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It’s no secret that Xbox Game Pass has more than its fair share of benefits.
While the ever-growing game library and access to all of Microsoft‘s first party games at launch are among the most obvious plus points to take from the service, one of the the most notable benefits can be found in those moments where where you try a brand new game you otherwise wouldn’t have dabbled with and find yourself falling in love with it.
It’s fair to say that The Ascent doesn’t have a triple-A marketing budget behind it, so for some players these will be circumstances under which they first try the game – a complete punt on something they aren’t very familiar with.
They’ll almost immediately be glad they took that leap, because what they’ll find is an exceptionally well-designed action game with some of the best world design we’ve seen in this medium to date.
Set in a futuristic cyberpunk world, the game puts you in the role of a worker for The Ascent Group, a huge megacorporation that suddenly collapses without warning, leading to anarchy.
As other organisations and syndicates fight each other to try and take control of the city, it’s up to your character to make sure nobody manages to pull it off, while at the same time trying to find out what caused The Ascent Group to go belly-up.
While the world of Veles has more than its fair share of weird and wonderful inhabitants, it’s the environment itself, which is undoubtedly the game’s most endearing character.
The sheer level of detail that has gone into each area is breathtaking, not least when you consider that developer Neon Giant consists of only 12 people.
“The sheer level of detail that has gone into each area is breathtaking, not least when you consider that developer Neon Giant consists of only 12 people.”
While many games with similar zoomed out, top-down viewpoints can occasionally be graphically underwhelming because it can lead to environments lacking in detail, The Ascent instead uses this viewpoint to its advantage by creating vast cityscapes that stretch miles into the distance, while using a cinematic camera to swipe around and ensure that the player almost always has something cool to look at.
When you then add the gorgeous lighting effects on top of this – with some sections bathed in reds, oranges, yellows and greens – the result is one of the most visually appealing game worlds we’ve probably ever seen.
The cyberpunk aesthetic has been done to death in recent years, but rarely has it been handled so well, and rarely has it had us slowly wandering the streets, taking in all the different buildings and signs. This is a world we’d love to explore in more detail in a future sequel.
This is all accompanied by a phenomenal soundtrack that at times shows its clear Vangelis / Blade Runner influence and at others provides a pumping, pulsing soundtrack to accompany moments of action.
Sightseeing is all well and good but the main task at hand here is obviously shooting at as many things as possible until your trigger finger goes numb. Rest assured, there are plenty of opportunities to do so.
As you explore new areas, groups of enemies will approach you on a regular basis, turning every seemingly innocuous street into a potential gunfight. Combat is handled with a twin stick setup, with the left stick handling player movement and the right stick controlling your aim (accompanied by a handy red laser pointer).
There are a few different types of weapon available to you, each with their own different feel. Machine guns let you take on large groups of enemies from a distance but their accuracy and power leave something to be desired, whereas more powerful shotgun-type weapons like the Riot Gun do enormous damage up close, as a reward for the obvious risks involved.
This by itself is no great innovation but the weapons are so satisfying to use and enemy strengths are diverse enough that some situations really do require you to stop and consider which gun to take into battle.
Gunning down the giant mech boss with a machine gun is all well and good if you’ve got an eternity to spare slowly whittling his armour down. But if you can get in close and avoid its slow but extremely powerful attacks, you can blow chunks out of its health bar with a more powerful weapon.
The environments also come into play during combat. The B button lets you duck down behind various pieces of scenery while holding the LT button lets you raise your gun above your head and aim over it, meaning you can take cover and fire from behind it, which is deeply satisfying to pull off (though it should be noted that enemies can do the same).
Most games of this nature have some sort of character progression system and The Ascent is no different. As level up, you gain skill points which can be used to boost specific attributes, such as your maximum health or the likelihood of enemies being able to stun you. Again, none of this is truly revolutionary, but the true success of this game doesn’t lie in its innovation, but its execution (in more ways than one).
As you progress through the game there will occasionally be moments where a feeling of repetition sets in. Some areas, especially narrower ones on bridges and the like, can feel like you’re shuffling forwards, taking on a big group of enemies, shuffling forwards again, taking on another group and so on until you reach your next objective.
As entertaining as its gunplay is, it can sometimes feel like these countless battles are constantly thrown in your way to slow you down and artificially extend the game’s length. Granted, it’s an action game, but when you hit your umpteenth fight against a gang of 15 the impact is lessened a little.
We also really struggled to get into the plot, particularly because the dialogue suffers from the same problem a lot of sci-fi does in that it regularly throws made-up jargon at you that’s designed to build the universe but just makes conversations difficult to decipher.
We completely appreciate the game is set in a different world and so there’s obviously going to be some fictional terms, but at least Star Wars would throw people a bone every now and then with the likes of Speeder Bikes, Sandcrawlers and lightsabers – terms that may be alien but are still easy enough to understand.
“The dialogue suffers from the same problem a lot of sci-fi does in that it regularly throws made-up jargon at you that’s designed to build the universe, but just makes conversations difficult to decipher.”
Here, some characters – most notably Poone, your main mission provider for the first chunk of the game – regularly rattle off reams of lingo that can be really frustrating to parse.
When you’re told that “one of the bulbHeads you rescued from Malhorst-Gelb claims we can funnel energy covertly from the old tokamak down in the deepStink, and as you’re trying to break that down you’re then told that “the AGI is still quiet, amazing as that is, rival CGTs are already coming into the arcology to pick the bones clean”, it’s easy to be lost at times.
Sometimes you’ll be given a mission that’s loaded with so much bizarre terminology that you’re not really sure what it is you have to do. Thankfully, 95% of the missions in this game involve walking to an objective marker and shooting everything in sight.
These objective markers are a strong example of the numerous ways the game caters to different skill types. For the most part, players can choose to follow the green markers, which provide a conventional navigation system you’d expect in games like this.
These appear at the edge of the screen and give you a rough idea of the general direction of your next objective, but you still have to figure out what route to take to get there.
However, if you’re struggling and don’t know what to do, you can instead tap Up on the D-Pad, which makes a red laser path appear, showing you exactly which way to go. Theoretically, players can just keep pressing Up and have their hand held straight to their next location. Obviously, this is completely optional.
This focus on user-friendly experiences is ingrained throughout the entire game, from the way you can press in the left stick in inventory screens to replace stat icons with text descriptions, to the way every time you die, you’re simply a single button press away from instantly jumping back into the action (albeit a bit further back), with extremely fast loading to boot.
When you break it down to its basic components, The Ascent doesn’t do anything that particularly pushes the genre forward in any way. But when it looks as phenomenal as this and is as thoroughly entertaining to play, it doesn’t have to.
Its fantastically detailed world design and its incredible lighting make it one of the most visually stunning games of its type we’ve ever played, and while its plot and dialogue can feel like trying to break through diamond at times, the exploration and combat that flow around it make everything else a real joy.
The Ascent is a superb action game that looks as fantastic as it plays. Its plot and dialogue can be pretty hard-going but its gunplay is deeply satisfying. On Game Pass it's a no-brainer, but it would be worthwhile at full price too.
- Incredible world design and brilliant lighting
- Twin-stick combat feels satisfying
- Plenty of quality of life features to stop players getting lost or confused
- Superb electronic soundtrack
- The dialogue and plot are infuriating to try to penetrate