The Ascent has an impossibly long list of things going for it. It’s scratching a cyberpunk itch that many of us still have after Cyberpunk 2077. It’s got impeccable pedigree, developed by a supergroup of developers who worked on Far Cry 3, Gears of War and Doom. It’s launched day one on Game Pass, giving millions immediate exposure to it. And it’s intensely good looking, a work of art that – finally – gives us a worthy tech demo for the Series X|S.
For the first five hours or so, we were absolutely smitten. Starting with a ‘clear the rats out of the factory’-style tutorial level, we were shaking our heads in disbelief that a team of eleven could produce something so rich. It’s a world where every cubic centimeter is slathered with detail, and it’s all bustling and moving. Pistons pump, neon signs flicker, water drips.
The world design takes similar cues. There’s a Tolkien-esque level of detail to the world, and clearly developers Neon Giant have a game bible somewhere with an entire universe mapped out. It’s almost verging on the impenetrable, with terms like Corpsec, Indents, Ascender and Arcology tossed about like confetti. But there’s an ear for dialogue and character, and the voice acting is top notch. It’s a fantasy RPG where the dungeons are replaced with corporations, being gutted for parts and profit.
There is no doubting where Neon Giant is pitching the gameplay, too, and we were absolutely down with it. Diablo has always had a moreish structure and The Ascent hews close. You’re traipsing into areas and mowing down waves of mobs, pocketing all the loot and scanning the environment for chests. But rather than be a more conventional hack-and-slash, The Ascent opts to be a twin-stick shooter. The mix of genres works an absolute treat. Most twin-stickers are arcadey and throwaway, but we’d always harboured a sense that it didn’t have to be that way. The Ascent shows that the genre can map neatly onto the bones of a Diablo-a-like and work wonders.
Everything’s then buffed to a sheen. The best twin-stickers are super-fast, and Neon Giant makes sure that the RPG baggage is filed smooth. Walk into crates and they pop open, with you auto-looting the bounty. Hacking opportunities litter the world, but you just need to press the Y button in their vicinity and they all pop open. Combat is supremely dynamic, with a cover system that flips the bird to Gears of War, abandoning the plodding cover-lock system for a ‘shoot over cover’ button which is whippet-fast.
Then there’s the ability to play co-op with four players, both online and on your couch. It’s smooth as butter here, and – while we weren’t able to play the full campaign with a partner – it was always easy to drop in and cut through enemies together. The Ascent’s foibles are less pronounced in co-op too (more on that in a mo), making it undeniably the best way to play.
So, where does it go wrong? The Ascent doesn’t exactly sour, but the first days of the marriage are definitely the best. The Ascent’s problems arrive because it can’t quite figure out how to maintain interest for its twenty-hour runtime. Much of what was breathtaking becomes repetitious, and feelings of grind start niggling away. It never means that The Ascent becomes poor – far from it – but it chips away at the magnificent lustre of the game’s first half.
The story, for example, keeps escalating rather than developing into something new. You are an Indent, a contracted worker to The Ascent Group on the planet Veles, and you’re something of a Grant Mitchell type as you do the henchperson work. But the shareholders of The Ascent Group go AWOL, forming the mystery at the heart of The Ascent, which triggers a mixture of bankruptcy and coup. Bandits, thieves and opportunist corporations raid the shell for workers, resources and equipment.
Initially, it sounds so, so good, like Brexit gone haywire, and it manages to make corporate warfare seem bombastic. But in the second half of The Ascent, all your character does is get sent on missions to protect or retrieve assets. You get promoted and your boss might change up, but the back-of-the-envelope synopsis for each mission mostly remains the same. It’s all a bit grimdark and serious, and some more humour would have done wonders.
The combat, too, is initially fantastic. It all becomes so second nature, rolling away from enemy AOE, crouching behind a wall, and firing over the top as enemies chip away at the cover. Then you’ll emerge and land a punch that takes out five on the trot. The Ascent achieves the holy grail of making you look spectacular when you’re mostly winging it. But where The Ascent stumbles is in its difficulty, and it falls fully over with its repetition.
The Ascent is difficult. We just about stayed on the brink of its difficulty, never quite feeling like it was unfair. But replaying the same sequence three or four times is common, and you will need patience, a willingness to master the cover system, and constantly keep on top of your upgrading (armour didn’t seem to have as much of an impact). That’s not to say the progression systems are poor: we found the many ways to upgrade your character to be deep, and most improvements were clearly felt on the character. Guns in particular have a wide arsenal, and you can merrily try out two in quick succession with one being terrible and the other being supremely powerful.
But it’s the repetition that’s the most disappointing. The pacing slips and slides all over the shop, and there were moments where we were stuck grinding when we didn’t want to be. The Ascent attempts the age-old trick of bringing back bosses and harder enemies, recycling them in different scenarios or just stacking them up together. As is perhaps appropriate for a game focused on the exploitation of workers, The Ascent can occasionally feel like makework and – dare we say – tedious.
But but but. The Ascent is a tough game to score, because the peaks are so skyscraper-high. When the combat sings and you’re backed into a corner with a co-op partner, dispatching wave after wave of Turbo Vipers, it can feel like a neuromancer’s dream. Waltz into town and you just want to stop and take it all in, in all of its Blade Runner glory. “We’ve seen things you wouldn’t believe.”
But like the cities of Ridley Scott’s masterpiece, the skyscrapers may be pristine and glorious, but it’s in the foundations where some ugliness lies. In the attempt to stretch The Ascent into AAA territory, to capture Diablo’s structure, Neon Giant have pulled the story too thin, and the gameplay occasionally repeats itself. A plot development will act like a flashbang, surprising you and reminding you why you first loved The Ascent so intensely, but that feeling can be fleeting.
We dithered with knocking a half mark off, but opted to go high, simply because experiences like The Ascent don’t come along often, and it really should be experienced. Game Pass may well turn out to be The Ascent’s redemption. This is an experience that’s best had in co-op, and a day one launch on Xbox’s service means that almost all obstacles are removed. So, find three friends and take your time with The Ascent, refuse to play in long sessions, and you and your partners will find worlds and gunplay that blow your augments clear off.
You can buy The Ascent for £24.99 from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S