Here's a word I never thought would apply to a game in the God of War franchise: boring. And yet, here we are with God of War: Ascension, and...well, that's the first adjective that springs to mind. Other surprising descriptors: plodding and repetitive.
I honestly didn't think that God of War, as a franchise, had it in it to be any of those things. I've loved each and every one of the five games before Ascension; if it's not my favourite franchise, it's easily one of my top three. I've always loved games that encourage you to just rush headlong into combat, that don't make you waste time on silly little things like "stealth" and "strategy" and "thinking things through" -- which means that God of War, with its insane levels of nearly non-stop violence, has always hit my gaming sweetspot.
This time out, though, something is missing. Or, more accurately, a lot of things are missing, and their absence makes Ascension the least enjoyable entry in the series by far.
First and foremost: I have no idea why the game exists, since the plot is a jumbled, incomprehensible mess. In theory, Ascension covers what happened before the very first God of War, with some sort of conflict between Kratos and The Furies. In practice, though, things aren't nearly that clear. There's stuff about Kratos breaking his oath to Ares, something about The Furies and Ares having a baby, more stuff about some plot between the Furies and Ares to overthrow Olympus...truthfully, even after playing through Ascension, I couldn't give you any kind of coherent description of what happens, since things seem to jump back and forth and all over the place.
Of course, this leads to the bigger problem, which is that no matter where the story goes, you know exactly where it's going to end up: with God of War. The issue with this is that God of War -- both as an individual game and as a franchise -- never felt like it needed more fleshing out. The story has always been simple: Kratos pledges fealty to Ares, Kratos gets tricked into killing his wife and daughter, Kratos gets revenge by murdering every god and goddess in the Greek pantheon. It's all pretty straightforward, and trying to shoehorn in more info feels both superfluous and pointless.
On top of that, unless Sony Santa Monica had decided to completely ignore their established continuity -- and, SPOILER!, they don't -- you go through the game feeling as though your actions don't have any measurable impact. You know Kratos won't be getting his revenge on Ares in this game, and you know all the gods he kills over the other five games in the series. For a franchise that has always aimed to be epic, Ascension ends up feeling remarkably inconsequential.
Ascension's other major problem -- the other area where it falls short of the standards set by the rest of the series -- is that the combat is pretty dull and repetitive. I know, I know: it's not as if the other games were particularly varied in their gameplay. Here, though, it seems like you have even fewer options than normal...mainly because you do. Apart from a few limited-use objects and special powers, you're basically using the Blades of Chaos the whole game. I've never been big on switching up weapons in any other game in the series, but even I'll admit that by the fiftieth (and sixtieth, and eightieth, and hundredth...) hack-slask-hack-slash combo, I was feling a little bored with what I could do. I understand that Kratos couldn't really be given special weapons and powers here that suddenly vanish in the rest of the series (see my previous complaint about Ascension having its narrative limits set by every other game in the series), but it still made the game feel stale.
All that said: I'll take stale God of War over almost anything else any day of the week. As tired as the formula may seem for the most part, it's still capable of tossing up some pretty impressive moments and sequences. The opening hour of the game, which is basically Kratos fighting his way out of some giant, living prison, definitely got my heart pumping. Likewise, the final boss is pretty fun, even if it's even more of a Quick Time Event than normal. And, best of all, a significant chunk of the game is spent putting together a massive statue via a series of puzzles -- even if putting together individual statue components may not always be fun, seeing it all come together near the end is immensely (pardon the pun) satisfying.
And we shouldn't overlook the fact this game is arguably the best thing the PS3 has ever seen in terms of graphics. It looks simply spectacular. There are a few missteps when things get down to a smaller scale in terms of character faces, but those are easily forgotten and forgiven when you see Kratos flying through mountains on a mechanical snake, or the pre-Titan Primordials fighting it out in the cosmos.
Of course, putting it that way brings to mind the famous quote from Shakespeare about something being full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Because when you get down to it, that kind of describes Ascension perfectly: it's big and loud and looks impressive, but when you get down to it, it's ultimately kind of empty.