Sony Computer Entertainment
Loose controls and lack of info make God of War’s multiplayer beta more frustrating than satisfying
God of War: Ascension is the first in the series to bring multiplayer to the hyper-masculine, ultra-violent world of Kratos and pals. It's an intriguing concept that makes a surprising amount of sense; the ancient world was home to gladiator arenas as well as some of the grandest battles of history. It should prove the perfect setting. On paper, it's a match made in Olympus. In practice, it's incredibly stressful.
Swear to me
God of War: Ascension starts out strong. It doesn't begin with a clunky menu interface or boring step-by-step instructions. It places you on a grand pantheon in the sky and tasks you with orders from the gods themselves, those orders typically being “kill or be killed”; it's a very cool merge of player and avatar introduction to the world set out by Sony, and it works. The first thing you'll do in Ascension's multiplayer is swear fealty to a god by running up to their statue and praying to it. Each god provides different bonuses and is based on different playstyles. The god of war, Ares, is a god who grants great bonuses to physical strength, great for melee characters who want to hit hard with weapons. The king of the gods, Zeus, is a god of powerful magic, the go-to for ranged casters who prefer to hurl lightning. Once you have chosen your deity, you'll be run through a tutorial on the game's basic controls. Survive and you'll be allowed to join your fellow warriors online in Favor of the Gods. This is where Ascension starts to falter.What is Favor of the Gods? What is the goal? Why are these things on the ground? What are these points for? Which team am I on? Why does everyone else have armor and I don't? How do I parry again? These are some of the questions you may ask yourself in the initial, punishing hours of Ascension. Once you've chosen your allegiance, the immersion is broken. You're dropped into a set of menus that aren't explained, shown stats you have no context for, and tasked with winning, but are never told how. Let's look at the game's multiplayer mode that's available right now: Favor of the Gods. Favor of the Gods is a point-based arena game, where four warriors battle for the glory of their chosen god. There's also team Favor of the Gods, which doubles the number of players. In both versions, the goal is to reach 8000 points, or kill the cyclops. Three altars are scattered about the landscape, and holding them will net you a steady income of god-loves-me points. But you wouldn't know that from what the game tells you. They're just things that it points to, and it expects you to understand their purpose and how to capture them. The gods will also “intervene” in matches by sending down a magical spear which can kill the cyclops, nabbing an instant win for whoever takes the beast down. What the rules are for intervention are never clear, and I couldn't figure out the pattern in all of my games. This is a beta and user interface features like menus and tutorials are typically one of the last things added to a game, but it still feels like Ascension is throwing you to the wolves with nothing but a loin cloth and sharp stick.
Lack of navigation or explanation aside, the game play of Ascension teeters between gratifying and frustrating. You use Square to perform a light attack with your weapon, Triangle to perform a heavy attack with your weapon, Circle to perform a physical (see: hand-to-hand) attack, and hold L1 in conjunction with either Square or Triangle to perform super attacks. You can also grab your enemies with R1 or use magic with R2. In other words, there's a lot of buttons and a lot of options for players to mix up combos. Yet it feels like the only combo I could reliably get off, and the only one I was seeing from other players, was Square, Square, Square, Square. Attacks don't seem to flow as freely into one another as in previous God of War games, and the number of players on screen plus the game's loose hit detection only makes this all the more maddening. It is incredibly hard to tell who is who and what's going on when more than two people get involved in a fight. Swords swing through people without stopping, combos seem to go on without interruption, and the whole fight becomes a button-mashing frenzy. A very large part of the frustration comes from how the game works combos. In Ascension, if you're being targeted by an enemy, you can become locked into a combo animation, defenseless to block, dodge, or parry. You can break free of these combo locks by tapping L2, but it never seems to go off on command, so you end up intermittently tapping it just to be safe. Otherwise, if an enemy lands one hit, they're all but guaranteed three, four, or five more. You can't rely on your attacks to do what you think they're going to do, because they'll pass through enemies some times, and cut them down other times. To be sure this wasn't just my inexperience, I handed the controller to a friend, telling them to focus and try not to button mash. It proved equally frustrating for them, and soon they were tapping random buttons, hoping for a result. The controls don't feel totally solid yet. Should you manage to take someone out, Ascension will reward you with experience points and a level-up system where you'll gain access to better armor, better weapons, better items, and better spells the more you play and complete in-game challenges. The system is very similar to the leveling system in Call of Duty, but brings with it the same problems; namely, that newcomers getting matched with experienced players aren't just unequal in terms of skill, but gear as well. Speaking of gear, I've never been a fan of early civilization aesthetics, but Ascension somehow makes Spartan, Roman, Greek, and Trojan armors look incredibly badass. There aren't many options right now, but it looks like the game will allow for a good variety of customization options; you're not just picking a class or single set of armor, pieces can be mixed and matched as you see fit.
What is best in life?
Ascension brings God of War to the multiplayer arena in an intriguing way. The controls have been faithfully adapted from the single-player, and combos are as brutal as ever. The multiplayer isn't going to great lengths to draw you in, but it starts out strong, and fans of the series will relish the opportunity to prove their worth before the crowd of Mount Olympus. However, the game is flawed in its current state, lacking polish and context. This is a beta and it's expected that things will be rough, but even taking that into consideration, the experience is jarring. Trying to perform combos can feel like trying to argue with a stubborn child who just won't listen. I tried to grab an enemy Spartan, only to have my chain fly off toward nothing. I tried to dodge an enemy group only to get dragged into a dogpile so big I couldn't see where I was. I nabbed the spear and stood before the cyclops, underneath a floating “EXECUTE” command accompanied by a symbol for the Circle button. I tapped it repeatedly to no avail. Still, through all the frustrations, I wanted to keep coming back. The game only satisfies when it works reliably, and it only works reliably in small doses, but when you land a devastating combo and curb stomp a Spartan's face into the ground, it's so very, very satisfying. The public beta for Ascension will be live January 8. When it drops, go forth, and crush your enemies. Just make sure you know how first, and be prepared to put up with a lot of frustration before you hit the sweet spot.