What happens when a triple-A level game developer like Sony Santa Monica is stuck between this console generation and the next one? It’s been three years now since God of War 3, but instead of waiting around until the holidays to look into releasing God of War 4 for the next generation of consoles, Sony Santa Monica puts out a stop-gap title like God of War Ascension in the ever present battle to create the next annualized Call of Duty, Battlefield or Assassin’s Creed title. So where does that leave us with God of War Ascension?
Once Upon a Time…Again…
God of War Ascension is now the third prequel for Kratos and the God of War series. However, this foray into pre-God of War Kratos is particularly confusing. We yet again look into Kratos’ accidental murder of his wife and daughter in exchange for the power God of War Ares grants him to slay his foes on the battlefield. So unhinged is Kratos at Ares’ tricking him into murdering his family that Kratos breaks his oath to Ares by refusing to be his pawn. Apparently, there are trio of gorgons called the Fates who specifically enforce oaths made to the Gods and punish those who break them…like Kratos. So the Fates imprison and torture Kratos, who eventually breaks out and searches for a way to “legally” break his oath…which turns out to be murdering the Fates in a most gruesome fashion (surprise).
This may or may not be the case, as God of War Ascension feels the most light on story line of all of them. God of War games have become synonymous with Athena narrating Kratos’ every step. Athena is generally silent, and outside of an early cutscene with the son of the Fates, Orkos (who is not introduced to the player, you just assume he’s some random avatar of the Gods), you don’t hear Kratos or Athena speak about the story for another ten chapters of the game. Those ten chapters involve Kratos working his way to an audience with the Oracle of Delphi who will presumably tell him how to break his oath with Ares. Outside of Kratos’ grunts and battle cries, it felt for the first half of God of War Ascension as if they may not have gotten the voice actor for Kratos back with as little dialogue he has. Fortunately, the last half of the game makes up for it by showing us a compassionate and thoughtful Kratos as he battles the visions the Fates are torturing him with, but the story is so paper thin to that point that you have to make a lot of leaps of logic to figure out what is going on.
Broken Blades of Chaos
God of War Ascension feels like Sony Santa Monica sat down and said “We have to create something new to make this game feel different!” as far as combat mechanics go. In place of the unique and fun-to-use-in-combat weapon choices mapped to your directional pad from God of War 2 and God of War 3, you are instead given a different flavor or magic to spice your Blades of Chaos with: fire, ice, lightning and “soul”. However, there really doesn’t feel like there’s any need to change out from the original fire magic you start with; despite doing a tutorial battle showing you each magic, you don’t actually get each magic attack ability until you max out that spell in your spell book with the regular “red-orb-as-experience” leveling system. That left me spending three quarters of the game mashing the magic button for soul magic not having actually unlocked the soul magic attack; I literally thought my controller was broken or the battery was dying and plugged in another one. Meanwhile, even leveling them up doesn’t really mean anything; sure, in the description it says that if you incinerate a demon with your fire magic it sends out gold orbs, but damn if I ever seemed to get them when I needed them.
Another new addition is the addition of “world weapons”: large weapons that your enemies carry onto the battlefield that you can pick up and use for a limited amount of time. So let me get this straight: I have a pair of magical blades given to me by the God of War himself, but I’m supposed to pick up this javelin this random monster dropped and have better luck killing my enemies with it?
Having played through the game on Hard difficulty, it is critical to mention that God of War Ascension has a spike in difficulty just a half hour from the end of the game called the “Trial of Archimedes”: a trio of back-to-back battles with no checkpoints or health regeneration that will go down in God of War (and gaming) annals of being one of the toughest sequences out there nowadays. The checkpoint system in the game is already teeth-grinding enough as it is, making sure following a death to set you back behind an unskippable cutscene or a nice long climbing sequence, but the Trial of Archimedes is unforgivably difficult and will likely cause people to stop playing the game despite being able to see the finish line (check out Front Towards Gamer’s God of War Ascension video walkthrough on how to beat the Trial of Archimedes on Hard difficulty here!)
Between chapters 9 and 12, I ran into more bugs than one expects from a triple-A title like God of War Ascension. Audio queues like a gorgon throwing a giant boulder at your head are absolutely silent being blasted over by the noise of the chains of the Blades of Chaos rattling. I fell through the floor during a puzzle, which hard locked my Playstation 3 to the point where when I restarted the game, the system scanned the hard drive to make sure nothing was damaged. World interaction glows would hang in the air in random points on the map, while my “Manticore minigame” tutorial popup was stuck on screen through several cutscenes to the point where I physically restarted the PlayStation to make it go away. Repeated little bugs and issues like this made God of War Ascension feel like a quickly thrown-together port to the Playstation Vita by a small European developer as opposed to a full on console release by the developer of the God of War series.
And Of Course, Multiplayer
Also on the current console obligatory game developer checklist to keep your game off the shelves at Gamestop comes God of War Ascension mutliplayer. However, Sony Santa Monica manages to make a melee-based brawler an interesting multiplayer experience complete with Call of Duty-esque unlockables leveling system. While the game sports the usual deathmatch and capture the flag modes. it also has several co-op and single player (in multiplayer) timed challenge maps in place of the usual “Challenge of the Gods” single player combat based challenges. Here, you work with a teammate to kill as many enemies as possible as quickly as possible, gaining time bonuses for each kill to keep the clock running, usually across a variety of settings and map designs. The combat feels unexpectedly fun and is based on a basic “rock/paper/scissors” mechanic of light attack vs. heavy attack vs. block/parry. Winding up for a heavy attack causes you to flash red and gives your enemy the chance to counter with a quick light attack jab, but if he should block instead, he will find himself in a world of hurt. Unlike regular God of War Ascension combat mechanics, you have physical timers in the upper left side of the screen showing you when your big attack cooldowns are up and you can lay waste to your enemies.
One major flaw? No drop-in/drop-out for your match. If you’re playing 2v2 and your deathmatch teammate leaves unexpectedly, then expect to just get beaten on for two minutes in an unfair 2v1 match. A capture the flag match was going swimmingly until I realized that two of the opponents had randomly dropped from the server.
The Lament of Hecatonchires
While it seems that God of War Ascension is a miss, when a studio like Sony Santa Monica makes a game, it’s still pretty damn good. God of War Ascension’s vistas and skyboxes for the game are still amazing, but beautiful scenery is not enough to make up for a lot of the problems the game exhibits. Between the head-scratching storyline, the difficulty spikes, the uninspired addition of combat magics and the glitches in the game, hold off on picking up God of War Ascension until it’s in your bargain bin, which is where God of War Ascension deservedly belongs. This is not a $60 product here, this is simply a way for Sony Santa Monica to fill blank space until next console generation, where I hope they get back to making incredible God of War experiences.
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