rather than one of the franchise’s many gods whom you instead serve as a means of class selection (ranging from the nimble to the brutal). Deathmatch, flag capture and other mainstays of online gaming are present and correct, as is the ability to upgrade, and the whole thing looks marvelous swathed in the glamor of the series’ distinctive visual sheen. Notably though, the franchise’s refusal to map camera controls to the right analogue stick remains unchanged which once or twice caused issues. In the main game, this feels like part of the furniture, but here, with a horde of enemies and fellow players alike swarming the screen, it’d be beneficial to have a little more say in what the camera gets up to. I imagine with enough feedback this will soon be implemented.
Coming back to a point I made earlier, that the similarities to previous entries are abundant shouldn’t detract from God Of War fans’ enjoyment of this game. To employ a tired example, this series is not unlike the AC/DC of videogames – you know what to expect and you know you’ll enjoy it with each and every release. Why try anything different when you’ve absolute mastery of what you do do? There’s a point in there somewhere to be made about Big Macs, too, but I haven’t the heart. In short, the game’s not completely perfect – the rampant machismo’s still sure to elicit a few tuts from even devotees – but the gameplay is beyond refinement and it’s a treat to take it for a spin in brand-new settings.
Each of the series’ five existing offerings was essential playing for fans of being entertained in the grand manner of violent exuberance or those who delight in the exaggeration and extension of history to accommodate the sort of man whose total lack of redeeming qualities was unable to sever his path to becoming a truly iconic modern hero of fiction. God Of War: Ascension joins their ranks, without reservation, as one of the greatest action games ever made and a more-than-worthy entry in a consistently entertaining series and a triumphant last hurrah on the current generation’s machine.