Review of The Ascent – A breathtaking cyberpunk universe in thrall to a tedious RPG-shooter

It is a teeming place. The Ascent is alive with cyberpunk people. It is also full of cliches, and calls outs to canonical works. There are the Blade Runner’s melancholy synth score and William Gibson’s “high tech, lower life” phrase, as well as pirouetting holostrippers and katana-wielding Orientals. It isn’t one of those transgressive, norm-busting pop fictions. Even Ruiner is a shocker by comparison. The Ascent’s world is lacking in imagination, bite and detail but makes up for it in size and a meticulous model-maker’s attention to every last detail.

The Ascent Review

  • PublisherCurve Digital
  • DeveloperNeon Giant
  • PlatformPlayed on a PC
  • Available:Available now for PC

Shops are your best friend. Although it’s likely the lockdown is talking, I would love to live there. You’ve never seen such shops, seriously! These armouries are adorned with wireframe, spinning weapons. There are 24 hour vending machines and soylent-green pharmacies that emit the feeling of a hangover. Philosophical robots staff fortified holes in the wall. Open-air markets for steam, cloth and clanking steel. Every store feels like a little treasure chest, with the lid falling off when you enter. The shelves are beautifully decorated with goods, much like circuit boards filled by chips. How about the lighting? It is polluted, chaotic, shifting, and overwhelming. It is a war of ads and kanji fonts in the arcology hub districts. They are full of screens and reflections that filter through the smog and interwoven paths of delivery drones. There are hundreds of tired NPCs moving about. Even if you follow the HUD’s breadcrumb trail, it’s easy for people to lose track of things. I’m not complaining. Digital flaneurs will love the Ascent’s urban environment. It longs for a quiet life.

This elevated diagonal perspective is very effective in creating a scene with corners which divide the landscape into rich, contrasting arrangements of textures and colours. The way that floor patterns and buildings are mapped to each other is a source of fascination. It also tugs against the exploration and shooting axes suggested by the quasi-isometric perspective. It’s a little trickery to believe that the vertical city concept is actually a collection of flat planes connected by loading transitions. One doesn’t need a jump button, but the entire world functions as a series. The game creates an illusion of immense depth. There are chance gaps, reinforced glass floors and giddy scenes of hovercars cutting through tenements and factories hundreds of meters below. You can access some of these depths by floating platform or elevator. These transitions are reminiscent Abe’s Oddysee’s foreground-to-background shifts. But, it is a huge effort to bring life into places that cannot be reached. There will be sparks coming from the droids that fix the walkways’ flanks and party-goers crowded into the balconies just above the plane.

What do you do when you find yourself in such a unique setting? It is the work of only 11 developers. After three paragraphs of raving about kiosks let me try to condense it into one sentence. Follow HUD prompts for a quest marker and circle-strafe away attackers until everyone is gone. Spend your level-up point to reach the next objective. If you stop at a vendor, upgrade or sell some gear. This is the way it works. OK, not quite: there’s also hacking, but it’s a glorified gating feature/back-tracking incentive, with beefier cyberdecks letting you crack encrypted treasure chests and disable the forcefields that separate city districts.

This is a terrible waste of space. This is also a terrible waste of story. It’s a routine piece of cyberpunk writing: overcompensatory language and self-interest. Hitman’s Diana Burnwood, after her trip to the Ripperdoc, is one example. The characters aren’t personalities but grab-bags of TVtropes attitudes. The narrative is intriguing. The majority of The Ascent’s inhabitants are interplanetary pioneers, indents. They must spend the rest of their lives covering travel costs. The corporation that runs the arcology mysteriously goes bankrupt. This means everyone’s contracts and ownership of utilities like the power generators and AIs are now in jeopardy.

This is a sign of hope in a prison that was once a debtor’s prison for many decades. Cue quiet conversations on the streets amongst burned out labourers who used to dream of creating paradise. It’s hard to imagine positive changes. Everyone knows from the beginning that some big company will take control. Many would rather it be that way. “Business as usual” is appealing because of the appeal of business. This opening note of insecurity, which is the rocking of an economy built on punitive loans, makes it a solid foundation for the story of the dynamic of capitalist dystopia. It’s somewhat disappointing that you play the role of an unselfconscious, self-reflective, and bludgeoning instrument. You are a quiet, silent grunt, content to obey the instructions of anyone who has them.

The Ascent’s simple shooting and levelling make it an unobtrusive way to deliver the city’s many nuances. The shooting quality is bad and RPG is boring. This makes it difficult to rove the city. The Ascent is a unique shooter. It walks a delicate line between tactical combat in Gears tradition, and Diablo-tinted shot-hell evasion. The Ascent is a twin-stick shmup. It has a laser pointer, adjustable autoaim and a dual-stick trigger. However, you can also crouch to fire under cover. By default you shoot from your hip, but you have the option to fire your weapon at your side by holding the left trigger. This will increase the chances of hitting a critical hit while decreasing movement speed.

My idea is to make a fun alternation of sliding about blasting like Geometry Wars or surgically solving an encounter like Ghost Recon. It doesn’t work, at least not without co-op friends. Due to the limited view and the tendency of the game to create goons out of every angle, you rarely have time for digging in. It’s difficult to keep track of where you are standing or crouched, and whether bullets have hit an enemy or shredded the barricade. You can avoid panicking, backing away from health drops and kiting out the masses around cover layouts. At least you don’t need to be concerned about ammunition: The guns, from rocket launchers to energy rifles, all have different magazine sizes and reloading times, but they are very inexhaustible.

I was once bitten by mosquitos and pitched a tent in the middle of the night after a late-game experience.

You have to finish a few sidequests for each main story beat. This will allow you to fire a handcannon at any time, regardless of whether you forgot which attack type you should choose (energy-based or ballistic) for that enemy. If you’re not averse to hearing the same boring mission dialogue, then grinding can be done by slamming your head against story missions.

One exception to the Rule of Grind is the irritating wave-defence situations that end many story missions. The Ascent turns into a meat factory as enemies are thrown in large groups, often with 10 or more. Lategame battles see you activate four hold-the button terminals simultaneously while mutants flood into low-lit areas. This experience made me think of setting up a tent in the dark and being eaten by mosquitoes. Although you can summon robotic allies to help with punishment, it is not a substitute for a human player. The Ascent is a solo game that can be enjoyed all through, but these pressure cooker moments remind you to use multiplayer support. There’s both public and invitation-only online, as well as a local cooperative feature on console. Unfortunately, I was unable to organize any group-ups due to lockdown restrictions and pre-launch conditions.

These are your standard action-RPG powerups wrapped in Deus Ex. Augs can include AOE strikes, the mandatory Iron-Man chest beam and deployable turrets. Support skills also allow for leaching of health and bumping foes into stasis. These augments are a great complement to the run-and gun, and can often turn the tide in a brawl. However, they don’t add much excitement, as they blend together into nothing more than their individual parts. This is where you can increase your odds of critical hit and health bar. It also boosts the augments. However, there aren’t many battlefield combinations beyond simple RPG alchemy like priming enemies to explode after they die. While the enemy design can be as simple, it will play with hackers and static defenses to debuff your efforts, but default to gunmen to pin you down or kamikaze men to flush you out. Bosses can be described as bigger and more powerful AOE-skilled health bars: they will make you run away like Monty Python’s willing gladiator until your frustration makes them keel.

4

Then there’s the technical issues. Although my computer is a little shaky, I’m not afraid to take the hammer down. However, if it can run a game at med-high settings, it should be capable of running it without constant crashing, characters stuck in geometry, entire floorplans taking too long to load, or special abilities being triggered during combat. The sound of the power generators was interrupted by the buzz of hover traffic, creating a cacophony that could have been compared to a light-saber battle in a washer machine. The fire button was not working for an hour. These issues are also applicable to enemies. I cannot describe the feeling of gratitude that I felt at the end when the attacking group abruptly dropped their tools and just sat looking at me. They seemed almost as exhausted as I was.

You will find this amazing city less fascinating the more you play. You’ll be dragging yourself back and forth among far-flung NPCs. Your journey will also be interrupted by random hoodlums defending floors. You can travel quickly using free airborne taxis or metro stations. However, you cannot use the central elevators for travel between the arcology levels. This creates more work and gives rise to boring fights. Worst, fast travel is not possible from maintenance districts, docks and plants. If you need to recharge your equipment, then you will need to hike all the way back.

It’s still a great relief to be able to get away from the grueling engagements in major cities. Open-air gyms are used by aliens to pump iron. People cleaning up, the RPG-adherent’s favorite pastime. Or kicking vending machine. There’s also a club goer throwing shapes, which recalls Blade’s opening scene. Scientists debate amongst glowing centrifuges. These moving parts are absorbed into the memories, where they soon become slurry and the combat and quest elements of the game begin to blur.

5

The world, however, doesn’t seem like it remembers you for your brilliance and well-made appearance. You make a move and the pedestrians are scattered. But seconds later, it seems as though nothing happened. Your growing record of murder is evident to respawning gangs. Want to see your relatives who are dead? They’ll grunt, level 4, to your 20 and wiggle their dukes up like Scrappy Doo on the Terminator. The suggestion that there might be repercussions to killing civilians is made by the wintry mercenary Captain. You can hear him rant about this over the radio. They never appear in-game, or they did not for me. These reprimands feel more like Call of Duty’s hypocritical slaps on your wrist for friendly fire, rather than making allusions about a morality system like Fallout.

You may be remarked upon by NPCs as you go. You’ll also hear broadcasts about recent acts or destruction during your trips. In the end, you will decide the fate of the entire city. Your status and reputation are not reflected in how you interact with the places you go or the people you meet. Why would they? You’re just another criminal looking for control of the universe and a way to get that coveted office view. Gibson said it again: “The street finds its own use for things.” The streets of The Ascent are not very useful for the player, but I doubt it.

Publited at Thu 29 July 2021, 13:47.28 +0000

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