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God of War: Ascension review: Slick, brutal, but a series treading water

Kratos goes back, the game stands still

That menu screen twang of scraping metal; the grandiose shifting battle-grounds and improbable ancient architecture; the lift-based combat scenes; the QTE's, the blood, the boobs - this is definitely a God of War game. And, for better or worse, God of War: Ascension knows it.

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With the fixed-camera hack-and-slash formula well established in two instalments on PS2, and then refined by God of War III in 2010, this fourth outing sticks to what has worked in the series so far. Set ten years before the first game, and six months after Kratos killed his own wife and child, three powerful sisters called the Furies are on his back, spirits of vengeance out for blood after he broke a pact with Ares. They'll pursue him over an eight-hour campaign set in abandoned desert villages and great marbled temples, on the backs of giant mechanical snakes-cum-conveyor belts, and into a gargantuan puzzle-filled statue built by Greek inventor Archimedes.


However, it's a journey that's blighted by the era in which it's set. This is a Kratos reeling from fresh trauma, a Kratos that, rather than shove an innocent off a cliff, will shove him away from a stray spear instead. Flashbacks to his pre-Dulux paint days are clear attempts to show a more human side, but they're misguided, resulting in a character with a newfound, mopey sentimentality - sentimentality which evaporates completely when he gets his knives out and starts killing.

If the game mirrored its opening level, Ascension might have been one of the generation's best

His business with the Titans not yet begun, there's a real lack of bite and scale to proceedings and, as a result, set pieces suffer. Of the three or four that stand out, the best is saved for first, set on the game's only Titan - a Titan who also happens to be dead. At points, one of the Furies, Magaera, infects it with living parasites: stadium-sized jaws are manipulated to snap at you, hands sprout metallic green pincers and swat the air, and eventually the whole level is brought to swaying, lurching life, turning walls into ceilings and crumbling entire floors. It's so epic that, if the larger game consistently mirrored it, Ascension might have been one of the generation's best.

But it doesn't. Barring an equally stunning last 15 minutes, the rest is less stellar. It's almost as if developers Santa Monica Studio splurged the budget on either end and forgot about the middle; a middle which is mostly spent solving block-pushing puzzles, running through beautiful but barren environments, and fighting successions of familiar monsters in familiar sequences.


Combat's still brilliantly tight, but it's seen little improvement. In fact, it's taken a step back. Where God of War III gave you mighty Nemean Cestuses, Claws of Hades and the Blade of Olympus, in Ascension you've got just one weapon throughout - the Blades of Chaos. They can be imbued with electric, fire, ice or soul power by praying at altars, but aside from a few unique moves the differences practically boil down to palette swaps, similar in both form and function. Discarded shields, pikes and swords can be scavenged mid-battle, but they're disposable items with one or two moves apiece.

Enemies, meanwhile, rarely require mastery of any new combat techniques. Like before, you've got cyclopes to ride, harpy wings to rip off, damage-soaking centaurs and swarms of one-hit-kill bugs. Bar foes whose shields need to be snatched away with a quick grab, and hammer-wielding golems who change colour and need smashing with the relevant elemental power, there's little innovation. Without doubt, it's still slick and satisfying, and scraps are always welcome, but it's hardly changed. A disappointment, since combat sits at the series' heart.


Later on, you'll acquire three powerful trinkets, which do modestly mix things up. The first freezes foes, the second conjures a clone to fight alongside, and the last destroys magical barriers. A long cool-down time means you'll use them roughly once in a battle, but they're worth upgrading.

Outside battle, there are time-control puzzles where you'll fix broken construction like bridges and waterwheels by either rewinding them to a state of decay, or fast-forwarding them to sparkling new. One example involves burning a basket of coal and dragging it over to a furnace. When the fire dies out midway, you'll rewind time to get the flames burning again.

You can also make clones of yourself to hold down levers while you run through a timed door, and use a pair of all-seeing eyes to pierce a veil and give passage. Problem is, none of these conundrums are particularly clever. If you do get stuck on that coal puzzle, for instance, it'll be because the coal you were meant to burn wasn't well signposted enough, rather than any complexity or ingenuity on the game's part. So, unexpectedly, God of War: Ascension becomes Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack in Time, and it does so with no real conviction.


Sights and set pieces are less memorable, but they still get the blood pumping

Still, while a sequel treading water, this is by no means a bad game. Far from it. By now, Santa Monica Studio really know what they're doing, and in the closing years of the PS3's life, never let it be said that its full potential failed to be unlocked. For one, everything is rendered in-engine - staggering when you consider perspective shifts seamlessly from side-scrolling swim to guts-exposing kill to close-up conversation to frantic mountain slide. Certainly, they aren't afraid to let you get close and personal to Kratos' impressively rendered pecs. And sights and set pieces, though altogether less memorable than the last game's, still get the blood pumping. A boss fight with a Manticore on some snowy mountain peak, a trip through a tranquil dock as crystal waters cast rays on cave walls, and your first brain-exposing encounter with an Elephantaur, are highlights.

Perhaps the reason the campaign plays it so safe with its ideas, and - in the process - doesn't live up the last game, is due to the series' first ever push into online multiplayer.

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