God of War: Ascension Review: Similar, But Not Same Kratos
For the most part, combat is up to the usual God of War standard. Rather than gathering a number of godly implements to use against enemies such as in God of War 3, Ascension introduces two new weapons mechanics. First is the ability to imbue his Blades of Chaos, the mainstay God of War weapon, with elemental powers from each of the four primary gods. Those powers open up additional combos and magic spells over time as they’re upgraded, and often the varying abilities that come with each elemental power mix up your capabilities and tactics to make God of War’s central gameplay mechanics a lot of fun.
The elemental capabilities feel like a missed opportunity, though. As near as I can tell playing through the game, while many enemies also carry elemental capabilities, how you actually deal with those characters makes no difference in terms of actual combat. If I come up against a fire-breathing enemy, I’m not precluded from using my fire element; if I’m fighting an enemy that uses electricity, I get no boon from opting for water and ice powers. There’s a fundamental strategic interplay that could be a major part of Ascension, and actually would have worked to alter the gameplay in some big, notable ways, that Sony Santa Monica just … didn’t use.
Also altering combat moment-to-moment are an increased emphasis on grappling enemies, and using weapons found in the world. Rather than grabbing guys with his hands, the R1 button allows Kratos to snag them with this chain blades, a move that switches up the dynamic of fights in some really meaningful ways. Stun a bad guy and you can snag him and use him as a weapon, smashing him into other enemies, or just holding him still while you hack away at the others. Using your enemies as weapons becomes both a powerful tool and an important strategy for executing some stronger attacks. Likewise, the ability to grab a sword or a club off a guy you just punted across the battlefield opens up a bunch of other options.
But again, these additions don’t feel like they’re used to their full potential. The grapple mechanic actually becomes a big crutch at key moments. At one point, I found myself surrounded by enemies in an area buffeted by flame jets. In order to stay alive, I found myself endlessly snagging bad guys and throwing them into one another, which bowled a number of them into the flames to kill them. Rather than combo my way out, I found the most effective means of surviving was just to endlessly grab and throw, grab and throw. It’s moments like this that highlight the fact that the grapple mechanic can often make combat a little too easy, although it’s usually limited by enemies’ armor or other considerations.
Meanwhile, the world weapons mechanic is fun, but you never need a sword, club, shield or spear for anything specific. Each of the weapons is fun to use in its own right, but rarely moves beyond just an other way to smack bad guys around. It feels like there’s a lot of strategy the game could include, but doesn’t.
Speaking of things that aren’t used to their full potential, Ascension has one great puzzle-solving idea that never feels like it really gets off the ground. A third or so of the way through the game, players get hold of an item that allows them to either “heal” or “decay” destruction of structures. It becomes very important through the course of gameplay, allowing players to fix bridges and occasionally even make some platforms, but this is a piece of puzzle-solving capabilities that really could have been used to a fuller extent. It’s always completely obvious what you have to do with the item, and in fact the only barrier to solving any of those puzzles is that the game is really finicky about where you need to stand to activate it. But healing and destroying things seems like it could have been a really smart mechanic if it was more widely implemented.
That said, God of War: Ascension’s single-player maintains a fairly high degree of fun, even with a number of flaws. It’s still a fairly lengthy campaign, and filled with big set pieces and boss fights, in the vein of what players are used to seeing in the franchise. It’s not without troubles though — there are some definite graphical glitches that can hang up Kratos or cause enemies to fall through maps and vanish. Likewise, in trying to present its grand, beautiful vistas, Ascension will sometimes zoom the camera way out in the middle of a fight, and leave players to continue the fight by controlling a white speck beside a bunch of other white specks. There were actually a few moments throughout the game in which I lost track of Kratos among a bunch of enemies, which made avoiding death and maintaining combos that much tougher.
And I think it’s fair to say that Ascension might be an inferior game to earlier entries in the series. This Kratos is less driven, even if he’s less of a horrific, irritating douche. There’s still a fair degree of questionable content (specifically, I hope you like brutally murdering female characters on a number of occasions, which wouldn’t be so bad if things were a bit more balanced as far as gender representation in brutal murders, and if not for the “Bros Before Hoes” trophy you might have heard about), but far fewer compelling characters, either to talk with or to fight, this time out. Adding to that are the numerous moments that feel like mixed potential, coupled with minor graphical glitches and camera issues. But Ascension still manages to be fun in that God of War way, and it’s important to note that Kratos is much easier to relate to than in the past.