Salvage: The Many Peaks and Valleys of “God of War: Ascension”

Everything you’ve heard about God of War: Ascension is probably true–there’s enough that’s both good and bad about this title such that just about any statement regarding the design and gameplay is tautological. If you’ve enjoyed previous God of War games, you’re likely to thrill at this one: how could you not? Nobody does big set-pieces and titan-sized boss battles like God of War, even if it’s at the sake of control, with battles and wall-climbing sections both stripped to their most linear cores. At the same time, if you’ve played those previous God of War games, the combat that you’ll have to truck through in order to get to these climactic sequences is more than a chore: it’s redundant and, on the highest difficulties, too much work. With only one main weapon (and four auxiliary, but largely identical elemental properties), there are roughly three or four combos you’ll be using throughout the lengthy single player campaign. Deaths are a result not of challenging enemy types–blocking (and countering) is simple–but rather of kitchen-sink combat, in which so many enemies are thrown at you (in such small corridors) that dodging becomes as impossible as tracking your character, who blends in with many of the backgrounds and enemy pallets. (So notoriously unbalanced, in fact, that one particular segment–“The Trials of Archimedes”–was patched post-release.)

It’s a shame that lengthy series like God of War–of which this is the sixth (or seventh, if you count technicalities) installment–fall back on such basic mechanics to make up the meat of the game, because on the fringes is where this newest title really excels, with two experimental–for an AAA title–gimmicks. For one, halfway through the game, Kratos gains the ability to alter the time of select objects, either restoring or decaying them–and sometimes halting them in a stasis field between the two states. Your first encounter with a watermill is depressing–the area has long since dried up, the aqueduct shattered beyond, and the various mechanisms strewn across the arid field–but later on, after having restored the various segments of the irrigation system, you’ll be able to bring the town of Kirra back to life. More crucially, the second act of the game takes place in the various sections of Archimedes’s ode to Apollo, a titanic (and hollow) sculpture which you’ll gradually reassemble. In conjunction with the game’s other mechanic–the ability to leave behind a shadow clone of yourself (holding down pressure pads or keeping a chain pulled out)–there are even a few clever puzzles here and there.

But these innovative designs are nothing more than frills–they’re the decolletage emphasizing the game’s literal cleavage, by which I mean the gory ways in which your Blades of Chaos rip apart the various mythological foes: chimeras and manticores both, this time around, plus your usual collection of witches, harpies, gorgons, etc. (For some already criticized reason, most of the enemies are female; the main bosses are the three Harpies, who never rise above shrill half-naked caricatures.) God of War still has tricks up its sleeves, but it prefers to keep them there, thinking that because the main draw to the series was once the frenetic combat, that has to continue being the end-all-be-all. The series obviously doesn’t have to be a in rut, but I fear that the next-generation God of War 4 is more likely to simply look better than feel different, limited not by technical capabilities or inventive designers but by the desire to cater to the lowest common denominator–and we’ve already got games like Blades of Time to do that. Having already scaled Olympus, Kratos’s creators must now seek to do more than simply rest him on his laurels.

Moreover, for all that God of War: Ascension looks cool–from the opening fight throughout a prison made from the titan Hecatonchires’s flesh to the finale against the shadowy aquatic behemoth that Alecto (for some reason) transforms into–it might be time to take a step back from the QTEs littered throughout this and, say, Uncharted. Compromises, ala Tomb Raider or DmC (both reboots geared for modern and more expectant audiences), are the way to go, offering players a mix of open and closed environments, with optional content and the ability to retrace one’s steps. When you first start down that funnel, you’ve got a large circumference, with plenty of space, but as you get further down, the path narrows and narrows until it’s nothing but a black hole, and the streamlining’s gone far enough.

So: (1) Ax the repetition and sharpen combat to a point where it’s not about overcoming a screen-filling horde of enemies (one step removed from Dynasty Warriors) so much as it is about careful and calculated combat against a specific set of foes. (2) Open up the world: you can keep the camera locked if that helps to make more impressive vistas, but offer some alternative paths–and the ability to return to them, should you miss them the first time around. (3) Embrace new things; don’t discard them–you don’t have to be Darksiders, but look at the innovative leaps between the two entries in that series; don’t build entire puzzle-solving mechanics (the time reversal) only to give up on them after a few hours of exposure in a single title. Mix them up and deepen their usage in the following titles: give Kratos not just a deeper arsenal of weapons, but of tools. (4) Follow the advice of your own title: ascend. Don’t plateau, ala Gears of War and Assassin’s Creed–multiplayer may be a nice touch, but that’s a separate topic. Enough with the low-hanging fruit: it’s time for the ambrosia.

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