The latest masterpiece in the God of War franchise is God of War Ascension, and it simply cannot be missed.
Ascension's story takes place after Kratos, the leader of the Spartan army, souled out to Ares in order to become unstoppable on the battlefield, an event first seen during an opening cutscene in 2005's God of War. Since aligning himself to Ares, Kratos has committed acts of murder against the innocent, his enemies, and even "accidentally" against his own wife and daughter. Desperate to rid himself of his binding agreement with Ares and determined to find a way to undo the slaying of his wife and child, Kratos finds himself under the imprisonment and careful watch of the Furies. Long before mortals or Gods, the Furies existed and their sole purpose became to protect honor. These three creatures are hell-bent on breaking Kratos' will and keeping him bound and under the control of Ares.
As someone who has played through all of the God of War games (except the 2007 mobile game, Betrayal), the story of Ascension was of interest to me. Admittedly, between Chains of Olympus and Ghost of Sparta, the chronological stories of Kratos may be a little muddled over the series' eight year span. However, as you begin to peel back the story of Ascension over the course of thirty chapters and numerous, AAA quality cutscenes, the story becomes one of the best ones the series has told. Moreover, as I reached the end of the Single Player mode, clocking in at just under ten game-time hours on Normal, I seriously began to consider Ascension as the best God of War experience to date.
Truth be told, I've thoroughly enjoyed every game Santa Monica or Ready At Dawn has released in this series. Differences between each release, in terms of gameplay, aren't earth-shattering, but they are unique changes to compliment new enemies and a new plot. With Ascension, that holds true again, although I found its gameplay tweaks and changes to be more profound. Casual fans of the series may not even notice, but those experienced with the God of War games will not only notice, but appreciate what Santa Monica Studios has cooked up this time.
First, the Blades of Chaos are as big a part of the game as ever, but I liked how the blades get upgraded with additional modes of attack at scripted intervals. The Blades are upgraded with powers from Ares, Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades, giving them different attacks with different damage points. Ares' upgrade for example is fire-based, and yields powerful, yet slow moving attacks, while Zeus' upgrade is electrical, yielding rapid movements and tremendous multi-hit magic power. Each of the four upgrades can themselves be upgraded multiple times, combining
both regular attacks, Rage mode, and Magic. The Rage mode is similar to the old Rage of the Gods, except that you don't actually maintain a meter when not in battle. During a battle, your attacks rapidly build up a Rage meter that, once filled, can be activated to dish out additional damage. So you're able to use Rage attacks more often, but not for as long, which is actually a nice change.
Kratos can now pick up and use 'world weapons' that include a spear, sword, javelin, shield, club, and sling. These are found readily in the game at times and can also be ripped from the hands of enemies. Note that if you have such a weapon and press R1 on another world weapon, your original one disappears (as opposed to be thrown out into the game world). These weapons provide Kratos with another helpful attack in additional to the blades. The club is especially useful for knocking just about an enemy back, while the sling makes short work of annoying harpies and other weaker, distant enemies. By pressing L1 and Circle with a world weapon in your possession, Kratos will get rid of that weapon violently. For example with the spear, he will summon a half dozen or so spears to rain down upon a single foe, while when you L1 + Circle the Sling, it detonates on impact.
I loved the new method of finishing off those intermediate enemies too, like the Medusas or the Juggernauts. There are several great new intermediate enemies, those tougher characters that aren't quite bosses, but also aren't pushovers. With these, as with bosses, there are still QTEs, and it's worth mentioning that the button prompt is finally pushed out to the edges of the screen, allowing more visual real estate to be focused on the action. Many encounters are not QTE based, however, and instead put you right in the middle of the final few blows. When you engage in one of these new types of events, the camera angle changes, providing an awesome cinematic view. Additionally, you are protected from the other enemies, just as you would be if you were in a QTE. However, the enemy you are current attempting to finish off still needs to be hit with Square and Triangle (mash at your own discretion) and you will also need to pay attention to dodge their last attempts at avoiding death. This is done by pressing left or right on the left stick just as the enemy attempts to hit you. The timing on this evasion is pretty lenient, so you're likely to mess up on many of these events. While that may make it sound like these are a joke and get boring, they honestly don't. That said, I would have liked to have seen at least one additional animation set for a given enemy -- for example, when finishing off a Medusa in this form, there is only one set of animations. Once you reach The Trial of Archimedes, you will understand why I would have liked to have seen another animation set or two per enemy.
Grappling enemies is a little different and improved, too. Using R1, Kratos can throw a Blade to attach to a foe and you can actually walk around with them for a brief time, giving you a moment to line up a better throw or just make a more visually impressive battle. Also, the L1+X parry system seemed different from the previous GoW games as well, although it's been several months since I have played those. Oddly, I found, timing a parry with L1+X easier than just pressing L1 alone. Ascension also has some of those brief but exhilarating falling/flying/sliding scenes. I think it was God of War II where Kratos went through several flying sequences in which he flew through very tight spaces at a high speed. It was a rush, and while the sliding sequences in Ascension don't quite match up that rush (nor that frustration when you failed it multiple times), they're really cool nonetheless.
For as many changes, as subtly as they may be, most of the gameplay of God of War is the same. To that, I would simply say, "if it's not broke, don't fix it." I think the polish, tweaks, and changes aforementioned are sufficient enough to make Ascension differentiate itself from the others. Practically everything else staying more or less the same is perfectly fine with me. That includes collecting orbs, Gorgon Eyes, and Phoenix Feathers, although, Red and White orb chests are now smashed with a single button press rather than having to repeatedly tap a button.
The game's set pieces and scripted events are as massive as ever, taking on a scale that even Hollywood could scarcely imagine. Kratos always shines on the biggest stage and in the biggest battles, and Ascension is further proof of that. My only complaint about these big scripted events is that they can be a little bit confusing, as far as knowing when you need to interact and when you just need to watch things unfold. There were a couple of instances in which one of these scripted events was ending, and I died immediately afterwards because I didn't execute the QTE in time, which brought the whole amazing and immersive event to a sudden and annoying stop, albeit it a brief stop.
I would add that I think it's time God of War looked at incorporating a different 'fall' death system too, maybe something like Darksiders has. More specifically, instead of instant death/restart at checkpoint for accidentally falling off of a cliff or missing a jump, docking the player's health and immediately putting them back into position to try again could help avoid some of those annoying hard-stop "You Are Dead" screens. Don't get me wrong, I don't want the game's experience to be cheapened by reducing its difficulty, but I think there may be some very specific tweaks that could be done to help keep players immersed instead of dumping them to a "You Are Dead" screen unnecessarily.
Another gameplay mechanic that I mentioned in my God of War III review are the puzzles and use of switches. I think Santa Monica Studios is selling themselves short by reducing key gameplay elements down to throwing a big floor switch or pushing and pulling around gigantic statues or boxes. It's silly -- I mean you have a game that screams AAA quality from top to bottom, that has so many memorable and amazing moments, and yet it's tarnished by cheesy "throw the switch" and "move this box here" gameplay mechanics.
Back to the plus side, I liked the additional powers Kratos wields in the story. These include the Amulet of Uroboros and the Oath of Orkos Stone. The former is used to solve some basic, yet engaging, environmental puzzles, and it can also be used (with an upgradeable cooldown timer) in battle to slow enemies down. The Amulet is used to Decay or Heal structures, so that you can, for example, resurrect a bridge or staircase. The cool thing about this power is that the answer to these puzzles is not always fully decay or fully heal whatever it is you're interacting with; in fact, many times, the solution is to only heal or decay it to a point, and then use that result to traverse the environment.
The Orkos ability lets Kratos clone himself. The clone is helpful in combat as it runs around and stomps the ground for a short period, sending enemies into the air. This power was especially helpful a couple of times in keeping my enemies distracted while I popped open a health chest. This ability is also used for a few puzzles, although there is an interesting glitch on the long "fire-elevator" event whereby once the elevator stops, you cannot use your clone in combat. It's an interesting transition that apparently wasn't coded quite right, because although you use the clone to solve the puzzle as the elevator is moving, once it stops, you would think it could help you fight. In my playthrough, the clone would instead remain stationary.
Multiplayer mode is introduced to the series for the first time, and I have to say I found it to be deeper than I expected, but there is room for improvement. Multiplayer starts with your Champion on Olympus, ready to align himself with one of Ares, Zeus, Poseidon, or Hades. On a side note, I thought using a brief snippet of a cutscene from the single player mode to introduce your Champion was really cool. Anyway, in this opening room, the Rotunda of Olympus, you have to choose one of the four Gods to side with. Choose Hades and you will be an Assassin, offering stealth and a magic power that drains HP from your foes. Aligning with Ares offers dominant physical power as a Warrior, as well as magic that can disable enemy defenses. The cool thing is you can try out all four choices right there on Olympus in a small arena room.
Once you have made your choice, it's time to customize your Champion by picking out armor, armor tint, and a weapon. Armor categories include the head, chest, and legs, and while weapons are categorized by hammer, spear, and sword. Within all of these groups are additional unlockable items. Some of the helmets will go a long way in differentiating your appearance. Also from this screen, you can see your current XP and level. A list of Labors is here too. This is a list of about twenty various, optional goals to strive for that yield additional XP and in some cases, items. Labors include things like killing x number of enemies a certain way, or performing a certain task so many times.
Game modes include 4v4 and 2v2 combat whereby players try to dominate the other team with violence and by capturing alters. A free-for-all mode is included too where up to eight players can fight for the high score. Capture the Flag is also included, by perhaps the most intriguing mode for me was the two player Trial of the Gods mode. Here, players team up to beat the clock and score Bronze, Silver, or Gold by completing objectives and clearing out enemies as efficiently as possible. You can try this mode by yourself from the Game Mode list. Players can specify a Quick Match, in which they are connected to any open games, or you can also specify what game mode you want to play. I didn't have much trouble finding four and eight player games, which is a good sign less than a week after launch. I applaud Santa Monica Studios for not only including the multiplayer mode (and not letting the single player suffer), but it still needs some polish and re-tooling to be something that I would return to. I always perceived the God of War games to be best played alone, so I may never convert regardless, but what's offered here is a strong start to what we're sure to see for the next God of War game.
As for presentation, God of War Ascension is breath-taking. The brutality and intensity are especially exquisite this time around. I loved the look of Kratos every time I launched a magic attack, be it Ares' where a blood-soaked Kratos screams before driving his Blades into the ground, or the Zeus attack where he forms lightning in his hands just a brief moment before leaping into the air and shocking the hell out of anything within the area. The crackling sound of the Zeus magic attack is memorable and perfect. The kill animations are better than ever -- I just hope that when God of War hits the PS4, the bodies of the slain monsters stay on screen instead of disappearing immediately. Camera angles, animations, no matter how you look at it, Ascension is jaw-droppingly beautiful. The effects and soundtrack are outstanding as well, including those brief areas where the soundtrack is completely silent. Voiceovers are solid, although hearing Kratos talk is somewhat grating as because he's usually just yelling angrily.
With that, let's get to the summary...