So the big man Kratos returns by way of a temporal manoeuvre for one last blast at the tail-end of the PlayStation 3’s time in the limelight. Sony Santa Monica have put their heart and soul into this latest installment in the high profile and ever so gory God of War series, opting to publish on the current generation of console presumably to avoid the mess of a launch window release that is expected in the maelstrom leading up to Christmas 2013. It’s likely there’s another reason too, namely to reach the pinnacle of what can be done with the outgoing Cell processor (compare with Naughty Dog’s forthcoming The Last of Us). Alongside the expected technical brilliance and well known single player gameplay they’ve developed a bespoke multiplayer element in a first for the franchise.
The God of War series is now into its seventh installment across four machines to date and given how the third numbered game ended it’s surprising to see Kratos back at all frankly. He is the overly aggressive husband to a murdered wife, father of a murdered child and previous assistant to Ares the original God of War and he is back and starring as the main protagonist of God of War: Ascension. It’s a prequel though so that explains how we can actually be in this situation. It’s set before any of the previous games but after the events which started the whole mythology of this particular Spartan. The story that’s told here is not something we want to spoil but equally it’s not really the driving force of what’s on offer here. The narrative is a rail upon which the combo-based fighting and massive set-pieces can be carried, all painted to a degree of perfection thanks to the wholly leveraged technology to hand.
Since the launch of Sony’s current home gaming technology we’ve been promised something special from the power of the Cell processor and surrounding technological infrastructure. Sony Santa Monica - alongside the purveyors of Nathan Drake’s adventures - have stood separated from all others as the PlayStation 3 exclusive developers who really do know how best to use it. With God of War 3 in 2010 we were lucky enough to see the most beautiful console game yet and nothing since has bested it aside perhaps from aspects of 2011’s Uncharted 3. No surprise there then. This episode of the Greek mythology fan’s brawler of choice doesn’t hurt the team’s reputation but it also fails to inspire. Everything on show here looks fabulous, from the wonderfully realised palettes to the fluid animation. The many small foes onscreen at any one time to the biggest boss fights since the last. It all looks fantastic and better than anything else but the wonderment has ceased. It seems the PlayStation 3 is worn out and although this does sit atop the highest peak, it’s sad to think what might have been on newer hardware. In addition to the visual excellence the sound mix is devastatingly fitting, with great range, excellent directionality and booming power when needed. Whilst some might wince at the raw brutality of it most will just turn that volume up and up to fully immerse themselves in the battle.
So the technology is used to the fullest to deliver both a single player and multiplayer component to this generational swansong. The single player game largely follows the structure of previous offerings, whereby Kratos will go from area to area defeating a myriad of oft-repeating enemies of different types before tackling a puzzle or two, stopping to spend collectables on upgrades and then moving forwards to the bigger baddies before facing a truly big bad in a gloriously realised set-piece with a fluttering of quick time events (QTEs) spattered about. The game will last you anywhere between six and ten hours depending on ability, difficulty setting and the extent to which you choose to learn the fighting system rather than bash buttons throughout. In terms of difficulty normal was generally straightforward with the odd small spike when facing bosses (and one particularly frustrating one), whilst hard was a much more satisfying experience provided you don’t mind taking a few extra goes to learn attack patterns and how to combat them effectively and consistently.
The combat is the bread and butter of any God of War game and is something which since the original game’s release has changed very little for Kratos whilst competitors from Bayonetta to Raiden have presented themselves to the masses with their own deep, satisfying and learned combat engines. With God of War: Ascension there have been changes to the combat system with different weapons and combos available alongside the standard Blades of Chaos, allowing for alternative upgrade paths and at the very least a variety of new animations leading to the death of every onscreen opponent. More than that though, if tackled on hard difficulty or above there is a definite benefit in learning the combos available to you, adding to them when possible and mixing your tactics up. It makes for a more attractive splash of visual violence and you’ll notice that different attacks do down a particular enemy type more quickly, or easily, and that one move works best in response to a specific attack at you, whilst another won’t. What the developers have managed to do here is deliver a superficially updated system (weapons and combos) whilst ensuring there really is a deeper benefit and feel to the fighting given the time upfront.
There are QTEs littered throughout the ever more frequent mini-boss and boss fights and whilst they can feel like the player is losing control just when you get to the business end of a glorious battle, they are straightforward enough, have big enough hit windows and if failed don’t restart the fight anyway merely requiring you to fight on for a bit longer. The QTEs are honestly well-received in the main - your hands will be starting to cramp due to the intensity and you’ll be happy for the chance to relax a little too. Once nailed the death animations are fabulous and make full use of the effects and quality this game engine can deliver. There are a number of excellent finishing animations for smaller, more normal enemies too once they’ve been hit into submission and have a shining red line above their heads. There’s a limited time to connect but as long as you’re quick enough the execution is just a button press rather than something of Mortal Kombat proportions.
Moving onto the novel multiplayer content and the updated and seemingly deeper combat system makes more sense. In fact the multiplayer combat is even further developed and will have likely been the proving ground before reapplying what worked into the single player campaign. When initially announced, as with a lot of multiplayer announcements these days, there was a question around how well integrated to the game the mode would be. Not so much in how it ties in story-wise as it doesn’t need to but more whether it is being put together because every game should have one as opposed to being built because it would benefit the package and make it something stronger. The answer is unequivocally the latter, especially given the single player mode is more of the same, albeit with improved combat - which of course is likely only the case thanks to the multiplayer anyway.
The first point is that God of War: Ascension is not a first person shooter of course. It’s not even a shooter in any way. Being a third person brawler it’s actually an early entrant in a fresh market, coming to Europe only two short months after Sega’s Platinum developed Anarchy Reigns. On starting up the multiplayer you’re presented with your Champion whom you’ll recognise initially from the single player game and as is customary awarded the opportunity to customise his weapons and armour load-out. Onwards into the tutorial and your first task is to align with one of four Gods: Zeus, Poseidon, Ares or Hades. Alignment with one over another will define your play style similar to how choosing Warrior over Mage in an RPG seriously affects the way you end up playing (or ideally the way you’ve chosen to play). The tutorial is extremely helpful in introducing you to the mechanics of online brawling God of War style. Although much of it will be familiar there are additional aspects to combat online. The most interesting is the fact that an opponent will at times be surrounded in a blue or red halo indicating whether you’ve beaten your opponent sufficiently such that you now have an open opportunity to attack, or that it’s time to defend ready to fight another day.
Once ready, getting online is a slow business. It takes far longer to actually be fighting after deciding to go online than it should do. It’s no worse than the majority of games popular today though but that’s more an indictment on online coding and current hardware than a get-out clause. There are four game modes - a horde type cooperative battle against waves of enemies for two players only, capture the flag and favour of the gods for teams or individuals. Eight players is the maximum number online at any one time which when achieved instills enough freneticism into fights that you’re never bored whilst keeping it just about manageable to know what’s happening and assert control over your actions, even early on whilst learning exactly how to cope. As you progress you earn experience points of course and can use these to upgrade anything you like from magic to weapons depending on your chosen playstyle. There are also various ‘Labours’ you can work towards to which provide further experience points. Fundamentally the multiplayer here is the freshest part of what’s on offer and a place you’re likely to want to spend a significant chunk of time before moving on. Without it the game would feel a little flat but with it you’ll experience something new (Anarchy Reigns excepted) - a success for game number seven in a series.
Coming as it does then at the end of the PlayStation 3’s lifecycle God of War: Ascension is a stunning technological achievement which will always satisfy but rarely wow given the ever-decreasing gains as you move from a launch window to year seven of a particular hardware setup. The prequel narrative is standard Kratos’ fare but delivers the necessary beats to allow for some fantastic combat which can be as simple or as deep - and more engrossing - as desired. However the deserved focal point is the multiplayer, something unexpected when first mentioned but thanks to the clear care showered upon it has resulted in something invigorating for the franchise just as the single player aspects were starting to falter. Kratos will be back of course on the PlayStation 4 - hopefully having learnt from this experience.