March 14th is creeping up on us, when God of War: Ascension will rip and slash its way onto store shelves. We previously brought you my impressions of the single-player build shown at EB Expo 2012 and the more recent Multiplayer Beta, but today I have a detailed preview of the opening 30 minutes of the game for you, which I was fortunate enough to play at the Sony Computer Entertainment Australia offices.
To begin, an intro video plays featuring a voice-over of Gaia recounting history (as we have come to be familiar with). She speaks of the “Primordials”; beings whose rage led to their own demise and consequently the creation of our world. Not only would these elementals - the embodiments of water, blood, rock and other forms – create the world we live in, but their battles would also result in the manifestation of the Furies; “the guardians of honour and enforcers of punishment.” If you break a blood-oath with a God, as Aegaeon the Hecatonchires did – now suffering as a living prison – then the Furies would deem you punishable by means worse than death; eternal torture. Kratos is one such victim.
The gameplay begins as Megaera – the Fury (or Goddess) of Jealousy – taunts and batters a chained up Kratos. As the perspective moves behind Kratos’ shoulder, Megaera attempts to swipe at him with her spider-like appendages. This is the very first instance of a quick-time event (QTE) without any button prompts, which are still featured heavily in the bigger boss battles. Here, the side at which Megaera attacks is highlighted by a purple glow on the relative appendages. Time slows down for you to react and dodge to the opposite direction using the left analog stick. Soon enough, Kratos breaks free of his trappings and you are enabled to attack with light and heavy blows in-between dodges.
Slicing Megaera’s abdomen with the end of his chain, Kratos tackles her down to the lover levels of the structure and gives chase as she scurries off in evident fear (although she continues her trash-talk). This is where the player’s re-initiation with the control scheme truly commences. You’ll be jumping over fallen pillars and partaking in miniature combat situations with these parasites – a new enemy which emerges from Megaera’s diseased flesh. They explode on clean contact and so grappling them with R1 and throwing them is advantageous, not only to prevent that from happening, but also to turn the tables and use them as a sort of grenade, if you will. As Kratos is seemingly catching up to Megaera – the camera closing in to reiterate that fact – the conniving Fury destroys the ground from underneath Kratos, causing him to fall into an enclosed prison chamber.
There are “cells” on either side that house some unassuming captives. However, those parasites I mentioned earlier crawl into these cells, attach themselves to the heads of the prisoners and take them over, apparently controlling their minds and making them stronger. The ensuing battle is the first real chance to explore the combat system. After causing enough damage, Kratos’ rage meter is filled, automatically swapping out his move-set for more dangerous blows, as opposed to being a manual mechanic in previous games. A unique special attack is executed for each face button that is pressed with L1, although only one is available from the get-go; L1 and ‘O’ has Kratos pound on the ground, momentarily stunning any enemies in its radius. After the initial waves are defeated, new ones emerge, this time equipped with an “enemy weapon”, which can also be picked up by the player and used by pressing ‘O’.
I don’t know what this particular weapon is called, but it’s a kind of sword that can be thrown for maximum damage by pressing R1 and ‘O’ together (although you naturally lose the weapon after that). It’s better to save that attack for the bigger, more difficult baddies. Something new that I did not witness in previous builds is the fact that enemies with these weapons are now more inclined to block a lot more frequently. And, finally, I understand the use of the thrust-kick (‘O’ with no enemy weapon equipped) as it is used to break their guard. The benefit of using this unarmed attack was never clear to me prior, especially in the multiplayer beta. After dispatching the remaining minions, Kratos continues his pursuit of Megaera up and out of the prison.
After another battle sequence involving the parasites and minions, Megaera’s parasites infect one of the Hecatonchires’ 100 hands, which disfigures and transmutes into a grotesque, bug-like creature with sharp, rocky blades for forearms (and armour, funnily enough). Similar to the Megaera confrontation at the start, this beast will attack with either blade that will glow (this time a gold tint) as a visual cue for the players to get the hell out of the way! The hand-beast hangs over the edge of the platform, coming down with stabbing and swiping motions. While rolling away from the stabs (still assigned to the right analog stick) and hopping over the swipes, I cause enough pain to be afforded a QTE where Kratos drags and throws the creature into a building, tilting the whole play-space on its side, which is basically one of the many arms of the Hecatonchires.
Now essentially walking on the faces of buildings, the enemy’s attacks are relatively similar, except now Kratos must jump and attack mid-air to reach the beast as it reaches down past the (then) floor, which has now become an obstructive wall. A more consistent timing element is added here as, to avoid a much broader slice, I had to roll in-between buildings, the spaces now acting like a pit in this lopsided area. Try to camp out in a pit, however, and the beast will try to flush you out with a massive strike targeted at the pit in question. After defeating it by way of forced neck-slicing via QTE, Kratos jumps off and the player must control his slide down the crumbling surface and roof shingles as many of the Hecatonchires’ arms attempt to squash you. Eventually falling down a hole into the sewers, I had to then climb up to one of the open grates, kick out the other side and climb back up to the surface.
I should have mentioned at the top that this build is the newest that has been playable, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the current build internally. I say this because I did come across two small bugs/hitches. The first being that the audio cue for the grate being kicked out by Kratos played after a noticeable delay. The other involves a subsequent battle with some more of Megaera’s minions, where I grappled and threw one, who was weakened, at another and they both fell over the edge supposedly dying. However, I all of a sudden saw a head poking out of the floor…one of the minions somehow got stuck and was still attacking me from within the floor’s geometry. He automatically died almost immediately after though. Not a big deal at all, just something to note. If he hadn’t died and I couldn’t reach him and progress, then we’d have problems…
Anyway, continuing on after opening a gate, Kratos walks through another prison block whilst prisoners comment on his markings and outwardly express their hope that he will be the one to save them from the Furies. With no time to relax, Aegaeon grabs the block, rips it out of his abdominal area and rotates it. Wave after wave of enemies appear, with the block being turned after each one is beaten. Grappling out of there, I pull a lever to connect two gears and lower a ladder in the surrounding play-space. Going over to the gears, I then pull on the mechanism only to disturb a cyclops, who scales the lower, exterior wall of the platform to meet me in battle. This allows for the classic ‘controlling of the cyclops’ that has been incorporated in previous entries, where you can grab on and force it, out of agony, to smash enemies with its club and stomp them into a fine paste.
After one more transitional area, Kratos just can’t catch a break as another of Aegaeon’s bug-hand warriors (I really need its official name here!!) breaks through, grabs Kratos and smashes him through a series of stone walls, leading into the demo’s final bout. In-between its attempts to squish you with its own hands – the transfigured fingers of the original hand…it’s really disturbing – it recoils, hanging on to a column in the background from where it can hurl a bunch of parasites at Kratos. Throughout the battle, there are two QTEs where Kratos violently pulls down a part of ceiling onto the creature, weakening it for the final kill. Something of note here is that I experienced some difficulty leaping over a swiping attack, sometimes due to my own pathetic sense of timing, but other times due to what seemed like a slight collision issue where I should have cleared it, but the hand somehow still drags me across the level, although without doing any damage which makes it merely a minor annoyance.
All in all, God of War: Ascension looks poised to present another colossal chapter in Kratos’ revenge saga. It doesn’t deviate too far from what is familiar for all the fans of the series in terms of gameplay, although the few key tweaks and changes actually work much better in my opinion, such as the reassignment of the grapple and the implementation/handling of the enemy weapons. Refining, but not redefining. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Something that didn’t feature in this demo is the Life Cycle ability; a new time-bending mechanic that was highlighted in the very first single-player demo ever shown for the game (see: article introduction). It’ll be very interesting to discover how Kratos obtains this power. Also, I would be remiss not to mention the graphical quality of Ascension. When God of War III was released many lauded its graphics. Well, with Ascension, I’m pretty sure the PS3 has been squeezed for all its power. It looks amazing.
What separates God of War from other franchises such as Clash of the Titans is tone. Greek Mythology is amazing, but it is visceral and brutal in its original depictions. And this is why God of War is so appealing to me; it takes from that source material, adapts those tales, but doesn’t neuter the mature themes and the violence that is present in the original stories. It embraces them. In turn, the games include some truly epic set pieces, and I was admittedly unsure about how the team at Sony Santa Monica would top the Titan and God interactions of God of War III. But, I feel much more at ease now that I’ve gotten to experience a level even larger than the Titans in the ‘Prison of the Living Damned’ that is Aegaeon the Hecatonchires. And we’re promised that it only gets more mind-blowing as the campaign goes on. Personally, I can’t wait.