I’ve had the privelage of playing The Ascent a few day ahead of the official release – And look, to cut a long story -incredibly- short, I’ve really enjoyed my time with it.
For those of you looking for a bit more insight please stick around… I’ve got plenty more to say.
The Ascent is the first game from Neon Giant – They’re a 12 person team operating in Sweden and – in their own words – a small game dev studio with the belief that with the right focus and mindset, even just a few people can create grand experiences and high quality games”. The Ascent is exhibit A, their first release and it is available on Xbox One, Xbox Series consoles, and PC. I’ve been able to play the game briefly on all of those platforms, and we’ll take a look at them later on. It retails for 30 Dollars or Euros, or 25 pounds. Oh and did I mention the game is available Day 1 on Xbox Game Pass?
Let’s take a look at what the game is. I’m going to borrow Neon Giant’s own words again to introduce it:
” The Ascent is a solo and co-op Action-shooter RPG, set on Veles, a packed cyberpunk world.
Welcome to The Ascent Group arcology, a corporate-run metropolis stretching high into the sky and filled with creatures from all over the galaxy. You play as a worker, enslaved by the company that owns you and everyone else in your district. One day, you are suddenly caught in a vortex of catastrophic events: The Ascent Group shuts down for unknown reasons and the survival of your district is threatened. You must take up arms and embark on a new mission to find out what started it all. You belong to the corporation. Can you survive without it? “
You’ll start off creating your indentured character. The options here are fairly rudimentary, with the most important selections being the primary and secondary colours as these will persists across every bit of armour you equip through the game. The primary colour also determines a few elements of the interface as well – so if you select -red- then in co-op you’ll be fairly hard to distinguish from hostiles on the radar. You will be seeing your character close up in conversational cutscenes and the like as you play through the game – Those are all real time, so in co-op you can look for opportunities to cutscene-bomb your friends during key story beats. You’ll unlock some additional customisation options as you play through the game, and you can visit a grifter in Veles to change everything you set so you can jump into the game pretty quickly from here.
Now let’s get into the good stuff – the action. The left stick moves your character, the right stick allows you to aim independently, the right trigger fires your gun, X will reload it and the A button performs a satisfyingly quick evasive roll. As you progress through the opening areas you’ll get access to a secondary weapon slot you can swap to with the Y button, a tactical ordinance ability on clicking the left stick, and a nice variety of augments like a seismic slam, self-heal, or bullet time for the left and right bumpers. You’ve also got crouch on the B button, and aim high on the left trigger, and I’ve left those 2 til last for good reason.
Enemies appear with a frequent and fairly regular cadence as you make your way through combat areas – and when they appear they almost always emerge from all sides cutting off any retreat. The game initially favours a run ‘n’ gun approach as you might expect from the twin stick scheme. Keeping your distance from the melee enemies, watching your back, and rounding them up for the slaughter. That approach has it’s place throughout the game, but Neon Giant’s approach to gun fights is perhaps less common- This isn’t a bullet hell game. Instead the “crouch” and “aim high” actions I mentioned earlier give you capacity to make use of cover; you can crouch beind low cover, and raise your gun to fire over the top of it – and you can expect your enemies to use that same method against you.
For me the cover system initially felt slightly more clunky to execute – My instinct cried out to run & gun – but the enemies you face out there are no pushovers and I died about 10 times in the space of a few hours. At this point I still favour running and gunning, but ducking into some cover when the situation demands it has become second nature. Mind you, I still die quite a bit. Death isn’t massively punishing, it just sets you back a short way to try again and I haven’t felt any frustration from it.
I’m sure you’ve also noticed that the game uses an isometric camera and that follows your movements. You can’t rotate it at all, but it isn’t completely static either; it pans in and out to reveal some of the more dramatic backdrops and really ensure the player takes in the scope, beauty, and grime of the fictional city of Veles.
Veles is brilliant, by the way. It’s an incredible realisation of a cyberpunk dystopia. The sprawling, densely populated, maze-like city is the game’s crowning achievement. My journey so far has taken me to packed neon lit streets, derelict, flooded suburbs, the straining mechanical underbelly, sterile research facilities and more. The sound track is brilliant and fits the mood perfectly, and the denizens of Veles seal the deal, with interesting characters and high quality voice acting bringing the world and story to life. I will say some of the “mature language” feels a little forced at times, but I’ve met some colourful characters and run some well-designed errands along the way.
Neon Giant say the game offers 10 to 15 hours of gameplay for the core missions, and 15 to 20 hours for a full run including side quests. I’d absolutely recommend playing the sidequests – Partly to give yourself the best chance of surviving the core missions, but mostly because the side quests I’ve seen have been well-crafted, telling stories of their own. There’s -one- fetch quest in there that seems to exist to poke fun at fetch quests – a task to collect potent feral testicles – but otherwise they’re nicely contained stories that take you to fresh locations you’ll want to see.
See and wreck. Veles has a satisfyingly destructable skin to it, and most of your weapons are… well they’re not subtle. Explosive barrels litter the combat areas, and if you’re short of those you can blow up vehicles as well. Hell with the right augments you can turn your enemies into damaging explosives. Combat sees rubble and guts flying everywhere, and while you aren’t going to be leveling the city or creating new pathways, the wanten carnage certainly contributes a lot to the games’ visual flare.
Most of the footage in this video has been taken from the Xbox Series X version of the game, but I did spend a little time with every other version as well so lets just run through the performance profiles on offer. It’s worth re-iterating that this is a pre-release build and we know there is a day one patch coming, so… don’t take this as a performance analysis, but I think it’s still worth seeing what the different platforms have to offer.
The Series X delivers a 4K resolution and 60 frames per second. Performance was solid for the majority of my playthrough, but the performance definitely dipped in a couple particularly packed scenes. I didn’t sample 4 player co-op, so I can’t say for sure how it holds up when stuff of that magnitude hits the fan but don’t be surprised if the framerate isn’t perfectly locked throughout.
Xbox Series S delivers an impressive 1440p at 60 frames per second, and you can see how well it holds up here. It’s fairly difficult to distinguish from the Series X version, running just as smoothly and packing in all of the explosions and effects. I was seriously impressed by the brief time I spent with this version, Series S owners are in for a treat.
The Xbox One X rocks up with a 4k resolution, but cuts the frame rate down to 30. Going straight into it from one of the superior 60 frames per second versions is really quite jarring, but if you’re jumping straight in from other 30fps games it might be more paletable. It also significantly increases load times, and introduces more hitching as you move around Veles. Most of that destructive layer still crumbles nicely, but explosions seem a little thinner and some effects seems to be stripped out completely, including the damaging shockwaves that are supposed to appear as these big lugs smash the floor. Veles still looks great – nothing about it’s atmosphere is lost, but you can – feel through the controller – the definite step down from both Series consoles .
The Xbox One sits at the 900p resolution and 30 frames per second. Neon Giant have landing on the performance profile that a lot of big games end up with on this hardware so it’s no slight on them, but on a big screen it looks noticably blurry and the console definitely struggles to keep the action flowing smoothly. Still, I was impressed to see effects like screen space reflections and global illumination are still intact, and the environments are still captivating.
The PC version of the game packs some extra bells and whistles over the Series X version – Effects and post processing can be kicked up a notch if you have the hardware for it. In fact if you high-end RTX hardware from NVidia you can enable a suite of Ray Tracing effects on top of that. Unfortunately these settings weren’t taking effect in the preview build of the game, so I can’t tell you much about it just yet.
PC players might also be wondering how the game fares with Keyboard and Mouse controls, and I’m happy to report that causing mayhem with the clicks of a mouse feels every bit as satisfying. W A S D are used to move, you can aim using the mouse. The aiming is based on the orientation of the character rather than having to directly click your targets, and it essentially feels like a direct equivalent to the controller rather than a whole different way to play.
A final note on the PC version, if you want to squad up with friends on the Xbox then you’ll need to pick up the game on the Windows store or play through Xbox Game Pass to play across those platforms. If your friends are playing on Steam then you’ll need to pick up the Steam version – Steam isn’t included in the cross-play pool.
That’s all I’ve got to say in this preview. I hope you’ve found it informative or just enjoyed hearing my perspective. We’ll be having a chat with the team at Neon Giant in the near future so if you have any questions for them you can pop those in the comments here.