Near the end of God of War: Ascension, there’s a meteoric difficulty spike during a stage called the Trial of Archimedes. It’s a chore. Though Ascension plays almost exactly like its predecessors, the normally precise balance is ever so slightly askew. Combat becomes a clusterfuck, making it nearly impossible to locate Kratos or discern who’s attacking him with what.
And as my blood pressure started rising, I wondered…
How did we get here?
I don’t mean that in an existential Talking Heads kind of way. I mean, why am I bothering to play a game that’s caused nothing but frustration? Why put up with the chaos knowing that Kratos killed Ares more than a decade ago?
Or, more succinctly, what makes a video game replayable?
Though Ascension is a new game, we’re essentially replaying God of War for the fourth time on a console. The fact that Ascension exists is testament to Sony’s faith in the mechanics. The latest game tacitly assumes that Kratos doesn’t need a story as long as he gets to defile some statues and rip the intestines out of centaurs.
It’s a safe gamble. God of War: Ascension is fun. It’s not particularly memorable, but it hits enough of the right beats to be reasonably diverting and offers novelty via new scenarios that require intellectual energy for completion. It’s efficient entertainment made with admirable professionalism and no small amount of expertise and craft.
And yet somehow, I feel compelled to write negative things about a game that I ostensibly enjoyed. While God of War: Ascension is “good,” it persistently reminds us that the franchise used to be better.
To an extent, that might have been inevitable. The mythology has been downgraded from EPIC to epic since the blood-spattered conclusion of God of War III, and while the prequel is deftly handled – Kratos actually appears mortal for prolonged stretches of the campaign – it’s impossible to overlook the fact that the franchise is treading water. Ares has been reinserted as a primary antagonist, but that doesn’t carry any weight considering he’s been dead, absent, and largely forgotten since the first God of War.
Then again, the story in God of War is usually window dressing, a flimsy pretense for acts of excessive violence, and that’s never bothered me before. So what’s changed? Sony Santa Monica has sacrificed its audience in a misguided attempt to rebrand God of War for a broader and more fickle multiplayer market.
For the first time in two console generations, the new God of War doesn’t measure up against the top (primarily) singleplayer titles of its era. I recently finished Spec Ops: The Line and then immediately restarted the game on a higher difficulty setting. Then I did it again once that second playthrough was completed. I was enjoying the game so I decided to keep playing, and the mechanics – though unoriginal – were tight enough to offer mastery through repetition.
Like many people, I picked up Spec Ops because I’d heard the story was fantastic, and while that much was certainly true, that initial appeal fades with subsequent playthroughs. The more difficult the challenge, the more the who, how, and why become subservient to the next chapter or checkpoint as the game becomes a puzzle to be solved rather than a narrative to be experienced.
With that in mind, was I replaying Spec Ops for the gameplay? Or was I replaying it for the story?
Truly great games offer a little of both, the first God of War being one of the earliest titles to hook players with that ‘stay for the combat’ approach to narrative design. Arkham Asylum, Vanquish, and countless others descend from a similar lineage, as story-driven games with flawless mechanics that recognize that replayability and value come in forms other than the online death match.
It’s therefore ironic that Ascension – the first God of War to offer multiplayer – is also the first God of War I haven’t wanted to play again. Unlike prior titles in the series, it makes the mistake of conflating variability with replayability. Multiplayer inherently offers the former, with fluctuating battlefields and matches are that will always be unique because human players are unpredictable.
Unfortunately, a bad game isn’t any more fun just because more are people playing. It’s difficult to design compelling multiplayer – that’s why so many studios get it wrong – and regardless of the number of online features, a game isn’t replayable if no one wants to play it.
So yes, the God of War multiplayer is boring even though the regular gameplay is fantastic. The maps are dull and the matchmaking is abysmal, to the point that finding one live game every 30 minutes is remarkable. The barren online queues don’t help matters, though it’s evidence that fans haven’t been sticking around.
The problem is that Ascension is struggling against constraints that predate the PlayStation Network. It’s telling that the only worthwhile online mode is the solo time trial. The God of War control scheme will always show best in more structured single player environs because that’s what the engine was designed for, and fixed camera angles and close-quarters combat limit the potential for multiplayer design.
It’s a shame, because the lackluster multiplayer only superficially resembles its source material and indicates that Sony doesn’t fully understand what draws people back to a quality singleplayer title, where obstacles are predetermined and satisfaction derived from finding ways to overcome them. It’s the thrill of outsmarting a system rather than the glory of competition, two qualitatively divergent sensations that appeal to two different types of players.
God of War has traditionally relied on the former and it’s never seriously hampered its longevity. Sony Santa Monica has been able to imbue Kratos with a variety of extreme powers because it’s never had to worry about players using those powers against each other. Kratos’ absurd strength never becomes unfair as long as the enemies and set pieces scale proportionally.
Multiplayer requires a completely different balance, one that forces Sony to strip away all the ridiculousness that makes God of War so damn entertaining. Without the screen-consuming magic attacks, the trinkets, and the menagerie of colossal monsters, the multiplayer is reduced to Rock Paper Scissors rather than God of War, and nothing as mundane as a kill streak can replace the missing spectacle.
That’s the tragedy of God of War: Ascension. Sony spent so much time tweaking the multiplayer that it forgot to perfect the campaign, and the result is an endgame that’s ever so slightly askew. The considerable time spent balancing the multiplayer would have been better spent elsewhere, and the subtle drop-off embodied during the Trial of Archimedes – that dip from flawless combat to merely exceptional – marks the threshold between a replayable title and an resellable one.
So how did we get here? We went in expecting Shakespeare and settled for Marlowe. Sony Santa Monica could run a master class on puzzles and pacing, ensuring that God of War: Ascension is enjoyable enough to see through to the end.
It’s just not worth keeping around once you’ve reached that finale. Next time, let’s hope Sony realizes that not all games – even highly replayable ones – have to appeal to all types of players.