God of War: Ascension Singleplayer Hands-on (PS3)

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This week marks the release of the God of War: Ascension demo on the PlayStation Store. I was lucky enough to get early access to the demo by participating in the browser-based Rise of the Warrior social challenge, and was eager to fire it up after thoroughly enjoying the game’s brutal singleplayer sample that was playable at E3 2012 and rAge 2012.

The demo is titled “Prison of the Damned” and weighs in at 2937MB. It reportedly features the first thirty minutes or so of God of War: Ascension’s singleplayer campaign but I get the feeling that some content from the beginning of the game has been removed since you never get to see Kratos’ wife and daughter who are featured in some of the trailers Sony has released.

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The demo opens with an impressive CG cut-scene which introduces the Furies – enforcers of punishment who are neither titan nor god and bound to no one. Following this scene we find Kratos in chains after being captured by one of these creatures (Megaera) who appears to be taking great pleasure in slapping him around a bit with her taloned hands. Almost immediately the game introduces us to the new dodge mechanic which replaces Quick-Time Events (QTEs) in certain cut-scenes. After swaying out of the way of Megaera’s swipes a few times Kratos manages to free himself and reclaim his iconic Blades of Chaos, after which the player is free to explore a prison which is built around the massive, many-armed Aegaeon the Hecatonchires (one of three giants from Greek mythology).

God of War: Ascension shares God of War III’s DNA in many respects, starting off with the graphics engine which is a retooled version of the one featured in GoW III. Load times are once again non-existent and MLAA (morphological anti-aliasing) gives the game a very clean look. The frame rate ranges from high (around 40fps) to average depending on the strain on the engine, but advanced motion blur effects help to make the action move along at a brisk pace and there is zero screen-tear. The game’s environments feature plenty of intricate details to create the illusion of being in ancient Greece, and the lighting and textures are some of the most impressive you’ll see on PS3. Enemy design and animation are among the best in the business, while the fixed camera angle is used to great effect as it zooms in and pulls back to create a sense of scale – something which has always been integral to the God of War experience. For example, there is one point during the demo when the camera views Kratos from a zoomed-in, side-on angle and then pulls right back as Aegaeon the Hecatonchires rips the prison Kratos was walking through from its foundations.

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The demo is very combat-heavy, and sees Kratos facing off against a number of enemy types including mini-bosses such as Cyclops and mutated, carapaced creatures who pop out of Aegaeon’s hands after jade-coloured beetles crawl into their pores. The combat in God of War: Ascension is as fluid as ever, and Kratos has a few new moves at his disposal such as being able to hurl grappled enemies around the battle arena and pick up weapons such as swords and spears that his fallen foes leave behind. I also noticed that pressing L3 makes Kratos charge at his enemies and you can then press one of the face buttons to make him perform actions such as shoulder-charging or pounding the ground with his fists. There’s a huge variety of combos you can string together even within the limited confines of the demo, and mixing up your moves is a highly rewarding, enjoyable experience.

Gruesome finishing moves on enemies and bosses make a return in God of War: Ascension and it’s here that you’ll come across the QTEs that will be immediately familiar to veterans of the series. As far as I’m concerned, these QTEs help to make you feel part of the action (such as hammering down on the Circle button to pull down a huge slab of rock on top of a weakened boss) but not everyone will appreciate this ‘Simon Says’ gameplay mechanic.

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The latest God of War: Ascension demo ends just as you’re hitting your stride in terms of working out how to effectively decimate a swarm of enemies or towering boss. This prequel appears to have all the makings of another classic action-adventure title from Santa Monica Studio, and looks set to impress PlayStation fans with its awe-inspiring presentation and deep combat mechanics which offer a perfect blend of variety and fluidity. We’ll have to wait and see if God of War: Ascension’s story can surpass the epic tale told in God of War III, but it’s at least refreshing to see the developer exploring new facets of Greek mythology and showing Kratos’ human side as he struggles with emotions we can all relate to.

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