- Developer - Sony Santa Monica
- Publisher - Sony Computer Entertainment
- Platform - Playstation 3
- Release date - 13 March
- Price - £39.99
God of War: Ascension
There's this gigantic, anthropomorphic elephant thing you come across in one of God of War: Ascension's early levels and your fight with it epitomises all the game's best qualities. It's a terrifying, haughty, killer with a gigantic mace and bulbous eyes, which, especially when surrounded by a couple of lesser creatures, is a pain in the neck to beat. You have to carefully dodge its attacks, chain yours quickly together and then nail a tricky sequence of God of War's trademark quick-time events.
Manage all of that and you get to see the best of Sony Santa Monica's work up close. In a beautiful, fluid animation, Kratos drags the juggernaut down onto its belly then stabs it repeatedly in the head while you mash the square button. Flailing its arms to try and swat you away, you have to wiggle the left stick to dodge the elephant's swipes while continuing to sword its skull open with your cutlass. Get it all right and Kratos plunges his blade into the creature's brain and slices its head open like a purse.
It's gory and horrible, and the elephant thing loudly screeches its last like you wouldn't believe. But it's also kind of funny and that's the balance Ascension's art style gets so right.
Ascension's Greek mythology aesthetic gives Santa Monica an enormous colour set to paint with, and the studio throws itself into the world wholeheartedly. The mythical creatures you battle in Ascension, from the goat-headed Satyr to the half-woman, half-bluebottle Megaera are all very distinctive, refreshingly so considering other hack-and-slash games, which tend to be filled generic looking baddies.
Thinking back to things like Bayonetta and even DmC: Devil May Cry, which was nevertheless excellent, the enemies are all dull, blurred bundles of limbs and swords that the games don't pay much attention to. In God of War: Ascension, the villains are the stars and the game really plays with abstract, often repulsive Greek imagery.
Take the aforementioned Megaera. She's one of the first major creatures you battle and her main defence is to leak flies out of her breasts (yep) which crawl inside other creatures and mutate them. Then there's the Chimera, the lion with a serpent for a tail, which you punch into the ground before literally ripping off one of its own horns and jamming it through its eye. It's silly, bloody, boy stuff, which does for the Classical Era what Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter did for American history, but who cares?
It's fun, it's unassuming; it's a laugh. And so far as visual flair goes, Ascension's mix of guts and creatures has it in spades.
As for how it plays, God of War: Ascension is incredibly old-school. It has the feel of a game like Primal, or maybe Legacy of Kain, solitary combat-cum-platformers that Sony put out on the PS2 and PS1. Set-ups and puzzles are pleasingly simplistic, combat is easy to learn, hard to master, and difficulty curve wise, it's practically vertical. Spamming square and triangle does your light and heavy attacks respectively, and there are several element based weapons that you can pick up, all along the familiar lines of Fire, Ice and Lightning.
Chain together double-digit combos of hits and you can power Kratos up into Rage mode to do more damage, while flicking the right stick lets you dodge incoming swords. And you're going to need to do that a lot because, yeah, God of War: Ascension is super hard.
The combat style differs from a lot of hack and slashers in that it's not concerned with making you look cool so much as it is with making you look tough. Enemies whack you and whack you and whack you, and it's more a case of enduring their onslaught than it is dodging or countering it. A well-timed roll is one thing, but if you want to live in Ascension you need to go on the offensive.
And that doesn't mean backflipping into the air, bouncing off walls or any of that wuxia stuff: It means lurching into combat like a dirty, great, priapic bastard and fighting rough until everything is dead. God of War: Ascension is hard and you need to get angry, not stylish if you're going to beat it.
That's not to say the game doesn't have style. Slimy lustre of the monsters aside, the backdrops in God of War: Ascension are seriously good-looking, comprising mythical, ethereal Heaven-scapes and grotty Hellenic architecture. The series' enormous bosses are brilliantly drawn, too, goliath monstrosities that beggar comprehension. Confronted by a who-knows-how-tall psychotic demi-God...thing, your jaw drops and you start to wonder how on Earth - or, wherever it is you are that the point in the game - you'll beat it.
And then, later - once you've whittled it down - comes the payoff, as you spring up its arm, leap onto its face and whack your scimitar into its eye. The fighting might be thuggish, but the climactic geezers of blood in God of War are endlessly stylised, and the game is wonderful to look at.
And it's not badly written. Or rather, it's hardly written at all. A hack-and-slash game set in Ancient Greece, that acts as a prequel to other God of War games, Ascension seems primed to fall victim to horrendous melodrama, the kind of MacGuffin-heavy prance that slows everything down with boring franchise mythology. But it doesn't.
Sony Santa Monica gets the balance between exposition and action just right, stripping Ascension's plot down to the barest essentials and letting it run on without any big cutscenes or cumbersome support characters. After Platinum Games' hacky, slashy Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, which paused every 15 minutes or so for some more uninteresting dialogue, God of War: Ascension shows that, actually, even the broadest franchise fiction can be explored with a minimum of fuss.
It's hard to come up with a solid complaint about God of War: Ascension. It's a splendorous, gory, knockabout bit of fun with no pretensions and a lot for you to do. It doesn't slow itself down by diving too deep into Kratos' past, nor does it skip over that stuff entirely. At the same time, it's a difficult and boorish hack and slash game, though still, somehow, colourful and stylish.
If you had to plump up criticisms, you could say that the combat sometimes feels unresponsive. The roll manoeuvre especially is tricky to handle and Kratos tends to lumber sluggishly around fights, which doesn't quite blend with the otherwise quick pace of the game's enemies.
It's also hardly the most progressive game you'll buy this year. A gory hack and slasher that uses customisable weapons and platforming sections, God of War: Ascension doesn't raise any bars. At worst, you might accuse it of being pedestrian, despite the AAA level of polish.
But that doesn't really matter because it's violent and fun and pretty. A wholly unpretentious, lovingly painted boisterousness-sim, God of War: Ascension is a great bit of work.
- Gameplay: 8/10 - Simplistic and hardly anything new, but the big difficulty gradient and bloody violence make it worthwhile
- Sound: 7/10 - One of Ascension's weaker points. A solid voice cast and some gut-churning combat sounds, but the score is incredibly plain
- Graphics: 9/10 - Excellent. Big, spectacular bosses and landscapes rendered in crisp, shiny visuals
- Writing: 8/10 - This is more for what Ascension doesn't do. The script is pretty insignificant, but given the tendency of other hack and slash games to burrow into boring lore, Ascension's minimalist dialogue really shines
- Replay value: 7/10 - The campaign is full enough to warrant replaying. The gory money shots, though, will lose some of their oomph
- Overall: 8/10 - A brash, unapologetic but very smart hack and slash game with bags of visual flair and a compulsive style of gameplay
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