Stars and Stripes – The Ascent, a throwback to the arcade shooter, is my favorite game of 2021


The Ascent, a throwback to ’90s shooters, will remind gamers of the good old days. The players are mercenaries working for a large corporation called The Ascent, essentially fighting for their freedom. (Neon giant)

The Ascent reminds me of so many other games, but in a good way.

As I tour through its cyberpunk and isometric city, leaving a trail of bodies and bloodstains, I think of Smash TV, the classic 1990 arcade shooter that helped popularize the shooting game genre. double joystick. The classic Contra comes to mind; how its infinite ammo cannons made the game less about how many bullets you need, and more about how you’re going to shoot. I remember how Gears of War for the Xbox 360 looked like a 2006 update to the Contra formula, featuring caricatures of beefy male soldiers racing and screaming through an invading force of evil aliens. .

I even think of the forgotten but once controversial game Hatred from 2015, which caused a firestorm for its portrayal of the mass murder of innocent people. There are no house parties in The Ascent, but players can still walk around a cyberpunk subway station, food market, or other setting and leave a similar trail of spectator bodies. The difference with hate is that none of this carnage really benefits the player. The corporate-run planet Veles and its citizens are just collateral damage. It contributes to this disturbing feeling of pervasive strife and conflict. It’s bloody like a classic 90s video game.

And sure, I’m thinking of Cyberpunk 2077, and how with The Ascent a 12-person studio (with support from other teams) were able to create a believable dystopian future in recent years that doesn’t crumble when you try to play it. That’s not to say The Ascent is bug-free. Currently the game has a few quests that can only progress if you reload a checkpoint. But bad as it is, the smaller, tighter nature of the game means that its tuning never really threatens game consistency and fantasy, as it did with CD Projekt Red’s recent buggy title.

I’ve said a lot of things not to mention the game itself, but that’s because it’s nothing you’ve never seen before. The Ascension feels like a celebration of arcade shooters for a long time, and it’s executed so well that I want to return some of that adoration. It has become my favorite game of 2021.

While there’s nothing new about The Ascent, every facet of its presentation and gameplay feels like it’s been shaped by the hands of veterans. The founding team of Swedish studio Neon Giant (The Ascent is their first game under this banner) is made up of developers who have worked on Gears of War, the recent Doom series and Far Cry 3, all modern examples of the shooter genre.

It has light role-playing elements, although the game doesn’t offer hours of weapon upgrades and skill points. Players can award skill points or upgrade points as linear investments by picking up glowing purple objects around the dense map. The game limits how much you can upgrade, encouraging further replay. The character designs are limited, generic, and ugly, though The Ascent thankfully lives up to the promise of the cyberpunk genre by allowing players to change their looks and gender at any time.

This ugliness does not extend to the planet Veles and its urban landscape, at least on the surface. Within minutes of starting the game, you’ll be greeted with pops of neon color and mountainous architecture. Ascension is based on the concept of “destroyed beauty” coined by Gears of War creator Cliff Bleszinski in 2006. In these games, destroyed beauty meant ancient and crumbling architecture. In “The Ascent” he envisions the kind of monuments humans can erect when the notion of humanity is erased from the equation. Rather than buildings and landscapes, the destroyed beauty of Veles is the soullessness of its inhabitants, made of materials in its elegant buildings and neon signs.

Neon Giant flirts with open-world concepts by creating multiple “city” areas where players can rearm and rebuild or choose side missions and world texts. As with the skill and weapon upgrades, the game is light on role-playing mechanics, but it helps it get on with its mood and pace. It gives players time to soak up the atmosphere, take stock of the surroundings, and absorb its booming soundtrack. While the action sequences resonate with bass, the quieter moments are supported by music like the Buddhist prayer chants in animated films like “Akira” and “Ghost in the Shell”. If The Ascent has one big problem, it’s that its aesthetic is almost too obviously referential. It’s cookie-cutter cyberpunk.

When it comes to history, there’s not much to say either. Each player is an anonymous mercenary working for The Ascent, the biggest company on the planet, and you are essentially fighting for your freedom by taking on bloody jobs in the city. This last detail is probably the biggest downside to the game (other than the lack of variety in the gameplay). The art of The Ascent is so dense that it can be difficult to know where to go or not. The city’s architecture stacks up on itself, and places can be difficult to visualize and remember thanks to this unorthodox layout.

Sometimes it pays off, however. Like Ico and other classic 3D games, The Ascent has an incredible sense of scale and place. You will be able to look through the cavernous city to see the battlefields you just passed through. And while he’s mostly taken from a classic PC-style isometric perspective, Neon Giant has shifted the perspective of several areas of the city, sometimes straining to showcase his art. Other times the game will switch to a side view perspective, at the height of my first Parallel Contra. It is never expected, and always welcome. This makes moving through Veles surprising and exciting, even if the job is basically just taking a seat.

The game is available on Xbox Game Pass, or purchasable for $ 30, and it’s well worth the price of admission. The Ascent reminds me of the good old days of Xbox 360 and its robust independent offerings on the old Xbox Live Arcade service, where games like Shadow Complex or Super Meat Boy weren’t afraid to make small changes to classic formulas. .

I thought about other games a lot while playing The Ascent, and this time it’s a good thing. The game has lineage and influences. It reminds me of the good old days.

Platforms: Microsoft Windows, Xbox Series X and Series S, Xbox One

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