Paste Goes to PAX East: Ascend: New Gods

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Paste Goes to PAX East: <i>Ascend: New Gods</i>

The annual PAX East is the largest gaming convention on the East Coast. Last week regular contributor J.P. Grant braved the miserable weather of Boston to chronicle this year’s convention for Paste. (It helps that Boston is his home.) Over the next two days we’ll be running J.P.’s thoughts on eight different games that were exhibited at the show.

Ascend: New Gods
Developer: Signal Studios
Publisher: Microsoft 
Platforms: XBLA, with a PC release planned
Release Date: Beta opening this spring; full release sometime in mid-2013
Price: Free

Yes, it’s free-to-play, but don’t sleep on Ascend: New Gods. The latest effort from Signal Studios, the developer responsible for the excellent Toy Soldiers games, is an interesting experiment in both design and business models.

Like any action RPG, Ascend faces the key challenge of the genre: how to tweak the hack-and-slash formula to prevent the experience from getting stale. One hook, lead designer Ian Scott tells me, is the game’s “ascension” mechanic. After gaining a set amount of experience, “you basically cash in your character,” Scott says, and your hero becomes an NPC bot. “He battles people on your behalf,” Scott explains, while you develop an even more powerful character. Meanwhile, Ascend’s synchronous multiplayer provides for additional opportunities and challenges. As in Journey, other players can enter your game and either help or hinder you. Because both aiding and trolling others gain you experience, the game rewards different kinds of behavior—which should make for some interesting interactions.


Just as interesting is the studio’s experiment with pricing. Although the mobile market is glutted with free-to-play games, there are very few on consoles, where there are plenty of potential pitfalls. Ascend will have microtransactions, Scott explains, but avoids the more irritating features of many free-to-play games, like multiple currencies or time-gating. “We see [Ascend] as an opportunity to do free-to-play right,” Scott says. “We don’t want players to feel like they’re being nickeled and dimed.” Although Signal is still balancing the microtransaction pricing, there also appears to be a mobile component in the works: Scott adds that the game will have SmartGlass support at launch, although he couldn’t discuss specifics.

From the short section of Ascend I played, the game seems in good shape, with responsive controls, an intuitive UI, and a robust skill tree, although the graphics still looked a little rough. While some players may be turned off by its fantasy trappings, Ascend aims to inject a healthy dose of variety and innovation into the genre. Given Signal’s track record, it’ll be no surprise if they succeed.

J.P. Grant is a Boston-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in Kill Screen, Gamers With Jobs, and other outlets. He blogs about games at Infinite Lag and is also on Twitter.