gow1 Let slip the dogs   we review God of War: Ascension

In the time before the Titans, before the Gods of Olympus, the wrath of the Primordials (the beings that forged the Earth) raged out of control. From this rage, the Furies were brought forth. Neither Titan nor God, they are bound to no one. They are the enforcers of honor, the bane of traitors. As Zeus came to power, Aegean the Hekatonkheires pledged a blood oath to him, and the Furies took action against him when he reneged on this promise. Torturing him without mercy, they made an example of Aegean the Hekatonkheires. Now they’ve set their sights on a new oathbreaker – Kratos seeks to break his bond to Ares. We know how this story ends….now we find out how it began.

Developer Santa Monica Studios kicks off this prequel with Kratos, the great Spartan General, defeated and in chains. The warrior has already been captured and hangs like a fly in the web of the Furies. These sisters intend to destroy his mind, his body, and his soul. Kratos, even in defeat, has other plans. The story of God of War: Ascension is told in slingshots to the present and also to the past. For instance, Kratos kicks off the game near the end but given the prequel nature, he should have all of his toys and weapons at their peak, right? Well, through some creative storytelling, Santa Monica Studios has thought of that. It creates a story that has you saying “oh, yeah, that makes sense” throughout the course of the 9.5 hour single player game. It’s carefully crafted well-paced storytelling – something that I was surprised to see in a title about swinging giant blades on chains.

Not just more of the same

The primary mechanics of God of War are familiar and represented in God of War: Ascension. The team in charge of combat have decided to tweak things a bit for this title though, and nowhere is that as clear as the new grapple move. In previous God of War titles, pressing R1 had Kratos grasping enemies and bodily throwing them across the screen. In this title you’ll be using the Blades of Chaos to accomplish the same task but at a distance. Impaling enemies doesn’t end with hooking a foe with your weapons – you can now stun that enemy, leaving them stuck like a fish on a line while you furiously swing your other weapon at his friends. You can also fling hooked enemies at other nearby foes, rush forward and rend them limb from limb, or launch them for juggling like you might have done in previous titles.

There is a subtle mechanic with a huge payoff embedded in the new system – targeting. Without the need to lock onto an enemy, the game does a perfect job of helping you strike down foes that are above you. In previous titles you’d be jumping in the air and flailing on the horizontal plane, but now Kratos will swing his weapons upwards to strike his foes. This small change pays incredible dividends as the frustration when squaring off against harpies is eliminated – killing those screechy topless birds is now just a normal part of combat. As the new grapple attack can also pull enemies to Kratos so he can smash them against solid objects (or other foes), the new targeting system snaps right into the smooth combat mechanics we’ve come to know over the series.

Magic and rage are handled a little bit differently for this prequel. Since the team wants you to use your rage rather than saving it, you’ll be able to fill that meter roughly 2-3 times per battle, unleashing it with devastating effect. Directly tied to the element selected, the fury attacks are not only nearly unblockable, they also instill the paper-rock-scissors element/counter-element aspects we’ve seen in other action titles.

Moving away from the Zelda-esque quest for trinkets, the game now pushes you further towards more elemental implements like fire, water, lightning, and soul. Beyond these elements you will get a short list of items to use, but it isn’t as much of a focus this time. Upgrading your magic with orbs allows you unleash your magic as well as use special properties like shooting a lightning mine at your enemies. No longer it is simple as pulling the trigger to zap foes.

Killing medusae in previous titles was a matter of jamming buttons and swinging thumbsticks at just the right time. Thankfully, the team decided that they’d like to bring a new method to the table for signature kills. Rather than focusing exclusively on quicktime events, the game instead has Kratos grapple the enemy and hold them still while he proceeds to stab them unrelentingly. In the example of the Medusa, she will then try to claw you or turn you to stone, and you’ll have to dodge to the side to continue your onslaught. These signature kills can give you various orbs of health, mana, or the red orbs for upgrades.

Infrequently, and only during signature kills, the camera will become stuck behind a pillar, wall, or other obstacle that can obscure your vision. While this really wouldn’t be an issue, it directly conflicts with the new grappling system mentioned above. It’s hard to dodge what you can’t see…it can also be a problem if you can’t hear it.

With no rhyme or reason, occasionally the game will simply drop all sound. It’s a brief occurrence and comes back after a few seconds, but it’s rather jarring when it does happen.

More of the same

There are a few elements that have been present in every God of War title, and this one is no exception. Specifically, there is a pacing that has become synonymous with the series. Despite any suggestions to the contrary, Kratos has a solid backstory that is told throughout the four primary and two side stories in God of War. There aren’t a lot of long drawn out cutscenes to bring our fallen hero to life, instead giving us brief cuts punctuated by frenetic combat rife with ruthlessness and vicious unstoppable fury. In between these sections, we get to briefly pull back the curtain to see a softer side of Kratos. Once this brief moment gives us a quick look at this story, we are immediately thrown back into the action. It gives the player enough of a taste of story to give it depth while still remaining steadfast in its meteoric pace.

The very first God of War title featured a fantastic battle against a multi-headed hydra that immediately set the pace for every title after it. The sense of scale present in each title has somehow managed to up the ante, giving us even larger battles. Large re-animated statues, massive beasts, and even the gods themselves all served as mobile playgrounds for our quest for revenge. Somehow the team had to raise the stakes – welcome Hekatonkheires. I won’t spoil the fun, but suffice it to say that this beast serves as a MASSIVE change in scale that shows just the tip of the iceberg for this title. Few games have pushed the sense of scale to this level, and never has it been this fun.

Graphically, God of War has never been a slouch. Even with a great outing for the third title, the team went back to the drawing board to give the engine a completely new animation system. No longer will you be caught mid-animation and be unable to counterattack. Enemies have also ceased to flail around as if scripted, instead having a far more natural look to their movements. Other than the initial loading of the game, and when you inevitably die, the game doesn’t load, so all streaming is masked by the fantastic in-engine and pre-rendered cutscenes. Facial (and interestingly enough, breasts…) detail has been improved greatly, as has the results of your bloody work. Tearing the skull of a medusa in half reveals bones and gore inside. Ripping open the stomach of a Cyclops spills blood and intestines out of their stomach before they topple to the ground. It’s gory and awesome – well done.

One last element of God of War has made it’s way into this version – the difficulty level. Over the course of the game I did manage to find all of the Phoenix Feathers, all of the Gorgon Eyes, and all of the Artifacts over the course of the 9.5 hour 30-chapter first-run through the game, but there is no doubt that this title, even with every advantage and upgrade, can be infuriatingly difficult. There is a corridor at the end of the game that asks you to defeat several enemies that can hit you with status effects with minimal replenishment until you finally defeat all 3 levels, each with multiple waves without checkpoints in between. This took the better part of 50 minutes of retries. Those of you who remember the final boss in the original God of War have a good idea of the challenge awaiting you. This shouldn’t dissuade you, however – the game is throwing down the gauntlet and asking you to up your game. The payoff is a solid final battle that you won’t soon forget.

Once you do beat the game you’ll get the chance to use a handful of artifacts that you can discover in the environment. These artifacts can give you extra regeneration, infinite magic, infinite rage, 10x orb collection, and even an auto-win for all context sensitive attacks. Since all of these can be activated at once, you can certainly have a pretty easy time on your second run through. Trophies can’t be earned in New Game+ but it can be quite therapeutic should you want to just blast through enemies that were difficult on the first go around. You can also unlock up to 8 costumes to use in New+, as well as two new difficulty levels.

There are several multiplayer modes in God of War: Ascension – a first for the series. The modes are called Favor of the Gods, Team Favor of the Gods, Capture the Flag, and Trial of the Gods. Favor of the Gods and Team Favor of the Gods might better be known as free-for-all deathmatch and team deathmatch and can be played 4v4. You might have recognized this mode from the Beta of the game – the first player to hit 8,000 favor with their chosen deity wins, netting additional XP.

Capture the flag is pretty self explanatory. Teams are split between Spartans and Trojans in a 4v4 battle – the first to five flag captures wins.

Trial of the Gods is a cooperative time-trial Horde-esque mode that allows two players to square off against increasingly difficult waves of enemies including Cyclopes, Juggernauts, and Cerberus dogs. Killing foes will give you a bit more time to continue crushing your enemies. Trial of the Gods can be played single player or with a friend and should prove a good challenge for even the most veteran of players. This mode was kept under wraps until today, but it proves to be a good bit of fun.

All of these multiplayer modes were played in a fairly lag-free play session with various press and developers. It’ll be interesting to see how it shapes up at launch, but it is certainly a welcome addition to the series.

RAAAAA! RAAAAAAAAA! RRRRAAAAA!!!! – Every God of War game
With the prequel behind us, I’m not sure where the series goes from here. This title ties up the past up nicely, giving us a complete storyline for our doomed hero. Many people may have looked at this title as an obvious cash-in, but they’d be wrong. God of War: Ascension is not content to rest on past success, giving players new combat options, a fresh approach to magic and rage, an even larger sense of scale, and some small but meaningful mechanical changes that improve the overall polish to the game. While there are some odd sound hiccups and the occasional camera oddities, the game comes across as one of, if not the, best in the series. The multiplayer is icing on the cake, giving players a way to challenge their friends to something other than highest combo – a welcome addition. With the upcoming launch of the PlayStation 4 this Fall, here’s to hoping we get to see our favorite Spartan General return for the next generation of Sony consoles.