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The Ascent review: a fun cyberpunk shooter that takes a while to warm up

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Having previewed top-down cyberpunk shooty RPG The Ascent a little while back, I thought it was just all right at the time. But now that I've plugged myself into the mainframe for many hours, I see that it takes time for The Ascent's mechanical heart to get the blood pumping. After it's limbered up, this game is often a great time.

I say "often" because The Ascent can veer from extremely fun to extremely infuriating in a matter of nano-seconds. There's a lot to like here, but the way it's wired means it frequently trips itself up. Remain patient enough to untangle the mess, though, and you're in for a real RGB romp.

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You play as a lowly worker who's enslaved by the Ascent Group, a shady mega-corporation that controls everything. One day, the corp totally collapses, leaving all the districts in utter chaos. It's up to you to jack in, gear up, and blow the high-tech lid off this mystery.

I found The Ascent's setup here quite interesting - until I spoke to some of the game's leading characters, that is. One was a bloated Gollum called Poone, who threw so much jargon my way I basically "flatlined", as they say in Ascent land. The story is carried along by dialogue rife with silly terms like this. And the thing is, it knows it too. More often than not, these chats end with exhaustive lists of one-word questions to provide definitions, to the point where you just can't be bothered anymore. Too often it feels like listening to someone speak a language you don't understand, then looking up a glossary of terms afterwards in a desperate attempt to piece together what the heck they just said.

"There's no doubt The Ascent's world would make Cyberpunk 2077 overheat with jealousy."

Don't expect to dig deep into The Ascent's characters either. You're simply their errand boy, and they're simply vessels for context. They don't deal in emotional ties or bonds, only lots of swearing and dodgy business transactions. Does it really matter, though? No, not really. The Ascent does just enough to keep a vague amount of intrigue going, but mainly ensures that you're jetting around its world with a gun in tow.

And what a cyberpunk world The Ascent plops you in. There's no doubt it would make Cyberpunk 2077 overheat with jealousy - it's a feast for the robotic eyes. You'll dive into rusted tunnels, explore bustling cities teeming with buzzing neon signs, and slug it out in dingy clubs packed with sweaty aliens. This is a believable cyberpunk universe that'll steadily open up as you complete main story quests. Many of these involve moving from point A to point B, hacking something, then doing some fighting.

Exploring The Ascent's various highrises and underbellies is mostly a treat, but be warned that there's a fair amount of jogging and backtracking to be done. Often, you'll run into packs of nasty creatures and gangs on your way to and from these areas, and it can get a bit tedious having to deal with them. They're reminiscent of Yakuza's roaming thugs who just won't leave you alone. Sometimes you just want to soak up the atmosphere for a bit, but the game won't let you.

An image from The Ascent which shows two players stood outside a futuristic street stand.
You can fast travel via metro stations or taxi, but even then, there's still a lot of running to be done.

This also isn't helped by The Ascent's tendency to throw a flood of drastically overpowered enemies your way from time to time. You might transition from a rather relaxed shooting gallery, to an absolute horde of really tough cyborgs in a matter of seconds. Side quests were guilty of this too, with their recommended levels feeling a bit off. Still, these proved to be nice asides from the main story, with tasks that had me collect the murky bath water of many sweaty Yodas, or grow and harvest some bacteria for an eccentric scientist.

How do you go about these disparate tasks? With a great deal of violence, that's how. Ideally, you want to turn your enemies into packs of mince meat, and The Ascent gives you many ways to do this. You can swap between any two weapons, with a wide-ranging arsenal opening up a few hours in. Everything from hefty mini-guns, to beefy energy revolvers, to burst-rifles with homing bullets are yours to mix and match. They're all weighty and satisfying, with each trigger-pull and sound feeling mean as hell. Some rare chests and side quests dish out unique weapons you can't snag anywhere else, one of which has become my go-to. It's a fat revolver which sets enemies on fire or turns them into red paste. Yum.

The Ascent - Four player characters stand inside a blue shield dome while aiming at a mechanical enemy while standing in a cluttered, metal terrace full of mechanical scrap heaps.
You'll need to switch up weapon types to deal with different enemies. Ballistic works well against human enemies, while energy chunks that annoying robo-armour nicely.

But if you're expecting The Ascent to play like Diablo with guns, I can confirm that this is very much not the case. You can't just waltz into battle like Optimus Prime and rinse everyone with bullets and thunder. This is a difficult game, where ducking behind cover and dodge-rolling are crucial to staying alive. And it's particularly important you remember to stagger aggressive enemies by "shooting high". Right click while shooting and you'll aim for the head, not only letting you poke your gun above cover, but also preventing charging baddies from getting on your case too quickly.

Take your electronically-enhanced tootsies off the pedal and you'll be dead in seconds, basically. Early on The Ascent's pretty brutal, and perhaps a bit samey because you don't have access to many fun weapons. As you level you get skill points to improve yourself; increasing your weapon handling skill means faster reloading, better evasion means more dodge rolls, etc. But it's once you've plugged a few interesting Augments into your cyber-bod that the combat elevates.

In The Ascent, your body is a temple, but one of interchangeable parts and it's so fun to experiment with the game's offerings. Just like guns, you can equip two Augments at a time. So you can summon explosive micro-spiders that'll seek out nearby enemies, and a second later deliver a big stomp to send those enemies skyward; shoot them in mid-air and they'll explode in an electro-static burst. There's plenty to find or earn, and I found particularly hard encounters much easier once I'd found a golden combination of Augs.

An image of The Ascent which shows top-down combat on a bridge, with the player firing a blue laser at an enemy.
Performance was great on my RTX 2070-powered rig at 1080p. I whacked all the settings - of which there were many - up to max and experienced no hitches.

The Ascent's does have online and local co-op that I didn't have the chance to test it out. If there's one thing I know for sure, it's that everything's better with friends, and I can see this particular thing being a lot more of a jolly co-op game with a few allies by your side.

Even playing by yourself, though, I'd give The Ascent a hearty recommendation if you're after a fun, shooty RPG in a stunning cyberpunk universe. Just bear with its wild difficulty spikes and slow-burn early game, because it does become more engaging once you finally transform into an actual cyborg with a hydraulic fist for a hand.

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