The Greek myths, those vivid tales of gods and monsters, have been retold through the centuries via whatever artistic medium is popular at the time. From the loose oral-poetic tradition of their origins through literature, sculpture, painting and, more recently, theatre and film, the towering cast of Olympus has never strayed far from the western consciousness - these myths maintain their power even though their relevance as religious instruction faded long ago. God of War brought the myths (or, at least, the spirit of the myths) to video games, and Sony's series has remained true to its source, presenting the guts and glory of the ancient Greeks in perhaps their most spectacular and garish form yet.
This prequel maintains the myth, just, but does little to embellish it. The God of War series is beginning to stray from its source material as each new tale in the series presents us with fresh gods and monsters to batter and revile, but their theme is always unwavering vengeance, and their style is always gore, fortissimo gore. Despite the huge number of ways to rip and rend your opponents, the action is increasingly without meaning or a broader purpose.
Ascension begins with just such a gruesome scene: protagonist Kratos, chained atop a stone column, is being tortured by one of the Furies, a repugnant netherworld goddess who raises her arms to flatter her breasts before seeping attack bugs from her pores. Break free of her grip and it's mythology as usual as you're propelled through the world, dissolving grunts into crimson mist with your Blades of Chaos, killing off larger, named foes via the series' divisive QTE finishing moves, and hauling yourself through the scenery by latching onto the glinting hook points.
As ever, the combat manages to maintain a certain slick unfussiness despite the huge array of offensive options. The refined animations slip together in a seamless, dazzling flow. Enemies offer visual tells for when they are about to attack, allowing an alert player to roll out of the way with a flick of the right stick. By the end of the game, you'll have four elemental properties to add to all attacks (fire, ice, electric, soul) each selected by a swift (sometimes mid-combo) tap of the d-pad.
The imagery is stylised and cartoonish, but nevertheless macabre - its own kind of violent pornography. Sufficiently weaken an elephant-headed Juggernaut, for example, and in the finishing 'minigame' (to use the game's own word) you must dodge its frantic swipes while stabbing at its head before, in one final, uninterrupted move, rending open its skull, exposing the brain as it twitches and fades to a lifeless grey. In a later battle with a Chimera, you tear its wings from its body one by one over the course of the fight, and the way in which the animal's fading strength and resolve is represented in the animation is effective - almost affecting. The gruesomeness may be consistent with the stories from which the game draws its inspiration, but it's undeniably a one-note take on Greek mythology and now, after tens of cumulative hours daubing the God of War series' halls with blood, its impact has been muted.
The other half of the God of War experience rests in its puzzles: vast architectural conundrums that must be solved before they'll yield passage. Initially, these take the form of routine crate-moving exercises, changing the game's tempo without offering much challenge or interest. But later, developer Sony Santa Monica introduces the Amulet of Urobotus, a tool that allows players to highlight pieces of scenery and either restore them to their former usefulness or reduce them to useful rubble. This item leads to some of the best (and most challenging) riddles yet seen in the series.
The gruesomeness may be consistent with the stories but it's undeniably a one-note take on Greek mythology and now, after tens of cumulative hours daubing the God of War series' halls with blood, its impact has been muted
Enemies and objects release red orbs when destroyed, which you can collect and spend on upgrading your weapons or abilities - increasing the damage of your Blade of Chaos or the range of the Amulet of Urobotus, for example, or unlocking new special moves. But this character development takes second place to the spectacle. Once again, you'll be battling giant stone monsters carved into landscapes - but while these set-pieces offer incredible sights, there's nothing to match the majesty bought by God of War 3's $44 million budget, especially its opening battle in which Kartos clambered around the arms and torso of the Titan goddess Gaia as she scaled Mount Olympus.
Where Santa Monica Studio hopes to make up the thrill shortfall is in the newly minted multiplayer and its suite of play modes. Far from a half-hearted add-on, Ascension's multiplayer component is weighty and distinguished, and the battle system's range and flexibility shine in this competitive context. At times, it comes close to matching Platinum Games' exemplary work.
You begin in the Rotunda of Olympus, where you must select an allegiance to one of the four gods - an obfuscated way of choosing a character class: Warrior, Stealth, Mage or Support (this can be changed at any time inside the Rotunda). Each class has its own intricacies and idiosyncrasies, and winning matches will earn experience points which can be used to acquire better equipment.
Far from a half-hearted add-on, Ascension's multiplayer component is weighty and distinguished, and the battle system's range and flexibility shine in this competitive context
As well as the full assortment of abilities from the single-player game, a number of additional items and rules enrich competitive play. For example, characters flash red when executing an unblockable attack, white when they're momentarily invulnerable to attack and blue when they're recovering from a special attack and are open to a counter. You soon learn to instinctively read these colour-coded tells, and the higher-level game shifts closer to a contest of reactions.
Temporary halos appear over opponents' heads when they're open to a grapple, while special 'god items' help players escape combo attacks and provide a shot-term battle advantage. Maps contain traps, which can be triggered against the opposing team, as well as temporary torrents that restore magic and vitality. Although God of War has a reputation for rewarding players who blindly mash the attack buttons, Ascension's multiplayer reveals the ongoing refinement of the underlying game system, and a skilled player will effortlessly dominate a weaker opponent.
Ascension is a game of distinct halves then, each with its own rules and ambitions - as so many blockbuster video games have become. As such, it's difficult to judge as a whole. The single-player campaign is uneven and, at its best, fails to match the zenith of what's gone before - a myth growing weaker with each retelling. But the punchy multiplayer broadens the game's aspirations and its appeal in a welcome way, offering a refined competitive arena. That may have a lot more to do with contemporary fashions in competitive video gaming than ancient myths - but it offers just the embellishment that's lacking elsewhere.