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God of War: Ascension
Score: 80%
ESRB: Mature
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment America
Developer: SCEA Santa Monica
Media: Blu-ray/1
Players: 1; 2 - 8 (Online)
Genre: Action/ Online

Graphics & Sound:
After God of War III's failure to commit to a true conclusion for its troubled antihero, it only seems logical that the story should continue. Well, it might, but no time soon: this PlayStation 3 exclusive is a prequel that pretty much leaves no stone unturned when it comes to the impossibly eventful and bloodsoaked past of the Spartan known as Kratos. In the end, this is another solid action title featuring everyone's favorite scowling goateed deicidal maniac, though it may not be the PlayStation 3 swan song many hoped it to be.

God of War: Ascension is up there with God of War III as one of the best-looking PlayStation 3 games out there. It's also quite possibly the goriest. Kratos may not be as angry as he is in other God of War games, but he is every bit as ruthless and violent: he's not above disemboweling a cyclops or carving a prefrontal cortex-revealing gash to an elephant's forehead. The amount of blood on display is about par for the course, but the amount of entrails is two or three under. This is a technical and artistic powerhouse, and the sense of spectacle is unrivaled, but it sometimes comes with a cost. The camera is easily the worst in the series, which is strange, because as always, it is fixed and out of your control. All too often, the game decides to show off the incredible artistic and technical strengths of the game by zooming out -- even while Kratos is in combat with a mob of bloodthirsty beasts. It never resulted in death for me, but it was still an annoyance.

God of War: Ascension's sound design is also quite solid. Linda Hunt resumes her ubiquitous (and consistently excellent) job of narration, and T.C. Carson brings a new side of Kratos to the forefront for what is a more introspective journey than the others. Monsters bellow with rage and shriek with agony; these abominations sound more realistic than they have any right to. As always, the soundtrack does a good job of illustrating the epic nature of Kratos' adventure while bringing familiar motifs into new movements. It's great.


Gameplay:
Brainstorming sessions for new God of War games must come down to a single question: which figures in Greek mythology have not yet been murdered by franchise antihero Kratos? At this point, he's slaughtered, maimed, and eviscerated just about every important Greek figure you could possibly think of. Ares? Impaled him with a bridge. Hercules? Dude doesn't even have a face anymore. Perseus? Hurled onto a meat hook. Aphrodite? Well, Kratos certainly hit that... God of War: Ascension obviously began life when a developer gave voice to the lightbulb popping over his or her head: "Ooh, ooh! The Furies aren't dead yet!"

God of War: Ascension takes a note from the PSP games Chains of Olympus and Ghost of Sparta: it's a prequel to the original 2005 action classic. Kratos is in a very bad place: he's been imprisoned by the Furies for breaking his blood oath to Ares. Incredibly, vengeance is not the first thing on his mind: Kratos just wants answers and his own freedom. God of War: Ascension is a series first: it is the only God of War game in which Kratos is not simply a screaming, homicidal ape man. Is the story better for it, though? Surprisingly, not really: the narrative structure will confuse you on your first playthrough. But you'll probably wish to play through it again just to find out what those special items you collected are used for.

So what is up with that icon on the back of the box saying that you can play with up to seven others over PlayStation Network? God of War is the latest long-running franchise to be bitten by the multiplayer bug, and the results are admittedly a mixed bag. There are four modes: Team Favor of the Gods, Match of Champions, Trial of the Gods, and Capture the Flag. Team Favor of the Gods lands you in an arena and charges you with a handful of objectives while encouraging you to kill as many of your foes as you can. Match of Champions is a free-for-all variant of Favor of the Gods. Trial of the Gods is a Horde-esque wave-based cooperative mode. Capture the Flag is pretty much what you'd expect, but the flag carrier is blessed and cursed with a few special abilities and weaknesses. It's all interesting fare, but only time will tell if it really catches on. My hopes aren't too high, as the PlayStation 4's release looms large on the horizon, but it's nice to see this kind of effort nonetheless.


Difficulty:
God of War: Ascension features the standard spread of difficulty settings, and on default, it isn't too rough. Enemies might look like they hit really hard, but your health bar doesn't drain quickly at all. The modified combat controls (more on that later) may pose a serious obstacle to veteran players at first, and will probably take a while to get fully used to.

I'd argue that the most difficult parts of the game have to do with the environmental puzzles, which there are more of than usual this time around. Most environmental puzzles give you a good idea of what you need to do in order to solve them. But many of the puzzles in Ascension might leave you initially stumped; some of them might have you confused as to what you're trying to do. Luckily, your options are limited enough to the point where a few minutes of mindless experimentation will probably make something happen, whether you mean for it to happen or not.


Game Mechanics:
God of War: Ascension plays almost identically to its predecessors. As Kratos, you traverse a series of increasingly dangerous areas on an unavoidable collision course to a well-known figure in Greek mythology, where you will engage in a duel to the death. Kratos is athletic and agile enough to slaughter his way through the beastly hordes and scale the heights of the outlandishly huge environmental pitfalls that litter the world.

It just wouldn't be God of War without the Blades of Chaos, Kratos' trademarked giant chain knives. However, they come with a twist in Ascension. As Kratos' journey progresses, he will come across special boons granted by the Gods themselves. Each of these boons is an elemental infusion that can be applied to the Blades for special effect. By the end of the game, you'll have the Fire of Ares, the Ice of Poseidon, the Lightning of Zeus, and the Soul of Hades. Killing enemies with one of these elemental buffs yields special orb bonuses; one yields more red orbs (upgrade currency) than usual, while another might yield solely green (health), blue (magic), or gold (rage) orbs. It's a neat system, but I'm always an upgrade-minded person, so I stuck with the Ice of Poseidon for most of my playthrough.

Kratos' journey is not only about his freedom, but it involves a quest for knowledge, so obviously his journey takes him to Aletheia, the eyeless Oracle of Delphi. Through a series of death-related events, he acquires the Amulet of Uroborus, a device that is capable of reversing or speeding the effects of time while having no effect on the user. It is most commonly used to solve one of Ascension's environmental puzzles, but it can be used in combat to slow down a foe.

For some bizarre reason I can neither understand nor forgive, someone made the decision to hobble the already simplistic combat system that the franchise has used for eight years. This is a direct result of the new function of the Rage Meter. Many of Kratos' most powerful combos are locked out until you fill the meter completely. How do you fill the meter? By landing enough successful hits and acquiring gold orbs from fallen enemies. But you can only land those hits through the execution of short, unsatisfying combos.

Making things worse is the baffling decision to complicate the parry mechanic. In previous God of War games, a well-timed defensive posture would have Kratos automatically parry most strikes. In Ascension, you must defend and press another button to activate the parry. The new parry command doesn't feel natural, especially if you wish to parry in the middle of a combo. For a while, I was so annoyed by this that I simply chose to evade every enemy attack. How did anyone think that this was a good idea?

God of War: Ascension comes with a playable demo for Naughty Dog's hotly anticipated apocalyptic action game The Last of Us, but don't be under the impression that you'll be able to dive right in if you purchase a copy of Ascension: it's timed to release in just under two months. We'll be back with impressions once the demo drops on May 31.

Despite its technical and artistic excellence, God of War: Ascension is not the best game in the series. In fact, Ascension may even be the weakest link in the franchise. But don't let that statement make you think that it isn't enjoyable. The game has some really excellent ideas and some flat out horrible ones, but they mostly wash out when you take everything into account. If you're a fan of the series, you'll probably want to check this game out. Just keep your expectations in check.


-FenixDown, GameVortex Communications
AKA Jon Carlos

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