Preview: 'God of War: Ascension' - Chained To The Past

If you want to dodge in "God of War: Ascension," you'll have to flick the right analog stick as in previous entries in the series. I'm not sure why I thought that would change with the latest--although chronologically first--in Kratos' saga of revenge and making a graveyard of Olympus. "God of War" and its sequels have been so influential and vital to the character action game, it's hard to imagine the way the series handles making any kind of leaps and bounds in a new direction.

And yet, here we are, three years after "God of War III," and Kratos still has that ungainly, rolling dodge (even as Sony Santa Monica promises that they've worked in new animations to reflect a younger, more limber version of the character). My hands-on time with "God of War: Ascension" was disappointing because it felt like I was playing a bad game, it just felt like the roll-light-heavy attack combo was the same as it ever was in a series that really needs to start coming up with new ideas (and not just new set pieces).

"God of War: Ascension" director Todd Papy came up to talk to us about the most recent demo--the first since Sony's open house which was focused on the game's multiplayer. "That ends today," Papy said, explaining that the demo we'd be playing today represented the first 20-30 minutes of the March release.

Papy said the story takes place six months to a year after Kratos kills his family, with the warrior attempting to break free of the influence of Ares. The game's director added that this offered Sony Santa Monica an opportunity to tell the story of a "softer" Kratos (footage from the behind-the-scenes video shows him kissing his daughter). Based on the opening cinematic for the demo, this time around Kratos has inspired the wrath of the Furies; the three vengeful sisters of ancient myth of punish oath breakers. And they don't take too kindly to Kratos' particular take backsies in his deal with Ares. Sony Santa Monica has visualized at least the first of these three as a spider-legged Amazon atop a grotesque monster's body.

To what extent the Furies will provide the main point of antagonism for Kratos remains to be seen, although this particular beef lacks some of the juicier, up close and personal hate that Kratos shared with Ares, and later the entire pantheon of Greek gods. Of course, the Furies have been, up to the point the game starts, his captors and torturers, so maybe there's room to build a solid rivalry within the fiction. During the 20 minutes or so of the demo, one particularly nasty sister seemed to hold a real grudge towards Kratos for some reason. The first level sees Kratos escaping his bonds and pursuing one of his primordial captors, as she plagues him with skittering, exploding bugs which later, grasp onto other inmates in this abyssal prison, turning them into spear-wielding fighters.

According to a making-of doc Sony previewed for us during the event, the design team has made an effort to make young Kratos play differently than the veteran god slayer of the previous games. The newest addition is the World Weapons system, which allows Kratos to pick up enemy weapons; the Ghost of Sparta can snatch up clubs to bash in enemies' heads while spears offer him a projectile weapon. Plus, the Rage meter has gotten some tweaks, offering more than the usual one trigger during the course of a fight (meaning Kratos can now go sick house on groups of enemies for longer than in previous "GoW" games).

How deeply the World Weapon system will impact the game is a question best answered in more time with the game. I was only able to pick up, if I recall (sorry, it's been a long couple of days), a sword on the battlefield. Are these disposable weapons replacing the arsenal of upgradeable weapons in previous "God of War" games (the upgrade menu for the Blades of Chaos is still there, but nothing else was upgradeable at that point in the game)? The sword served as a smash and bash weapon for the enemies that surrounded me in the level, creating some distance in what was a close-range attack that was somewhere between the heavy and light attacks of Kratos' signature Blades.

Hacking my way through a number of these grunts, I came to my first mid-boss, a Cyclops, in an encounter that's as old as the series. Roll away and dodge his attacks, land a couple of hits, repeat until you can trigger the grab QTE (UI for the button inputs has gotten a more world-appropriate overhaul, it seems). More grunts swarm into the level, and Kratos rides the Cyclops, bashing them back to hell, finally killing them all and executing the mid-boss.

The major set piece involves a section of the prison containing the escaping Kratos being ripped from the main structure by one of the Furies' minions which has sprouted from a section of masonry. It tilts and shakes the cell block, sending more grunts into where Kratos is standing. Curiously, I never felt like I was any particular trouble during this encounter, the tilting and flipping of the section of the prison was almost beside the point and I was quickly able to play clean-up with the multiple waves of enemies coming at me.

It was at this point I noticed something that I don't recall seeing in previous entries, a minor tweak that's nonetheless an interested addition: when I grabbed an enemy with one of Kratos' Blades, I continued to attack with the other until I decided to throw my captive. Traversal has also undergone some changes; now Kratos' climbing and lunging up and over ledges feels more fluid than in previous entries. The Santa Monica studio also boasted about sliding segments where Kratos would come barreling down 45-degree chutes in tilted level geometry, and yup, Kratos was able to take a slide ride, joking left and right to avoid obstacles in this opening chapter.

This is leaving out the mantis-like bosses which attempted to saw Kratos in half which their pincers. Again, dodge, attack, trigger QTE (miss, do it again).

What did I expect from a new "God of War?" I'm not going to pretend that hacking into enemies wasn't suitably visceral, but it's by this point overly familiar. I've spent the back half of the PS2 era and the entirety of the PS3 area getting familiar with Kratos' animation and the Santa Monica studios' bag of tricks. I find myself in the regrettable position of saying that it's right at (or beyond) the point of being stale. The opening actually feels like a step back from the expansive grandeur of the massive battle which opens "God of War III," a sign of the limited ambition on display here. We've written in the past about series that need to be put on the shelf for a while--Sony Santa Monica's designers and artists are old hands at the series at this point. Something tells me it's time for a "DmC"-style handoff to reinvigorate the series (also, I'd love to see what else Santa Monica can do), because as it stands, "Ascension" doesn't feel like it's ascending anywhere for the series.

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