In the humble opinion of this author, God of War has been Sony's outstanding first-party IP for the last two generations. The legendary series has built up a stellar reputation based on its mythological subject matter, adult themes, stirring combat and vivid, beautifully rendered backgrounds (something that no other game does better). And yet, expectations haven't been particularly high for this fourth game in the trilogy (at least on home consoles); as good as God of War 3 undoubtedly was, some felt that it was beginning to feel tired and in need of a new spark of interest. What does Ascension have to appease these doubters?
Well, the most obvious inclusion is the new multiplayer mode, which is surprisingly decent and retains the God of War feel whilst offering a unique experience. Splitting into two teams of four, you choose an allegiance to a particular god (Ares, Hades, Poseidon, Zeus) which changes your particular skill-set; this effectively just changes the size of your weapon and thus how hard or fast you attack your opponent. After this you are ziplined into a multiplayer arena battle, flanked by a legendary monster - in the demo's case a Cyclops - and the aim is to earn enough points through kills and collecting (opening chests) to unlock the 'Spear of Destiny' and use it to destroy the monster, thus winning the game. Relatively simple, but the reality is a lot more complex. Games are fast and frantic, attacks fly everywhere and deaths rack up quickly. I had my arse roundly handed to me several times in the first game due to the other team ganging up, but I hold no grudges; they tactically separated us and went in for the kill, clearly the best strategy for victory. Environmental traps litter the arena, waiting to gut unsuspecting warriors, whilst the multi-tiered levels hold plenty of positions for ambushes and surprise attacks. It would be interesting to see how well it held off with repeated playthroughs, but the initial impression is a game of great fun and ingenuity.
Despite this, God of War's reputation is built on its outstanding single-player experience. In this respect Ascension does not disappoint and is a stellar, high octane return to form. After landing on an island, a series of increasingly difficult monsters are vanquished, ranging from Minotaurs to the Kraken itself. The combat still holds up; combos are complex and exciting as you string attacks together, yet button-bashing, until later levels, would probably still be enough. The graphics and sound, as always, are outstanding; Kratos stylishly leaps and thrusts around epic, sprawling environments, wondrous in scale but linear in reality.
However, this linearity, at least in this level, makes any judgement on adventuring difficult to judge. Hopefully there will be more to the final product. Nonetheless, there is a real scale to the adventure; attacks come from miles off, including one particularly well aimed ship, whilst the ability to wind time to fix broken platforms is a welcome and interesting one. If any feature feels tired it is the reliance on QTEs still, but if any series can get away with it then God of War can; they were the pioneers after all. And, yes, Ascension is still incredibly brutal and deliriously gory; you will never look at an elephant's head in the same way again after one particularly harsh finisher. God of War: Ascension, then, offers more of the same - that same sense of epic adventure, with a new and interesting multiplayer experience. This mix of evolution and revolution is exactly what you want in a sequel to a long-running series. Hopefully the finished game will be as gratuitously fun as this demo.