This has been a long generation for Sony, but a quiet one for Kratos. Nathan Drake has fronted an entire trilogy on PS3 and Assassin’s Creed has settled into an annual cycle, but this is only the second God Of War game on the console, with a three-year gap between the pair. While that avoids familiarity breeding contempt, it also means developer Sony Santa Monica has had fewer chances to recognise that several elements of the God Of War template could do with modernisation. Much of what you’ll find in Ascension’s singleplayer is unchanged from the eight-year-old PS2 original. QTEs – hopefully dubbed ‘context-sensitive actions’ – are everywhere. Rather than celebrate its Greek mythological setting, Ascension fixates on ultraviolence and bare breasts. Bump into one of the many invisible walls and Kratos just runs on the spot.
But six games and eight years on from his debut, Kratos has learned a few new tricks. He’s a more agile climber, for one thing. He now automatically clambers from one handhold to the next, with a tap of the jump button flinging him across larger distances. He’s still no Lara Croft – and he remains in possession of the most comically awkward-looking double jump in gaming – but it’s a welcome change to a moveset that has remained largely static since his 2005 debut.
It’s not the only addition to Ascension’s singleplayer mode, but it’s one of the better ones. Kratos can now plant a blade in a surface and slide down it, and the first time you slalom your way down an incline, weaving back and forth to avoid obstacles, you can’t help but think of Journey, in which Sony Santa Monica also had a hand. But Journey’s surfing sequence is so memorable because it’s used sparingly, not half a dozen times in the opening few hours. And when Ascension asks you to tap X to jump over a gap while sliding, it’s in a QTE with an input window that ends before you reach the edge. If you try to jump at the last second, you can expect to see the game over screen.
More in keeping with the Ancient Greece setting, God Of War III’s aggressively shiny art style has been replaced with a muted colour palette and a painterly look. Aesthetically, it’s a great fit for PS3′s twilight years, but the visual approach is full of frustrations. Sony Santa Monica’s spectacle fetish frequently gets in the way, the camera pulling right out to show off a remarkable environment as the tiny speck under your control flails against a group of enemies. Some smart environmental puzzles are undermined by helper text telling you which of the three possible tools you need for every single job. Enemies spawn from the ground, so you’re never quite sure when a fight is approaching its end. There’s a maddening difficulty spike late on, too, where the studio seemingly realises it’s spent 27 chapters giving you more healing orbs than anyone could need and insists you beat a succession of powerful foes without respite or checkpoints. We like a challenge, but only if the combat system is up to it.
Ascension’s isn’t. You alternate between light and heavy attacks, swishing your Blades Of Chaos in the vague direction of the harpies, polycephalic beasts and topless demon-things that surround you. You do this until they explode in a shower of orbs, or prompt you to grab them for either a rush of QTEs, a newInfinity Blade-style duel, or, if you’re lucky, a canned animation and an instant kill. The studio’s apparent distaste for hitstun remains – you can only interrupt the attack animations of smaller enemies and even that is frustratingly inconsistent. You’re left with little sense that any attack is causing more damage than the others. While a Capcom-style hit pause is used on some combo finishers, it triggers before the attack has even connected, and thus applies even if the blow misses.
All of which would seem rather ominous for the series-first multiplayer mode. The online multiplayer brawler was explored last year with mixed results by Platinum Games’ Anarchy Reigns, but Ascension is the first evolutionary step on from that precursor and there are some fine ideas here that will form part of this genre’s future template. Instead of a fighting game roster, there are just four classes: the melee-focused Warrior, stealthy Assassin, ranged Battle Mage and a Support class. Each is customisable, with weapons and armour unlocked as you level and complete challenges (dubbed Labors), and each player takes one magic attack, support item and perk-like Relic into battle.
It’s chaotic at first, with the large multi-tiered maps just packed with things to capture, smash open, pick up and pull. You can yank a lever to activate a set of floor spikes, push a crank to spew flames from a nearby patch of ground, and even take control of a handily placed god and shoot enormous balls of fire at nearby enemies. The options are overwhelming, but start to make sense as you learn the levels, and the fixed camera you’ll spend much of the singleplayer game cursing is an asset here: you can always see exactly what’s going on and fight your opponents instead of the viewpoint.
Ascension’s biggest success is a colour-coding system that effectively lets you know when you have an opening and when to run. Unblockable attacks are signalled by a player glowing red, white denotes invincibility, and blue signals a player in recovery. It’s a simple, smart system further improved by rock-paper-scissors combat (heavy beats parry beats light beats heavy), cooldown-controlled special moves and a logical, consistent approach to hitstun. Consider our expectations defied: this is the star of the show. While this series’ singleplayer template is showing its age, there’s plenty in Ascension’s multiplayer that deserves to survive the transition to PS4.