God of War: Ascension is the first prequel to the God of War series developed for the PS3, and is also the first game canonically in the series. It takes place just after Ares betrays Kratos into killing his family, but before he goes on his quest for vengeance in the original God of War. Beyond that, the plot details are sparse, so we have no real idea who or what Kratos is up against in this adventure. In any case, what makes God of War appealing is its flashy, button-mashy action combat goodness, and Ascension delivers that alongside a few interesting changes that make the gameplay feel unique and fresh. A secondary weapon system, improved grapple/quick-time event mechanics, smoother navigation animations, and a new puzzle-oriented magic, round out the changes that God of War: Ascension makes to the series’ ever-popular formula.
David Hewitt, Game Design Manager at Sony Santa Monica, walked us through out demo of Ascension during a Sony press event in New York City. The first thing we touched on was Kratos and his newfound humanity – at least from a plot perspective. Let’s be honest here: Kratos has never been a “nice” guy. At his best he’s an aggressive, raging man-child, and at his worst his cruelty can rival that of the villains he faces-off with. After all, this is the same man who barbecued an innocent warrior to gain access to the inner levels of Pandora’s Temple. He also killed Posiedon’s concubine by throwing her into a giant crank-switch, just to jam a door open on Olympus. That’s not to say Kratos will be some softhearted fool in Ascension either, since he seems every bit as brutal as he was in previous titles. But, the subtle push he gives to save a fleeing townsman from an incoming spear suggests a casual regard that his later incarnations lack. It should be interesting to see how his guilt and faint compassion play out in Accession‘s storyline.
As mentioned, Kratos still fights like he did in past games. He has access to his light and heavy attacks, as well as grapples, double-jumping, launchers, block-modified special attacks and spells. But Ascension also injects new mechanics to the formula that expand on the free-form nature of God of War‘s combat. The most immediately noticeable change is the secondary weapon system. Throughout his adventure, Kratos will come across secondary weapons dispersed around the environment, which he can pick up and fight with. Secondary weapon attacks are mapped to the O button and allow gamers to use the weapon’s combo or attack on-the-fly, meaning that he can switch between his Blades of Chaos combos and secondary weapon attacks seamlessly. As one can imagine, this makes for some robust combo options in Ascension. Two weapons were available in the demo, a sword Kratos pulls off a dead body, and a javelin he recovers from a satyr enemy. The sword has its own combos, which Kratos can string alongside chain combos to make for some very flashy crossover attacks. On the the hand, the javelin as no combo of its own, but serves instead as an infinite projectile he can use by pressing O.
All secondary weapons possess a unique special attacks, which are activated by holding L1 and pressing O. Using this attack destroys the weapon, but deals heavy damage or has a unique effect. In the case of the sword, Kratos lobs the blade at the targeted enemy, dealing massive damage. The javelin is a bit flashier – Kratos hurls the spear overhead, which causes a cascade of spears will rain down around him, dealing damage to anything it hits.
The second major change is the grab system Ascension utilizes. Kratos can grab a nearby enemy with his chain rather than his hands, tethering it to him and allowing him to follow-up with a throw. Enemies can, of course, be thrown at other enemies. While tethered, Kratos can also attack other enemies near him with his free chain, giving him quite a bit of control over enemy crowds.
Grappling with larger enemies is much more interactive in Ascension. In the case of the larger satyr commander, Kratos can grab the creature by the horns and whirl it around in a 360° attack, dealing damage to any enemies near him before tossing his victim aside. During the grapple finisher with the giant “elephantaur” mini-boss, Kratos pins the beast to the ground, where he can follow-up with vicious stabs before ultimately killing it. As Kratos stabs the elephantaur to death, it tries to counter with grabs of its own, which Kratos can avoid by tilting the analog stick away from the beast’s clutches.
“Life Cycle” is a new ability Kratos has at his disposal in Ascension. This peculiar time-warping magic allows Kratos to restore or destroy specific features within the environment. In the demo, the massive sea monster Charybdis destroys a ship offshore and hurls the debris at Kratos, destroying part of the pier and lift Kratos needs to use to reach the city above. A green marker appears near the rubble, signifying that players can use the Life Cycle ability. By using it, the many pieces of destroyed stone and wood float about and reform, restoring the pier to its original form.
The lift is stuck near upper level of the city, so Kratos cannot actually reach it from the pier. However, the Life Cycle ability allows him to undo and even halt the restoration process mid-way, leaving debris suspended in mid-air. Kratos can navigate over this floating debris by climbing and platforming (where the improved climbing animations really pop), to reach a cliff ledge near the upper level. Another green marker allows Kratos to use Life Cycle and finish restoring the pier, which in turn allows him to access the lift and reach the city.
While Life Cycle seems to be more of a puzzle/platform oriented magic, Kratos can make use of the spell in combat. Doing so temporarily slows down enemies, so knocking them skyward and using Life Cycle will slow their descent and leave them helpless and vulnerable.
The “Rage” mechanic from previous games is automatically triggered in Ascencion. In God of War games, players can build Rage by attacking enemies. When full, players can trigger Rage mode, giving Kratos a temporary boost in power and defense and giving him access to stronger attacks. While Rage builds the same way in Ascension, Kratos will automatically enter Rage mode when the meter is full. Unfortunately, the demo was HUD’less for presentation’s sake, so how players can gauge when their Rage is full is unknown at the moment. This curious change seems to present issues of its own, the most glaring of which is entering Rage when a battle is over or nearly over, wasting its powerful effects. Hewitt assured us that while this is a possibility, Ascension’s fighting is designed in such a way that every combat scenario will allow players to use Rage. The reason for the change, according to Hewitt, is the team’s desire for players to make regular use of the Rage mechanic, rather than squandering it or neglecting it entirely.
Magic revolves around elements in Ascension. The only element presented in the demo was fire, which Kratos makes use of in interesting ways. The most obvious form of the magic was his explosive, “Lance of Furies” styled attack, whereby the camera pans to Kratos (donning his most constipated of looks), as he focuses energy into his blades and thrusts them into the ground, creating a massive, fiery shockwave that launches light enemies and staggers larger ones. From the sound of it, the magic Kratos equips will also affect his melee and Rage attacks.
As mentioned earlier, the climbing animations have been re-done to look and feel more natural. In previous games, the climbing animations allowed for straightforward up/down left/right movement, which was effective but relatively basic. The new climbing animations make navigation much more fluid. How Kratos’ newfound mobility affects climbing combat is unknown at this point.
God of War: Ascension is scheduled for release on March 13th of next year, for the PS3.