Monday, March 18, 2013

God of War: Ascension - It All Begins Here


Following 2010's God of War III, which saw the conclusion of Kratos' story, Santa Monica Studio developed the recently-released God of War: Ascension, with two collections released in the intervening time. The idea behind this game is that it shows the very beginnings of Kratos' storyline while also introducing Online Multiplayer to the God of War series. Personally, I was worried about there being an online function in the first place, since God of War is usually known for its story and I didn't want this to be a game where story clarity was sacrificed in favor of a better multiplayer (not helped by the fact that most adverts I saw online centered on the multiplayer, including one with music that was decidedly not God of War-like). When getting this game, I decided to go for the Collector's Edition since it came with several extras, including a 6" Kratos statue. Even then, I wasn't sure how well this game would turn out, but after playing the game I can say is that my fears about my experience were alleviated...sort of.

The game takes place before any of the other God of War games, starting off with Kratos escaping from being chained up by the Furies. As he battles Megaera, one of the Furies, across a prison inside the body of Aegaeon the Hecatonchires, Kratos also has to fend off several enemies brought forth by Megaera's parasites, including a part of Aegaeon himself. During all of this, Kratos begins to flash back to an earlier point in time, when he had to deal with the Furies after attempting to break his oath to Ares, the God of War.

The story itself, while having an interesting concept, isn't as engaging as those of other God of War games. Granted, I knew from the start that it was not going to be able to top the epicness of God of War III, but there didn't seem to be anything to help the audience care more about the Ghost of Sparta. What I can say, however, is that the writers did seem to have some sort of idea of the direction they wanted to take. Dialogue over the course of the game gives many call forwards to events in chronologically-later installments, while also hinting at a particular plot twist in the first game, keeping it expertly hidden until it is spoiled for newcomers at the very end. The story also introduces an instant rivalry between Kratos and Megaera at the very beginning of the story, which gets explained later down the line. In a way, it also seems to be written as though the game was meant to be played at the start of a marathon of the games in chronological order, which, thinking about it, I think makes the story somewhat more redeemable (but not by much). The game was, to put it simply, written well, but not well enough to hold up to previously-released entries in the saga.

Three of the Furies (from left): Alecto, Megaera, Tisiphone

Then there's the combat. While God of War is known for having fluid combat that gets much improved upon as the series progresses, Ascension begs to differ. While Kratos still retains the familiar Blades of Chaos, which still work really well, secondary weapons are completely thrown out the window in favor of World Weapons, which are scattered on the battlefield and dropped after defeating or removing them from certain enemies. these weapons vary in ability and can prove useful in certain situations, though you can only carry one at a time. These weapons also have a Special Discard, which lets you discard your weapon in front of an enemy while dealing some extra damage. I have used the weapons on occasion as I had them, but I wasn't really that motivated to keep using them and relied almost solely on the Blades.

In addition to this, you also get a variety of magics to upgrade your blades with. Each one represents a different element tied to a God, and using them on enemies can provide you with a different type of orb depending on the magic used. The benefits between each weapon can suit you best depending on your play style, but I found myself using the Fire of Ares (the first one you get) more since I had access to a powerful crowd controlling move. The Rage Meter also works a bit differently in this game compared to the others, in that using it gives you more power used in a single shot rather than giving you power for a longer, but still limited amount of time (on top of this it won't stay filled for long, rather it drains unless you are still hacking away at enemies during combat and don't take damage). In this way it's kind of like the Devil Trigger in DmC Devil May Cry: it takes a while to fill up, but the extra boost is over too quickly.

There's also a few useful items Kratos picks up along the way, a couple of which can be upgraded using red orbs. Rather than using an Item Meter like in God of War III, the game opts to have these items have their own "meters" displaying time needed for the weapon to cool down before it can be used again in combat. Outside of combat, they are used to help solve the more difficult puzzles throughout the game. While the quality of the story is debatable, let it never be said that the puzzles in this installment were not well thought out. A few of them took me a while to solve, but they weren't nigh impossible to do, which I take as a sign of excellent puzzle crafting.

There are some things I would also like to bring up that are absent in this game that is seen in every other game (I apologize if this sounds like nitpicking). For starters, there are no longer any specified Save Altars, rather instead the game constantly saves your game to create checkpoints to continue from. The game also introduces a system of Chapters as well as New Game +, which I found odd at first since the other games didn't have this feature (I didn't say they were bad). You also won't see half of Kratos' face in the title screen like usual, although you do see it when you start the campaign, so at least there's something resembling it. There also isn't a sex mini-game as veterans have come to expect, although Betrayal didn't have one either so I'm not sure what to make of it, even if that one was a cell phone game.

The graphics are, as expected, simply amazing, rivaling God of War III in terms of overall quality. However, the enhanced graphics only serve to make a few moments particularly squicky. To put it bluntly, this is the first time I can recall ever actually squirming at a video game, which is really saying something since I have played all the other God of War games and American McGee's Alice games. Megaera, for example, releases parasites through what my brother and I have dubbed "Hive Boobs"; the parasites come out of her breasts and then go into pores on an arm of Aegaeon to form an enemy monster that subsequently bursts out of it (and that's just in the demo), and later done on a larger scale by going into Aegaeon's eyelid to possess his head. And to top it all off, there's an enemy somewhere halfway that has someone else attached to him like Kuato in the 1990 version of Total Recall. Along with a few other things, Ascension just feels a little more squicky than usual, but thankfully these are few and far between.

Concept art of an Infected Hand of Aegaeon. Yes, this is a monster, bursting out of an arm.
Born from parasites. That came out of breasts. And that's just in the demo. Sweet dreams!

The voice acting is still amazing, which is a great consistency with the God of War franchise. T. C. Carson's Kratos voice has really evolved over the years and it shows, displaying a great range of emotion throughout the story. The other characters in the game also have good performances, and the background music is as good as ever. However, unusually for God of War, I actually ran into a few audio problems along the way. During battle and a few times outside of it, the music would occasionally just stop for a second or two, and at one point I even saw one of Kratos' lines not play when it was supposed to, making it overlap with another character's dialogue. The latter was combined with a visual glitch that left me with a very unplayable perspective, which thankfully played smoothly once I restarted the chapter I was on (thankfully it all occurred at the very beginning of that chapter, so it's not like I had to redo a ton of progress). Glitches aside, the audio is very well done.

One thing that's very notable about Ascension is that it is the first God of War game to feature Online Multiplayer. As I said earlier, I was initially very confused by the prospect of this, since God of War games are known for being very single-player focused, not to mention very heavily story-driven. However, based on this idea alone, I decided to check it out after beating the story mode (in case you're confused like I was at first, the game does not tell you you can use the D-Pad to navigate the main menu in order to access Multiplayer and Extras). I will admit that I am simply not the type of person who plays a game for its Online component, rather I say whether a game is good based on how good the story mode is. As such, I stopped playing after going through a couple of quick rounds, both because of when I tried it and out of lack of motivation to keep playing. With this, I will say that if Multiplayer is what you've always wanted in God of War for some reason, you'll be the happiest. If not, then I will leave you to judge whether or not it's worth taking a look.

Finally, the experience half of you never wanted!

I am also aware of players having problems with a particular area near the end of the game known as the Trial of Archimedes. This particular area is known to be rather frustrating for people, to the point where the developers have considered releasing a patch to make it easier. Now, I didn't face any of the frustration myself because I played on Easy, but I can totally see how it would be a rather crippling experience for those playing on higher difficulties, especially given the combat, and I do hope a patch is released to alleviate madness for future players.

In the end (beginning?), God of War: Ascension is still a God of War game. There are some things that could have used a little polishing, like the story and the combat, but overall you can tell that they were at least trying to have a good story mode, even if it's not on the same level as God of War III (then again, how exactly do you top that?). The combat mechanics themselves, while interesting, simply do not belong in a God of War game. In my opinion, I think the story mode might have turned out better if they didn't try to introduce Multiplayer to God of War, no matter how good it may have turned out. Given its place in the God of War timeline, I would say that if you're new to the series and are seeking to play the games in story order, I would tell you to start with Ascension. Otherwise, I would tell you to start with the first God of War and tell you to go in release order from there (I, II, Betrayal [Optional], Chains of Olympus, III, Ghost of Sparta, Ascension). If you pick the former, I would remind you that the story gets better and more fulfilling from then on.

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