Kratos. Just hearing his name can simultaneously strike fear in the hearts of gods, and bring glee to gamers. The Ghost of Sparta has been the star of Sony's break-out "God of War" franchise since 2005, when players began taking on some of history's most storied gods. Over the years, Kratos has endured some of the most intense battles that video games have ever offered, while suffering through one of the most heart-breaking stories in the medium. Between accidentally killing his wife and daughter, and going head-to-head with some of Olympus' most powerful residents, it's pretty clear that Kratos has lived a challenging and stressful life. In his latest game, "God of War: Ascension" we get a better understanding of just how that life began, as it takes gamers through some of the earliest events in Kratos' journey.
"God of War: Ascension" serves as a prequel in the "God of War" series, taking players even further back in Kratos' life than the PSP's "Chains of Olympus." This story tells the tale of our hero's escape from the Furies, his visit the Oracle at Delphi, and his return to Sparta. The main story threads nicely into the already existing mythology of the franchise, and should be a solid starting point for anyone that's new to the series. The narrative does get a little confusion as it spans the game though, as it jump around from the present into the past and back again. This new chapter of Kratos' life helps to paint an even more tragic picture of the champion of the gods.
Outside of the story, there are really only a few surprises in terms of gameplay, especially for the seasoned "God of War" fan. Our hero is, once again, wielding the Blades of Chaos as his main weapon, and with them comes the option to upgrade for increased attacks and combos. The Blades are also augmented with the power of the gods, giving Kratos additional fire, ice, lightning and soul attacks to decimate his foes. Kratos has always had magic available to him, but in "Ascension" he is also blessed with the ability to manipulate inanimate objects to either repair (heal) or destroy (decay) them. The addition of this power opens up the game a bit, allowing Kratos control over certain environmental elements, which are incorporated into puzzles throughout the game.
"Ascension" flows like a standard "God of War" game, fitting into what has become a very cookie cutter routine for Kratos; large scale battle, smaller scale battle, puzzle, explore, puzzle, large scale battle, and repeat. Sony's Santa Monica Studio have done a good job of keeping this game compelling, but it still tends to come across as a bit predictable. The combat helps balance this, by simplifying the controls slightly, but still managing to make every kill feel just as satisfying as it was back in 2005.
One of the additional surprises that's packed into "Ascension" is "God of War"'s first multiplayer component. The multiplayer, which is loosely tied into the single-player game's narrative, puts you in the role of a fighter who aligns himself with one of the gods (Zeus, Hades, Ares, or Poseidon), and then heads into battle, either solo or as part of a team. The game's modes are similar to most other multiplayer options, offering deathmatch, team deathmatch, and capture the flag modes, and they play out in a variety of battle arenas, some of which even come complete with their own environmental traps. There's also a series of co-op levels if you want to face off against waves of baddies with a buddy. The inclusion of the multiplayer options initially feels out of place for such a single-player based franchise, but it offers a nice diversion from the story mode, and will offer players a bit more life to their purchase, even if they only dabble.
In the end, "God of War: Ascension" is a great addition to the "God of War" Saga, but it's still not the best entry into the series. Make no mistakes; "Ascension" is a "God of War" game from beginning to end. While Kratos does get few new toys to play with, it ultimately feels like more of the franchise that gamers have grown to love over the last few years. Using this game as a prequel to build out Kratos' character works well, and is done in a manner that won’t disappoint fans of the series, or alienate anyone who wants to play the “God of War” games chronologically. If you've played any of this franchise in the past, then you pretty much know what to expect here, but that doesn't mean that you won't be able to revel in the massive scale of the battles, be challenged by any of the puzzles, or enjoy hacking and slashing all over Ancient Greece. "God of War: Ascension" is well worth your time, especially if this ends up being Kratos' last adventure on the PlayStation 3.