When I was a kid, nothing beat our family’s weekly pilgrimage to the local video store Vidbiz. While my parents pondered which thriller to digest with their takeaway, I’d gawp at the colourful PlayStation games on the corner shelf. Game rentals let me embark on interactive adventures I could otherwise never have afforded – while consuming an entire share-size pack of Sour Skittles in the process. Xbox’s Game Pass subscription gives me a similar buzz, offering a library of games to choose from and giving players the chance to try out odd or middling games that they’d never actually buy.
Sci-fi shooter The Ascent is a good example, the equivalent of a high-octane but intellectually bereft action flick. It is flawed but fun and atmospheric, set in a predictably bleak urban dystopia full of indentured workers, shady mega-corporations and augmented outlaws. Developer Neon Giant has dressed up The Ascent’s loot-driven blasting as an anti-capitalist critique: the class divide is built into planet Veles’s sleazy cyberpunk architecture. Its most impoverished inhabitants are banished to the sewers while wealthy citizens dwell in the districts above. As you climb your way up this tower-like metropolis, your grizzled mercenary fights tooth and nail to slowly – and literally – ascend to the upper echelons of society.
It’s hardly a pleasant place to live, but this city of shadows, rain and reflected neon oozes atmosphere. From Veles’s red-tinted, Blade Runner-esque market hubs to its slums, it certainly looks the part. But frustratingly, The Ascent’s writing never does its striking world justice. By hour two I was already mashing the “skip dialogue” button, begging to bypass the chatter and get back to the blasting.
Thankfully, what The Ascent lacks in engrossing dialogue it makes up for in carnage. Playable either alone or with a friend (locally or online), it combines Diablo’s steady, tempting drip-feed of loot with a uniquely arcade-y recreation of Gears of War’s shooting; shootouts have you dodge-rolling away from laser fire and into cover while blasting your way through hordes of enemies. It’s a bird’s-eye-view murderfest that actually offers a challenge, where every shotgun blast or cybernetic ability translates into pleasingly frenetic and powerful on-screen action.
Neon Giant’s debut feels like a playable Judge Dredd. There’s a serviceable story threading all the violence together, but mostly it’s about indiscriminately gunning down goons. Everything in Veles reeks of death and corruption – and much like in the Judge’s Mega City One, the only thing keeping Veles’s populace in check is a chamber full of bullets. When it leans into the carnage, and especially when you’ve got a co-op buddy, this sci-fi shooter is at its gory best. An influx of new weaponry and gorgeous scenery keeps the many, many battles compelling, and skills from an energy-powered punch to a deployable army of explosive spider-bots create some variety. Constantly schlepping back and forth to chat to various unmemorable characters is far less interesting, however, especially when there’s no reason to care about what they have to say.
The Ascent is an atmospheric power fantasy, a cinematic cyberpunk escape where you can disengage your brain and indulge in copious virtual violence. If you’re a Game Pass subscriber, it’s worth a try – at £25, it’s harder to recommend.
The Ascent is out now; £24.99 (or included in an Xbox Game Pass subscription).