The Ascent Review
On another level
Tiers are everywhere. Socioeconomic tiers split people based on education, wealth, and occupation. Sport tiers range from children’s amateur leagues to professionals competing at the Olympics. Tiers also exist in gaming. We expect that indie titles will not have the visual quality and content of the bigger games. But every once and a while a game blurs the line. The Ascent is a fun top-down shooter from a small development studio, Neon Giant, with exceptional visuals and plenty of content. If it were not for bugs, tedium, and other issues, it would sit comfortably alongside games several price tiers above its own.
The Ascent takes place on planet Veles, home to powerful corporations and many different alien species. Most individuals on the planet are indentured under a corporation: slaves until they die. The largest corporation is The Ascent Group, and they own the biggest metropolis (aka arcology), home to hundreds of thousands of beings stacked on top of each other. This arcology is split into tiers, with the rich and powerful enjoying the sunlight above the clouds and the poor workers breathing filth in cramped habitations stacks on the lower decks.
You are a new member of The Ascent Group and are thrown into the deep, dark bowels of the arcology to fix the waste processing system. After succeeding, by killing a few genetic abominations, it is back to the lower decks for another assignment. But The Ascent Group goes offline for an unknown reason. With no corporation to pay slaves, manage resources, or give out work orders, things are about to descend into chaos.
Fortunately a lower-deck habitation manager recognizes the upcoming disaster and gathers others to start dishing out resources, with your help to shoot any that want to take more than their share. Once these immediate needs are sorted, another corporation makes contact and asks for assistance in deciphering what happened to The Ascent Group. All this is made hard when gangs are keen on exploiting the lawless situation and some holdouts are trying to bring a dead corporation back to life.
The lore in the world is extensive. Datapads provide mini stories and characters offer extra context on a wide range of things. There is plenty of depth in terms of races, technology, corporations, and locations. The world is an amalgamation of many cyberpunk universes, yet it also feels unique due to unfamiliar alien species and other changes. Unfortunately the terminology is rather extensive and confusing. Even with a great codex that shows off fantastic designs, there are just too many nouns and acronyms to keep up.
What is clear is that the arcology is a truly stunning location. The multi-tier structure is overflowing with intricate detail. The level design and art is consistently outstanding, with neon lights, grimy floors, trash piles, graffiti, advertising signs, and apt corporation logos. The three-dimensional backdrops have real depth, with layers of structures and moving objects. This insane detail is sustained over a big playable area, with many districts to visit: flooded streets, colorful bars, bot-infested repair bays, busy spaceports, gang hideouts, corporation facilities, and Chinese-style markets. Every area is a visual treat for fans of cyberpunk and the rewards continue for the entire game (about 15 hours).
Story missions are straightforward and they typically involve progressing gradually up the four main tiers of the arcology and shooting whatever gets in your way. Side missions are rather humdrum, often more like fetch quests, despite some unique rewards. Enemies across the world are at a set level and do eventually respawn, so trampling back through areas means repeating the same combat encounters.
There is a fast-travel system, via metro stations and a taxi, but fast travel does not work across the four tiers or from within interiors. So there is unnecessary walking. Some of this takes place around the promenade of the central hub and then taking the elevator up or down. While keeping the tiers separate helps sell the world, it grows tiring when nothing much changes. There is too much back-and-forth near the end, especially if you seek to clean up side missions before going on with the story.
As an isometric top-down shooter with RPG elements, the game holds up due to its enjoyable action. Shooting works great with the mouse and keyboard, although you might need to rebind some keys. There are enough different enemy types: melee brutes, cloaked ninjas, spider-bots, and jump-jet assisted gunners. To take them down, players use two weapons, a tactical charge (grenade equivalent), and two augmentation skills that require energy. Health, tactical charge, and energy can be gained during combat as enemies drop colored vials, like the health system in Diablo III. You can also spend credits to buy these from stations (or hack them) before, during, or after combat.
There are many weapons to equip, although a few have similar functionality. While ammo is unlimited, weapons need to be reloaded and switching guns is common. Weaponry includes pistols, burst-fire rifles, sub-machine guns, rocket-launchers, energy weapons, and shotguns. They can all be upgraded to increase damage and some work better against certain enemy types. One useful feature of combat is the ability to crouch behind obstacles and shoot up and over. There is no snap-to-cover but it still works rather well when faced with tough opponents and it makes positioning key to keeping health high. There are also dodges, which helps to avoid powerful attacks and grab those resource vials.
Tactical charges take on a few different forms, like regular grenades, non-lethal stuns, and a stasis field. It takes too long for them to recharge at first but allocating more points to the tactical stat will see them get used often enough. Not all are explosions either, as there is a useful a healing field, an auto-turret, and even a deployable mech suit.
Augmentations are a great part of combat, and they have varied uses and different cooldown times. One of the fun augs is a stomp that launches nearby enemies into the air so they can be ‘charged’ with bullets until they explode satisfyingly. Another aug will send out a neutron beam that decimates armored enemies but leaves you stationary and vulnerable. There are defensive augs too, like a health transfer system or a bubble field that slows down projectiles.
With many options, the combat is fun and chaotic. Given that combat areas regularly have civilians that scramble about, there is quite a lot of collateral fallout. Explosive barrels are everywhere and they can be targeted for broad damage. The carnage leaves bodies, skeletons, limbs, blood smears, char marks, and more. The special effects are excellent and almost everything about the action feels good.
Difficulty spikes can happen at any time though. High-level enemies can be close to low-level ones, and this can bring abrupt deaths. Bosses are tough but the most challenging scenarios are when you have to defend an area. Here enemies spawn thick and fast, and it can be tricky to both stay alive and kill enough targets. Fortunately loadouts can be changed during combat. One defend objective was cleared by equipping rapid augs against low-tier enemies; another with a defensive/healing setup and heavy weapons. It is nice that the game encourages different play styles but some encounters, like the poor final boss, have difficulty spikes too far outside the norm.
While the action typically uses a fixed isometric perspective, the camera is not always consistent. Occasionally the view shifts to focus on some amazing bit of scenery—and who could blame the developers for wanting to show off. The camera even automatically swoops closer to the ground to become like a side-scroller. But, whenever combat is involved most changes in perspective are a bad idea. In addition, foreground objects get in the way sometimes, although, given how many layers are in the world, this occurs less than expected.
Just like that other cyberpunk game from last year, The Ascent has more than its share of bugs. They are quite varied, ranging from crashes, to interface issues and action glitches. AI enemies often gave up attacking (with insane health regeneration), and a few brutes got permanently stuck in doorways. A couple of the side missions could not be completed: a quest icon appeared but the quest giver was absent. Even the obnoxious pop-up tutorial screens, which are horribly abused during the first hour, start coming back as though the game forgot you saw them.
There is a four-player co-operative experience but it has problems. Straight out of the gate co-op is crippled because it is invite only, so you need friends at roughly the same character level. Playing the Windows Store version means you can crossplay with those on Xbox but Steam users are isolated from both. Couch co-op does not work on a single PC with a keyboard+mouse and controller—you must have two controllers. If you do find a friend or three, the network connections are fine and the action can be fun. Unfortunately there are far more bugs during online play, including players getting stuck in objects, aim direction locking for minutes, augmentations not showing as recharged, and more crashes.
Despite significant co-op obstacles, The Ascent is still an enjoyable top-down shooter with some of the best visuals this year. The level design features outstanding cyberpunk presentation across a large, layered arcology that constantly provides interesting corners to explore. When it comes to the shooting, it is fun and there are plenty of different abilities to try against a good number of opponents. Even the story has plenty of depth if you can piece it all together. It is just a pity that difficulty spikes, excessive walking, bugs, and camera quirks drag The Ascent down a tier or two.