Released appropriately near and during the Ides of March, God of War: Ascension is the first major home console release in the series since God of War III. A prequel to the main trilogy, Ascension seeks to explain the events leading up to the main trilogy, especially the how Kratos came to break his oath with Ares. As typical for the series, this new game focuses primarily on iterating and refining the core gameplay. The game does not surprise, but it offers exactly what the series has always promised: Clash of the Titans with actual titans clashing.
The graphics are the best in the series thus far. The level of detail on the models, the lighting effects, and the animations reflect the graphical quality expected of a game released late in a console’s life, and still manage to surprise and awe the player. Environments are huge, spectacular, and awe-inspiring. The exploration of the petrified Hecatonchires, Aegaeon, the maze of giant mechanical snakes outside of the Temple of Delphi, the Statue of Apollo that Kratos reconstructs as he climbs it, and the final battle are all environments worthy of the series and are certain to evoke at least a little sense of awe in even the most jaded of players.
Sound effects have always been a key part of making the player feel a part of the God of War universe, and Ascension continues this practice. Kratos’s hits have all the weightiness they always had and continue to create the feeling of power in each of his moves. Cuts sound meaty and visceral, and his weapons have appropriate sound effects for whichever elemental magic his weapons are currently enchanted with.
The soundtrack continues the same themes and musical cues of the other games while not adding much new. Considering that God of War has always used music more atmospherically, this choice comes as little surprise, though a new leitmotif or two such as Rage of Sparta in God of War III would have been a nice touch.
Considering that the God of War series has had such well-crafted fighting from the first game, each game can naturally only change and refine so much without breaking something that does not need fixing. The most successful change is in many of the new kill sequences for monsters. The final execution quick-time events for manticores, juggernauts, the new gorgons, and some of the bosses are replaced with simple minigames in which the player rapidly attacks the creature while occasionally needing to dodge attacks. This new mechanic makes the executions flow from normal combat more smoothly while still feeling like a game instead of a cutscene with prompts.
Kratos’s ability to steal weapons from enemies is one of the more successful iterations of a weapon system that the developers have tried. The weapons do not provide nearly as much utility as the Blades of Chaos or even the Cestus from God of War III, but stealing them takes away some of the enemies’ strongest attacks and provides extra combat options and powerful one-time-use attacks that can give the player much needed breathing room.
While there are a couple items to play with that offer useful magical effects, new magic system is primarily a kind of weapon enchant system that has many of the standard magic and rage abilities built into it. There are fire, ice, electric, and soul enhancements for the Blades of Chaos, and as they are leveled-up, they unlock respective rage and magic abilities. The basic idea is sound and has the strength of simplicity, but it could use some tweaking. Almost all of the magic attacks require fully upgrading an enchantment, which could leave the player with few uses for their magic bar for a good portion of the game. The magic attacks are all basically big area-of-effect spells and have little difference beyond that. The rage abilities are much more varied and useful and give further incentive to combo attacks and avoid getting hit.
The multiplayer carries most of the same strengths as single player, and does manage to keep the epic feeling players expect, though it might not be able to maintain players’ attention for much time in the long-run. The basic concepts work, but it could use tweaking. For a more in-depth look at the multiplayer specifically, check out Ben Sheene’s article on the multiplayer beta, as his assessments remain valid even in the final version.
The story of Ascension primarily serves to elucidate some of the vaguer points of the overall plotline. Unfortunately, this means that Ascension does nothing to setup or give clue to the story of further games. While this choice is disappointing for fans looking for what’s next in the series, the contained story avoids making any retcons or leaving any plot holes. While that may seem a small achievement, the sheer number of prequels guilty of one or both (usually both) and the increasing size of the story mark the consistent writing as a commendable accomplishment, one that the writers should maintain in future titles.
To break the story down a little bit, the multiplayer has a tenuous connection to Kratos’s story, but is completely supplemental and non-essential to understanding the main story of the God of War universe. The villains are relatively one-dimensional but easy to hate, though the writers have continued the trend of Ghost of Sparta to try to make Kratos more sympathetic, finding a far better balanced to his depiction. Overall though, the story is serviceable, but nothing astounding or revolutionary.
God of War: Ascension does not redefine God of War, but was not seeking to. It is exactly the kind of polished, fun, and exciting AAA game that the series has always produced. These games are the video game equivalent of summer blockbusters in every respect. Clash of the Titans has got nothing on this.