God of War: Ascension

I didn’t get to play this game until months after its release, and not for a lack of interest. No, my poor PS3 had died in 2012, and with a kid at home and all, it was difficult to acquire the funds for a replacement. It’s a good thing I waited though, because I was able to nab the God of War (red) edition of the PS3, which included the God of War Origins Collection (the two PSP games via download voucher), God of War Collection (God of War 1 and 2), God of War 3 and God of War Ascension. The console itself came with a 500gb hard drive, and I got it all for the sweet price of $300. Yep, it was a sweet, sweet deal (steal?).

Yes, I’m a die-hard God of War fan. I know many regard it as a mindless button masher, but is that necessarily a bad thing? It’s infantile to dismiss an entire genre, based solely on its gameplay style. What matters most is how well the devs take advantage of that gameplay, and when it comes to God of War… it works. BOY does it work. For a ‘mindless button masher’, it’s offered some of the most action set-pieces gamers have ever seen. Even if you’re not a fan of the franchise, you’d be a fool to deny as much. I mean, entire levels played out on beasts that were larger than mountains, and you were tasked with taking them down. Granted, controls for God of War were nothing special – as they mostly required you to endlessly beat your attack buttons – but nobody has ever used such a simple mechanic with such satisfying results. God of War and the sequels it spawned were all pinnacles of the ‘mindless action platformer’… and for a franchise that only demands you turn off your brain and enjoy the ride, nothing has ever come close to surpassing it. You want to talk about a killer app? God of War helped move more Playstation 2’s than a guy who got arrested for beating a prostitute moved Sham-Wow.

That being said, I was highly skeptical of God of War: Ascension. God of War III was a spectacular action platformer that was backed by insane visuals, and it finally completed Kratos’ trilogy of rage. Knowing full well it would have been downright silly to further a completed plot line, the devs wisely decided on a prequel. Now, I wasn’t against the idea of a prequel per se, but I was convinced they wouldn’t be able to top the action from God of War III. After all, that was Kratos’ endgame, so it wouldn’t have made sense for this game to feel larger in scale. So, where this game really needed to excel was its story. Unfortunately, it failed to deliver.

Why? There’s a missed opportunity here, for starters. As an origin story, we really should have started amidst the battle where Kratos’ army was slaughtered to no end. We could have fought our way through the madness as men all around us were being skewered and dismembered, until Kratos finally decides to offer his services to the God of War. But no, the story begins AFTER Kratos has killed his family, cursed to wear their ashes on his skin forever. What’s the point of having a prequel then? I don’t think I’m the only one who hoped to play through Kratos’ origins, and I’m honestly shocked that the devs missed such a golden opportunity.

Anyway, at the beginning of our tale, Kratos still shows signs of humanity – He’s confused and conflicted, and his destiny isn’t quite set in stone just yet. He could forge his temper to a manageable point, or he could give in to the rage that’s swelling inside… we obviously know which path he’s chosen. The seeds of revenge have already been planted, and their vines – as black as night – are beginning to sprout and corrupt his soul. Kratos has already made the decision to break his oath to Ares, and the Fates – quite possibly the most disappointing villains in the franchise – have imprisoned him as a result. Kratos breaks free and sets forth on a quest to ‘put down’ the Fates so they won’t be able to intervene in his assault against the Gods. It’s a decent setup, but getting from point A to point B feels empty, somehow.

The Fates are the ultimate tipping point for Kratos, pushing him from a man betrayed to a man blinded by his anger, but I didn’t see this play out with natural progression. More often than not, it feels like Kratos is getting angrier ‘ just because’. Furthermore, other than the weak ‘Fates holding Kratos captive’ storyline, there’s literally nothing to bridge this adventure to the big picture. It doesn’t add anything, or do much to preface the things to come.

So, the action doesn’t top III, and the story seems like an insignificant one-off, much like the PSP titles. None of this really comes as a surprise however, but that’s precisely the problem. The devs really shouldn’t have pushed forward with another installment unless they COULD surprise us, but they did anyway because they had to milk their money maker. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that Ascension is a BAD game, because it’s most certainly not. The fighting gameplay feels familiar, if not identical to what we’ve been treated to previously… which isn’t a bad thing. As I said before, if it works, it works, and in God of War’s case it most certainly does. The devs added some switchable powers for Kratos’ blades, all of which harness unique abilities. They’re mostly useless, except for fire, but I definitely appreciate the options. Also, a big addition to the series was the use to manipulate objects through time – Come across a bridge that’s been demolished? Use this newfound ability to have it go back in time, until it’s reconstructed itself block by block. This comes into play with more than a few puzzles, and it’s always fun to experiment with. Last but not least, the game offers some jaw-dropping set-pieces. It’s expected at this stage of the game, and I was actually impressed that they were able to deliver something that felt fresh and new – the large mechanical snake ride through the skies and mountains comes to mind – while continuing the tradition of massive monster battles. Still, when compared to the likes of God of War II and III, most everything else is forgettable. Even the new time-shifting gameplay mechanic, as cleverly implemented as it was, isn’t new to gamers. Hell, Prince of Persia did the very same thing some years back, and other franchises years before that.

Despite all my bitching, I’ll say it again – God of War: Ascension is a decent game. If you’re a fan of the God of War style of gameplay, then you’re going to enjoy most of what this game has to offer (outside of the story, that is). Personally, for me, it’s the weakest game between the PS2 and PS3 iterations, but I’m still glad I played through it. It didn’t knock my socks off, nor did I want to claim it as ‘game of the year’, but it was still God of War, through and through. Here’s the only caveat – If you’re unfamiliar with the franchise, don’t make this game your introduction. Do yourself a favor and pick up the God of War Saga collection, and start from the beginning, working your way through. Once you have an appreciation for the series and all it has to offer, Ascension will likely become more enticing.

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