Kratos goes through the motions

When Kratos arrived on the scene back in 2005, he quickly became one of my favorite gaming protagonists—probably because we had so much in common. We both have familial roots in the Mediterranean. We both have wicked-awesome goatees. And we’re both fueled by an all-consuming rage that the rest of the EGM crew can attest to me possessing when it’s my turn to drive during lunch break. (Stupid SoCal drivers.) Anyway, it’s been with great joy that I’ve played every God of War game to date.

But I’ll admit that when I heard about God of War: Ascension being a prequel, I was filled with more fear than joy. Personally, I can’t remember anything with that label that lived up to what came before it, whether it was a movie, comic book, or videogame. So, it was with much trepidation that I fired up Ascension, not really knowing what to expect.

This trip back in time finds Kratos taking on the Furies in an attempt to break his bond to Ares—and sets our bald, brawny antihero down the path of the main God of War trilogy. You see, before Kratos was to make his mad, one-man assault against Ares in the original God of War, he had to break the magical bond that tied him to the god to begin with. Otherwise, he’d be powerless in his quest for revenge.

Breaking a vow with a god, however, is not taken lightly. It’s here that we meet the Furies, whose sole purpose is to make those who would go back on their word suffer for all eternity. And it’s with great joy that this trio of underworld goddesses adds Kratos to their list of prisoners. He’s not into BDSM, though (at least when it comes to himself), and so the game opens with Kratos escaping his prison on the massive, 100-handed Hekatonkheires, a giant more powerful than even the Titans—and the first to break his word to a god. In his case, Zeus.

These opening scenes pull you back into the familiar button-prompt events and blood-gushing brutality that’s defined much of the God of War series. For fans of the franchise, this will feel like second nature, as the game keeps the action heavy from this opening confrontation with the Furies to the end credits. And you’ll immediately appreciate the cinematic quality of the camera movements that attempt to give Ascension that epic feeling we all expect.

The camera isn’t perfect all the time, though, and it provides the only real technical flaw I found with the experience. As Kratos begins his escape of the Hekatonkheires prison, the camera pulls out—this game actually found an even bigger creature than the Titans to have Kratos run around on. The detail and scope of this monster is exquisite, and it makes you wish that the action would let up for just a short while so you can take in the magnificent scene properly.

As the camera pans out farther and farther, the action continues on the ground as prisoners under the Furies’ control continue their assault. With the camera zoomed so far out in order to give a glimpse of the monumental levels, though, I couldn’t differentiate between Kratos and the enemies trying to attack him. And this continues throughout the game; you’ll find several instances where the camera flares out and Kratos is a mere speck against this gorgeous background. But the enemies keep coming.

Despite the occasionally wonky camera and segments where the action flows poorly, Ascension is still an impressive achievement on a technical level. The graphics and sound are both top notch, and the gameplay itself may well be the best we’ve seen from the series. The new combat system is the most elaborate yet, with seven brand-new powers, a new sub-weapon system that allows for a bevy of new combos, and a refined Rage meter that fills up and depletes faster than ever before, offering the best button-mashers multiple moments for Kratos to flip out.

But while the game shines technically, it stumbles creatively. While the variety here is appreciated, much of it’s simply borrowed from other franchises, making several sequences feel less like God of War and more like any old action-adventure title—such as the sliding sequences down slippery hills, a flavor of the month in game design right now. Meanwhile, the climbing segments through dilapidated ruins remind me more of Uncharted than God of War, while Kratos’ new time-control power screams Prince of Persia.

And this brings us back to the story. Whether you’re a God of War apologist or a stern critic of the franchise, it’s easy to see that this is the weakest story the series has offered yet. I understand that it’s difficult to craft an original tale when fans already know that no matter what happens, Kratos’ fate is sealed. That’s a motif central to Greek mythology, but it’s not a really a big bonus for a videogame.

The new villains are poorly developed and desperately try to fill the role that Ares—and, later, Zeus—provided over the main trilogy, and they fail miserably in this attempt. The levels, although definitely gorgeous and massive, are also the weakest in terms of ingenuity the series has ever seen. And the mythological references are so obscure that you’ll need Google open nearby at all times. It feels like Ascension tries to wring out the last few drops from a dried-out dish rag of mythos. Oh, and let’s not forget the plot holes left open by Kratos’ new powers that he obviously never had in the main series. So, what the heck happened to them? Oh, that’s right—you take them into multiplayer.

Yes, here comes my obligatory statement on that segment. I did indeed try every mode several times and poured a half dozen hours into the experience, leveling up my character and maxing out several pieces of equipment. Early on in the game, while Kratos is escaping his prison, you come across another prisoner who’s thrilled—at first—to be freed by Kratos. But elation sooner turns to fear, as the chaos Kratos has unleashed begins to wash over him. But before this random NPC can pay the ultimate price, he’s magically teleported to Olympus and becomes the basis for your avatar in multiplayer, where you’re tasked with choosing a god to champion from Ares, Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades (based off the four elemental powers Kratos acquires in single-player). Depending upon whom you choose, your powers and buffs change.

After a quick training session with your chosen abilities, it’s off to the arenas—and it’s nice to see familiar series backdrops here, as iconic locations like the Labyrinth Cube from God of War III are reimagined. You also have theGod of War take on your standard smattering of multiplayer modes like Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Capture the Point, Capture the Flag, and even a wave based co-op mode. Some of these play better than others, though, as the arenas are smaller (for the most part) in an attempt to jack up the encounter rates, since every battle is hand-to-hand. This works well in Deathmatch and even Capture the Point, but Capture the Flag is a mess—a team that works well together can win a match in only a couple of minutes with the flags so close together. The small teams—maximum 4-vs.-4—also put a limit on what could’ve been some truly chaotic-yet-fun multiplayer action.

Really, this multiplayer isn’t anything we haven’t seen before; it reminded me of BioShock 2’s in many ways, as it takes modern designs and conforms them to the God of War theme. But the gimmick wears out quickly, and I found myself bored far too often. It’s not a bad add-on, but for as much as it’s been hyped, it’s not something that was really necessary, either—and I doubt many players will put more than a couple of semi-enjoyable hours into it.

God of War: Ascension is a highly polished action-adventure game—and probably one of the strongest we’ll see from a  technical standpoint this year. But the soul of what made this franchise great is lost here, as this ultimately feels like a last-ditch attempt to squeeze in one last Kratos appearance this console generation. In the end,Ascension will be remembered as if Kratos’ legendary rage and anger simply faded out as an exasperated sigh of resignation.

Developer: Sony Santa Monica • Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 03.12.2013
7.0 A clear example of a studio going to the well with a franchise one too many times. Although highly polished and still entertaining for fans of the franchise, Ascension lacks the soul of its predecessors as it scrapes the bottom of the Greek-mythology barrel to try to deliver on a franchise that’s clearly run dry of fresh ideas.
The Good More elaborate combat system punctuated by a refined Rage meter.
The Bad The story is easily the weakest of the series.
The Ugly A parasite-infected Hekatonkheires.
God of War: Ascension is a PS3 exclusive.