Kratos is back, and surprise, surprise—he's still angry. We here at Tor.com got a hands-on preview of God of War: Ascension live from the floors of PAX Prime 2012 in Seattle this past weekend, and we're happy to report that SCE Santa Monica Studios has successfully brought something new to the table for the franchise's latest installment in the form of multiplayer gameplay.
Current fans of the God of War series will already be quite familiar with what the game does well. The franchise is known for its brutal, raging protagonist in Kratos, a breathtaking take on ancient Greece in regard to level design and map scale, and the gruesome, merciless slaughter of hundreds of various mythological figures along the game's merry way, including such staples as the cyclops, centaurs, harpies, and of course, the Gods of Olympus themselves.
Insofar as the single player experience goes, Ascension does not stray far from its roots. The game is set six months after Ares, the God of War, tricks Kratos into murdering his family and thus entraps him into his service; gameplay then follows Kratos' quest to break free of Ares once and for all. The developers claim to have been aiming to develop a more humanized Kratos, but this was not evident from the section of the game made available for gameplay (in fairness, the demo was probably more a function of giving fans what they wanted in terms of an immediate feel of being dropped into the thick of things, rather than attempting to develop story in any significant way).
The feel of the single player gameplay is similar to that of prior offerings—Santa Monica Studios certainly took the “If it ain't broke...” approach in this regard. The backdrops are gorgeous, as always; in the level on display, Kratos fights his way along a Grecian coast, murdering hapless hordes of enemies in his quest for redemption. However, in terms of visuals, the game echoes those found in God of War III, barring the introduction of entirely new environments later in the game.
There are a few twists in the form of new gameplay elements and enemies. The developers borrowed a page from the Prince of Persia series, giving Kratos some abilities to control and freeze specific instances in time in order to proceed with his quest. This provides some interesting potential for new puzzles, and keeps his progression feeling a little more fresh for series veterans. New enemies encountered along the way include elephantaurs (which are exactly what they sound like), Charybdis, and the main Big Bad—the Furies (there are only so many gods that Kratos can kill, after all, and most of them have already been... accounted for in prior games). And yes, the ludicrous methods of dealing death are still present, such as when Kratos very slowly and graphically splitting open an elephantaur's skull, baring his brain for all to see. The single player experience came across as solid and familiar, but also somewhat derivative, despite the new gameplay tweaks.
Where Ascension differentiates itself from its predecessors is in the brand spanking new option of multiplayer gameplay. A basic team deathmatch game was available for sampling at PAX—players could model their characters after such heroes as Perseus, Theseus, Jason, Achilles, and others in a mythical, visceral battle royale. The controls follow the single player model, but the added twist of taking on a human opponent, as always, calls for a more strategic, team-based approach to which God of War felt, surprisingly, particularly suited. Only one map was available to play, but gameplay felt relatively tight and maintained the frenetic, aggressive pace of the single player campaign. With a little tweaking and the inclusion of more gameplay modes (I'm specifically looking at you, co-op), multiplayer has the potential to be a gamechanging addition to the franchise.
Ultimately, God of War: Ascension looks like it will advance the series in a familiar, slightly tired direction in terms of single player, but will take a significant step forward for the franchise via the successful integration of multiplayer. A multiplayer beta is set to hit PlayStation Plus later this year, with the full game to follow shortly thereafter. Keep (or take) an eye out.
Pritpaul Bains is an avid gamer and an alum of the 2008 Clarion West Writers’ Workshop. He has thus far refrained from wearing a Utilikilt at PAX.