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God of War: Ascension review: Spectacle slipstream

Xav de Matos, @Xav

In the race for spectacle, Sony Santa Monica's God of War franchise is constantly attempting to lap itself. From striking down a god to tearing down giants, it would seem there are few bodies – human, mythical being, god or behemoth – left for Kratos to shatter. In response to the angry protagonist's bloody evolution, Santa Monica has ventured to the only place left for Kratos to wage war: the past.

God of War: Ascension tells the story of Kratos before the events of his all-out war against Ares, the Greek God of War. But the narrative fabric woven throughout the franchise has begun to split, and Ascension's thinly constructed premise does little to enhance its characters in any meaningful way.

Its narrative issues aside, Ascension provides the distinct God of War flair required to eradicate all that stands in Kratos' way. Wielding a familiar set of chained blades, the popular anti-hero fluidly works his murder-pinwheel magic to perfection. The combat system, however, is less complicated than before, abandoning an arsenal of collected weaponry in favor of sticking with Kratos' trusty, sharp sidekicks. It's Kratos at his least materialistic, eschewing the pack-rat mentality of previous entries in favor of simplicity.

Gallery: God of War: Ascension (3/11/13) | 7 Photos

Told in a series of chronologically out-of-sequence chapters, Ascension picks up after Kratos has decided to break the oath he swore to Ares – one made to spare his own life and defeat his enemies, as seen in 2005's God of War. In Sony Santa Monica's adaptation of Greek mythology, any being, be it man or monster, that breaks an oath to a god is to be hunted down by a trio of vicious Furies and tortured for its transgressions.

The plot framing in Ascension doesn't work for a variety of reasons, but perhaps the most compelling is that it continuously relies on the ignorance of Kratos. He strives to break free from the shackles of his oath, which clouds his mind with visions of his dead family, but his eventual fate is already telegraphed. Rather than being its own exploration of the character, Ascension adamantly proclaims the Titanic is unsinkable well after the ship has set out on its doomed voyage.

The pacing of Ascension's narrative structure is just too chaotic, slowing down to show sympathetic moments for a second before throwing you into lengthy platforming sections or thrusting you immediately back into the fray. There's hardly room to process the narrative, which is surprising considering how well previous installments managed to balance it alongside the blood-soaked action. And there's plenty of blood to spill here, as even a calmer Kratos is often seen grunting his way through conversations before beating enemies into a fine red mist.

God of War's unsettling streak of violence against women also continues in Ascension, with its three primary antagonists taking the form of human-looking female characters. Kratos has of course killed all manner of men, women and monsters throughout the series, but one gruesome scene in particular sees you essentially curb-stomp a woman and impale her after a series of quick-time events and minigames. Evil entity or not, the sequence is jarring.

God of War Ascension review Spectacle slipstream
God of War's gameplay continues its trend of brutality over finesse, with a less complicated combat system than the one found in God of War 3. As mentioned above, rather than wielding a dizzying array of weapons, Kratos sticks to his trademark Blades of Chaos, which can now be imbued with elements derived from the power of the gods. Though these elements offer new abilities and damage types – fire, lighting, ice, soul – the game rarely requires much adjustment. Ares' fire worked best, so I rarely selected other elements. Using the fire-equipped blades and gaining power with each successive attack, devastating enemies and burning them alive was completely satisfying. Freezing baddies, meanwhile, didn't offer the same punch.

Ascension also features sub-weapons – working almost like power-ups – throughout the world. Pick up a spear or hammer or shield and use it for a few hits (or hurl it to deal more damage and stun enemies).

What the team at Santa Monica has been able to perfect throughout the series is a gorgeous animation system that translates mindless button mashing into what appears to be an orchestrated sequence of attack. That's no different in Ascension. Combat always looks impressive and chaotic, and it leaves Kratos soaked in gory detritus as he swallows a sea of displaced orbs.

Where Ascension trips in its race to become the series' master of spectacle is in boss encounters. There are a number of boss battles in Ascension, but nothing quite compares to the sequences in previous entries, like the epic Cronos encounter in God of War 3. More often than not, Kratos will face off against a sea of scrubs as he pushes forward on his quest. While the final encounter is outstanding, the rest of the game suffers from a lack of unique engagements.

God of War Ascension review Spectacle slipstream
The balance of the game's two halves hinges on multiplayer, a new addition to the franchise. Playing as customizable warriors, you align yourself with one of four gods that grant special abilities and weapons: Zeus, Ares, Hades, or Poseidon. Though it's wholly unnecessary, Ascension ties the multiplayer portion of the game into the single-player, showcasing Kratos crashing through a wall whilst fighting a monster, coming face-to-face with your imprisoned multiplayer character. Before the creature is able to strike you down, you swear an oath to the god of your choice in exchange for your life ... and then you get to stab people on the Internet. It's a weird narrative tie-in that is never referenced again.

As well as the tight and brutal combat system translates to multiplayer, the entire experience may be too chaotic to enrapture a large audience. Dedicated God of War fans may love the ability to battle against each other, but it's all without the famous arrogant and angry viciousness that Kratos provides.

In my experience – on private test servers – it was clear that balance may be an issue over time. New players must grow their abilities, so when pitted against high level competition, the experience boils down to watching your character being juggled around the arena. There are upgrades and abilities to earn, but many of them are tied to in-game challenges, rather than specific levels. The unlockables, meanwhile, fall under a seemingly random system that you can't really build toward. There are so few available, however, that it seems inconsequential anyway.

Multiplayer options include variants of free-for-all, team deathmatch, team objective, and capture the flag. The maps are well designed, with environmental flairs that reference other characters and locales from the series. Adding to the environment's quality are elements that you can use to your advantage, like pre-set traps or giant, static creatures that can be enthralled and used to attack your enemies. Nearly every map has its own special feature that can be harnessed to give your team the upper hand, save for a few maps that are simple battle pits.

Co-op also exists in the form of a timed, wave-based battle arena. These two-player battles – which can also be done solo – are enjoyable, though the timer really kills the experience. Not only do you have to contend with a slew of powerful enemies and bosses, but you have to fight the clock. Despite the fact that killing enemies adds to the timer, it's hard to get into a groove before time runs out and your hard work is lost. The clock is a needless addition and pushes you to rush into battle rather than think about how to succeed or work together with others. It drains the life out of the mode.

Ascension's multiplayer is a fun distraction, and can be completely satisfying when you decimate multiple online foes without taking a hit, but it doesn't feel deep enough to command much more than a furiously dedicated fan following.

Paired with a campaign that does little to enhance your understanding of Kratos' journey, this multiplayer addition is where God of War starts to break down. Ascension is a car riding in the spectacle slipstream of its predecessors, never quite able to surpass them.

This review is based on pre-release, non-retail code of God of War: Ascension, provided by Sony. Mulitplayer was tested during scheduled sessions held by Sony on development servers.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

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