For the first four and a half hours of the new God of War, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the game was made by malfunctioning robots.
They were given the God of War formula and with swiveling clamp-hands, they made what is technically a God of War game. Kratos is angry! Chain-blades must be swung! Beasts will be gored! The first level must be as epic as Mount Olympus! You will be given extra attack moves! And then more attack moves! And then more—the ones you'll never use!
And...then you'll... be....riding a giant... flying... snake. And... remember the big slides in Super Mario 64? Kratos will slide down some slides. And then...
At about the halfway mark of the game's 10-hour campaign—as the made-by-robots theory struggles with the I-guess-this-studio-spent-their-effort-on-the-new-multiplayer-mode-that-nobody-asked-for theory—you discover something new.
You discover that the game is weird, warped, and way better in its second half. This second half almost entirely absolves the first-half, which transitions from the snake section to the doling out of a bunch of elemental powers (fire! ice! lightning! and, uh, denizens of the undead!) and then to the granting to the player of what I thought was God of War's big new gimmick: Kratos' ability to turn a pile of rubble back into, say, the bridge it once was, and the corresponding ability to turn a bridge into rubble.
Look, we're never going to get an official Lego God of War, so let's settle for this? Actually, let's not. The offering is half-baked. Kratos can't rebuild any old rubble sitting around. He can only rebuild the rubble that glows green. He can only use his new magic to un-make structures that are green. This would work in an abstract puzzle game, but in a game that is richly rendered with all sorts of rubble and structures that beg to be made or unmade, this is just another video game invisible wall.
And then the game makes you backtrack through a bunch of areas you cleared and has the audacity to describe that reverse run as a handful of official story chapters.
Maybe we should move on to the good part.
The good part: the second half of the game mostly takes place in and on a giant skyscraper-sized statue of Apollo. Levels are named after Apollo's body parts. You're playing The Foot of Apollo! The Forearm of Apollo! The Ribs of Apollo! (Not making this up.) And as you play, you gain a few more ridiculous abilities that may or may not have been swiped from Zelda games. (Hint: Elegy of Emptiness). But you stop caring about the game's problems because you begin to enjoy—at least I began to enjoy—how good the game's combat feels.
You've been given a ludicrous arsenal, and though you are probably neglecting the weak ice moves, you're taking advantage of five hours of practice and five hours of being armed with new powers to switch from chain-blade attack to block to dodge to.... the game's refined grapple system.... the new melee moves that let you disarm enemies and use their weapons on them...the rage mode....the special magic... even that dopey decay/restore magic is good in combat. Moves chain together. Almost nothing is mapped to a many-button (dialed) combo. Almost all of it is a couple of button presses away. And it all feels so good to use against a crowd.
The game is sick with whatever disease the new Zelda games have. Its developers feel obligated to spend a stupid number of hours early on starting you from zero and giving you your proverbial bow and bombs and boomerang. And, as with The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, it's only after you get past what amounts to newbie initiation that your move-set has enough new stuff in it (and enemies that compel you to use that stuff) that you get a sense of what Ascension is supposed to feel like. It feels like chaos, controlled.
The robots probably wouldn't have thought of some of Ascension's better tweaks to established God of War combat. The new disarmament system introduces some good risk-reward, as you first try to grab a knock a weapon from the hands of an enemy and then have to take the time to grab it while the enemies nearby are probably still trying to attack you. For all of Ascension's tiresome fealty to the God of War tropes of old—the slow-opening treasure chests, the red, blue and green orbs, etc.—the development team improves the button-combo finishing moves. No longer will you simply press a few buttons, when prompted, to stylishly kill a cyclops or gorgon. Nope. Now you will engage in a "mini-game". You/Kratos will hold the enemy with one hand, stab the enemy via rapid button presses with the other while occasionally needing to dodge the flailing enemy's counter-attacks using the analog stick. The sense of intimate struggle in these moments is Ascension at its best. Its violence is lurid as ever, but now it feels uncomfortably close. It feels like a struggle. And that feels like an improvement.
Ascension's story is as unnecessary as most prequels. Six or so games in, we don't need any further explanation as to why Kratos is so angry or how he broke from Ares. The game's villains, the Furies, are a step down from the Greek heroes, gods and titans of games past. Adding to the nonsense is the fact that this prequel is told and played mostly in flashback. That's right: it's a prequel that nests its own prequels. Spoiler (not really): at the end, Kratos is mad and a bit sad. Same as he ever was.
As you play the game, you may notice that it looks amazing. The series remains king of all games with fixed cameras. The cinematography is astounding, as you retain control of Kratos in combat while the camera glides from distant, epic scenes to close one-on-one battles.
You might also notice that the game contains a lot of breasts. They've got blood and entrails, too. But so do so many other violent combat games. God of War games are the ones that toss in a sex scene and then let us all marinate about why one censored sex scene per game is forever more scandalous than each game's many bloody eviscerations. I didn't even find a sex scene in this game, just a harem scene and an extraordinary amount of toplessness. The harem scene? It's gratuitous, but, hey, it's Greek mythology and Kratos is topless too. Or something. Most of the game's female enemies are topless, too. I'm not sure if it's meant to titillate but it remains one of God of War's less justifiable elements: that it can have its female toplessness and its male loincloths, too. Some private parts must remain private? To satisfy the ratings board? Maybe. But when a close-up kill include the slicing of a half-woman/half-snake from her neck to her breast, my takeaway is that I'd rather the sexualization of video game characters and the gory rendering of the death of game characters not be mixed. Please. Unless you're trying to elicit a reaction that's more "ugh" than "awesome!"
Sexy-death weirdness aside, Ascension pulls together nicely. Its back half justifies the training-wheels of its first half and then ends abruptly, properly leaving players wanting more. The "more" that is offered is a new-game-plus that, as with previous games in the series, lets you play through the game again with some of the moves you've earned and special combat modifiers.
The "more" is also the game's new multiplayer mode, which I've sampled but not soaked in. These multiplayer modes let you play in two-player (or solo, oddly) endurance runs against hordes of enemies or in competitive team or free-for-all battles against other players. Battles are set on levels that are packed with traps and platforms. Some good touches are imported from the single-player game: many of the combat moves, the disarming stuff and the ability to jack a giant troll and ride him like a bulldozer over other players, to name a few. These multiplayer modes justify repeat playing by tying weapon, armor, item and magic unlocks to the accruing of experience points. The foundation seems good. We'll see what players make of it in the weeks to come.
There's something quite tired about Kratos that makes all of these God of War games feel at least partially like factory productions. The loyalty to Kratos' two-note demeanor feels in need of a shake-up, and the game suffers from a wearying checklisting of recurring enemy-types. Plus it all takes place in the same over-familiar setting, telling the same style of story, reusing the block-pushing puzzles (enough! no more of them! please?). For the love of God of War, Sony developers, can we go to Egypt next? Or something else that actually feels fresh?
But for all my belly-aching, there's no denying that this new game feels good. There's no denying that its combat tornadoes into something gloriously varied and responsive. And that's why, despite its shortcomings, it feels like a success.