God of War: Ascension delivers the goods with tremendous visual impact
God of War: Ascension has nothing to prove to you. It's just another instalment in the rather well-established God of War franchise that attempts to give you a glimpse into the Spartan warrior Kratos' violent past and explore the reasons for him being rather upset with Ares, the real god of war. Chains of Olympus (on the PSP) tread familiar ground before, taking us back to a (relatively) more simple time where Kratos had to do the gods' bidding, but as a direct prequel to the first God of War (and as a result, its sequels), the tie-in to the other games is more apparent, particularly from a story standpoint. But as I said, it's got nothing to prove to you, and this fact is made abundantly clear the minute you pick up your controller.
There are a few things God of War: Ascension really excels at — series-typical boss battles which see Kratos taking on foes at least a thousand times his size, hack-and-slash action that is gruesome and satisfying, trademark visuals that seems to make maximum use of the Playstation 3's hardware, and some terrific sound design (prepare to be awed if you have a DTS-capable home theatre system). These come paired with (again series-typical) annoyances that are a direct result of the series' refusal to evolve. The quick time event system, in particular, has exhibited a high degree of stubbornness in this regard. While the addition of free-form combat is a good thing (allowing Kratos to attack or evade based on an enemy's actions), the QTE overdose does a phenomenal job of tearing you away from the action. The inherent randomness of the button prompts is not only frustrating, but also a constant reminder to you that you're just playing a video game, and nothing more. The fact that a failed attempt to match an appropriate prompt with the right button-press most often leads to one of many insta-deaths (a series trademark for years now) is now all the more painful. I don't remember any previous God of War game that featured as many QTE sections as Ascension, or as many environmental puzzles for that matter.
As Kratos makes his way through his enemies in his quest to vanquish the Furies (who have tied him down to a life of servitude to Ares by way of a blood oath), he has to cross chasms, scale freakishly huge buildings and ride gigantic snakes. Platforming has never been the series strong point, and it still isn't — once again, it's the randomly placed context-sensitive button prompts that determine whether Kratos lives or dies. Don't press the R1 button at the right time and you'll just fall to your doom, even if you've managed to slaughter a million enemies just a couple of minutes before. A lot of puzzles suffer from similar design issues, but some of them are quite interesting — in particular, those that involve manipulating the environment using the Amulet of Uroborus, a trinket that lets you heal or decay objects of any size (this has a fantastic visual impact as well).
The combat is satisfying as usual, but the aforementioned free-form system is something that could have been embraced with a little more fervour. The weapon/power system is mirrored across both the single and multiplayer — just as Kratos is able to decapitate his many foes using various elemental attacks, which are powered by the gods (Ares — fire Poseidon — ice, Hades — soul, Zeus — lightning), so will your online avatar. Similarly, the combat system is largely similar, but the multiplayer adds an additional layer of depth and complexity. It's just strange that the multiplayer, in overall terms, feels a little shallow — but it's the series first attempt at doing something like this, and there's nothing in the market quite like it, so points for uniqueness and the attempt, at least.
Beyond the scripted sections involving button prompts and insta-death annoyances lies a solid hack-and-slash action game that embraces the best the series has had to offer. You would be hard pressed to find another game that does boss battles and set pieces the way God of War: Ascension does — that too with such visual impact. Multiplayer is a novelty that is likely not to give you much additional mileage, but it does offer a glimpse into what the future holds. God of War Ascension is available on PS3 (multi-coloured consoles of the 500GB variety are now available in white, red and blue, if you're interested).