Last month, Sony started trying to convince us that we will need a PlayStation 4. The system is coming out at the end of the year. This month, the new God of War, God of War Ascension might as well be an argument that we don't.
I've played through the campaign of Ascension. It took me just over 10 hours, time spent doing what I've been making Kratos do in the previous five major God of War games: making him use his chain-blades and an incredible array of combat moves to slice, rip and rend both soldiers and beasts plucked or adapted from ancient Greek mythology.
I've played this game and have been amazed at how good it looks. The thought pops into my head: does it really feel like this game could look that much better?
I've also played this game and been amazed at how similar it is to other God of Wars. The thought pops into my head: are the limits of hardware really what is holding this series back from evolving?
I'm not running a proper review of Ascension yet. The game won't be out until next week and I've been unable to make time to play its multiplayer on press servers — not that those suffice, as we were reminded this week with SimCity. Given the nature of the game's campaign and the curious limits of innovation therein, anything I could say in a review about the game would raise the question of whether the game's true freshness and better value is in its multiplayer. That I don't yet know. Plus, the single-player campaign, oddly paced as it is, is mostly better in its second half. The game is something of a Skyward Sword, forcing the players to do the familiar before giving them a chance to try something new. This is an odd game, and one I don't yet have a complete sense of.
What I can do now, however, is talk about just how odd it is to be playing God of War: Ascension, a graphically stunning PS3 game, in a post-PS4-announcement world.
As I alluded to earlier, this game is an argument against a lot of the hype that we get not just around the PS4 but around new consoles in general. We're told that improvements in graphics breed improvements in emotional impact, that, the more detailed the characters are, the more they may emote and the more we may feel for them. We're told that new hardware can make games look better, of course.
But then you play God of War: Ascension on a console that came out in 2006 and you realise that, for what the developers of God of Wars seem to always be trying to do, 2006 hardware is pretty good.
Behold some clips from early in the game, limited to 30 seconds as per a request from Sony regarding pre-release video capture of the game...
Kratos looks amazing in this game. So do his enemies. So do the surrounding environments, spartan though they may be. God of War games leave the camerawork to the game's designers and, as God of War III showed before Ascension, we can get spectacular results on a current-gen console: bloody, non-stop action that smoothly transitions from some gory one-on-one grappling to grand, scenic battles that diminish Kratos to a relative speck.
Where could a PS4 take God of War?
Well, the new console could probably make the games even better looking. But then, the question changes a bit: Where would God of War's creators take God of War?
For better and for worse, the series' creators don't seem to have taken the God of War franchise anywhere all that new across the transition of PS2 to PS3. There's little reason to think they'd take a bigger leap going to PS4. There have been two games on PS2, two on PS4 (and two on PSP). They've followed a very similar formula. Kratos is mad. Kratos kills enemies in gruesome ways. Players master a basic set of light and heavy attacks, memorise combos, learn to dodge and fight crowds of enemies one enemy at a time. And, always, there are mini-games that are activated when it is time to kill the game's bigger bruisers.
God of War has become its own subgenre, and as a result it's all gotten awfully formulaic. God of War now has its equivalent of James Bond's girls/gadget checklist or every Zelda game's obligatory fetches of the bow-and-arrow and bomb.
You are playing a God of War, so you will be stabbing something in the eye. You will power up those chainblades by pouring red-orb energy into them. You will gather green orbs for health, blue for magic. You will push blocks to solve puzzles. You will open treasure chests for eyes and feathers. You will open those chests slowly, after some grunting. You will see a lot of breasts.
I've seen the PlayStation 4 controller. I've read the system's specs. There's nothing in them that suggests that any of God of War's checklist will have to change. We're left to argue about how much a long-running series should change. Honestly, I'm unsure.
Does God of War need a PS4? It might need something, but it doesn't need that.
Please understand that there is a lot of good stuff in Ascension. There are smart tweaks to the battle system, a fun expansion of the game's grappling mechanics and a smart disarming element. But there's also little that feels radically different from the past games, be they on PS2, PSP or PS3. Hence the weird feelings about what new hardware does or doesn't mean for a series like this. What would shake up the campaign design or setting of a God of War? What should? (At some point in history God of War and DmC designers will meet and discuss how impossible it is to please people either by changing things too little or too much).
God of War as a series has had a weird relationship with the PS3. Only one God of War came out before the PS3 was on the market. There have been five more significant God of War games since then. Only two of them, including Ascension, debuted on the PS3. Two launched on the PSP. More strangely, God of War II was released on PS2 several months into the PS3's existence. Back then, in early 2007, it served as a sign that artistry, confident art direction and satisfying gameplay mechanics did not need cutting-edge hardware. Sound familiar?
I'm torn about how much I want God of War to change. It's something I'm still working out as I think about the review I'll write next week. But one thing I'm sure of is the fact that this series has long shown that hardware is not as important as we or its manufacturers make it out to be. Ascension repeats that feat.