Going by the art for top-down cyberpunk shooter The Ascent, I thought I'd be in for a thrill ride. It's bold and red and has these three menacing characters with guns that look ready for violence. All set in a gritty cyberpunk world as well? "Sheesh", I thought. "This is a recipe for a raucous time, and I'm not sure I'll be able to handle just how darn unchained it's going to get."
So when I got hands on with The Ascent, I was surprised to find I felt quite indifferent about it all. I'd expected to coat walls with human bolognese and clog up machinery with cooked frags, but the kitchen wasn't quite as frantic as that. Instead, I'd say everything was at more of a simmer as opposed to a rolling boil.
I spent time with the first two hours of The Ascent, which was enough to graduate from shooting cybernetic pups in clanking tunnels, to taking on sidequests in the game's bustling hub space. From here, you can splinter off into the game's open world, and I'd say this was what impressed me the most, actually. I felt like I'd truly stepped into a believable cyberpunk space; this colourful, rusty metropolis filled with dangerous, seedy sorts. Sort of like the cantina from Star Wars, but in an alternate universe where it's enormous success had led to a "Cantina Town".
Aside from lots of aliens lounging on sofas, The Ascent's "cyberhub" (as I'm calling it) was a wonderful tangle of metal with plenty of vendors having taken up residence amid the pipes and cogs. Here I could take on sidequests, buy armour, weapons, and tinker with upgrades. Much of which was locked away in this preview build, unfortunately, but I did manage to buy a nice backpack which made my weapon-spread a bit tighter, because that's how backpacks work. I presume the straps pull on your shoulders so when you shoot your gun there's less resistance.
The only slight nag I had with The Ascent's world lay in my chats with important story people. They were littered with jargon, to the point where most dialogue options I encountered boiled down to lists of questions like, "Could you explain what you meant by "Arcological Dick Protocol Z?". I switched off immediately in these chats, because I didn't have the energy to wade through all the terminology. A shame really, not only because the conversations were often important, but because I thought the world they'd built didn't need to prove itself any more than it already had.
I also found it a bit disappointing that The Ascent's loud, abrasive universe wasn't home to equally messy combat. In many ways, it was a lot more controlled than I was expecting. I mixed and matched between a revolver, assault rifle, submachine gun, and shotgun, all of which felt punchy, sure, but a bit too grounded for me. Perhaps later on in the game you get hold of guns that'll belch rockets and grow legs, but nothing in my brief hands-on felt remarkable: they shot bullets and numbers popped out of enemies. Oh.
And I said "Oh" a lot with my time in The Ascent. Mostly in combat, when a bunch of enemies absolutely chunked my health bar and I felt a miffed by it. All signs pointed to this being a chaotic, run-and-gun, arcadey frolic. I mean, I had a roll, some big guns, and an augment which let me pulverise people with my fists; all the ingredients were there. But I still had to be cautious - frustratingly so.
Enemies in The Ascent have this default mode: band together and shoot bullets. Loads of scraps I'd get into featured me rolling about in vain, being shot by plain white bullets, and returning fire with my own equally plain white bullets. In many ways, I'd say it felt like a top-down version of The Division.
That's maybe a bit harsh, because in its best moments The Ascent is wild. I fought against these two big baddies with hammers and tremor attacks I had to dodge roll to avoid, finally introducing something other than bullets! These bits were great, and I felt like a mohawked matador in a dangerous world, as opposed to the world's number one fan of gradually reducing enemy health bars.
There was also emphasis on collecting upgrade modules from chests, spending points on skills, and customising my character. I found that most stat boosts from amour went a bit over my head, and I didn't really feel the benefits in battle. Popping points into my character's evasion skills, or health, or weapon handling was fairly noticeable, though, albeit eliciting the same flat emotional response you usually give to incremental stat increases. I didn't have a chance to really play around with augments, cyborg powers which let you do stuff like punch enemies to dust, but perhaps there's a point in the game where you'll have built a supersoldier with a chainsaw for a leg and a nail gun for a tongue. Perhaps this is where the combat finally reaches new heights.
Maybe The Ascent lets you off the leash later on, and there are orbs, or rockets, or electric discharges. I have some faith in the potential of the augments. I hope The Ascent will transform into a fast-paced gore-fest, but what I played certainly didn't fill me with excitement. But neither did it fill me with dread. Right now I am indifferent. It was good, I think? It's a slow climb to the top, that's for sure.