Viking: Battle for Asgard Review
There are entirely too few viking-based action games out there. The last good one I remember was Rune from Human Head Software (eventual developers of Prey); released almost a decade ago, the third-person melee action was a real breath of fresh air for PC gamers. Since then we've seen dozens, if not hundreds, of titles with third-person characters hacking away at each other, and the latest of these is Viking: Battle for Asgard from Sega and Medieval: Total War developers Creative Assembly. While Viking isn't going to win any major awards, it does supply some hot Norse action with plenty of gore and a unique twist.
Viking starts out feeling like a pure action game. It's got a minimal plot about a guy named Skarin who is saved from imminent death from the forces of Norse goddess Hel by another goddess - Freya. She tasks Skarin with taking out Hel's forces, and gives him her blessing as well as a magic amulet that gives him his bearings in the world. Skarin sets out to start rescuing his Viking buddies, sending them back to his base of operations for a big battle later. You'll explore the game's large islands, and while the craggy, rocky landscape isn't nearly as detailed as the very impressive world of PC RPG Gothic 3, they'll work well enough. You'll move from camp to camp, liberating your buddies and searching for a few key quest items in a lead-in to a big battle with Hel's forces.
And when I say big battle, I mean it. These are the guys that made the Medieval: Total War games, and they simply weren't going to try to pass off a skirmish between a few dozen combatants as a battle. No, this game's fights range in the hundreds of participants, and when you go in you can work on the enemy however you want - slowly mow through the enemies one at a time, skirt around the edge of major mass of folks, or even find alternate routes to your battle objectives that offer little resistance at all. You'll have key goals that only you can complete (usually it's to take out enemy shaman, who are constantly summoning in reinforcements a few at a time), and pretty soon into the game, you'll have the help of dragons to finish it.
The dragons seem like they'd be a real plus for this game, but they wind up being quite a letdown. They only work during major battles (which is a small portion of the game when the hours are added up), and they look barely more intimidating than big pterodactyls would. While they do breathe fire as advertised, you can only call them in to specific spots once you've done enough fighting in the battles to allow it. Plus, there are several annoying and unclear quests you've got to finish before you befriend them. I had lost my appetite for them before I even got to see one in the game.
Another peculiarity with Viking is that there was so much potential for deep and interesting RPG elements here, but you'll find very little of it. To start, a better waypoint or quest log system would have been helpful, but instead Viking leaves you to fumble around trying to find the next thing to do to make progress towards the next big battle. There is an RPG side of this game, but it's very light - sure, you can buy health bar upgrades and collect money that's littered throughout the world, but the cash goes into new moves, combos, and weapon powerups that don't force you to make any real choices about how Skarin's power increases. By the end of the game, almost every player will have all of the moves and upgrades. There's no new armor or weapons for you to buy (admittedly, the axe and sword Skarin wields never feel weak or useless) and there is no such thing as leveling up. Of course, with the new fighting moves you buy at the arena as well as the bigger health bar, you certainly will be tougher at the end of the game than you are at the beginning, but this is still not an RPG by any stretch of the imagination.
Combat in Viking is going to require the player to think a bit. It's not just about what happens once the fight starts - it's about how you set it up. Skarin has a basic stealth capability and, with an early unlocked move, can instantly kill any enemy if he gets the drop on them. Most of the game's tough fights can be made much easier with a little patience and observation, and if you can free your buddies to help finish off Hel's forces, that's even better. Learning how to use the game's rudimentary stealth system is especially important when the game tasks you with entering a city, alone, that you are actually about to attack with your army.
Yes, that's right - before you turn your forces onto a city, you'll usually first have to infiltrate it for some kind of quest goal. Most games with key moments like this hold back the big reveal until you're ready to go in in force, but Viking has you creeping around these sites of future battles trying to steal a dragon-enabling gem or sabotage a barracks. They also can be frustrating parts of the game as it's easy to go the wrong way and wind up with twenty or more of Hel's Legion hounding you, but just a tiny bit of experience with a stealth game goes a long way here. I have found that Viking doesn't deal well with combatants at different heights, and even doing something as simple as fighting on a staircase can be quirky.
Getting used to the fighting is definitely key. While Skarin can climb and shimmy like so many action game characters nowadays, he's not an acrobat and the dude simply cannot run any faster than a brisk jog - so if you pick a fight you can't handle, you can't usually just run away from it. You'll often be forced to duke it out anyway as the enemies can keep up with you and will pound you repeatedly. I actually liked this part as it forced me to really learn how to fight the way the game wanted me to. You've got to mix up blocks for incoming attacks, pop out a shoulder rush to get distance on an enemy, and make sure you've got the range for Skarin to use his sword rather than settling for a smaller hit with his axe (the game does keep track of your melee weapons' range and Skarin only uses an attack that he has room to unleash). Shield-holding Legion must be dealt with differently from the usual fodder, but you've to to keep watching your back when surrounded to make sure you both blocking attacks and still avoiding the block-breaking stuns as well. It's not as complex or tough of a combat system as, say, Devil May Cry 4 eventually gets to, but it does have some depth and difficulty to it.
The biggest flaw I find with Viking is its unwillingness to help the player find what's needed to be found. There is a map with points of interest on it, but the game could have benefited from something closer to a RPG quest log or journal as well as a slightly streamlined way to tell the player what's needed to be done for progress. The very vertical, rocky nature of the game's islands also make navigation difficult sometimes, and the player might wind up spending ten minutes just trying to get up to the top of a plateau. The other significant flaw I find is with the occasional massive slowdowns, both in and out of the major battles. They're distracting and annoying, but they're not so bad that they make the game unplayable or anything like that. It won't get you killed, but it does look pretty bad.
One of the big pluses for many gamers will be the gore in Viking. The undead forces of Hel are varied enough, but they lack any real originality or personality - even some of the bosses are like this. But where the game turns on the charm is in your ability to hack off limbs or even chop enemies in two at the waistline, and the very easy Quick Time Events (timed button-pressing, like in God of War) make the bigger kills seem that much more brutal. Skarin has nothing to say, ever, although the third-person camera and the grunts he spews out while fighting elevate him at least one notch above, say, Half-Life's Gordon Freeman.
The ending to Viking is a pretty big disappointment, but at least the game is a ton of fun on the way there. The large fights you participate in are a fresh change from most action games, and while Viking might have benefited from more RPG elements along with the game's impressive action, I can't complain too much. The story is pretty barebones and the formula inside the game repeats itself just a tad too much, but there's just no substitute for wading into a fight with a dozen of the undead and making sure that by the end, every one of them has lost their head as well as at least one arm each. Viking is a solid action game with a couple of impressive twists, and while it could have been a lot better if the developers were more ambitious, this one is still a winner.