Every day, thousands of people land on the planet Veles looking for a new life. And if they can't afford the trip, they pay by signing their lives away to the corporations who rule it. These unfortunate souls, one of whom you play as in The Ascent (opens in new tab), become corporate slaves called Indents.
You work for the largest mega-corporation on Veles, the Ascent Group, in a bustling, overcrowded city squeezed into a colossal tower called an arcology. Beings from all over the galaxy inhabit this cramped, dystopian metropolis, which is, as you might expect, rife with crime and corruption. And it's here where you make a living as a mercenary for hire, helping the locals with their troubles, and slowly paying off your seemingly endless debt to The Man.
The game begins with you creating a character, then riding an elevator down into the depths of the city to repair a faulty system in a garbage facility. It's dirty work, but an Indent is in no position to turn down work. The Ascent is a top-down action RPG with a focus on ranged combat, and I get my first taste of this when I'm attacked by the feral, territorial creatures who call this facility home. They attack from all sides, forcing me to furiously back-pedal and hammer the trigger on a weedy little pistol to drive the fiends back. I'll get much beefier, more effective firepower later, but for now, this is the extent of my arsenal.
The shooting is great. I play with a gamepad, aiming with the right stick, moving with the left, giving it the feel of a twin-stick shooter. Blowing the ferals away feels chunky, brutal, and satisfying. It's also a stunning looking game. The environments are dense and cluttered, and the moody real-time lighting is incredibly atmospheric. As I explore the facility, massive, clunky insect-like robots scutter around recycling piles of trash. I'm frequently stopped in my tracks by details like this, and just how amazingly rich the setting feels.
When I complete my job, I return to the city above and learn that the Ascent Group has suddenly gone bankrupt, leaving the entire arcology in a state of uncertainty and confusion. The city acts as a hub where I can buy new weapons, chatter with NPCs, and pick up missions. Once again, I'm blown away by the density of the game's environments. This is one of the most convincingly crowded, messy, oppressive cyberpunk cities I've explored in a game, and I love the grimy, industrial art direction. It's very 2000 AD.
Realising Ascent's collapse will soon result in riots, food shortages, and other existential threats to the arcology, a local mob boss, Poone, has a plan. He's going to meet with the city's other bosses, ask them to forget their age-old rivalries, and propose a partnership. But he needs security, which is where you come in. Before I set off, I spend some time in the city, talking to the colourful, varied citizenry. Some people are worried about the future of the corp-less arcology. Others are looking forward to the chaos.
I head towards the location of the meet. Along the way, I run into criminals looking for a fight, and experience some more of that aggressive gun combat. Now I have a blisteringly fast machine gun and a punchy shotgun. Against armed enemies, movement is even more important. I strafe wildly around the environment, firing streams of bullets at my attackers. They drop loot and I level up, getting stronger as my body count rises, which gives The Ascent the feel of Diablo—but without the randomised levels. It's all hand-crafted.
At the meet, things unexpectedly turn violent. Two heavy-set aliens swinging giant hammers smash through a wall and ambush me. This is a frantic and difficult battle, made worse by the fact that the hammer brothers are accompanied by dozens of gun-toting bodyguards. I die a lot, but every enemy I take out before I fall makes me a little stronger, and with each attempt I get closer and closer to finishing the pair off. I've only spent a couple of hours with The Ascent, but I love what I've played so far, and I'm eager to see more of its dark, hard-edged cyberpunk setting when it's released on July 29.