God of War: Ascension is just over a month from launch, an approaching event that's increasingly been cause for alarm. After all, we haven’t even seen the single-player since last summer at E3, and while a multiplayer beta just recently wrapped, it just wasn’t the same God of War experience we’ve come to expect from this Sony tentpole that's made itself synonymous with over-the-top, first-person action gaming.
More to the point is that Ascension is a prequel to the entire series, giving us a look at Kratos before he was Kratos: the armed-to-the-teeth warrior who bellows anger at the gods while battling through impossible scenarios against supposedly immortal foes. By toying with the formula, Sony and their Santa Monica Studio would risk neglecting what's made GoW such a hit in the first place.
But, the more things change, the more they stay the same, and in this case, that is welcome news. After playing through what is roughly the opening part of the game, we can happily report that this is indeed a true, dyed in the wool God of War experience. Almost as soon as the adventure opens, you’re battling Aegaeon the Hekatonkheires, a massive giant with one hundred arms who's been turned into a prison by the Furies.
In fact, the first half-hour of the game sets the bar so high that you have to wonder how the team will ever keep topping themselves all the way to an endgame. Lead designer Mark Simon assures us however that “You’ve seen nothing yet. I’m not kidding. This demo you’re seeing, plus the E3 demo, that represents a snippet of what is yet to come. We’ve created an epic adventure for Kratos to go on, and just wait until you see the scale of it.”
In this opening, Kratos has been bound and imprisoned by the Furies, having broken his blood oath with the god Ares after being tricked into killing his wife and daughter. While strung up helplessly, Kratos is visted and tortured by the Fury Megaera. But being more than mortal has its advantages, and it isn’t long before Kratos turns things around, freeing himself in pursuit of Megaera and battling his way out of otherworldly detention.
Veterans of the series will slip back easily into Kratos’ skin, using the Blades of Chaos for light and heavy attacks, lifting enemies into the air and combining moves to keep that hit count building. New skills are welcome, like an ability to tether to foes and swing them wrecking-ball style into other enemies and a Circle attack for disarming opponents and appropriating their weapons, but when all is said and done Ascension is the brutal, melee God of War episode you would want it to be.
The development team has attempted to smooth out some remaining rough edges on the series, making Kratos’ climbing sequences more fluid and not just a “point a to point b” experience. They've also inserted some new mechanics into the game, like a sliding sequence where Kratos can sort of skateboard his way (without a board) down a sloping surface while dodging obstacles. But the wheel hasn’t been reinvented, and you won’t find the angry Greek firing lasers or wielding dual pistols against his enemy. “He’s a personification of rage and anger,” says Simon, “and this game attempts to deal with that head-on.”
Even though Kratos is probably the gaming world’s biggest rage-monster, they have also tried to soften him somewhat in this game. Not in the actual combat, but by revealing more of his tragic, life-altering background than we have ever seen before. The Super Bowl live-action spot underscores the human side of Kratos, while the flashbacks throughout the game seek to do the same. We got only a brief look at one of these moments, but it features a calm and collected Kratos tucking his daughter into bed. Despite the impressive body count he will rack up in the future, this was once a family man with an entirely different course before him.
Much was said about God of War 3 being the end of Kratos’ journey, and while that could still be true since Ascension is a prequel, Simon is sure that we’ll see Kratos again: “I know that people have said all kinds of things about that, but the mythos we’ve explored and the creatures that we’ve created … we can explore a lot of different things and a lot of different mythologies here. I think there’s a lot of meat in there, and you can take this story and see where it goes, or you could even take the end of God of War 3 and play with that. There’s a lot left there.”
While we aren’t sure if players will fully embrace multiplayer in what has always been a single-player-only experience, the team knows what fans of the series have come to expect, and they have no aim to disappoint. Simon concluded, “The odyssey that we’ve created here is more like God of War 2 or God of War 1 in terms of length or in terms of its locales. The combat in the game has never been this visceral, it has never been this responsive, and you have never had this many options. I am super-proud of what our team has achieved.”
God of War: Ascension launches on March 12 for the PlayStation 3.