Thursday, March 21, 2013

'God of War: Ascension' and The Problem with Prequels

Image from PopMatters
This week at PopMatters, I wrote about God of War: Ascension as a prime example of why I hate prequels.

I've probably talked about this before either on the site or the podcast, so I won't go too deep here. The point is that all the chronological weirdness and retroactive character development that happens in prequels is compounded by the mechanical iteration that happens between each game in a long-running series. The result is a game whose overall story becomes muddled from a narrative and mechanical perspective. At a certain point, you just have to trash the entire idea of a single storyline and embrace the idea of a broader mythos. Take the Star Wars universe vs. the Batman mythos for example: one has become a bloated, tortured mess of conflicting events and ridiculous narrative backflips while the other remains one of the great pieces of modern folklore.

Instead, let me say a few more things about Ascension itself. Jorge and I probably won't talk about it on the podcast, since I recommended that he skip it. It's not that it's a bad game, I just haven't enjoyed it as much as the others (and I've played them all). As I say in the column, it's hard to get reinvested in Kratos' backstory when so much of it has already been so fruitfully mined and subsequently resolved in such a cathartic fashion. How do you top fighting your way to the top of Olympus and pummeling Zeus to death? Maybe you don't.

Unfortunately, there are also structural changes that I feel hamper the overall experience. The fighting system has been rebalanced in a way that locks combos behind a meter that is charged by landing successful hits and depleted by getting hit. This might make sense for multiplayer (as you might want to make players earn their big combos), but in the single player it feels unnecessarily limiting. You end up doing the same low-level combos over and over again because your move set starts out at the bottom of the tree at the beginning of each battle and enemies tend not to put up all that much of a fight. Other things (like changing the grapple button and the counter-attack timing) might appeal to some people, but I feel it gives the game much slower, less skill intensive flow. The removal of dedicated special weapons and the curbed magic system combine with the game's overall ease to make it a much duller experience than its predecessors.

Some sections actually benefit from this less punishing difficulty, as the camera often zooms out to ridiculous lengths. God of War has always enjoyed its wide angles, but Ascension has a habit of putting the view over the combat. In many cases, it's easy to lose track of which pixels you're controlling and which ones are you enemies. It doesn't help that, especially in the run up to Delphi, the colors and environmental patterns make Kratos and his enemies blend into the background.

From a general perspective, Ascension still looks, sounds, and feels fine; it's just not as sharp as its predecessors. Everything feels a bit subdued and the fact that you already know how the story is going to turn out doesn't do it any favors.

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