‘The Ascent’ review: just good enough, and that’s okay

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Shooter The Ascent feels like a William Gibson novel. Not because it’s instantly a staple of the cyberpunk genre, but because it rips off every trope of Gibson’s particular aesthetic to create a world that looks incredible, but ultimately has nothing new to say.

Luckily, the combat in The Ascent is just good enough that you can enjoy the world around you and just keep blasting. This is revealing in two ways: firstly, that just good enough is the magic glue that holds the entire experience of The Ascent together, but secondly that as soon as the combat stops, the game becomes a real slog.

The Ascent is an isometric perspective shooter RPG that will feel familiar to anyone that has played Diablo or Path of Exile in the past, but with lashings of cyberpunk on top. This means wet dark streets filled with the soft haze of neon – ray tracing support is in the game and makes the neon look amazing – and the occasional spot of ultraviolence.

The game’s skill system is just good enough – there’s that phrase again – that you feel like you’re making improvements: each level up lets you dump points into the game’s skills, which offer you incremental improvements to your reloading speed or critical hit chance, which, in turns, also boosts some of your other stats. It’s uninspiring, but over time you’ll feel like you’re doing more damage, and being knocked on your arse a bit less.

The Ascent
The Ascent. Credit: Neon Giant.

Similarly, the fashion game in The Ascent is in a similar place. Clothing is armour, which means you can be waddling around in parachute pants, a VR headset and a leather jacket, or you could just find yourself looking like a street samurai, or… a pilot.

The colour you choose for your clothing becomes your “main” colour, and all future clothes are the same colour as this, in addition to the ring around your character’s feet so you can easily find yourself during chaotic combat.

Movement in the game feels really nice: you have a dodge – also upgradable to be milliseconds faster – and you can crouch to get behind cover. A weird quirk in the game is that you have perfect accuracy while firing from the hip, but you can bring the gun up to “aim” which will raise it to shoot enemies in the head, occasionally netting you extra damage. You can combine this to raise the gun above your head while cowering behind cover, but these raised shots will miss crouching enemies, meaning you’ll be swinging your gun around constantly as the hordes of enemies roll in. There are also augments, special powers that you can equip to define how your character works, but also chop and change them as needed.

Unfortunately, the early weapons lack the meaty thwump of the later efforts: when I got my hands on a proper light machine gun I felt like bullet-Moses, parting the dead sea. This became more pronounced as I upgraded my light machine gun and, later, replaced it with a minigun.

The Ascent
The Ascent. Credit: Neon Giant.

That’s just my style, of course. When I added a co-op partner, he charged around with a shotgun as the bait while I hunkered down behind a low wall and spat lead and energy beams into the teeming masses of bad guys.

It was pretty fun. Adding a friend to any co-op game is a recipe for success, but here it really helps to make the combat more engaging. I was playing with a huge punch that kicked out a shockwave and could push people away from me, and a superhero leap that let me crash to the ground with a damaging shockwave. He had a robot buddy who would occasionally teleport in to help out, and also the ability to ‘port in a cloud of mechanical spiders who would find the nearest enemy and then blow themselves up.

Sadly, there’s no level scaling. When we first played together, I was level 3 on a new character and he was level 11. I was killed in a single shot, turning the game into a nightmarish survival horror as he tried to revive me before my bleed-out timer meant we’d see another game over screen. But I soon caught up, and it was somewhat enjoyable in its own way. You see, there’s beauty in The Ascent’s chaos, and you only start to see the issues with the game when that chaos spins down.

Take for example, every time you venture into a town. Your guns get stowed and you’re forced to walk around confusing hub areas to talk to people about stuff you don’t want to hear about. I don’t think that The Ascent’s story is necessarily bad, it’s just that I struggled to pay attention to any of it, and had no interest, eventually mashing the skip button every time it appeared on screen. After a while, the game’s NPCs started to feel like the game’s most odious nemesis because they were the ones keeping me from getting into another firefight.

The Ascent
The Ascent. Credit: Neon Giant.

What little story I could stomach before I gave in to my urge for constant combat was cyberpunk by the numbers: you live in a huge arcology controlled by a megacorporation, playing as a worker enslaved by The Ascent Group, referred to as an Ident due to your indentured servitude status. It’s not really a failing of the game: who can pick much story from Diablo 2? I played 1000 hours of that game.

The Ascent sadly probably doesn’t have the sticking power of Diablo 2, but it’s a damn good time, and sometimes just good enough really is all you need. When all of these systems work together, The Ascent shows it could have been a must-play: as I – dressed in purple body armour that made me look like The Punisher after a mid-life crisis induced reinvention – strolled into a nightclub with my co-op partner, the owner came onto the mic and announced a huge bonus for anyone that killed us. Suddenly, we’re charging around the place getting shot at by the entire clientele. That was genuinely a great set piece, and it’s a shame these moments happen so rarely, and most big moments usually involve running around something big in cycles, holding down the trigger.

The Ascent releases today, July 29, for Xbox and PC. We played the PC version. 

The Verdict

The Ascent isn’t the game of the generation but it is a lot of fun, and with its addition to Game Pass on day one, the cyberpunk world, great weaponry and so-so everything else might make it good enough to be the game of right now, at least. Worth a blast for fans of shooters or cyberpunk.

Pro

  • Bigger guns feel great to fire
  • Fashion game on point
  • Beautiful cyberpunk world…

Cons

  • … Inhabited by boring characters
  • Uninspiring skill select
  • Too much downtime
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