I'm sitting in a cinema; the lights come up. The God of War: Ascension presentation is over. Amidst a hum of whispers and seat shuffles, there is a call for questions. Reluctantly I raise my hand. I'm handed a microphone.
"Maybe I'm jet-lagged," I begin, "but I'm a little bit confused…"
No-one blames me. This isn't what I was expecting from God of War: Ascension. Not even close.
The demo begins with a close up — a face, not quite Kratos, but recognisable as such. The camera zooms out dramatically; a Cyclops blasts through concrete.
"A prequel," I think to myself, "this is what Kratos must have looked like before…"
'Not-quite-Kratos' begins attacking the Cyclops, all slashes and stabs. But then another character, who looks a little less like Kratos, but still a little bit like Kratos, joins in on the Cyclops beat down. Seconds later ‘not-quite-Kratos' and ‘a-little-bit-like-Kratos' have spilled the Cyclops intestines (and various other internal organs) all over this level's nice clean floor and subsequently moved on. Together.
"A non-playable team-mate?" I ask myself. "Or maybe God of War co-op?"
I really have no earthly idea what's going on here.
The battlefield increases in scale. A barrage of new 'not-quite-Kratos's' enter the scene. Slashing, parrying, clefting one another in twain. One particularly vivid kill involves one 'not-quite-Kratos' slashing another 'not-quite-Kratos' right through the shoulder blade. In God of War the phrase 'tearing one another limb from limb' is always meant literally.
In the background, a titan-esque Cyclops. Absolutely massive. He's tied down with chains and struggles against them as the carnage unfolds. The combat is God of War-esque, but it feels less precise — far more loose. Hits don't appear to register as easily, enemies don't follow the traditional routes — they don't head directly towards the waiting blades of ‘not-quite-Kratos', they judder and jerk, they parry. In short — they act like human players.
"Wait a minute," I think, the idea suddenly dawning. "Is this multiplayer?"
Slowly it starts to click. Piece by piece. It appears as though there are two teams of four, battling it out for control, attempting to hold various areas of a sprawling multiplayer map. Both sets of teams continue to skirmish as I compute.
One gains the upper hand, and eventually a massive, God-sized spear is hurtled towards the ground. ‘Not-quite-Kratos' grasps at it. He leads his team to the gargantuan Cyclops where they, in the most grotesque manner possible, liberate the monster from his single, solitary eyeball.
This is God of War: Ascension's new multiplayer component. And I'm still a little bit confused.
Favour of the Gods
"What did you think," asks Whitney Wade, Senior Producer.
I answer honestly.
"Well, I was really, really confused, and maybe that was deliberate — maybe you guys wanted us to feel confused," I say. "Then I sort of tried to piece it all together, and that was quite fun, the process of trying to understand the demo as it went along."
"Ah, you were the one that asked that question!"
After watching the demo, featuring ‘not-quite-Kratos' and ‘a-little-bit-like-Kratos', we were funnelled towards Jason McDonald, a Lead Combat Designer tasked with helping us digest what we just saw. The afore-mentioned demo was presented completely without context — hence the confusion. It was his job to clarify things.
"So yeah, what you just watched was multiplayer," he begins.
"Basically we showed a team component where two people killed the small Cyclops. Then we pulled back and tried to show that there's a bigger fight happening on a bigger scale with a bigger Cyclops."
The game we just watched was a four versus four affair — essentially God of War's interpretation of ‘territories'. Each team had to hold two separate positions, and hold said positions for a specific amount of time before earning ‘the favour of the gods', and the right to use the Spear sent from the heavens to slaughter the massive Cyclops.
Suddenly I begin to feel a little less confused.
The Titan Blueprint
"We've actually talked about multiplayer internally for quite some time," claims Whitney, "even before this iteration of God of War.
"I think when we were thinking about what is the next God of War going to be, our focus was definitely on single player, but when those talks evolved we asked, 'what's going to be our ‘Titan' moment in Ascension?' A 'Titan moment' being a huge technical, artistic and creative endeavour. The timing just felt right to try multiplayer, so we just went into gear."
Multiplayer may not seem like a challenge on the same scale as the Titans from God of War 3. Multiplayer has been done before, even in franchises known primarily for single player. But God of War: Ascension is attempting to push towards the unknown in a sense — there may be a blueprint for multiplayer in the first person shooter realm, but multiplayer in an action game like God of War is uncharted territory.
"It's a huge challenge for us," admits Whitney. "But we've always tried to face our challenges head on.
"We had the same attitude when we initially started talked about the Titan – everyone was just like, ‘man, this is going to be crazy.' And then we just go ahead and do it!
And that's essentially what the team at Santa Monica did — went about the task of 'inventing' a multiplayer God of War.
"We started off building arenas, and then we started wondering what our wow moment would be," says Whitney. "Then we thought about the simpler stuff – player versus player, balancing, teams – do we want to have AI involved? It was like that, there wasn't really an initial conversation with a road map, we were finding our way as we went.
"We really thought about what was successful about God of War single-player: visceral gameplay, epic gameplay, making sure the player feels powerful and fun. We though about how we could transfer that into multiplayer.
"It was far from the traditional process you go through when you add multiplayer to, say, a first person shooter. It's a huge challenge."
The Multiplayer Challenge
‘Challenge'. It's a word the Santa Monica team use constantly, almost like a crutch. Multiplayer is a ‘challenge'. The Titans were a ‘challenge', designing levels is a ‘challenge'. The word ‘Ascension' seems to be tied into that — because a challenge isn't something you necessarily solve — it's something you rise to.
"The biggest challenge of moving into multiplayer is making the combat balanced," says Jason, and there's that word again — 'challenge'. "Kratos is a powerful guy, but we can't make everybody super powerful, because that would just be frustrating.
"The weapons are tuned a little differently – you might have noticed that the ranges were a little bit shorter, and we've done things to make sure you can actually fight with one another.
"We want people to understand what's going on. — if you get the upper hand you know why, if you're losing you know why. We want to make sure the attacks have defined ranges, and players recognise how to counter."
The class system being introduced to God of War: Ascension is part of that need to define multiplayer — to give it a purpose, to provide players with a template to work with. It's a familiar tactic, but perhaps a necessary one considering the circumstances.
"You'll be able to select from one of four gods – Zeus, Aries, Poseidon, Hades – and based on that selection will come abilities, explains Jason. "Some of them may be magical, some may be perks, some might be an item you can use. I don't want to give too many details, but there will be... ah, maybe I'll just stop right there!
"Think of it this way — various games will give you perks like, ‘I'll do a little more damage than you'. Maybe something happens after I kill a bunch of guys. Those are examples of perks that you may have in Ascension.
"We want to make sure that all the classes complement each other. We want to make sure a well balanced team works better than an unbalanced team. A good example is basketball — If you had all centres... well, Shaq might have been good back in the day, but if you have five Shaqs you're still going to lose."
Fear of Failure
Bringing multiplayer to a well established franchise — particularly a series known primarily for focused single player experiences — is bound to elicit backlash from specific segments of the game's fanbase.
BioShock 2, Dead Space 2 — shoe-horned multiplayer is hardly a boon, and is seen by many as a drain on resources that could otherwise be spent on honing the established single player aspect.
This is an assumption Whitney Wade is well aware of.
"Absolutely we're worried about it," she says.
"I can remember working on God of War 1 the night before E3, when we were debuting the game for the first time. We were tuning the Medusa to the very last minute and we had no idea what people's reactions would be the next day. That's just how we operate! The fear of failure, the fear of rejection! That drives us to make sure we're hitting it. And we don't know if we're hitting it until it's out there."
But Whitney believes the experience with Santa Monica's ranks, and the team's extensive history with the God of War series, grants them a little more leeway. The team is far more comfortable taking risks as a result.
Still, there are no guarantees.
"I hope fans react favourably," begins Whitney. "We're proud of it otherwise we wouldn't be showing it to you today. We're trying to define action-adventure multiplayer and not only is that our goal, but we feel like we're hitting it.
"Along the way fans have always talked about the potential of multiplayer, some fans have also mentioned they don't want to dilute the single player experience. So we made the decision to move forward with multiplayer without diluting the single player experience."
The pressure of working on a fourth iteration of God of War is intense. Expectations are high, not just from the fans, but internally. It's that constant struggle to outdo previous efforts, to redefine production values — that's what motivates every single individual working at Santa Monica. Every God of War must have its Titan and it just so happens that, this time round, said 'Titan' revolves around an attempt to redefine multiplayer.
"We're definitely proud and ambitious people on this team," says Whitney, finally. "We want to be proud of what we do, and we want to make sure we can enjoy the thing that we've made.
"We want to make sure we're outdoing ourselves every time."