Set in Veles, a packed futuristic metropolis run by huge corporations and crime lords, The Ascent is a solo or co-op (2-4 players) twin-stick action shooter, but is also a cyberpunk RPG at heart, and that allows you to customise your character specifically to your playstyle by adding various Augmentations (think: super powers) and Tacticals (like grenades etc.) Levelling up radically improves the damage you do and the damage you can sustain, and upgrading your Cyberdeck (your computer) allows you to hack previously locked doors, loot chests, turrets and even ATMs!
You can have up to 10 different characters should you wish, which should definitely allow for some variation in play styles, but unfortunately the mission structure will always be the same.
We played The Ascent on our launch day Xbox One and our Series X, and S, and there are occasional frame rate issues on the older machine, but the thing that really hits you is the difference in loading times–painfully long loads reduced to brief interludes on the Series X/S
I don't play many twin-stick shooters but the controls are pretty instinctive; you move with the left stick, aim with the right, and fire your weapon with the right trigger. You reload weapon/interact/pick up/equip items by either pressing or holding 'X', Crouch with 'B', and evade (combat roll) with 'A'.
The RPG element soon becomes important and individual attributes can be tweaked with skill points–the menus are quite confusing and could put gamers new to RPGs off, which is a shame because if you don't upgrade your character and his/her equipment, you're not going to get far.
The Ascent's old-school, distant viewpoint (it used to be called three-quarter top-down) may be a turn-off for some, but one thing it does rather well is the gunplay, and surprisingly for what is basically a twin-stick shooter-looter, its cover mode works really well, and is definitely required against tougher or more numerous gangs of enemies. You just press 'B' to crouch behind an object and then hold the left trigger which makes your character raise their weapon, enabling the ability to shoot from cover. The 'aim high' ability also allows you to shoot enemies slightly above you (like the drones used by certain enemies) but it's very limited and you have no real control over the elevation of your aim other than high and low, and some enemies are so short in stature that you need to make sure you don't fire over their heads! Aiming is a tad iffy as it's difficult (nay impossible) to shoot anyone above or below you, unless they're on the same flight of stairs as you.
The Ascent throws a lot of info, advice and instructions at you, and there's a lot to read, but at the same time the game treats you almost like you've been playing it for a while, and should know all about all of its features, terminology and lore already. It's kind of overwhelming and has intimidated more than a few of my friends into quitting the game before it's even really started.
There's some serious detail, character and humour built into The Ascent's visuals and the game has a photo mode that allows you to zoom right into the action and see how much detail there really is. Whether it's the way you barge past and cause other inhabitants to stagger, or the way enemies arrive on screen, or their attacks, or the range of animation for the various characters, or the security cameras that track your every step, or just the numerous inhabitants and large maintenance droids that run away when a firefight starts, it all adds to the atmosphere.
But despite how nice the visuals are (particularly on Xbox Series X/S), the three-quarter top-down view just feels so restrictive and OLD to me. But then, unlike a large portion of the gaming planet I didn't really like Diablo either, and this has all the drawbacks of that classic, and then some. Scenery obscuring your view and shooting–and being shot by–enemies that are just off-screen will never be right in my mind, but it's one of the things you have to tolerate if you play a game with this fixed camera view. Getting shot by enemies from off the screen becomes a real issue in the local co-op mode, in which you share the screen and really need to stick together to avoid straying too near the edge.
Some of the voice acting may be slightly under par but the ambient sound is fantastic, from the deep rumbles of passing ships, music from various bars and outlets, and neon signs, promotional holograms and billboards mixed with the myriad conversations going on between the population of humans, humanoids, alien races and droids... The city is spectacular, large and very complex.
Missions are all basically of the 'go somewhere, hack something, shoot all enemies in the way, kill specific target, go back and see mission giver" type. This gets old very quickly and if you don't "get" the whole twin-stick shooter gameplay and view (which is a lot easier to handle from a direct top-down view) then you're going to struggle with The Ascent.
As always with RPGs, straying into high-level areas is a bad idea, and while many are locked off, you may encounter gangs of enemies 5 or so levels above you and be able to kill them all and survive. Any more of a level gap and they will swat you like a bug, or one unlucky shot can kill you. I would question the (unchangeable) difficulty setting too, and have encountered several missions that say they're recommended for a level several less than mine that I found impossible to do solo until I was several levels higher. Now I don't profess to be a "Pro Gamer" with god-like abilities, but I ain't bad either. This suggests the game is intended to be played co-op with at least 2 players, so why not say so?
For instance, I had one recommended Level 17 when I was Level 23 and found it extremely hard. This was just one instance of The Ascent's difficulty level being borked, and I later completed a side mission 'recommended level 24' only for the next mission from the same mission giver to be level 20... I mean in simple terms: WTF?
I think the problem is the way tired old stand-off shootout 'survival' scenarios are also heavily overused; like when you're waiting for a computer to slowly download something and get attacked by a horde seemingly consisting of waves of every spare mercenary, alien and droid in the vicinity. To be honest, no matter how much you like The Ascent this gets tedious and chore-like very quickly. It'd all be yawnworthy–if they weren't so darned hard to survive.
To survive most missions, and particularly those awful 'survive the horde' situations, running around and "kiting" enemies seems to be a good tactic. If you're overpowered (and you're always outnumbered) even simply finding a way around or running right by overwhelming gangs of enemies can also be a successful ploy as they all have a 'zone' that they stick to. Any which way, if you're to complete some of these tediously similar shootouts solo, you're going to need to 'cheese' them to a certain extent by using sneaky cover spots and the various overpowered Augmentations and Tacticals that are at your disposal.
Anything else that bugged me in The Ascent? Well I had a mission bug up entirely when 2 Ferals (small rogue droids that like to kill humans) got stuck when spawning from their lair, rendering it impossible to complete the mission. So I quit to the main menu and reloaded the game, it then thinks the fight is starting again, but it doesn't, no more enemies spawn so you can never win the fight. Oh dear. This happened to the XBL friend who helped me win the final boss battle too. I also found that if you play a co-op game online with a low level player then all your tutorials get reset, so every time you select a menu the tutorial for it pops up again and everything within that menu appears new too, just like you're a n00b, which is a pain in the arse-even for an enhanced futuristic cyberpunk cyborg.
I got completely stuck when I was level 29 fighting the multi-stage final boss battle with level 30s, and when I say 'stuck' I mean stuck, because you can't back out to the city and go and do something else or quit the mission and I’d replayed it dozens of times, trying different loadouts and tactics without success. I mean, how does a dead end like this make it through testing, and remains unfixed 6 months after release? Maybe they’ll sort it and the other glitches out for the imminent PlayStation 4 & 5 release, and the Xbox version will get patched by osmosis. Fortunately I wasn’t stuck for ever because thanks to Xbox Game Clubs I managed to enlist some expert help from a great guy from the U.S., who like me played the game to death but had no idea why. Anyway, as a co-op pair we waltzed through to the game’s finale.
So The Ascent verdict? Well like many games it's a lot more fun with friends, but that doesn't hide the fact that the game is massively unimaginative in terms of mission variation; it's all "go there, shoot everything, do something, shoot everyone on the way back to the mission-giver." It's a shame because a heck of a lot of work went into the design of the city and its inhabitants, but the developers seem to have exhausted their creativity right there, and as for the QA…Well… But look: The Ascent is on sale at only £14.99 on the Xbox Games Store right now (normally £24.99 or free with Game Pass.) Give it a try, like me you might be pleasantly surprised, and they might even have fixed those glitches.