In addition to our main Game of the Year Awards 2021, each member of the PC Gamer team is shining a spotlight on a game they loved this year. We'll post new staff picks, alongside our main awards, throughout the rest of the month.
My long-running obsession with Path of Exile has given me an appetite for big, complex action-RPGs. The Ascent is neither of these. It's a compact romp that you can polish off in under 20 hours, absent any live service stuff to keep you beholden to it after you finish the story. It doesn't demand much of your attention or time, so you might assume it doesn't linger long in the mind, but here I am at the end of the year making it my staff pick.
See, despite my taste in ARPGs, I'm still a simple man who loves bright lights, obnoxiously huge guns, and stupid clothes—The Ascent gives me all three by the truckload. The vast arcology you have to murder your way through is a dazzling but simultaneously grotty cyberpunk city full of runners, corporate cops, and aliens, where fights break out everywhere and the promise of carnage is ever-present.
An early weapon spews a barrage of rockets like a machine gun, and that sets the tone for the whole thing. When it comes out, the party begins. Even bystanders can get in on the fun, serving themselves up as collateral damage. There's a lot of exotic gear you can get your hands on, but The Ascent doesn't force you to muck around with duds before you can earn the really fun stuff.
There's hardly a gun that isn't a pleasure to unload, mind. The number of available weapons is nothing compared to most ARPGs, but what it does have is a decent roster of distinct murder tools—you won't be swapping one pistol for another pistol that just does a bit more damage. It's genuinely exciting to get something new, and finding the flamethrower or a massive rifle with homing bullets is a genuine game-changer.
It's a twin-stick shooter that throws armies of enemies at you all at once, so you're always on the move, running and spinning around as you rack up an obscene body count. There's a roll that gives you a bit more mobility, which can also be improved by pouring points into the appropriate stats. Augments then give you lots of little tricks to improve your utility, like deploying drones or swapping your roll for a fancy dash that's so fast you tear up the ground beneath you.
There's a cover system, too, which might seem surprising in a top-down, in-your-face action romp. It's handy when you want a breather, which you'll absolutely need, enabling you to hide behind walls and objects while still using your gun, firing blindly over the cover. Enemies can do the same, naturally, and objects might block your shots, even if your foes aren't using them for cover. That's where aiming comes in—letting you raise your gun to get a bead on your target. This is also a good way to avoid hitting cowering bystanders, if you'd rather not have too much innocent blood on your hands.
The Ascent never gets in the way of itself or the stuff it does so well. While fights amount to a lot more than pointing and shooting, it lacks any complicated systems to wrangle—just more goons for you to blow up with your ridiculous guns and cyberpunk implants. Instead of the obligatory crafting system, it has a basic upgrade system that effectively enables you to keep using the weapons you love for the whole game. No more throwing out good gear just because you've levelled up a few times.
You can really see its dedication to its momentum when you're hunting bounties. "Hunting" is probably the wrong word. You're like a bounty magnet, with your prey spawning in random fights, essentially offering themselves up to you. In another game that might be slightly disappointing, but in The Ascent I want my enemies flung at me, not hiding in some corner of the map, waiting for me to root them out.
The only time I ever really stopped was when I needed to gawk at something. The Ascent's arcology is a wonder. It is recognisable as a functioning city, but one that's entirely self-contained, split into sprawling levels and districts with specific purposes. At the top, it's pristine and beautiful, but the filthy, abandoned and flooded areas below speak to the corporation in charge's lack of care. Even in its grottiest places, however, there's eye candy. Usually when something is exploding. It's one of the most striking sci-fi cities I've ever explored, and thanks to a post-launch update, it's possible to capture its impressive vistas in a photo mode.
I've played a lot of dense games this year, both in terms of narratives and systems, and I've got no complaints, but it also meant I was more than ready to switch off and just enjoy some gratuitous action. The Ascent still has plenty of tension, and you can bite off more than you can chew, surrounded by a sea of enemies all chipping away at your health, but it rarely translates into stress. Cutting a bloody swath through a cyberpunk city and turning my enemies into little chunks was just the kind of wholesome fun I needed this year.