Hands-on preview: Is GOD OF WAR: ASCENSION the most impressively gruesome game ever made? There’s a good chance that’s the case. But it’s more than just mindless red splattering, as we recently found out.
I’ve just sliced open the skull of a giant, towering elephant-man and ripped his brain out. It pulsates as the camera zooms in, blood spurting every which way. Kratos, with all the nonchalance of a kid calmly nicking a biscuit from the jar, casts the elephant brain aside. For most people this would be more than a day’s worth of work, but for Kratos the chaos is only just beginning. The camera spins around to reveal a giant sea-serpent, charging skywards out of the water. The camera shakes and the music swells, the serpent dwarfing everything else in sight.
This many games into the God of War saga, I think we’ve become desensitised to all this. Not just to the ludicrous, over-the-top violence – the spraying gore and the crunching bones – but to just how fucking mental the whole set-up is. Kratos is clearly a dick, we’re all aware of that. But ripping out the brains of giant elephant men? Big burly dudes swinging red-hot hammers the size of a small bus? The sheer relentless intensity of every second of every game, never letting up for even a moment? We barely question it. It’s God of War.
And so we arrive at God of War: Ascension, the seventh title to see Kratos hammering, slicing and generally being angry across a series of tightly scripted, cinematic, vaguely mythological levels. By this stage there is absolutely no question of what to expect – but this is Kratos’ origin story, a prequel to all the chaos we’ve seen over the past nearly-eight years. It’s also the first God of War game to feature multiplayer, so there’s that as well.
Sticking with the singleplayer for now, it’s clear that God of War has settled into its stride. Ascension is a ceaseless firework display of extraordinary set-pieces, never relenting, always assaulting your senses from every direction. Battles against streams of enemies turn into epic face-offs against enormous bosses, while the camera swings, pans and zooms into all the right places (except the times when it occasionally becomes stubborn and hides behind the back of a baddie, something that’ll almost certainly be sorted out by release).
There are a few changes, though, and in between these ferocious segments you’ll be expected to utilise a time manipulation mechanic that allows you to destroy and rebuild elements of the environment in order to navigate to new areas. I haven’t seen too much of how this will work yet, but what I have seen is promising, and it’s an intriguing idea that could add some more depth to God of War’s otherwise button-bashing focus.
A bit nippier
There’s plenty of clambering around rock faces, too, and this is where Ascension doesn’t quite shine so brightly – as yet, at least. Climbing feels oddly unresponsive and stilted, when you really want it to be fluid and intuitive. For all Darksiders II’s problems, it at least knew how to make leaping and bounding around vertical planes seem like the most entertaining thing in the world. God of War: Ascension could do to learn a thing or two from Vigil Games if these sections aren’t to become frustrating.
The game’s team-based multiplayer places less focus on this, it seems, and more focus on super-speedy melee combat. Racking up combos when surrounded by the opposition never stops being tremendous fun, and the joy of hammering, grappling and generally pummeling real-life opponents is even more joyous than when pitted against the AI.
But again, it’s the big, cinematic moments that really steal the show. In one map – at the end of a Favor of the Gods game, in which two teams fight for the most kills, discoveries and point-captures – a giant cyclops towered over the play arena, its demise the enormous showpiece of the finale. I never got to be the one to do it, but watching someone else climb up its big grizzly body, slice its bottom jaw open, then stab it mercilessly in the eye until the entire scene’s awash with blood, is still a gaming memory I’m unlikely to forget in a hurry.
And still, this is what God of War is all about. Have we just got used to this by now? In God of War 3, Kratos killed a woman who was screaming for help from the window of a burning building, and Ascension looks only to up the brutal stakes. It’s astonishingly violent, eye-stingingly gruesome from the outset. And batshit crazy to boot. Giant elephants with their brains cut out? Only in God of War.
It gets away with it, though – heck, revels in it – because by this stage God of War knows exactly what it’s doing. Its always delightful mix of fist-tight melee fighting and dazzling, cinematic displays of gore combine so seamlessly together that, for just a minute, you forget quite how much of a bastard you’re being while stomping around in the big boots of Kratos. God of War: Ascension doesn’t shake up a genre, and it might be the most dazzlingly violent videogame I’ve ever encountered, but everything about it feels right. Well, except the climbing. Get that sorted before release, and there’ll be no grimaces from me.
God of War: Ascension, from Sony Santa Monica, is due out on March 15th 2013 for PS3.