Since God of War 2 effectively brought down the curtain on the PS2 in 2007, Kratos has been a busy fellow appearing in no less than 6 games as a fully functional playable character. However, 3 of those appearances were in fighting games, and 3 of them were PSP games. Don’t get me wrong, they were all great games, and Chains of Olympus and Ghost of Sparta were arguably the best and most ambitious games ever to grace Sony’s first underachieving handheld. But for those hoping to see Kratos blazing a trail across this generations most powerful console, God of War 3 cuts a lonely figure as the only title where we get to see ol’ grumpy loincloth do what he does best. Until now.
God of War: Ascension is a prequel to all the games that have come before it. Set just before the events of Chains of Olympus, and a decade before the original God of War, it tells the story of Kratos’ rather dramatic falling out with Ares, and his incarceration by The Furies for breaking his oath to the God of War. It’s a functional enough story, and includes all the twisting and amplifying of ancient Greek myths that you’d expect from the GoW series, but somehow doesn’t quite pull you in like the previous games have. That might be due to the inevitable prequel problem, in that you kind of know how this is all going to turn out, or that The Furies just aren’t quite as interesting or as strong an enemy as Ares or Zeus. Personally, I was hoping that a prequel might take us back a little further into the Kratos story, as the protagonist we get in this game is pretty much identical in appearance and personality to the one we’ve always had. If we weren’t going to get God of War 4, maybe we could have seen Kratos the mortal, the great warrior, before all this business with the Gods got rather out of hand and made him so cross.
That being said, this is God of War, not Heavy Rain, and if we’re all being honest, the plot really isn’t THAT important. What you do expect is frantic action, eye-poppingly amazing set pieces, and a liberal splashing of the red stuff. In this respect, Ascension delivers on all fronts. It can safely be said that this is every bit as gory as its predecessors, with enemies, beasts and various deities all meeting their ends in alarmingly imaginative and brutally blood-splattered ways and the quick time events are as fun as ever, with new prompt -free versions taking over in some instances. God of War has always provided an abundance of classic and unforgettable moments, and whilst it could be argued that there are possibly less here than in God of War 3, there are still plenty of times where you are left speechless by the scale and awesomeness of what is happening on screen. There are almost no other franchises, Uncharted perhaps, that so regularly make you just want to stop and watch what is going on with your mouth wide open and a bit of dribble coming out. Like the Nathan Drake games, it almost seems a waste to be looking at your character’s movements when there is so much breath-taking scenery to be taking in behind you.
Ascension plays in much the same way as every other game in the series, with some mild alterations made rather than any grand new innovations. Your chains whirl, slash and grab much like they always have, but now have 4 different elements that can be used to reap different rewards or have different effects on the environment. It replaces the old system of having different weapons to choose from and is entirely positive as the chains were always the most fun to use anyway. Enemies pour forth relentlessly and whilst you can happily mash your way through large chunks of the game, occasionally you’ll have to give a little consideration to exactly how and when you should be mashing. That’s not to say it ever gets boring, as there is enough depth here to keep even the most experienced slasher occupied if they’re prepared to experiment. The game occasionally becomes a victim of its own ambition, with so many enemies on-screen and the camera moving further and further back to take in the epicness of it all that it can become difficult to tell exactly what is going on. It doesn’t happen often, but can become frustrating and take you out of the experience when you find yourself trying to figure out who you are, where you are, or which way you’re facing. It might be that I’m just getting better after playing the previous 4 games pretty extensively, but generally it does feel like the easiest game in the series, so to die out of sheer confusion can feel quite jarring. It is also worth noting that the already infamous Trial of Archimedes stage that was causing joypads to be launched liberally through closed windows, and grizzly gamers with 30 years’ experience to rip up their tightening AC-DC t-shirts in frustration has now been patched to soften the frighteningly rapid difficulty increase.
Something that is brand new for Ascension is the online multiplayer option. It’s easy to be sceptical about established single player games jumping on the multiplayer bandwagon, when some really don’t need it or fit that style of gaming. But God of War actually works pretty well. You’re given a generic bald brute to start off with, and then it’s your job to doll him up as best suits you with different armours and weapons which become unlocked the more you play. You choose a God to become aligned with and this then changes your character’s attributes and the way you will need to use them. It’s pretty standard stuff once you’re started, with competitive matches putting you in an arena with your foes to take part in a range of team or free-for all matches, and co-op mode teaming you up to battle waves of marauding foes. It isn’t the deepest or most strategic multiplayer you’ll ever be involved with, and Call of Duty won’t be losing any sleep over it, but it’s actually a lot of fun and a possible glimpse into the future of the franchise. With more customization, modes and options, this could become a serious multiplayer force and a much greater part of what God of War becomes in the next generation.
Because ultimately, Ascension feels a bit like a brick wall being hit. It’s amazing to look at, plays like a dream and can make hours feel like minutes. But God of War has always done that. For newcomers, the single player mode will rightly feel like a revelation of technical brilliance and beautifully honed gameplay. Because it is. But to others, it may feel like they’ve played it before. Four times. Something a little more radical needs to happen next time, rather than just tweaking the magic and weapon selecting systems, and this might just be where the promising multiplayer comes in. You can guarantee that the next instalment, whether it’s on PS4 or perhaps the Vita, will be brilliant. The real challenge will be keeping things fresh and new and exciting, just like it was the first time you played God of War. It won’t be easy, and they understandably won’t want to fix what isn’t broken, but after nearly a decade of cutting edge, but increasingly familiar brilliance, it might be time to start smashing some of the brick walls down. It’s what Kratos would do!
Reviewed on PS3