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God of War: Ascension Multiplayer Impressions [Hands-On Preview]

If there’s one important thing that this generation has taught both gamers, developers, and publishers it’s that hot trends do indeed have a major impact.  In some cases it’s easy to push aside a trend as nothing more than a fad for that given moment, but at other times it’s hard to deny the growth something has received and how it almost immediately becomes part of the DNA of the industry for better or worse. 

While things like motion control in gaming haven’t exactly taken off in a major way, the appeal of playing with other gamers in multiplayer games is still a hot thing to the point where if such a thing is omitted within a game it may be frowned upon.  We’ve seen a lot of games shed their skin as single-player only experiences and now it’s time for the God of War series to join those ranks with the competitive action found in God of War: Ascension, which as expected is fast and bloody but it may not be the defacto way in which the series will be looked upon in the future.

Slated to arrive tomorrow for PlayStation Plus members, the God of War: Ascension beta offers a small taste of the new direction the team at Sony Santa Monica is going with the God of War franchise.  I guess after being around for eight years the team at Sony Santa Monica wanted to do something different for the fourth core entry in the GOW series so competitive multiplayer action has now joined the fray.

As a longtime God of War fan I had my reservations about whether or not the series would fit within the confines of a multiplayer game and the many design elements that are expected to be in it.  With multiplayer games being built around character classes, perks, and weapons that in some cases aren’t unlocked until level 5, 10, or even 25 is reached, I had my worries that the basic God of War formula of kill everything & ask questions later would be ruined by restrictions that would be imposed upon it. Thankfully that isn’t totally the case as the direct action found within the beta is indeed what one would expect from the God of War series.

There are a few elements in God of War: Ascension’s multiplayer mode which do stay to the now tried and true game design elements found in most games.  Things like having good weapons need to be earned by ranking up as do other items like armor which not only provides a different look to your warrior but it also changes the core combat stats, some for the better while other may suffer a small decrease, thus some tinkering may be required to find the balance that fits a particular play style.

However, one good thing about arrival of multiplayer in the God of War universe is that it’s not broken up into different class types.  After selecting which God I would honor by serving as their warrior, I simply go could into battle and have my way with other warriors of a similar ilk, except of course for those who already had a plethora of high-level items at their disposal.  I’ll talk more about the slight issue found in player balance, but for the most part it was rather refreshing to play a multiplayer game in which the immediate skill level is almost on common ground.

Favor of the Gods (Deathmatch) gameplay montage.

There are of course minor differences between the different God factions (Zeus, Ares, Poseidon, and Hades) of which only Zeus and Ares are in the beta, as some favor more direct attacks while others have better skill at landing magic attacks.  Combat amongst the various factions is of course varied as Zeus has a different feel compared to Ares, but at the end of the day it’s all about brutal kills and thankfully the game feels nearly classic in that regard.

The immediate rage of Kratos may not be found in the somewhat archetypical warriors that gamers can play as, but the basics of combat still feels visceral and fast.  Not much has changed in regards to how the combat is controlled as there are still the basic attacks and even grapple chain maneuvers amidst brutal kills that can be done once an enemy is near death.  An element of strategy is thrown into the mix as there are charged combat moves which are simply combo attacks consisting of pressing L1 + a combat button (Square, Triangle).  These moves pack more of a punch but they need to be used wisely as they have a small charge up time after use, thus they can’t be spammed endlessly. 

Combat is handled rather well within the confines of a map meant for various human controlled players as the Desert of Lost Souls map (which is featured in Team Favor of the Gods and Capture the Flag) featured some nice areas for prime combat encounters along with easy escape opportunities if death was looming.  I never felt bored roaming around the stage and seeing Polyphemus do his angry cyclops routine or see a foe die by walking into a fire trap, though I did wish that there was more navigational variety within the game.  Platforming/area navigation has always been a staple of the GOW series and in Ascension’s multiplayer beta it feels like it was pushed to the side in favor of what people are more fond of doing: killing each other. 

It’s still hard to gauge if this is the route Sony Santa Monica has taken with all the multiplayer maps in the game considering we’ve only seen two, despite the fact the game launches in early March.  All together though I hope that God of War’s plat forming DNA wasn’t completely discarded as it could provide some tension filled moments compared to using a portal to transport to a different area of the map.

The action in the team modes did become a bit hectic, almost to the point where it became a bloody version of Power Stone, which in turn made it a bit difficult to find where my character was amidst the sea of blood and four other player controlled characters.  In some ways I did wish a more traditional 3rd person camera was used as opposed to the classic God of War camera system, which is still fixed, but such a thing does allow occasional cinematic camera movements to be used to further hammer down the scope and brutality of the given moment.

With this being a beta a few technical hiccups may be expected, but of course one thing that may be ever present, in varying degrees mind you, is the presence of lag.  To be honest I didn’t suffer from too many instances of lag on my end or players who looked as if they were teleporting around the map, but there were a few brief encounters where I found myself having difficulties landing attacks due to small spurts of lag. 

I’ll again refrain from harping or worrying about the lag too much since this is still a beta as the more pertinent issue concerns combat balance - an important thing in any multiplayer experience. As I said there is a feeling of being on even ground amongst some players since there aren’t things like a heavy or light class that can be easily abused in various ways. The small dilemma that is present in the GOW: Ascension beta is that it may be difficult for new players to jump in and do combat against those who already have unlocked everything on top of mastering the combat, which to be honest does take a bit of time to get used to. 

Being slaughtered is of course a pastime of any multiplayer game, and perhaps is fitting for one that has muscle bound warriors battling each other, but it does present an experience which as of now can be overly unbalanced and a bit discouraging to play. My initial bouts as a new warrior serving the will of Zeus were more troublesome than I expected since I faced warriors with complete battle armor who were brandishing massive swords and dishing out constant long range magic attacks; all while I was running around in my loincloth stabbing people with what could’ve amounted to being nothing more than a stick. 

Team Favor of the Gods CTF gameplay montage

Eventually the Gods did look in my favor as I was able to unlock different weapons upon reaching certain ranks or hitting combat milestones.  The addition of new weapons and armor did help things a bit, but I just hope that when the final game comes out that there is more consistent match making as opposed to putting a Level 1 player up against four seasoned Level 10 or 15 warriors armed to the teeth with deadly items.

Other than the combat in the game, it’s somewhat hard to tell what sort of experience God of War: Ascension will be as a multiplayer game.  Obviously I was able to get a taste of team based action as well as an arena deathmatch mode, complete with an attack from Hercules, but that’s all the beta offers: two modes with one map in each of them. 

While this in some cases is the first multiplayer game directly developed by the team at Sony Santa Monica it doesn’t feel like a freshman effort with the exception of how things are presented.  Keeping traditional God of War design motifs, the UI for the multiplayer mode seems a bit muddled as it’s hard to decipher when I was in a lobby for a match since there aren’t many, if any, differentiating elements and because the font used in the game somehow looks small on a 27” inch TV. 

The same presentation issues actually reared their ugly head during the actual Team Favor of the Gods mode itself as combat is interrupted by brief cut scenes showing either the arrival of godly weapons or the ultimate killing blow that’s struck by the winning team. I have no problem seeing a giant cyclops get stabbed in the eye, but seeing a spear arrive in a cutscene in every match I played began to be annoying since it immediately disrupts the flow of combat, in some cases resulting in me being on the end of a blade.  Such things may sound a bit disappointing when everything is considered, however they could be easily fixed with more streamlined UI and mode pages along with omitting a cutscene in favor of a countdown clock and an announcement by an ominous sounding God.

I completely understand that this is a beta after all and I’m indeed grateful to play the game once more after briefly experiencing it at E3 last year. Though it’s still hard to gauge what the longstanding impact of the mode will be even with the additional time I’ve had with the game.   The foundations for a good multiplayer mode are there, but if the maps are limited and matches are ruled by players with more advanced weaponry then I fear that God of War’s multiplayer debut will be short lived as players will move onto other games. 

Despite the high production values which are pushing out some admirable character models for a multiplayer experience, God of War: Ascension is still wrapped up in a mysterious box that as of now has a few scrapes and dents on it despite its otherwise glossy and appealing exterior.

 

The multiplayer beta for God of War: Ascension will be available for PlayStation Plus subscribers on January 8th and the full game will be released on March 13th.