All Greek to me
When I first heard God of War: Ascension would feature online multiplayer, I was skeptical, to put it lightly. To put it less lightly, I was worried Sony was foisting multiplayer onto a franchise that wasn’t suited for it in a shallow attempt to keep up with the Joneses. To me, God of War had always about two things: the empowering, brutal violence, and the buttery-smooth combo system. Multiplayer seemed like a quick way to spoil both in one fell swoop, since my opponents would need to be just as powerful, and hundred-hit combos would need to be nerfed to keep things even remotely fun. The early footage I saw didn’t do a lot to dispel my doubts, either, so I wasn’t expecting much when I finally got a chance to go hands-on with Ascension‘s multiplayer beta earlier this week.
A couple matches later, I was convinced. While there were definitely some noticeable (and probably unavoidable) departures from the core God of War formula, the team at Sony Santa Monica has done a great job capturing the building on the franchise’s combat basics in a way that keeps the game balanced and engaging while still letting you feel like a total badass. But I’m getting ahead of myself, I suppose.
As I first booted into the beta, I found my muscular, half-naked champion standing in a temple. Apparently, before I could get into the battle, I needed to devote myself to a god. While there looked to be six total options, the demo locked me down to just two—Zeus and Ares. Your alliance will apparently affect several aspects of your character as they develop, but the only one that was immediately apparent was weapon specialization, with Ares offering swords and Zeus offering hammers.
Given my violent, warlike manner, I declared my allegiance to Ares and was immediately dropped into a combat tutorial against an AI opponent. The basics should be familiar to anyone who’s played God of War before—though there have been a few major tweaks. The most important addition is the escape button, L2, which allows you to immediately break your opponent’s combo and regain some of your health to give you a chance to get out of a tight spot. The ability comes with a one-minute cooldown, though, so you’ll need to be careful about when and where you use it.
The other abilities at your disposal are parries and super attacks. Parries are accomplished by pressing the X button while blocking. If your opponent attacks during the next second or so, you’ll attack back with an opportunity to chain it into a combo. If not, you’re left standing there vulnerable for a brief window after the parry expires. The super attacks, used by pressing triangle or square while holding down the L1 button, will break through an opponent’s block, but they can still be dodged by quick opponents, and they come with a fairly hefty cooldown.
After completing the tutorial and getting a grasp on the basics of combat, I booted into my first match, a round of Team Favor of the Gods, the four-versus-four deathmatch mode. The map, Desert of Lost Souls, was the same one that’s been on display at every event since the game was first announced. If you’ve managed to shy away from coverage so far, here are the basics: you earn points by killing players from the opposing team, opening chests, capturing control points, or by killing Polyphemus, the giant Cyclops looming over one corner of the stage. It’s a fairly massive arena, littered with traps and all sorts of interesting shortcuts, but it was a bit hectic keeping track of all my different scoring options.
The second match I played was much more my speed—a four-player free-for-all bout on a much smaller map that bore a striking resemblance to the Forum from God of War III. The location has now been redubbed Coliseum of Hercules—and that’s not just a bit of mythological name dropping, either. Hercules himself stood guard over the match, occasionally dropping into the arena to ruin everyone’s fun with a few jabs from the Cestus.
Surprisingly enough, the hulking NPC demigod was actually one of the least memorable things about the stage. The smaller space was absolutely littered with opportunities for environmental kills—slamming them into the spiked walls, kicking them off the balcony, activating a trap that sent arrows cascading down into the arena. The dense lethality of it all combined with the frantic free-for-all action really gave the combat a chance to shine, and I had a great time toying with different strategies. Sometimes I’d come in heavy with my super attacks to pin someone against the spike wall. Sometimes I’d hang back and let two of my foes work each other down before I swept in for the double kill. It was an absolute blast, and I hope the rest of Ascension‘s multiplayer suite can capture that same frantic fun.
That being said, I do have a few lingering doubts about how everything will come together in the end, the largest of which is the leveling system. I did get a chance to poke around in the loadout menus a bit, so I have a handle on the basics. You earn unlock tokens by leveling up your character, then spend them on new armor, weapons, and magic. There also appeared to be secondary requirements that needed to be met before you could unlock some items, like reaching a given level or performing a certain number of in-game actions successfully.
That’s all well and good, I suppose, but I’m worried about how the system will affect the game’s balance. Weapons and armor looked to have some fairly noticeable affects on your underlying stats. If they can manage to implement a smart matchmaking system that keeps players who are close in level together, things should work out swimmingly. If not, I imagine a lot of serious frustration for anyone playing at a low level.
Still, I won’t deny the fact that I came out of my hands-on time with Ascension‘s multiplayer far more excited than when I went in. I’m still curious to see how the remaining pieces fall into place, but it’s a confident, hopeful curiosity.