Trampled under foot: Ascend: New Gods preview
Ascend: New Gods is an action game. The fact that players take control of gigantic warriors known as Caos that mow through hordes of beasts with magic and melee weapons while trampling the tiny, feeble humans under their feet as a man might a rodent, informs those who pick up the controller of as much. The fact that these towering, stout champions appear before the seemingly indomitable Titans of the game as not but rodents themselves, betrays that there may just be something more to Signal Studios’ game than the repeated mashing of a face button that could effectively get one through the title’s E3 demo.
Although Signal promises that more challenging enemies will turn up later in the game, the demo, while enjoyable, left one wanting to see what other tricks the studio has up its sleeve. Most of the encounters could be won by relying on basic attacks, the repeated swinging of a sword or war hammer until the foe(s) before the Caos were felled. Getting beyond the basic “press X to kill stuff” approach to battles is something that all developers of action games must work to overcome if they are to differentiate their work from that of the competition.
Signal has plans for that. A unique form of multiplayer (more on that shortly) and a slew of challenging beasts that may require a bit more cunning to overcome. “We have tons of different monsters in the game,” Signal Studios Lead Game Designer Ian Scott explained to XBLA Fans at E3. “As you saw, the humans are really small in our game; they’re kind of like rats. You can pick them up and eat them for health, but there’s obviously things that are a lot bigger than you and more badass. Well, I don’t know about necessarily more badass than you.” Scott isn’t sure whether or not the team wants individual non-Titan enemies to be tougher than a Caos, but he asserted that there are definitely enemies that can dole out a walloping.
So what about the Titans themselves? Unfortunately, the demo on the show floor came to a close right as the player prepared to square off against one of the gargantuan bosses, so it’s impossible to say exactly how battles with them will play out. In fact, the team at Signal hasn’t even figured it all out yet. The staff does have some plans that it’s tinkering around with, though. “We’re trying to stay away from doing things too much like Shadow of the Colossus. We do have some quick-timey-event-like elements to the combat,” Scott said when asked if these battles would feature QTEs like in the God of War franchise or unfold similarly to Team Ico’s take on enormous boss fights.
There is no shortage of gamers who feel QTEs have been done to death in recent years, and that camp should know that the creators of Ascend don’t plan on leaning too heavily on such sequences. “So far as the Titan combat goes,” continued Scott, “we’re probably going to remain pretty tight-lipped, but as a design philosophy, we don’t want you to basically go through a button sequence to beat the guy. If we can highlight a couple of moments in the fight that way, that might be acceptable, but you know you’re going to spend all this time collecting weapons and armor and abilties, and that’s going to color your play style. So to have you do a boss fight where…you can’t really fight that way kind of seems like not the way to go.”
The designer allowed that nailing down the particulars of the fights continues to be a challenge thanks to the extreme size discrepancy between Titan and Caos. Scott put it more succinctly: “he’s [expletive] huge.” Yet not everything about the encounters is still shrouded in mystery. One aspect the boys at Signal are certain of is winning a battle against a Titan is something that will “echo across the entire community.” When they’re not tanking their way through MoB, players will visit a hub area reminiscent of a city in an MMO. Top players and major events will be showcased in the hub; it’s there that players will bump into one another and have the chance to spread some seeds of envy that should push their peers back out into the world in an attempt to keep up with the Joneses.
More than just character one-upmanship, the game’s multiplayer will allow would-be Titan-slayers to interact with one another’s worlds without directly entering them. “We’re trying to do something new asynchronously but also it’s like synchronous multiplayer,” said Scott. “You know we love playing co-op RPGs, but like it could be a hassle at times to get everybody together at the same time for the same game. So what we want to do with [the game] is give you like, a seamless experience with like — we do want to give you the ability of playing with your friends, together, like we don’t want to have dungeons that are so hard that you have to work together…But, you know the multiplayer component adds so much that we don’t want to omit that from the experience.”
Holding down the left trigger lets you cycle through a list of special abilities with the d-pad. Summoning some wolves into the world can help players through particularly sticky situations. They also have more insidious uses: dispatch them to another player’s world (other players stomping through the same area of the game appear as transparent Caos) to give someone a nasty little surprise, tipping the scales against them. But gamers will want to weigh their options before doing so — that other player may just banish send over some nasties of his own for you to deal with. Conversely, there is always the option to play nice and send over a blessing that heals another player and makes him invulnerable. That’s not how Scott does things. “I tend to really enjoy the griefing,” he said, “sending a curse or getting to people that way.”
It’s not possible to jump directly into any world other than your own, but SmartGlass will allow players to use mobile devices for viewing maps, getting reports on recent happenings in Ascend: New Gods and sending those blessings and curses back and forth. Presumably, those reports will contain info on the progression of each of the three alignments in the world (Light, Dark and Void). Players can choose from and switch between them by pledging their loyalty to a corresponding god. Doing so allows for different ability branches and access to unique parts of the world.
Seizing control of segments of the world for any particular faction will open the door to new possibilities. “That kind of comprises a lot of the gameplay,” Scott explained. “It’s like getting to harder areas. But because you’re playing a single player game and your friend or anybody else is playing a single player game, you kind of know the challenges that you’re dealing with…If you just dealt with like a mini-boss and there’s somebody else about to come in, you can make their life a living hell when they try to get to through that boss.”
So what can you expect as far as the size of the hill that Ascend players are going to charge up in an attempt to crown their respective god king (or queen) of? Scott was non-committal on that front and swerved unexpectedly towards a potential pricing model. “We hope to have some exciting announcements in the future about [the game’s scope],” he said. “It’s not going to be a $60 dollar — not going to be a $50, $40, $30 game. It’s gonna be really exciting when we finally get to announce what we’re doing there. Hopefully that vagueness gets you stoked.”
Speaking of pricing, shortly after Ascend: New Gods‘ E3 showing, Signal Creative Director D.R. Albright III was asked specifically if the project would release as a freemium title. “I can only say that we are exploring alternative business models!” he coyly stated. Neither quote is confirmation of anything, but at least gamers now know what they won’t be paying when the game drops in late 2012 or early 2013.