“God of War has always been a single-player game, so the mandate on this one is [that] it is a multiplayer game”.
That was game director Todd Papy in 2010 telling the team at Sony Santa Monica what God of War: Ascension was going to be about. A couple of years later, the game was revealed to the world via a multiplayer gameplay demo. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised then at how unimpressive the game’s single player campaign is. The core focus of Ascension is its multiplayer, but the developers missed no opportunity to tell us how single player was going to receive as much attention as it’s always got.
And perhaps it did. Having sunk over ten hours into single-player, I believe that this is the best God of War has ever played, but that did nothing to erase that nagging feeling at the back of my mind that nothing I was doing here was in any way building upon the legacy of a franchise I’ve loved for nearly a decade. God of War: Ascension’s story just doesn’t seem to go anywhere, and in none of the five games that came before has the legendary Kratos come across as so directionless.
Fighting out of hell and taking on the God of War, Ares. Climbing Mount Olympus on Gaia’s back. Moments such as these defined past God of War games, but moments such as these are nowhere to be found in Ascension. After taking on all of the gods and leading each of them to a more gruesome death than the last, moving the series back to a time when Kratos was a mere mortal simply doesn’t work.
Moving the series back to a time when Kratos was a mere mortal simply doesn’t work.
This unconvincing plot was always going to be the single-player campaign’s undoing, and that’s a shame because elsewhere, the series does take a few strides forward. The combat is slick as ever. Gone are the Cestus from God of War 3. All Kratos has now is the Blades of Chaos, enhanced with four elemental powers accessible from the d-pad. However, now you can pick up weapons dropped by dead enemies and these could vary from spears for ranged attacks to heavy maces for slow attacks that do heavy damage. Also new is the rage meter, which allows Kratos to unleash some seriously powerful attacks. Even the QTEs are more involving, often requiring you to evade attacks as you try to take enemies down.
Ascension also boasts of some of the best puzzles the series has seen. It starts out with the standard ‘pull switch, push crate’ fare, but the ability to destroy or fix objects in the environment later on in the game is used well in puzzles. For example, you can rebuild a destroyed bridge to open up a new path or leave rubble suspended mid-air to climb across it. Manipulating between the two states is often the key in puzzle-solving.
Ascension also has more platforming than any other God of War game, and it seems to take a leaf out of Uncharted’s book, which is to say that it’s quick and fluid without requiring any skill. What was surprising though was how much backtracking the game forces, and even the newly acquired abilities or paths do little to justify it. God of War games have always been peppered with frequent combat gauntlets, but rarely have they been as frustrating as in this game, so much so that one of the gauntlets towards the end of the game nearly turned me off the game entirely. The grinding was worth it though because the final boss in the game lives up to the very high expectations the series has set.
Hardcore action games fans have always scoffed at God of War games for being button mashers. While that is true to an extent, there’s always been a deep, multi-layered battle system in place for those who’d like to use it, and in the series’ newly introduced multiplayer, that side of God of War comes to the fore. As I was quickly and repeatedly reminded, button mashers won’t get too far here.
God of War: Ascension’s multiplayer borrows a lot from class-based multiplayer shooters. As a nameless warrior, you can pledge your allegiance to one of four gods, representing the four classes – warrior, mage, stealth and support. You can switch classes at any time, although the game rewards you with constant level-ups if you stay loyal to one. There are hack-n-slash variants of deathmatch, team deathmatch and capture the flag, as well as the horde mode-esque Trial of the Gods, which you can play solo or with a friend.
So how does combat not devolve into mindless button mashing? You’ll constantly see players glowing red, white, or blue. Red denotes that a player is about to land an unblockable attack, white shows a recovering player, while blue shows a player prone to attack. The correct use of light, heavy, and special attacks, timely parries and grapples, and the effective use of tide-turning God items make multiplayer battles far more tactical than you might initially think. Throw in some intricate, multi-storeyed maps with traps and you have heated one-on-one skirmishes that together form a seriously intense battle. Just as long as you’re willing to spend some time to learn the ropes.
Santa Monica’s brave foray into multiplayer is commendable and the amount of effort they’ve put into it hasn’t gone to waste, but it doesn’t come close to making up for the game’s insipid single-player portion. Maybe it’s time for Kratos to hang up the blades. His story has been told, and going back to fill in the gaps now doesn’t do his legacy or that of this great series any favours.