If you’re familiar with the cyberpunk genre – be it Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner or games like Shadowrun, or CD Projekt Red's troubled release, you can probably already imagine what the world of The Ascent has to offer. It’s got hacking, body modification, artificial intelligence, overcrowded nightclubs, lots of violence, neon-lit streets and it’s all against the backdrop of a gritty metropolis in crisis after the Mega Corporation that owns you has collapsed. It’s now of course your job to find out what’s going on.
The Ascent is perhaps best described as a mixture of Diablo (or any fantasy ARPG you’ve ever played, for that matter) and a twin-stick shooter - at least on console. It’s also drawn a number of comparisons to the Devolver Digital title Ruiner (we can see the similarities) and can be played as a single-player game or in co-op mode - locally and online.
So, what’s it actually like? We’ve spent a few days with the game before today’s Xbox Game Pass launch and are pleased to report we’re rather impressed with what we’ve played so far. It perfectly blends story, traditional RPG elements and action together to create a rinse-and-repeat gameplay experience, in a way that remains refreshing for hours on end and has you anticipating your next firefight.
When you first jump into the game, you’ll learn the basics such as how to interact with your environment, and most importantly, how to stay alive in combat. During battle (which all plays out in real time), you’ll have to duck behind cover, shoot over barriers, throw grenades, reload, roll and dive, and utilise your many augmentations. Outside of battle, you’ll mostly spend your time talking to characters, hacking terminals, navigating various menus, buying, selling and trading items, and upgrading your weapons and skills. Phew! Oh, and there are a lot of crates and dead bodies to loot along the way (all automated pickups, to keep the action flowing), which you can more closely inspect in the inventory menu.
The gunplay in The Ascent is arguably what matters most and thankfully the Swedish developer Neon Giant – a team comprised of 12 industry veterans – has nailed it. On Xbox you use one analog stick to move your character, and the other one to aim your weapon with. This gives you 360 degree angles at all times in combat. You’re going to need it as well, as the enemies won’t often let you camp in the one spot – certain threats will flank you, while a lot of others aren’t as concerned about personal space. Stronger or bigger enemies like bosses (there are mechs and more) can obviously take more damage and hit harder - so it's important to stay mobile.
The game eases you into firefights and within hours you’ll likely be feeling unstoppable on the battlefield. Combat also feels incredibly satisfying; when you manage to eliminate a small army with a few key plays. And this, along with your more typical RPG elements such as levelling, is a big part of what is likely to keep you engaged. There’s also a good variety of weapons to arm yourself with – rifles, shotguns and explosive devices that will blow enemies to shreds.
In between fights you’ll learn more about the reality you’ve been dropped into via lore, and focus on stats upgrades. Like with all games under the ARPG banner, the better the numbers are on your character’s weapons and skills – the easier it will be to mow down enemies. Armour is just as vital, allowing you to withstand all sorts of attacks in combat. There are no classes in this game, so the focus is on weapon and skill upgrades. There’s improved health, aiming, movement, aiming and more. Every time you level, you’ll get a certain amount of skill points to spend. Then there are the augmentations, which are special abilities that can save your bacon in battle. If you need a break from the main story, you can also do some side missions to earn new augmentations. And if you get lost, there's a mission tracker to guide you to your next objective.
If you’re considering playing this game by yourself, you’ll likely need to pay closer attention to all of the upgrades, stats and skill points, and perhaps take things a bit slower at times in battle. During our time with The Ascent, we were able to play some two-player local co-op and it seemed to make firefights a lot easier – although you will be punished from time to time if you don’t take the right approach or prepare yourself beforehand.
What's also promising about the multiplayer is that there appeared to be no noticeable performance setbacks with more players or action on screen in the pre-release build. The developer also notes how the game runs at 4K, 60fps on Xbox Series X and 1440p, 60fps on Xbox Series S. We’re not quite as impressed with some of the boring loading screens, but at other times there are elevator sequences and fast travel taxis you can catch. To give the game its credit, the neon-soaked city looks absolutely stunning, even in the disaster zones. The game also mixes up its camera angles from time to time. You’re not always limited to a top-down isometric view of your character. In some areas, the camera pans out for a wider shot of the urban environment, and other times you’ll get some surprise angles like side-on - as if you’re playing a retro platformer.
Perhaps the one thing we weren’t quite as taken with was the game’s story. A gripping narrative is an important part of any cyberpunk release, but during our time with this game, it was just a way of getting to the next chunk of action. You can get more details out of key characters, but there didn't seem to be any branching dialogue options. The humour early on in the game also seems pretty juvenile. One character, in particular, says every one-line butt joke there is - whether he's assigning you a new job, or providing an update during a mission.
Refocusing on the better parts of The Ascent, this game is a must-play for fans of action ARPGs. It’s sort of a bonus how much it feels like a twin-stick shooter as well. So, if you do have an Xbox Game Pass subscription – download it, give it a few hours to sink in, and we’re sure you’ll be hooked in no time, shooting, looting and shooting some more.
Will you be playing The Ascent with Xbox Game Pass today? Let us know in the comments below.