You know a Viking game has got off on the right foot when Brian Blessed (none other) does the intro speech.
Yep, the king of the shouty beardy types sets the scene for Viking: Battle for Asgard weaving a tale of a land ravaged by Hel, the defiler goddess of death whose terrible battle amongst the gods has spilled over into the mortal realm of Midgard. Hel seizes her chance to destroy Midgard and re-shape it in her own dark demonic vision.
Mortally wounded in battle, Skarin – an expert berserker warrior is revived by the goddess Freya to come back from the dead and restore the realm for the good of mankind.
The Creative Assembly, veterans of the game Spartan from back in the PS2’s heyday, obviously feel that their work in creating a God of War-alike is not yet done. In fact, substitute Kratos for Skarin and you’d be none the wiser at times – perhaps with the exception that Viking lacks the truly monstrous boss enemies of GOW. So what does it bring to the table?
From the word go you get the distinct impression that you’re substituting any semblance of RPG-style gameplay for popcorn for the eyes and bubblegum for the thumbs. Viking is an unashamedly bloodthirsty game, prone to bouts of extreme button mashing, suffused with enough interesting tasks and quests to lift it slightly above merely taking the core elements of God of War’s combat system and basing a new game around it.
Skarin, ambling through the wilderness like Legolas on steroids starts off with mediocre sword and battleaxe skills, but you soon learn that there are at least a few upgrades you can grab along the way to make your hack-and-slash-laden quest a lot more painless.
Sword Runes allow you to customise your primary weapon, calling upon the elemental powers of fire, ice and lightning. You can grab multiple runes to level up these powers, with devastating results in close-quarters combat.
In addition to these, you can learn new moves in the Battle Arena, mastering your skills with the aid of an undead battle master. It’s worth spending some of your in-game gold on a few moves as soon as you possibly can, because in some situations you will be assaulted by multiple foes and the bog-standard moves just won’t cut the mustard. Train, learn and live to fight another day.
The main controls for the game are ludicrously simple to master. The A and X button are used for primary attacks, with the left shoulder bumper used to layer on combo moves in addition. The left trigger is used to enter a defensive stance whereas the right trigger controls your elemental powers once you’ve built up enough energy to do so.
At first glance, Viking looks and feels a lot like Fable with the same free-roaming world filled with quests and objectives, and the same non-player characters dotted throughout the landscape ready to lend advice, sell you upgrades and secondary supplies, or just bend your ear.
Using your Brisingamen (a sort of Viking-flavoured spiritual GPS system) you can click the “back” button to figure out what your objectives are, and lock in a location on the map. Once done, the in-game indicator will show you the way to go. It’s a very useful piece of kit considering the sheer size of each realm.
Thinking about Fable again, it was never as gratuitous as Viking and you’ll soon see that the game is rated 18 for a reason. Fights are bloody, with dismemberment and decapitation of your foes becoming commonplace and plenty of gore dished up cold and red at regular intervals.
Despite the free-roaming feel of the world, the quests more often than not involve a fair bit of traipsing back and forth between locations to achieve certain objectives. In each of the three realms there is at least a little variety in what you do to achieve the end-of-level goal, sparking off a spectacular battle with you and your massed Viking force against the dark forces of evil.
Eventually Skarin can develop the ability to charm and use the dragons that live in the three realms of Midgard. These mythical creatures are like lizardly B52 Bombers, and in the height of a climactic battle you can collect dragon runes, and call in an aerial dragon assault, laying waste to hordes of Hel’s Legions in the process.
The battle sequences in Viking are quite spectacular, with absolute shedloads of Vikings and Legion scrapping. It comes as no surprise that The Creative Assembly were the team behind the award-winning Total War games on PC amongst others; in fact it’s a shame that the battle strategy part of Viking wasn’t further developed into a full-blown strategic part of the game.
As addictive as the fighting is, several other parts of the game let it down badly. There are some quite hilarious bugs (for instance, free a set of Vikings from their bony prisons, then go back a bit later on and you can seemingly do the same again to a completely empty prison, and still get the message that “more Vikings have joined your army”.
More game-breaking is the fact that the camera system can get its knickers in a twist (particularly in the God-of-War-Clone platformy bits that are dotted around some of the realms). Then there’s the fact that Skarin, being a bloodthirsty meat-headed Viking, doesn’t exactly always like to do what you’re trying to get him to do, particularly in the heat of battle. Several times you square up against a foe on their last legs, ready to deliver the killer blow with a quick press of the X button but Skarin has other ideas and starts attacking someone completely different. There’s no “lock on” button so combat in crowded situations can end up frustratingly difficult.
The game is inconsistent with its fabulous “invisible walls” too. For instance, you can only enter certain buildings or structures, with others blocking you out. Skarin will also teeter at the edge of some clifftops and not others, very nasty in situations when battling foes near a sheer drop as Skarin is prone to hurling himself off into the abyss with them causing you an instant death.
The quick time events bugged the hell out of me too. Again, in true God of War fashion these lazy design elements should be put to bed by now and dropped entirely from games of this ilk. They completely ruin your sense of immersion, are pointlessly simplified and can be ludicrously annoying when three boss baddies are lined up one after the other, each with a set of QTEs needing to be completed before you can defeat them. I think I’ll have to start up a campaign against these as they’re all too commonplace in action games and they really don’t belong there at all. Save ‘em for Bemani games because in a title like Viking they just reek of lazy development and a lack of imagination.
One last niggle is the fact that Skarin spends a lot of his time jogging everywhere. There are Leystones to get you between most of the key locations in the game (like Fable’s stone circle teleportation areas) but you will still spend a lot of time trotting leisurely around in jolly fashion in order to hoover up the last of the gold, or any Viking prisoners dotted around the landscape.
Viking: Battle for Asgard may lack a bit of spit and polish in places, but the combat is incredibly addictive despite its relative simplicity. The game is pretty short, with only three realms to keep things ticking along and no real incentive to play the game through again on tougher levels once you’re done. It’s fantastically generous with its achievements though; in fact at times you’ll swear you’re getting gamerscore points just for standing still and picking your loincloth out of your butt crack.
A solidly constructed game then with a few rough edges and annoyances that need ironing out for the inevitable sequel. It did leave me strangely wanting more though, and more Viking-based games can only be a good thing. I know I keep re-emphasising this but if you’re a single-platform owner and don’t have access to a PS2 or a PSP, this is as God-of-War as you’re going to get, with quite a few influences from other hack and slash action games thrown in for good measure too. Just don’t expect to expend much brain power and don’t expect the sugar rush provided by Viking to last that long either.