Confusion reigned at the God of War: Ascension reveal in Santa Monica: until the Q & A session immediately after a live gameplay demonstration, a considerable portion of the press audience (myself included) thought they were watching a co-op campaign reveal.
As what appeared to be Kratos engaged in battle with a Cyclops, he was joined by a second, similar-looking character. This ally joined the fray and, wielding a large, battle sledgehammer, assisted with a tag-team takedown of the hulking beast. In true God of War fashion, the cyclops' entrails spilled to the floor in grisly detail. We then observed (from player one's perspective) skirmishes with armoured, human adversaries, dispatched with similarly brutal finishing manoeuvres. The players eventually secured a mechanism that drew in the chains binding a Titan-sized "Megalops" from the background. With the mythical cyclops Polyphemus adequately restrained and unable to defend itself, the demonstration ended just before the climax: one of the franchise's gruesome, trademark "David vs. Goliath" fatalities.
It transpired after the demo that what we actually saw was a four-on-four, adversarial, objective-based multiplayer match - a game type called Team Execution. Eight human characters (most of which were lost amongst the pandemonium from my perspective) were controlled by eight Santa Monica Studio staffers seated at the back of the auditorium. The teams were fighting for control of objectives that would afford them the honour of slaying Polyphemus at the end of the match.
The confusion wasn't intended, though - it seems that the press was expected to identify that this gameplay was, in fact, an adversarial multiplayer match during the course of the demo. Despite this, the eventual revelation hammered home a powerful point: God of War: Ascension's multiplayer is, to those none the wiser, indistinguishable from the epic spectacle of the franchise's famed single-player campaigns. Not only was the display free from all the usual multiplayer HUD clutter, but the cinematic quality of the action mirrors the outstanding precedent set by God of War III. That, in itself, is remarkable.
"The whole idea behind it is we wanted to make sure that we bring the big moments to multiplayer," explains Todd Papy, game director for God of War: Ascension at Santa Monica Studios. "When we first started talking about it, it was, 'What makes it epic?' Well, killing big guys does. And so that was the inception idea, and so that's where we started."
Often, when a single-player experience is translated to the fast-and-loose world of online competitive match play, the cinematic aspect is generally the first casualty out of necessity. But Santa Monica Studios is hard at work to ensure that the qualities that have historically made God of War so special remain intact while also delivering a genuinely entertaining multiplayer experience.
The press was only shown a single match of Team Execution. It was difficult to get our heads around at first, and unlike in other multiplayer games, the objectives didn't appear to be blatantly sign-posted. But lead combat designer Jason McDonald was happy to elaborate on what I'd just witnessed.
"Basically, what [multiplayer characters are] trying to do is earn favour from the gods," he begins. "And if they do that, the gods will reward them with things they can use to strengthen themselves over time. So in this match, the goal is to kill the cyclops, and in order to do that, you gotta dominate those two points and earn the right to actually kill him. Throughout that we showed characters meleeing each other, characters using magic abilities, characters picking up things in the world, opening chests, doing various things other than just simply bashing each other."
At one point towards the end of the live gameplay demonstration, the heavens opened and the Spear of Olympus rocketed towards the ground, impaling the battlefield. The player at the centre of the demo picked it up, decimating his opponents with the implement (even firing shard-like projectiles from it) before using it to deliver the deathblow to the Megalops. That player was lead designer Mark Simon, who contends this gift from the gods is not a scripted event and will not always happen. "That point put us over the top for the red team, essentially, and we were able to emerge victorious because of it," he explains.
A hack-and-slash adversarial multiplayer offering is something of a rarity, and Simon acknowledges players - particularly the God of War hardcore - might harbour some skepticism. But he also welcomes it.
"I think it's great. Be skeptical all you want," he says. "That means I'll be able to prove it to you when you get your hands on the controller. The minute you take your hammer and you crush my helmet and then you smash my face in and then you kick me off the edge of a cliff, you'll go, 'OK, I'm playing God of War multiplayer. This is [expletive] awesome.'
According to the team at Santa Monica Studios, there's more depth to this multiplayer offering than those who've played God of War in the past might expect. Before starting their first match, players swear allegiance to one of four gods (Zeus, Hades, Poseidon or Ares), effectively choosing a class for their character. "Based on that selection will come abilities," says combat designer McDonald. "Some of them may be magical, some of them may be perks, some of them may be items that you can use."
The different classes also lend themselves to a team dynamic, with a well balanced team reportedly at a distinct advantage to a team of four players of one type.
There's also a persistent-experience system that will allow players to unlock even more items, weapons, abilities and magic as they progress. Interestingly, it sounds as if experience gained in the heat of battle can even make a player more powerful within a match. Multiplayer characters are also customisable in Ascension, with a multitude of armour and weapon permutations on offer.
But while this presentation was all about the multiplayer reveal, the team at Santa Monica Studios wants fans to know this: the jaw-dropping, spectacular campaign the franchise made its name on is still very much the crown jewel of the God of War: Ascension package. "We want to make sure that single-player stands on its own, delivers and exceeds expectations again," proclaims senior producer Whitney Wade. "God of War single-player is what we're known for, and we don't want to under-deliver on that - we want to over-deliver on that as we always do."
A prequel to the core God of War trilogy, Ascension aims to tell the tale of Kratos from a time when "something other than rage consumed him." It's a means of allowing the player to identify with the human side of Kratos in a bid to explain his very nature. According to Wade, fans have always wanted to know why Kratos is so filled with anger. "For us, the answer's simple - look what the gods have put him through. Of course he's gonna be angry," she says. "And so this is, you know, definitely seeing that anger, but also delving a little bit deeper so that what you'll see in Kratos is more than anger - more complicated."
God of War: Ascension is scheduled for release in 2013 exclusively for PlayStation 3.