I just can’t figure out God of War: Ascension

The on-stage demo – the make or break moment for any game scrambling desperately for your attention at E3. Forged from chair-shaking explosions, jaw-dropping eye candy and cliffhangers that leave us drooling for more. Get it right and you’re Uncharted 2 – straight to the top of everyone’s most anticipated games list and riding the hype train to launch. Get it wrong and you’re, well, Need for Speed: The Run.

Sony Santa Monica knows this, or at least it did back in 2009. The acclaimed developer closed out Sony’s E3 2009 show with a stunningly gory display of God of War III, finally bringing everyone’s favourite Spartan (of Greek mythology at least) into the HD era. So good was this demo that you could hear the crowd groan when it was cut minutes short.

God of War: Ascension should have been the same story, but its E3 2012 demo was undoubtedly overshadowed by Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us and even show-opener, Beyond. Why? It looked stunning, confirmed the series’ incredible combat was still in top-form and finished with an eye-poppingly violent lobotomy. These are the hallmarks of the series’ formidable popularity, and yet it failed to make a splash.

Maybe that’s because a lot of you are still struggling with Ascension in the same way I am; trying to find a reason for it to simply exist.

As a series fan, I was expecting something radically different from the next console entry. God knows that Santa Monica is capable of it, and various rumours leading up to the game’s reveal had pointed to radical new settings, co-op and perhaps even entirely different mechanics. But we’re not getting any of that.

What we are getting is more of the same… again. It’s another prequel, another Blades of Chaos-wielding combat system and another set of monsters for the lead man to disembowel. Sure, it’s visually-arresting and the action has been refined with secondary weapons and the works, but there’s an overarching feel of “one too many” while watching the game play out.

There’s a certain sense of hypocrisy to saying all of this when past GoW games have all been simple iterations on the original and we as consumers have eaten that all up. To suddenly stop with Ascension and say “this is too much now”, feels unfair to a project that hasn’t really proven itself yet. But then again E3 should have been the place to prove itself, and yet here I am still struggling to muster any sign of excitement.

It didn’t help that the demo was taken from a seemingly bog-standard section of the campaign, devoid of anything truly new to the God of War experience. There was no dramatic set piece like the Titan vs Helios battle we saw in God of War III. It would have done better to ditch the first half and show us the undoubtedly disgusting showdown it teased for the finish. It felt like the kind of demo that has a developer talking you through what’s going on, rather than the kind to shake the very foundations of the hall everyone sat in.

Without any kind of true innovation, the franchise is coming dangerously close to growing stale. This is an IP brimming with potential for exciting, bold risks that could have made it the most talked about game of this year’s show. Imagine seeing Kratos take on the gods of another mythology, or commanding his forces as the God of War in mankind’s biggest conflicts – the two world wars. Right now this feels like little more than a missed opportunity to ascend the franchise to new heights.

Of course, there is a multiplayer component that will indeed be unlike anything the series has seen before. I’m not going to spurt the usual ‘multiplayer doesn’t belong in this franchise’ nonsense – it’s a genuinely interesting experiment that could well end up giving Ascension more purpose than its single-player is currently promising. The short gameplay clips of the competitive mode that surfaced a few weeks ago packed more eye-opening moments than the E3 demo. That said, it still has to prove its worth to me, and I feel like I’ll actually have to have the game in my hands before it does that. I’m not going to know how well two human players can face off against each other until I play it for myself.

Where Ascension has the most potential to prove me wrong is with its story. One of the most intriguing aspects of the demo was the Ghost of Sparta saving someone’s life by pushing them out of the way of an incoming projectile. This is a man that, in his most recent adventure, would gut the occupants of Mt. Olympus to regain health. This is the man that let a terrified captain fall to his death inside the mouth a the hydra. What made Kratos change from menacing anti-hero to borderline villain? Telling that story could be key to this game’s success.

There’s little doubt in my mind that Ascension will be not a bad game, or even an average one. Sony Santa Monica has earned my trust time and time again. But the worryingly lacklustre showing for Kratos’ latest has me wondering if the franchise should have been left on the high-note that was God of War III.

A lengthy eight months are ahead of us before Ascension releases. That’s more than enough time for Santa Monica to shut me up. I expect them to do so with a spear through my jaw.