Cyberpunk worlds are all the rage right now, but The Ascent aims to set itself apart from that crowd. The quick pitch for it is essentially “twin-stick Diablo meets Judge Dredd,” and the hour-long live demo I saw earlier this month made me more than excited to dive headfirst into its dark but impressively detailed world.
While the gameplay we’ve shown so far as part of this month’s IGN First looks cool enough, there’s a lot to The Ascent’s combat that I missed until Creative Directors Arcade Berg and Tor Frick were walking me through it live on a PC set to roughly match what we can expect from the Xbox Series X version of the game. Most notably, while it may look like a regular twin-stick shooter on the surface, you can actually choose to fire high or low with your primary weapon.
The Ascent – Exclusive Next-Gen Screenshots and Concept Art
That might let you shoot over a crowd of weaker enemies to hit one farther away, or duck down behind cover and shoot over it from relative safety. It’s a small addition, but one that brings a lot of nuance to the genre both in what you’re thinking about and how enemies can keep you on your toes – especially when misplaced shots and The Ascent’s impressive environmental destruction will send the world literally crumbling around you.
A sense of height isn’t limited to combat either, as the story takes place in what’s called an arcology – a towering building built by a megacorportation called The Ascent Group that has grown into a self-sustaining megacity. There are layers and layers of environments to rise and fight your way through here. I saw the depths of the maintenance level full of feral aliens, the more-put-together-but-still-disgusting slums, and the richer floors full of robotic defense measures all the way near the top.
While I still have some reservations about how much these areas might begin to blend together over time, their sense of depth is seriously impressive. When you walk over bridges or other open areas, the visible terrain far below you is actually part of the level – you can get there, walk around, and probably end up blowing up a bunch of stuff. Despite being trapped in a single (albeit very large) building, The Ascent’s levels only come off as compact or claustrophobic when they actually want to.
Developer Neon Giant has loaded its halls with little details as well. The main town I saw in the slums was full of interesting characters, but it was the visual touches that really stood out to me. The graphical fidelity here is higher than you might expect from an ARPG, with sparks and smoke in particular looking fairly stunning. Rooms will subtly fill up with smoke as you fire guns and cause mayhem, and a notable highlight of the demo was one room that started fairly clear, but quickly filled with so much smoke that the light rays streaming through an opening started to become visible. Its graphics may be familiar looking on the surface, but those small details do more than enough to make it stand out.
None of The Ascent’s level layouts are randomly generated either, only the enemy placements within them to keep fights unpredictable. This arcology is a large, handcrafted space that I’m told has essentially no load screens. A built-in subway system acts as your fast travel when covering vast distances, but otherwise this is a bespoke world for you to explore, with more areas opening as you progress through its story.
That’s not a story about being the fated chosen one or anything either: you’re just a maintenance worker with a gun, making the most of The Ascent Group’s unexpected bankruptcy and the chaos that follows it. I’m interested to see where that goes, but I at least like that this setup makes the inclusion of up to four-player co-op thematically seamless – there are plenty of down on their luck handymen looking to make a quick buck. Another nice touch in that regard is that Neon Giant tells me the cutscenes will adjust to make sure everyone in your party is included. Again: small, but very cool.
As with any hands-off preview, I’m still left with lots of lingering questions about The Ascent: how much do these environments evolve? Do the guns feel as chunky and satisfying to fire as they at least look? Does this interesting nugget of a story hold up across the length of its campaign? What I know for sure is that what I’ve seen so far has me craving more. The Ascent may be made up of familiar parts, but it’s using them in a way that’s fresh and exciting all its own.
Tom Marks is IGN’s Deputy Reviews Editor and resident pie maker. You can follow him on Twitter.