God of War Ascension Review: Standing on the shoulders of giants
The ‘God of War’ series has built itself an empire, the franchise has titles spread across multiple platforms for almost a decade now. Together they tell the epic tale of Kratos’ personal war against the gods. Though the biggest challenge that each game has to face, are the top-moments from previous titles in the series.
God of War: Ascension was hindered from the very start. The game is a prequel to the series, which means it has limits on what it can do with its characters, if it wants the game to still fit in the overall storyline of the franchise. It’s an incredible challenge to make a prequel, not only are the fates of most characters predetermined, it can be just as hard to introduce anyone new.
In this new title players will once again assume the role of Kratos, only this time it’s more of an origin story. Since so much of the saga has already been told in other games, the main narrative is a little glossed-over in the beginning of the title. This seemed to be a deliberate decision that was made by the writers. After considering how many people who are playing GOW: Ascension probably have already played other ‘God of War’ titles, it does makes sense not rehash the same content. Even with that consideration, the emphasis on story and narrative pales in comparison to some of the other story-arcs that the series has put forth.
While still being limited by the ‘prequel dilema’ the writers added another challenge for themselves, by telling the narrative out of sequence. I have no problem with this story telling technique but the story itself was pretty straightforward, so it seemed like a way for the game to stretch out the plot. In this game you begin your tale after Kratos has abandoned his oath to Ares (the original god of war). Fans should remember that Kratos was bound to Ares in a deal to save his own life. It is also important to know that if anyone breaks this vow, they will be tortured and ultimately killed for their betrayal by a group of ‘Furies’. This is the framework for the story, and although it is interesting, doesn’t really hold up to the immense narratives that came before it (or after it chronologically speaking).
The main issue I had in the story, was the decision to tell another tale based almost completely on Kratos alone. I know he is once again the main character, but the inherent problem with that choice is that I already know what ultimately happens to Kratos. In the game the writers really can’t change the future with Kratos, you can only tell me more about him and I only wish there was more to tell.
One of the key elements of the game is in fact its violent nature. Where you stand on violence in video-games aside, in this case, the nature of the story does excuse most of it. Greek mythology is incredibly violent, and to portray that in a game that is telling a story about these ancient characters makes sense. What didn’t make sense is how some of this violence was setup by the story. There are just some moments when the violent scenes just became displays of violence itself. Other games are guilty of this as well, I feel that anytime the emotion and the character development doesn’t match the outcome, the violent scenes just become trivial and pandering. There a few of these ‘over-the-top’ scenes in God of War and I’m not saying they don’t belong in the game, I’m saying the motivation, emotion and execution of the violence didn’t justify its inclusion for the most part.
Outside the realm of story you will be doing a lot of combat and once again Santa Monica Studios have found small tweaks and improvements for the new game to utilize. Combat at its core stays true to the series but this time it was enhanced by better animation, a better weapon system and a more fluid combat dynamic. The game is still a quickly paced slaughter-fest, but weapon choices have been shaved down and instead there are quick environmental weapons you can pick and use (or throw) for a few moments before losing them. This made fighting attackers seem much more spontaneous, which in turn made it more enjoyable and customizable. Combat is simpler and more effective. I was spending less time trying to do combos and more time enjoying the game, more so than with previous entries at least.
Although weapon choices have been slimmed down, the ‘Blades of Chaos’ that Kratos wields can be upgraded with supernatural powers via different elements from the gods themselves. This allows you to add an elemental attack to your blades, much like any other game would add elemental attacks. Each element offers a change in abilities and will damage foes differently. Odds are you will find a favorite right away and mostly stick to that one element, but the choice is there if you want to switch things up later on. Visually speaking, the game has some of the best combat animations and group fighting tactics that has ever been in a God of War title. Santa Monica Studios did an excellent job at creating a button-masher that continued to be fun to play until the very end.
Some of my favorite moments in the ‘God of War’ series has been the boss-fights. GOW: Ascension did put together a few momentous fights for players to enjoy, but even fewer would rank in my top five of the series. The problem with expected boss fights are the regular combatants that you face off with lose some of their appeal. The game highlights the boss fights in such a theatrical way, that I found myself just plowing through battles and only paying attention to the major bosses. Which is a shame because like I said, the animation and combat is extremely well done.
In multiplayer the plot is even more shallow but a lot of that is to be expected. Even if there was a story for multiplayer most people would just want to skip through it to get in a game with their friends. Basically your character suffers from the original mistake of Kratos, selling your allegiance to a god for sparing your life. That is basically the entire plot, and the only connection to the actual single-player storyline. In multiplayer, after you swear to uphold either Ares, Hades, Zeus or Poseidon, you can then start your multiplayer sessions.
When first asked by another staff member about the multiplayer aspect of the game I thought about for a moment. The best answer I could come up with was, “It’s god of war without Kratos’. The multiplayer was enjoyable, in the sense that it was new and unique, and the game-modes were all very carefully constructed. There was even a sense of personalization to the game, but I don’t think it would be anything that fans would insist to be included in the next game. This is of course the first time that multiplayer was introduced in the God of War series, so I think the feedback given in this game would make a great starting part for an improved multiplayer experience down the road it just isn’t anything tremendous just yet.
What comes included in multiplayer will give you a lot of choices however, and I do recommend giving each mode a try. There is the standard team death-match mode, the team objectives mode, the fan favorite capture the flag and a free-for-all mode. The maps themselves are just as elaborate and well designed as the single-player levels, just on a smaller scale. Players have a lot to work with on the battlefield, including traps, NPC character-monsters and other environmental hazards that you will both love and hate depending what side of the trap you are on.
The co-op portion of the game was easily my favorite experience. I felt that the combat in God of War just better suits (player v cpu) and the co-op has you and your partner fighting for your lives against waves of enemies. The downside to this was the timer. I don’t know why there is a timer but I feel that there will be an option to remove it in an upcoming patch. It just didn’t work that well in the set-up. Fighting bosses and waves of attackers was great, and going all out and destroying each wave was wondrously fun. All of that fun was diminished when I was told I “didn’t do it fast enough”. It turns fun into work, and I will be shocked if an option to disable it isn’t added after players get their hands on the game.
I talked a lot about the story of the game, how the writers painted themselves into a corner and never really got past the saga-level additions of the previous installments but I don’t think that would ruin the experience for a true God of War fan. Combat is a huge portion of these games, and the combat in God of War was both functionally and artistically improved from the earlier works. Multiplayer is a good ‘first step’ for the series, but I don’t think it would be enough for anyone to buy the game based on the content.
The game is pure fun at times and if you are invested enough in the Kratos, you might fill in some of the missing emotional pieces with your own. If you enjoyed previous installments you should enjoy this game, more so the combat and gameplay then the cutscenes and flashbacks.