There was never any question God of War III would not mark the end of the God of War franchise. Even when Sony persisted in referring to that game as the end of the trilogy, it was silly to think of it as one -- although there may only be two numbered sequels, we've already seen five games (six, if you count a mobile title) released centering around Kratos and his story. Prequels have been used to delve into Kratos' history, and with Ascension, Santa Monica Studios is taking us even further back in time to a point when Kratos possessed a shred of compassion.
Chronologically, Ascension is the first game in the series. Like all the others, it takes places after Kratos was duped into killing his own wife and daughter by Ares. Being set only six months after this event occurred, however, means Kratos has not yet reached the level of madness that we're accustomed to seeing him at. That's reflected in one scene where, after seeing two innocents killed, he saves a third from the same fate. Though he doesn't go too far out of his way to do so, it's still miles away from the Kratos we're used to seeing who wouldn't hesitate to kill innocent bystanders if they were in his way. It's unusual to see the hero's morality evolve in this manner only by going back in time, but perhaps his reluctance to slaughter everyone will make Kratos a more sympathetic character this time around.
One thing a gentler Kratos does not equate to is less violence -- Ascension looks as if it's the most brutal game in the series to date. Looking past the controversial moment where players yank the eyeball out of a gigantic cyclops' head in particularly gruesome fashion, there's still no shortage of potentially line-crossing bloodshed. A trailer released last month shows, among other things, a man's head being crushed by a hammer so big even Cloud would be envious, and another man being cut in half from shoulder to waist by a sword. A previous trailer showed a man gutted in the literal sense so that his entrails poured out. One thing's for sure: Santa Monica isn't backing off from the series' proclivity for violence.
However you feel about the idea of a more humanized version of Kratos and more grisly violence than ever before, Ascension does have more to offer. Quick-time events have always been a fixture of God of War, though they arguably wore our their welcome before the series made its debut. QTE-style moments haven't been abandoned in Ascension, but they have been reworked so they no longer revolve around hitting a button indicated on-screen. The camera will, as in a QTE, get in tight during these moments, but there won't be any Simon Says going on. Instead, players might use their two attacks and dodge ability to get through the sequence without being specifically instructed every step of the way. It seems like a fair middle ground between facilitating these cinematic moments and not reducing the player's input to a series of designated button presses that result in a Game Over if not successfully executed.
For all of the changes to the single-player campaign -- including weapons that can be taken from fallen foes, elements that can be harnessed to modify attacks, and a revamped Rage system that activates on its own and can be extended by staying on the offensive -- it's the addition of multiplayer that is undoubtedly the biggest change in Ascension. God of War has never included a multiplayer mode of any sort before now, and so the series finds itself in the same position as other single-player-only franchises that added multiplayer after a few entries. In Mass Effect 3's case, there was a backlash from some fans who felt BioWare was betraying what the series was all about. The reaction to God of War's multiplayer addition has been less severe; the fact that ME3's multiplayer turned out to be very fun and surprisingly resilient could have been of some reassurance that multiplayer in God of War will be more than an afterthought.
Ascension's multiplayer might not end up fitting into its story quite as nicely as ME3's mode did, but the action itself makes sense for a God of War game. Several modes have been announced so far, including what amounts to a four-player deathmatch mode and a team-based objective mode where teams square off against one another while trying to capture points and complete level-specific tasks such as ripping out the aforementioned cyclops' eye. The latter mode, known as Team Favor of the Gods, has the potential to be especially interesting with how much can be going on at once between the various objectives, power-ups, traps, and player customization that has to be accounted for. All of this takes place while players fight each other using the always solid (and newly improved) God of War combat system. And, as you'd expect, encounters between players can take longer than those against your standard single-player, AI-controlled enemy.
As with any multiplayer game released in this day and age, there is an experience system that allows for new weapons and other items to be unlocked over time. The fighting style employed by players depends upon which one of four gods (Zeus, Ares, Hades, or Poseidon) they choose to align themselves with; Ares, for instance, uses fire and focuses on swords. Amassing experience and picking out things like armor helps to further differentiate players from one another. I'm hoping many of these choices will be viable ones, so as to avoid having everyone eventually settle into very rigid builds determined to be superior to all the rest.
One way or another, it will at least be refreshing to see a new multiplayer game where shooting is not the focal point, albeit one where violence is as prominent and brutal as ever. God of War was quickly reaching a point where it was in dire need of some major changes to justify the existence of future entries, and multiplayer might well turn out to be a central component in accomplishing that.