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In the twilight of this console generation, games can either go one of two ways: Developers can change up the formula or they can stick with what works. By this time, studios have mastered the ins and outs of a system and squeezed every pixel and polygon they can get out of it. It's up to them to decide what they can do with the tools.

With "God of War: Ascension," Sony's Santa Monica Studio attempts to do both. The team didn't have to make a fourth entry to the series, the first three and the intermittent chapters on the PlayStation Portable were enough to satisfy the biggest of Kratos fan. There's nowhere left to go with the legendary Spartan.

Kratos returns in "God of War: Ascension," a prequel that further complicates the anti-heroes backstory. The game is almost saved a remarkable
Kratos returns in "God of War: Ascension," a prequel that further complicates the anti-heroes backstory. The game is almost saved a remarkable multiplayer mode. (Courtesy of Sony Computer Entert)

But Santa Monica Studio went ahead anyway and the end product is a mixed bag with a campaign that played it safe and a multiplayer mode that took a huge risk.

When it comes to the single-player experience, "Ascension" is a mess. It harkens back to the franchise's origins with the first two games in the series. As Kratos escapes his bonds from the Furies, he embarks on a grand adventure to learn the truth behind his imprisonment and acquire his freedom. That leads him to two major areas -- the Temple of Delphi and the Statue of Apollo.


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Players will encounter the requisite puzzles and combat. But unfortunately, "Ascension" doesn't have the polish of its predecessors. Some sections seem random and have no relations to the locale. Other moments require strict timing so that if Kratos is speeding along and he moves faster than expected, he will miss a jump and die. These sort of flaws, along with some bugs and difficult combat sequences, will frustrate players.

What makes it worse is a fighting system that falls short of its potential. Creative director Todd Papy revamped the combat by giving Kratos the ability to pick up weapons on the field and add elemental strength to his Blades of Chaos, but they don't provide enough depth to the fighting system. Although you can imbue Kratos' weapon with fire, water, electricity or soul power, players can't mix the elements or influence the environment with them. It could have provided strategy to the fight instead of new ways to button mash.

The story doesn't help either with its flashbacks and flashforwards. It's hard to know where in the story players are. And the timeline doesn't always seem to matter when players are awestruck by the environments. What "Ascension" does well is give players that sense of scale. Santa Monica Studio still knows how to make players feel small compared to the size of the landscape, and they know how to pull off the cinematic quicktime scene.

But for all the team's know-how, this fourth chapter feels unremarkable, a paint-by-numbers adventure without the fun and wonder of the previous versions. It seems that more of the developers' efforts focused on the multiplayer which is the novel part of "Ascension" and the most successful.

The online mode is a first for the series and one of the few hack and slash games that gets the combat right. Santa Monica Studio elegantly translates the combat from the campaign into the multiplayer environment. Here, players are rewarded for reading their rivals' next moves so that they can block, parry or counter.

On top of that, there's a progression system that rewards longtime players, but at the same time, it's still all about skill. A newcomer can take down a veteran if they have enough quick-twitch reaction to fend off attacks and counter. As for how it plays, competing against other people reminds me a lot of "Powerstone" only it's more advanced. There are random power-ups, opportunities to tag team an opponent and dynamic environments. It's also a lot of fun.

This is where "Ascension" makes the most strides. Unfortunately, it's brought down by a lackluster single-player campaign.

Contact Gieson Cacho at 510-735-7076 or gcacho@bayareanewsgroup.com. Read his blog at http://blogs.mercurynews.com/aei.

'God of War: Ascension'

* * ½

Platform: PlayStation 3
Rating: Mature