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Review: The Ascent (PC)

The cyberpunk genre has seen a massive resurgence over the past decade, in no small part thanks to the video game industry. The tech-filled, neon-soaked, near-future streets of the 1980s are back, with a new generation of artists re-interpreting the cyber-nightmares of years past. Enter Neon Giant’s The Ascent.

The Ascent is the genre’s newest addition, landing on Windows PC via Steam and the Microsoft Store, as well as Xbox One and Series X/S, and it brings a dense cyberpunk universe to life through superb art design and addictive combat.

Though the game seems like a chummer’s dream come true, the PC version has some significant technical issues, and if your hardware isn’t up to the game’s higher-end recommendations, you might want to find another run.

Working 9 to 5 (and then 5 to 9, and then 9 to 5, again)

The Ascent takes place on the planet Veles. Veles is divided into a number of archologies, each owned by a different mega corporation. These sprawling cities are home to millions of beings from across the galaxy, all having come to the planet in hopes of finding a better life. The Ascent Group, one of Veles’ mega corps, arranges work programs for willing immigrants; come work for corporation, and your earnings will be used to pay your way to citizenship – assuming you survive that long.

The game begins with you creating a nameless, voiceless, Ascent Group worker, riding the lift down to the deepStink (The Archology’s sewage system) to start your shift. It’s dangerous work. So dangerous, in fact, you’re equipped with a pistol to fend off ferals – carnivorous mutants who live in the sewer complex. Shortly after starting, your supervisor, Poone, calls to inform you that the sewage situation in Cluster 13 is getting a tad out of control, and asks you take care of it. Immediately.

What follows is some very bad news. Meeting Poone in his “office,” you’re informed that The Ascent Group has gone into default, and it’s only a matter of time before the layers of society begin to collapse. Having proven yourself competent, Poone removes you from plumbing duty to help investigate what is going on in The Archology, and to help put things back together before it’s too late.

It doesn’t take long for other mega corps to invade, and you quickly find your contract trading hands and undergoing substantial rewrites. Nevertheless, your strong work ethic impresses (and intimidates) other players in the game, and your skills in “hostile takeovers” remain well-utilized throughout the campaign.

Though you play as a silent protagonist, the storytelling is kept lively through radio chatter and conversations with NPCs. There isn’t a lot in the way of branching dialogue, but you can speak to certain characters in depth about topics related to your current mission, or the world in general. Characters strewn throughout the sectors may have a line of small talk to deliver, while others will provide you with side missions.

Your attire is usually a messy arrangement of engineering or combat threads, doing very little for style. The way in which the game makes you feel like a working class Joe or Jane, thrust into incredible circumstances, is effortlessly natural.

Abbott, a sort of radio personality, broadcasts a news hologram throughout the sectors. His program also plays on elevator rides (cleverly hiding loading screens between areas), outlining the latest updates regarding The Ascent Group’s disappearance. Though there’s plenty of atmospheric synth to score the empty vistas of the city, a news broadcast, update from your IMP (your personal AI assistant) or group of gossiping citizens is never far away, keeping the urgency of your mission fresh.

Whenever you meet a new character, encounter a new enemy type, or learn something new about The Archology, an entry is added to your codex. These short blocks of text are accompanied by animated character models, letting you easily recall where you first learned the information and from whom.

It can be horrifying to see the ease with which citizens react to combat, with gangs eager to start a gunfight should you step too close. Collateral damage is just a part of life here, and the consequences for shooting innocent citizens in the crossfire are non-existent. CorpSec, the police force, simply can’t keep up, and with the impending breakdown, they have little incentive to care about such squabbles. Cyberpunk is inherently political, but The Ascent manages to skirt around many of the genre’s darker topics, like unhinged capitalism or ecofeminism, ultimately being tongue-in-cheek more so than it is poignant.

The cyberpunk genre builds upon itself, and The Ascent’s Archology incorporates aspects of many genre greats. The large transparent holograms of dancing girls coupled with the techno-Assyrian architectural inspirations feel like something out of Syd Mead’s sketchbook, while the vertical, compounded build of the Archology harkens back to cyberpunk games Binary Domain and Project Eden, touring players through the history (and economic ramifications) of the city’s expansion. There’s even a weapon named after 2000AD’s famous antihero.

Started from the bottom, now we’re here

The Ascent’s world is handcrafted and not randomly generated, more closely resembling Armada than Diablo. You can become familiar with the world, characters, and items, not endlessly sifting through randomized data or floorplans. Though primarily viewed from an isometric perspective, the game does regularly adjust the camera to give you vantage of the sprawling network of machinery and bridges to different zones. The areas all have a great sense of verticality to them, and traversing the labyrinths of stairways and elevators quickly becomes dizzying. Though not overly difficulty to find your way around, you’ll need the right equipment to explore areas in their entirety.

Every detail rendered, whether in the background or foreground, communicates something about the city. Bags of trash fill the streets and graffiti plasters the walls of the lower levels, highlighting the state of disarray. Cockroaches skitter about and neon lights reflect off of the damp metallic surfaces, giving movement and life to even the quietest of streets.

On highStreet, sculptures of golden dragons guard bridges and holographic cherry blossoms pull shoppers in with their welcoming glow, while a mess of shanty structures and merchant tents line the streets beyond. It’s the type of mega city reminiscent of European sci-fi graphic novels, like those of Moebius or Gimenez, with the horizon seemingly always out of reach, clouded by steel. Nothing here is inconsequential, and the fact that such a huge space was created by such a small team is a notable artistic accomplishment. You can lose yourself looking into these backdrops, and despite its high-octane gameplay, you’ll want to slow down ever once and a while to smell The Ascent’s flowers, so to speak.

The Ascent – Official Launch Trailer

Though you are only able to play as a human, the broader universe in The Ascent includes a multitude of sentient creatures, and fans of fantasy-cyberpunk, like Shadowrun, will probably dig The Ascent’s style. The universe’s expansiveness is well-communicated through art design, but is equally fleshed out by the colourful cast of characters populating The Archology.

Most of the story missions revolve around hunt and kill objectives, whereas side missions have you doing everything from shopping for steroids to help out an alien bodybuilder to planting bacteria to help a scientist do experiments. You won’t be making judgment calls or investigating morally grey areas here. The Archology is a brutal, black and white place where you do what you are told and report back for the credits, putting you into a delightfully simple “punk” mindset.

The voice acting is top notch, with the actors doing a great job of embodying their character’s alien, or mutated, builds through snappy (and often rude) dialogue, or just a variety of guttural grunts and clicks. The dynamic synth soundtrack sounds great too, scoring the action (or lack thereof), letting you know when it’s okay to take a moment to stop and take a deep breath of (polluted) air, or whether it’s time to duck and roll behind cover. A variety of musical styles, like reggae and rock, play in the clubs and dwellings of The Archology, giving each place its own unique aura. The different audio options you can tweak in the menu are impressive as well, and I’m astounded by how good the game sounds even on a pair of standard headphones.

I’d Buy That For A Dollar

After a few hours you’ll probably have more money than you know what to do with, though as you progress, unlocking new tiers of equipment for purchase, your financial resources may begin to dwindle. Money can be found in crates or junk heaps, dropped by enemies, or rewarded by mission completions and bounties. Bounties can be collected in the field and cashed in at bars, and make retreading the same ground over and over again a bit more interesting.

However, money is only part of the equation in upgrading your character. Crafting components and CyberDeck (a sort of tablet used for hacking devices that are in-range, like doors or electronically locked boxes) upgrades are needed to ensure you attain the absolute best gear. Some items cannot be bought, they must be found, and you’ll only find the top tier gear by completing missions and through meticulous exploration.

The Ascent’s mean streets are a far cry from the philosophical musings of Deus Ex or Cyberpunk 2077, but that’s part of what makes it stand out.

Item duplicates can be sold off at any shop. Equipment doesn’t degrade, but different enemies demand different offensive strategies, and not having the right type of weapon can be a death sentence, so it pays to keep a variety on-hand.

The Ascent can be played with either a mouse and keyboard or Xbox One controller. Though mouse-aiming is invaluable for this type of shooter, I found the Xbox controller to suit the game just fine. The game also supports couch co-op on PC, which is a great inclusion.

On an Xbox controller, you use the left stick to move and the right to aim. Y activates your CyberDeck. The select button brings up your character menu, used for managing quests and equipment, or to refer to your map or codex. The right trigger fires your weapon while the left raises it up (for precision shooting or shooting over cover). The A button causes your character to roll, B toggles crouching, X reloads your weapon, and clicking the left stick activates your tactical weapon. The DPad is used to swap weapons, call a taxi, as well as to activate a handy Dead Space-style waypoint guide. Finally, the bumpers activate your augments, at the cost of energy.

The HUD is clear and uncluttered, with the top right corner housing text related to your current mission, as well as a radar highlighting NPCs and points of interest. The bottom right corner contains a window outlining your health, ammo, and energy levels, along with your gained experience points and equipped weapons.

Experience points can be distributed through eight different skills. Don’t expect any stats like stealth or personality here, however. The goal here is to become a better killer, not a negotiator or merchant. You can sometimes skirt around gangs, avoiding conflict by keeping your distance, though for most of the game you will be blasting your way through anything that even remotely stands in your way – though exactly how you obliterate your foes is flexible. You can utilize traditional fare, like machine guns and pistols, or high-tech gadgetry, like pulse rifles and automatic rocket launchers. Grafters can redistribute your skills points, for a price, as well as sell you augments. Resistance is fierce, and though good equipment certainly helps get through some of the game’s tougher segments, later on you’ll probably visit one of these doctors for an adjustment.

The Ascent is an ARPG, with an emphasis on the A. Use of cover is essential, and The Ascent’s innovative take on twin-stick shooting is ultimately what makes it such a satisfying experience. Hackable turrets and explosive barrels are scattered throughout the environments. Enemies are smart, and will try to flank or blow you out of cover, meaning you need to constantly be on the move, timing your rolls and reloads to escape the situation unscathed. It’s easily some of the most satisfying shooting I’ve ever experienced – twin-stick or otherwise. Mistakes can be fatal, and The Ascent will punish you for them.

Death results in a respawn at the last checkpoint (no manual saves), with any collected experience and loot carried forward. The enemies in the segment where you fell will often respawn, though if you need to backtrack to safety, a route out is always there (or you can call a taxi). Though you can occasionally navigate over-leveled enemies through careful tactics, it usually takes a fresh pair of threads and augments (or a little help from your friends) to safely navigate these areas.

Metro stations are unlocked as you find them, and provide quick travel access points at no cost. Or, if you don’t mind coughing up the credits, a taxi can be summoned should you not want to partake in the long and dangerous walk back to safety.

The Ascent or the Plateau?

Though the combat is satisfying and the world awe-inspiring, one’s enjoyment of it is only as good as the game’s performance, and here is where The Ascent begins to fall apart. I played The Ascent on PC, and a low-end one at that, with specs hovering just above the game’s minimum system requirements. Of course, I didn’t expect the game to keep a high frame rate, nor include any advanced features, like ray tracing.

However, I did expect the game to run in a playable state, albeit it at the sacrifice of resolution and graphical fidelity. I set the game to the lowest standard possible, and still, The Ascent crawled along with numerous technical and performance issues.

Sometimes, the floor just wasn’t there.

For starters, the game experiences major lag when traveling between areas. Riding an elevator or subway car for two-three minutes while loading is one thing. However, in the overworld, having the game grind to a halt (sometimes even freezing my system altogether) so often became incredibly irritating.

This lag affected combat as well, with many shootouts becoming a slideshow of bright flashes and the sound of looping gunfire, punctuated by the “Continue” screen, as I had apparently run into someone’s katana while the game tried to sort itself out.

Enemies would sometimes spawn right beside me, skipping their spawning animation of crawling over the side of a railing (or simply standing there), giving me no time to react as I was suddenly swarmed and killed. I also fell through elevators and other flat surfaces, had mission triggers fail to load, and was sometimes blocked from leaving the game entirely. I would hit the Quit to Menu button a dozen or more times before the game would finally shut down (or in several cases, didn’t, and I had to Task Manager my way to freedom). Cinematics also failed to load on several occasions, not starting until I had opened the map to make sure I was in the right place.

Long load times, that signature Unreal Engine pop-in, a stuttering frame rate, extremely low-resolution textures that look like an original Xbox title (let alone an Xbox One game), stinted animations, and constant clipping would all be understandable sacrifices for a low-end machine. Unfortunately, The Ascent’s issues are so much worse than graphical fidelity, it’s near unplayable.

Jacking Out

The Ascent’s mean streets are a far cry from the philosophical musings of Deus Ex or Cyberpunk 2077, but that’s part of what makes it stand out.

It’s a breath of fresh air to have such a fun and fast-paced cyberpunk experience, even if entirely combat-focused. The gunplay is some of the best out there, isometric or not, and the impeccable art will keep you hooked on this violent future adventure for dozens of hours.

Sadly, if you’re not running top of the line hardware, the loading screens will also hold you captive for dozens of hours, and all the positive points regarding gameplay and immersion can be disregarded. As it stands, my experience with The Ascent on PC was disappointing. However, if you have the right system, perhaps a satisfying adventure awaits, somewhere over the steel horizon.

VirtuaDrew

I like my martinis dry and my shooters on-rails.
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