God of War: Ascension (PS3)

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Santa Monica Studio’s God of War series is renowned for its brutal action, epic scale and show-stopping set-pieces, not to mention its hulking hero Kratos. All of these elements are once again on full display in God of War: Ascension – a prequel to the series that sees Kratos attempting to break free from the shackles put in place by the original god of war, Ares.

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If you’ve played God of War III then God of War: Ascension’s visuals and gameplay will feel instantly familiar. The game still uses preset camera angles that allow Santa Monica Studio’s artists to pack each level with intricate detail, atmospheric lighting effects and highly tactile textures. There are a few instances when Kratos disappears behind a wall but for the most part the camera design does a wonderful job of highlighting the scale of each level and providing you with visual cues about where you need to go next to solve a puzzle or exit an area.

Ascension is one of the most cinematic games you’ll find on PlayStation 3 since it’s often difficult to distinguish between cut-scenes and gameplay. Every frame of the game fills up the entire TV screen and almost every scene is rendered in real-time, resulting in some truly thrilling moments that blur the line between watching the game and playing it. For example, there’s one scene where Kratos is hanging on the side of a mechanical python as it hurtles upwards and suddenly you’re prompted to grapple to another platform – forcefully pulling you out of the trance induced by this incredible visual spectacle.

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There’s a surprising amount of platforming in God of War: Ascension, too, including plenty of ‘slidey bits’ that reminded me of the sand-surfing in Journey. Climbing now feels more organic and these platforming sections are often the focus of gameplay for a good few minutes rather than a brief means to an end as they were in previous God of War games.

Combat has also seen some refinements and changes, with a renewed emphasis on Kratos’ Blades of Chaos which allow him to grapple enemies with the chains wrapped around his wrists. The Blades of Chaos come in four different elemental forms and are the only primary weapons in the game. Kratos can also pick up one of five ‘World Weapons’ which are either lying around in a level or brandished by enemies, which range from spears to clubs and can be used during battle by pressing the ‘Circle’ button. You can discard them at any time with a special attack (L1+O) and create combos using a mixture of your Blades of Chaos and equipped World Weapon.

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Just as in previous God of War games, you can use red orbs to upgrade the four versions of your Blades of Chaos – unlocking new combos and devastating magical attacks as you level them up. When an enemy is low on health a prompt will appear above their heads and you can grapple them to perform a gory kill. If it’s a large enemy then these finishing moves will either take the form of a Quick-Time Event (QTE) where you have to press buttons as they are displayed, or a ‘Buttonless Mini-Game’ where you can attack by pressing ‘Square’ or ‘Triangle’ and dodge out of the way of your enemy’s swipes by pressing the left analog stick either left or right. The latter technique is an interesting way to bypass QTEs but feels a little simplistic in its current form.

Besides platforming and combat, the third pillar of gameplay in God of War: Ascension is puzzle-solving. There are a generous number of puzzles that crop up during the game and I can imagine some players will find them frustrating to solve if their principal reason for playing God of War is the brutal combat. Personally, I enjoyed the challenge these puzzles posed and solving them was often a case of trying different combinations of the limited interactive elements available in the level, such as levers and movable blocks. The puzzles get more complex later in the game when you acquire an item that allows Kratos to replicate himself for a brief time, as well as the Amulet of Uroborus which allows him to heal or decay certain structures in the environment, such as bridges and water wheels.

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While I found the gameplay in God of War: Ascension to be of an exceptionally high standard, I can’t say the same for the game’s plot and pacing. The story jumps between time frames, is very sparse for most of the game and key characters such as Ares are never shown – all of which conspire to dilute the impact of the plot. The game’s conclusion is certainly satisfying but there are long periods of the game where nothing is happening from a narrative perspective and you wonder what is driving Kratos forward.

I think the developer made the mistake of letting level design dictate plot (or lack of it) where there should have been a better balance between the two. There is also a pacing problem where you are introduced to two new characters halfway through the game and suddenly you are engaged in an epic confrontation with one of them – without fully understanding why they are your enemy. This boss battle feels like it should have occurred later in the game to ramp up the intensity just before the final, suitably epic showdown.

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A great bonus on the God of War: Ascension Blu-ray is a documentary series about the making of the game. This fourteen-part series is essential viewing for fans of the series and provides a fascinating glimpse at the incredible amount of effort that goes into creating the levels, set-pieces and enemies you see in the game. Santa Monica Studio clearly has some of the best artists and level designers in the business, and certain details they have added to the game (such as the wobbling belly on the Cyclops mini-boss) are elements that you don’t see very often in current-gen titles.

What God of War: Ascension lacks from a narrative and pacing standpoint, it more than makes up for by offering one of the most technically impressive and thrilling PS3 exclusives you’ll ever play. Kratos’ quest to free himself from Ares’ control takes him on an adventure which you won’t soon forget, from beautiful underwater caverns to the towering statue of Apollo gazing out over the Aegean Sea. If you enjoy playing games that offer an unparalleled visual spectacle and pulse-quickening action, then don’t miss out on God of War: Ascension!

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(Note: This review covers the singleplayer portion of God of War: Ascension only. I was not able to access the game’s multiplayer mode because you cannot currently redeem your Online Pass on the PlayStation Store. God of War: Ascension’s multiplayer mode will be covered in a separate review.)