Do you know the feeling that you occasionally get when watching a gameplay trailer, and you immediately want to get your hands on the game? Like, right now? This sensation does not come around too often for me, and two games managed to do just that last year. One was Outriders and the other one The Ascent, which I am discussing today. I am not sure what exactly did it for me, but probably because it reminded me of something I played in my youth. In 1999, a game named Expendable made the rounds, primarily due to its stunning visuals at the time. Back then, it demonstrated the power of a graphics feature called Environment Mapped Bump Mapping to enamor the game’s textures with depth information and more perceived detail. The core visuals will not excite anyone in 2021, but that game was full of effects and did not hold them back. Expandable still puts on quite a show.
Games like this are a rare breed and seem to catch my eye whenever one pops up. A more recent example of this type of game that I am aware of is Halo Spartan Assault and Halo Spartan Strike – of which I played the first one. Combine this with stunning visuals in a futuristic, gritty, cyberpunk-themed world, and you get The Ascent. Because it is 2021, no game can make do without some RPG elements. Thus, you get to create your character, level up, and collect loot along the way, making shooting stuff more enjoyable.
And enjoyable it is. Once you get to the point where your brain can cope with the twin-stick-shooting mechanics, and you start to both move and aim in the right direction, The Ascent begins to make a lot of fun – especially in Coop. I discovered how the game works with another player, which is always more motivating than figuring out weird concepts alone. After a while, it started to feel right, and I wanted to continue playing weekend after weekend until we had beaten the game – and that is a good sign.
Here is my report on The Ascent in Coop mode: the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Apart from a game mechanic that seems to be on the brink of extinction, the biggest eye-catcher is undoubtedly the visual presentation. The combination of art style and graphics quality is stunning. The game takes place in a futuristic cyberpunk world that is full of technology and mortal danger. Venture out in the wrong direction, and people will just start shooting at you, no questions asked. Your demise will look beautiful, however, so take comfort in that.
The Ascent supports raytracing, and together with the colorful lighting everywhere and the many reflective surfaces, it will blow your mind. I do not know how good Cyberpunk 2077 can look on a high-end PC because I do not have one to experience it on. I know from reports you can find all over the Internet that it does not look great on a console, let alone run well. Not so The Ascent. I have played it on the Xbox Series X, and it runs at 60 fps – with raytracing! It is not a flawless experience, though. I do not think it is a GPU limitation, but I will get to that later.
You will find places that will make your jaw drop; they are so full of lights and colors, and reflections. And you will come across areas that are dark and gritty, shabby, and full of dirt. Later in the game, you will get to visit the only place that is pristine and contains elements of nature. It is such a stark contrast that it is a highlight of its own.
The Ascent does not rely on fancy effects alone. The world is full of small details and incredibly densely populated. There are people and debris almost everywhere you look. Nothing feels empty – except the only clean place I just mentioned. In some locations, you can even get pretty impressive vistas. There is more to it than what is right in front of you. Take a look at the background and enjoy the level of detail the developers have put even there. The game’s world is chock-full of stuff, making it so much more appealing visually and believable in what it wants to be. Life in the world of The Ascent is arduous and dangerous. As the trailer says, workers are slaves in everything but name, and the visual presentation undermines that claim.
But no game can rely on a pretty graphic presentation alone. If the audio is terrible or dull, all that eye candy was for nothing. There have been a couple of games recently that I just dropped early on because my ears were bored to death. It is akin to food that looks terrible. I am happy to report that The Ascent does not fall under that category. There is a subtle electronic track underlying the world’s atmospheric sounds during regular exploration. Even if nothing is going on, there is something making noise. Once the combat kicks in, an energizing industrial beat starts pumping through the speakers pushing you forward until you either win the encounter or die from it. It is so fitting to the whole cyberpunk theme and grungy mood. Firefights are a ton of fun because of the music, and it always made me want for more. I would have liked a bit more variety overall, but other than that, I think it was perfect.
What I find equally important is high-quality voice acting. Unfortunately, not all characters that offer quests are voice-acted. This privilege only applies to the main cast, which is a limited set of people. Your hero is not among that illustrious group, though. That means NPCs are talking at you rather than to you. To some extent, that is befitting the whole situation you are in. After all, you are bossed around literally by everyone. The bossing is of high quality, so that is a good thing, right?
What about the side-quests then, is this text-only? I am glad you asked. Essentially, the answer is Yes. There is a tiny twist, though. Such NPCs “speak” some form of garbled-gook. It sounds like playing voice recordings backward – without the hidden satanic message. It helps to convey that there is some form of conversation. To me, it was very distracting when trying to read the text at the same time. I guess I am just “special” this way because I get easily distracted when I try to read something and somebody is “talking”. That is especially true when the noise is directly fed into my ears by my headphones.
It would be nice if there were an option to turn it On or Off. I understand why it is there. Unfortunately, it made it a bit harder for me to take in the message.
Speaking of which: the conversations, that is, your hero being bossed around. Talks in The Ascent do not progress fluidly. Instead, the game pauses after a short paragraph and waits for you to press a button to continue with the next section. That is very weird to me since it completely breaks the immersion. Instead of just following along, you are thrown out of the discussion to press a button. I think this was the wrong decision by the developers. It was one of the first issues I picked up on and lamented about. And I was not the only one for a change 😉. It makes total sense for side quests where you must read the text yourself. In contrast to that, though, radio chatter goes on and on and on and on without interruption. The other characters sometimes literally chew your ears off.
I know that I am nitpicking here, so please bear with me. Do not get me wrong; I am happy about the voice acting. It is excellent. I merely think a bit more fine-tuning would have been necessary.
To finish this section off, let me quickly say that conversations contain a few additional talking points you as a player must select yourself. This is part of the “RPG experience pack”. I have complained about such gameplay design in the past. Developers, please weave the additional talking points directly into the conversation if your choices ultimately do not matter and only serve the purpose of providing background information. It makes for a more natural experience. And also, please give a bit more text in the options to select. Only one or two words hardly make for a sparkling conversation, especially if your hero is of the silent type. How else am I supposed to catch on to the intended tone, or sometimes even context?
Moving on, let me drop a few thoughts about the (more or less) Open World and the traversal in it. The world consists of several levels (think floors in a building), with multiple sections within those levels. You can fast travel using the metro, which is free but limited to specific locations because, you know, metro stations are kinda fixed in the world. Or you can call a cab, which will set you back 1000 money and it works from almost everywhere. Unfortunately, you cannot travel between levels using either of these methods of transportation. If your quest requires you to go up one level or down to the “machine room”, you must find the closest exit when fast-traveling, so you can quickly get to the elevator. Usually, this involves a lot of walking because the map is complicated to navigate. Your best guide is the fast travel menu. If the quest marker does not show up, you must change levels. The map isn’t just hard to navigate. It also does not show said quest markers. You are entirely reliant on the in-game minimap, where you can see them, and the on-demand “GPS” that displays a short guideline for you to follow.
Luckily, the Open World is not as vast and time-consuming as, let’s say, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. Even if you walk, you still get to your destination in a reasonable amount of time. See it as a farming trip to collect some XP towards your next level up. After reaching a decent player level that enabled us to roam around more freely, we mostly used the taxi feature for same-world-level passenger delivery and decided to be on foot if we had to cross world-level boundaries.
Early on, we found it quite challenging to get into the game. For one, there is the twin-stick shooting mechanic. It has been a while for me, and my gaming partner has never played a game like this. In addition, it is vital to understand when to shoot from the hip and when to press the aim button. The first is targeted at smaller enemies or enemies that crouch. Aiming down the sights shoots above their heads and only hits enemies that are standing. If you do not figure that out early, you will not make it past the first encounters.
The Ascent takes a while to unfold its true potential because you must grasp some design decisions and core game mechanics early on. Once the movement and aiming become muscle memory and you understand the fast travel system, the game opens up. It was challenging in the early missions, and we actually went farming for experience the first two or three hours just to be able to continue with the quests. Farming is something we find incredibly dull and avoid at all costs if possible. In this case, it was necessary to learn how to play the game, and it paid off. If you struggle early on, try to work through it, walk around and experiment with combat tactics.
Unlike other loot-shooters, there is not much variety in items dropped in The Ascent. You will pick up a lot of stuff, but only rarely is it ever worth equipping it. If you are into looting and changing gear all the time, maybe look elsewhere. The Ascent will disappoint you. I personally did not mind. It felt like a bolted-on feature, however. Enemies drop a lot of stuff, and your inventory will fill up fast. Since it is rarely any better, I wonder why even add it? Granting better gear as mission progress might have been a more motivating factor. Finish a main mission, get better stuff, be more powerful. I think that could keep players’ enthusiasm high. It also gets rid of the inventory management, checking if there is something worth keeping and selling it if not. We have accumulated so much money throughout the game that it was ridiculous.
Staying in line with on-point transitions, another ridiculous thing were the various side-quests. While the primary campaign is a pretty good framework for all the running around and shooting, the side missions are, in a nutshell, fetch tasks with absolutely crazy premises. The only fun about them is the core gameplay loop. Do not expect Witcher 3 quality. It is critical to finish those missions, though. You need the experience to further progress in the main story, or you will have a hard time against stronger enemies.
This, inadvertently, brings me to one of the issues of The Ascent: level scaling. Every mission has a recommended player level attached to it. In the first hour of the game, we picked up several side quests for player-levels 3 to 5. The odd thing about them was that we could not finish them until we had reached about level 15 or even higher in some instances. You would think that a level 5 character could easily complete a quest with a targeted player-level 3. Well, think again. Sometimes you are turned around by way stronger enemies, and sometimes the game will not let you get to the location you need to go to because you have not unlocked that area through main-story progression. But The Ascent never tells you that. You follow your GPS, and at some point, you cannot go any further and wonder… WHY? That is one of the oddities we had to figure out early, and it might be a roadblock for many players. In most cases, the level recommendation is okay, but only after you manage to cross the level 10 mark. Then it begins to become accurate enough.
I promised earlier to elaborate on the performance issues I was experiencing, so here it is. Overall, The Ascent plays very nicely. Combat is smooth for the most part and only ever dips if all hell breaks loose. Regular skirmishes are a non-issue. Traversing through the world, however, was laden with a form of stuttering you usually encounter when the world-streaming engine is working hard to fetch the next section of the game. I found it very annoying, and even VRR was not able to smooth that out. This is why I think it has nothing to do with GPU power. It also correlates with the observation that load times are relatively high for my taste, considering the potential of the Xbox Series hardware. I wonder if the PC version is similarly affected.
I think I had two crashes in total during our playthrough, and my coop partner and I experienced a weird sound bug. At random times either one of us would hear a clicking sound like a gun ran out of bullets as if we were still trying to shoot. It happened very frequently, and the only way to get rid of it was for either one of us to squeeze the trigger once. But it had to be the correct player. Otherwise, it would click and click and click and clickclickclickclickclick …
Famous Last Words
Bringing all of this together, would I recommend The Ascent? Absolutely! Even more so if you are a Game Pass subscriber. Other than a bit of potentially wasted download time, what’s the harm? Try and recruit a couple of friends and play together. That will be even more fun. The Ascent’s core gameplay loop is very entertaining. The world’s size is appropriate, and apart from the clunky fast travel and lousy map, it is fun to navigate, run around, and cause a bit of havoc.
There are a few issues that you must get past first, like the initial difficulty, the odd dialog system, and some weird names for places and people that often made me scratch my head. Sometimes I did not know what people were talking about because they spewed these odd terms like it was common knowledge. Pay attention once in a while; it would have certainly helped me defeat parts of my confusion 😅
When you look at other Open World titles, like all the Ubisoft variations of the same game, they all waste tons of hours only to keep you playing. The Ascent is different in that its length is exactly right. It is neither too short nor is it too long. It told its story, had a few obligatory fetch quests, and then it was over. I like that. I prefer concise games that do not try to distract me with useless stuff for the sake of monetization. Tell me a good story, focus only on that, maybe give me a few side quests to flesh out the world and make the primary campaign more cohesive. And then let me move on to the next game. This is what The Ascent does.
I hope there is a sequel, but I have my doubts. While we progressed through the missions, we unlocked many achievements, all of which were rare ones. Like five-percent-of-players-had-unlocked-them-rare. This number tells me that quite a few people tried the game, but none prevailed to the end. Maybe because of the bumpy first two to three hours?
Give it a shot; you might like it. It is undoubtedly a nice deviation from the more common 1st or 3rd person shooters.
Thank you for reading all the way to the end.