By Brendan Caldwell on October 30th, 2012 at 1:00 pm.
Viking: Battle for Asgard has been available on the Xbox for over four years now. Which of course means the game can be defined as a ‘classic’. As such, it recently qualified for PC port status. I can tell you’re pleased by this turn of events. Your cackle becomes a lot throatier when you’re pleased. You sort of laugh through your phlegm. It’s adorable. But does this saga from Sega live up to its illustrious name? Read on to find out Wot I Think.
Ha ha. Ha ha. Ach no, it’s not very good is it? The hack and/or slash-them-up has never been the Creative Assembly’s strong point. As gorgeous and accomplished as their Total War series is, the studio has never had much luck traversing the stony terrain of third-person action games. Spartan: Total Warrior was a mostly mindless tramp through besieged castles, remember that? It tasked the player with button-mashing until there were no more enemies to hurt. Viking: Battle for Asgard is a slightly improved take on the formula but, being a game from 2008 (and one judged even then as mediocre), it has more than its fair share of archaic flaws.
But first, the story (such as it is). The player takes control of Skarin, who is pronounced the champion of Freya, the Goddess of almost everything. In Norse mythology she gets to pick half of all fallen warriors on the battlefield to live in her hall (the other half go to Valhalla where, according to that well-known legend, they are served Jagerbombs and dance to the Pogues). Skarin is ordered to help fight off the legions of Hel, the ruler of the underworld, who wants to control all Midgard. So far, so God of War. It’s a little underwhelming, which is a pity because I find Norse mythology genuinely interesting. Did you know that there’s a chain in the Norse sagas, called Gleipnir, which was fashioned out of “the noise of a cat’s step, the beards of women, the roots of mountains, the nerves of bears, the breath of fishes, and the spittle of birds”? It’s true. But the game isn’t interested in the Eddas so much. Skarin is just a dull avatar for the player’s bloodlust. The grey tale presented here doesn’t exactly do the Norse Gods proud. It’s a good story, summarily and colourlessly told.
At the beginning of each level Skarin is presented with a big map with villages or settlements to free from Hel’s forces. The player must plod from place to place, freeing fellow Vikings from imprisonment to build up his army. He must also collect barrels of mead that wash up on the beaches with which to feed his army and pieces of an amulet with which to make friends with dragons. Once you have done all that you can then launch a big assault on a Hel stronghold. These assaults, with hundreds of warriors fighting at once are the centrepieces of the game, channelling the Total War franchise as much as possible.
The combat itself is OK. It has that Prince of Persia: Sands of Time pragmatism to it. Guard, dodge, strike. You can level up runes to give you special attacks, infusing your sword with fire, ice or lightning. But the general idea is to hit baddies again and again with the same moves until they are dead or mostly dead. You can tell they’re ‘mostly dead’ because an ‘E’ symbol will appear above their heads, which means you can kill them in slow-mo. But apart from the first dozen times, you won’t – it’s a waste of time watching the same three or four animations you’ve already seen. You can also buy new moves to sneaky-kill or bash shields to bits. It’s all there. It all, you know, works. Although playing without a gamepad was a bit burdensome (the game does warn you that it’s best enjoyed that way, to be fair).
The truth is, if I was in a really brutal mood I would have opened the review with this: “Viking: Battle for Asgard is a game about tapping the ‘F’ key. It’s not about fighting. It’s not about exploring. It’s not even about Vikings. It is a game about pressing the same button over and over again until your brain collapses in on itself like a rotten potato.”
That wouldn’t be wholly fair of me. It is a game about Vikings and all that other stuff – just not as much as it is a game about repetition. I mention the ‘F’ key because in order to do almost every action in this game – from opening a chest to pulling a lever to unlocking a gate – you have to tap the ‘F’ key until your finger is chafing like a pair of fat thighs in leather dungarees. This one key and its associated actions symbolise everything wrong with needlessly repetitive games in general, and this game in particular.
The three levels, although open and very good-looking, are filled with the same things to conquer every time. A farm, a quarry, a distillery, a big town, a watchtower. There’s no variation on the benefits these settlements grant you, nor any interesting narrative reason to liberate them beyond ‘that chieftain guy told you to.’ It wouldn’t be quite so bad if the method of capturing these places wasn’t the same every time – sneak in, kill for a bit, release the prisoners, kill the rest. I remember in one settlement I saw a cage of Viking warriors suspended on a crane above a group of Hel’s forces. ‘Finally!’ I thought, ‘Something slightly different to this place.’ But my elation was sullied the moment I stepped up to the crane and the game reminded me to ‘Tap F to drop cage.’
Like I say, it’s admirable that the levels are so expansive and open. Although it takes Skarin a little while to get anywhere with his sluggish, lumbering strides. To combat this there are Leystones around the place that act as teleporters. This, we are told, is the quickest way to get from A to B. Actually it’s still quite cumbersome once you discover the quicker, secret way of travelling, which is to throw yourself into the nearest pit and die. Viola! Back to the first Leystone! And from there you can travel anywhere. Here’s a rule for designers: if the player finds suicide preferable to traversing the landscape then there is something deeply wrong with the game. This trick does decrease the red bar below your health which is used for super-duper-moves but it’s OK because you can kill people to get that back, so the punishment isn’t really severe.
Perhaps the travel fatigue stems from the unforgivably tedious fetch-questing, since there are enough of those. Go see Blyn the farmer. Go see Vidar, the archer. Okay, go see Blyn again and tell him you’ve seen Vidar. Quest complete! Truly, you are the hero of which they speak. Really. This is the kind of patronising boarshite that we should have been rid of in the era of actual Vikings.
The big battles almost rescue it. But not quite. There’s a pleasant Dynasty Warriors feel to running across a plain with hundreds of men and launching your special flame attack just as both armies crash into one another. And though the combat was a bit ropey and awkward for me without the benefit of a gamepad, the scale of the warzone was a very welcome break from all the terrible semi-stealth sections. It always annoyed me about Oblivion and Skyrim that in these huge, history-altering wars there are only ever about sixteen men on the battlefield.
In Viking, the war actually does feel like a war – vaguely. This is where Creative Assembly made its mark, after all. In scale. That the sieges are BIG shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. But nor should it grant the game any leeway when the sieges themselves become the victims of that same accursed repetition. You see, to break through the enemy lines you have to kill the Shamans that are respawning Hel’s army, squaddie by squaddie. Every battle sees you going up against these guys in a formulaic fashion. After the third big assault and the tenth dead Shaman, you start to get sick of the sight of them.
So yeah. What do I think? Well, on the plus side: the locations are prettily presented. The mythology of the Vikings is… there. It is a game that works. On the minus side: it’s characterless, it’s shallow and it’s repetitive to the point of self-immolation. If you were to take a tenner and spend it on any Creative Assembly game, it most certainly should not be this one.