With the initial build up for "God of War Ascension" centered on multiplayer, series veterans began to fear that the grandiose single player would be a thing of the past. Those fears can be put to rest. Kratos' latest epic journey is just as compelling, heart-pumping and bloody as his five previous tales. The combat -- the franchise's bread and butter -- has never been so visceral and developer Sony Santa Monica has added an additional layer of depth to the tried and true Blades of Chaos. Add to that a multiplayer that is unlike anything currently out there, and this is a worthy entry into one of the most beloved franchise in Sony's stable of exclusives.
Taking place months after being tricked into killing his wife and daughter, Kratos is captured by the Furies, three sisters who dole out punishment to anyone who betrays the gods. Upon freeing himself, Kratos sets out to try to break his allegiance to Ares while also trying to end the visions he sees of his wife and daughter. The campaign then switches to three weeks before his capture, revealing the events that got him to this point. Though the story doesn't delve into Kratos' relationship with his family as much as I thought, it does show a more human side of a character that has been defined by rage and vengeance.
As with previous titles in the series, the set pieces are some of the most jaw-dropping in all of video games. The opening sequence rivals anything the franchise has previously concocted, pushing scale and scope to astonishing levels. The camera zooms in to give an up-close look at the brutal battles Kratos is waging and then panes out to reveal the enormous creature -- Hecatonchires -- that is serving as the battleground. The camera work during this sequence is hit or miss though. Sometimes the perspective is too removed from the action because it's trying to put the spotlight on the unbelievable backdrop, but this makes it difficult to pick out Kratos from the horde of enemies. But the camera does a solid job keeping up with the fast-pace action for the most part.
The combat system has never felt as fluid. Kratos has his trusty Blades of Chaos, which now emit a stunning glow that makes each battle a visual marvel. Magic doesn't play as large of a role in "Ascension", but the Blades are now affected powers from the gods. As you progress through the campaign, four new powers become available. Ares provides fire, Poseidon delivers ice, Zeus offers lightning and Hades power is summoning the dead. Switching between these powers is effortless as each is mapped to the directional pad.
The rage meter has also been tweaked. Instead of slowly but continuously filling up the meter as you rack up kills like in previous games in the series, now you build the meter more quickly but taking any damage will drain your rage. This change makes it more rewarding to fill the meter and unleash the rage power, which changes based on which Blade power you have active. The Blade powers also have a specific benefit when killing enemies after triggering the rage meter. Poseidon's power yields upgrade orbs, Hades health, Ares rage and Zeus magic. This adds a level of depth and choice that was missing in the previous titles.
You can also pick up weapons from the ground. Swords, spears, clubs, shields and slings are some of the armaments that Kratos can wield, offering another way to create carnage. These weapons are mapped to the circle button, so switching between the Blades and these world weapons is very fluid. The one drawback from all these changes is to the parry system. In previous games in the franchise, it was a simple one-button press but now this has been changed to a combination of buttons. This change robs the parry system of any fluidity because timing is so critical and the combat is so fast-paced. But despite this misstep, the combat system has never been so enjoyable.
The puzzles, another staple of the series, are challenging but not to a fault. Many of the puzzles implement the Amulet of Uroborus, which can heal or decay objects in the world. These brain teasers deliver a little downtime in a game chock full of action but not to the detriment of the campaign's pacing.
Unlike previous iterations in the franchise, "Ascension" sports multiplayer. Before you hop online, you first must make a blood oath to one of the gods -- Ares, Zeus, Poseidon and Hades. Each god will grant you unique powers and abilities, which you can customize. Your warrior's appearance and weapons can also be tailored to your liking. There is a leveling system that unlocks more abilities, magic, weapons and armor, adding a reason to sink some hours into the online modes.
There's a nice mix of competitive and cooperative modes. Team Favor of the Gods pits two teams of four as they try to overtake a set number of points to claim victory. There are a number of objectives scattered throughout the expansive maps, making it difficult to keep track of all the goals. This mode has the biggest learning curve for even veterans to other competitive multiplayer games because it's so different from anything currently released. Favor of the Gods is more of arena-based skirmishes, which does the best job of replicating single-player battles. This free-for-all mode puts the action front and center because of the confined maps and is my favorite of the competitive modes. Trial of the Gods is a time-based cooperative mode that can also be played solo. A traditional capture the flag rounds out the menu of multiplayer offerings.
But the combat itself, though thoroughly enjoyable in the campaign, is not nearly as entertaining when battling others. The action can become so chaotic that it becomes difficult to discern which character is yours, and sometimes it feels like button mashing is your only hope. The two standout modes are Favor of the Gods and Trial of the Gods because both most resemble the single player. The close-quarters combat of Favor of the Gods keeps the action flowing while playing alongside a friend in Trial of the Gods might provide a glimpse into where the franchise might go next.
"God of War Ascension" hits a lot of the right notes for "God of War" veterans. The campaign provides those over-the-top moments the series is known for while also keeping the combat system fresh. Though multiplayer carves out its own niche in the muddled online space, the combat doesn't translate well, though the cooperative mode is something the developers should further explore. "God of War Ascension" is available now and is rated M for mature by the ESRB.