I’d never seen a shield quite so fancy. It belongs to Fraser Brown, a Scotsman in the guise of a Viking, and he’s extremely proud of the design. He should be. It’s a beautiful thing and a brave one too. Brightly marking him out on the battlefield, the shield makes him a target, like an officer wearing a medal as big as a walrus. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Lady Gaga wearing the shield as a kneepad the next time she nips to the shops for a packet of evaporated milk. War of the Vikings is a game about shiny shields. And beards. Lots of beards.
Thanks to the distinctiveness of his deflector, I always knew when I was killing Fraser, which was rarely. I didn’t kill anyone very often, tending to avoid the thick of the action, lingering at the edges and looking for a chance to strike with deadly precision. I’m afraid of wading in because along with customisation options that allow for elaborate and striking shield designs, War of the Vikings contains the most harrowing team-killing I’ve experienced since my mum booked a particularly patchy five-a-side astroturf for my eleventh birthday.
Occasionally I decide that throwing axes into a crowd of men is a good idea but when one of my fellow Vikings ends up plucking the projectile from his spine, I swiftly reassess my plans. Going toe-to-toe with an opponent - which is to War of the Vikings what pill-chomping is to Pac-Man and ravers – didn’t usually go much better for my bearded avatar. Melee combat on the shores, and around the monuments and villages of Britain is fast-paced but precise, making it a quick-witted tactical affair.
Although it lacks much of Dark Souls’ contextual tension, the necessity of blocks, parries and dodges invokes memories of From’s hack ‘n’ horror RPG. During the play session, we tried three different game modes - team deathmatch on a fairly expansive map, Conquest and Arena. The last was my favourite. There are no respawns and teams are thrown together in compact spaces. An archer might pick you off before you manage to see the whites of anyone’s eyes but the wait for the next round is unlikely to be a long one, given the sharpness of blades, the pointiness of arrows and the fragility of flesh.
This brawling gang of bearded men represented the greatest surprise of the Paradox Convention. I never saw eye-to-eye with War of the Roses, having visited the ancestral fields of my home county early in the game's development, and failing to click with the cut and thrust of the combat. When I sat down to play with the vikings, I expected a glossy re-skin. I hadn't touched the game before, despite some exposure to it, but I'd already started to form opinions. While I’m still not entirely convinced I’ll be warring with the Vikings on a nightly or even weekly basis, I had a splendid time playing in a LAN setting.
Arena lends itself to equal parts tension and hilarity. Inevitably, the last warrior standing on the losing team becomes a maniac, either fleeing and leading assailants on a mad dash around the map, or attempting to cement his/her name in songs that will echo down the ages. Or at least down the pub once the day’s destruction is done. Tackles send panicked pillagers sprawling across the floor and the sight of four furious Saxons hacking at a grounded Viking chief is quite splendid. Even better are the bellows of dismay as the lone survivor reverses direction and sprints into the middle of a gang of pursuers, causing them to thwack one another in an attempt to finish the job.
Conquest is a more thoughtful mode. Maps have a number of control zones, spread across the map in a linear fashion. The aim is to push the opposing team back, taking their strongholds as you go. The design creates natural chokepoints and killing floors, as bridges and narrow buildings become bitter points of dispute. Victory points don’t accumulate over time, and instead success or failure is decided at the end of a time limit, with the team holding the most points at that moment declared the victor. As with Arena, this creates frantic final moments as a final desperate push can always overturn what has previously been a one-sided battle.
I adapted my shoddy swordsmanship into a virtue by avoiding the fray and sneaking to the enemy spawn point. I couldn’t seize it because the bulk of my team were still attempting to secure a bridge at the centre of the map and objectives must be linked to a friendly-controlled previous zone. My plan didn’t involve making myself directly useful though – I wanted to test the intelligence and brutality of my enemies. Would they forego joining combat at an important tipping point in order to chase a lone Viking who was loitering in their base?
Yes, it transpired, they absolutely would. I dodged and weaved (stumbled and swayed) as they set upon me like a pack of dogs on a Pepperami. Three of the blighters. It only took them twenty seconds to catch and kill me, but it was enough time for their compatriots at the bridge to fall, overwhelmed by superior numbers.
My finest moment, in a brutal war for survival, was essentially being a really crappy version of the fake rabbit on a dog track.
I looked the part though. Not like a rabbit, but like a warrior on a catwalk. Red lining to my cloak, a couple of braids in my beard and a customised shield that struck fear in the hearts of my enemies. Less so, perhaps, when every other corpse on the battlefield seemed to be lying next to that exact design. The customisation options, which are increasing at a fairly rapid rate, add a huge amount of character to the game. You learn to fear certain foes and know how others are likely to act based on prior encounters. Unlocks are mostly tied to playtime so a gray-bearded Saxon with a rune-carved axe not only looks like a mighty veteran – he most likely is.
Female characters are due as well and the designs are fantastic. Actually, they’re not fantastic at all. As with the rest of the visual design, the focus is on historical credibility and project lead Gordon Van Dyke spent a good few minutes explaining the appearance of the Saxon and Viking warriors. The Viking women dress like the Viking men – they have chosen to fight, to leave their homes and risk a death on a faraway shore, just as their husbands, brothers, fathers and sons have done.
Saxon women are slightly different. Historically, there is less evidence of a female warrior culture on that side of the conflict but those who did fight, Fatshark theorise, would be those with enough family money to support them in their choice. Eccentric perhaps but well-trained and equipped with finer weaponry than most of the men they fight alongside. They dress as nobles, with flashes of colour and finely-crafted steel. In a presentation about a different game (Rune Master), Paradox Development Studio grandmaster Johan Andersson summarised one aspect of the character designs in the simplest possible terms: "We don't do boob armour."
The artwork is splendid, as it is throughout the game, which is far slicker, meatier and solid than War of the Roses. A combatant enjoying a killstreak will become caked in the blood of his victims, marking him, for a brief period, as a dangerous foe.
But it’s the audio that stayed with me and so I shall finish by describing the sounds of battle. A great deal of chatter is currently being added to the game – barks that give a greater sense of presence and reactivity to events and characters. An arrow whistles by and somebody screams out a warning – “ARCHERS!” – or, with a deliciously horrible snarl, a Viking lays a Saxon down – “Where is your God now?” The voicework is excellent but there’s a stroke of brilliance in the implementation of language.
Play as a Viking and you will hear your teammates’ chatter in English but Saxons will speak Old English. Switch sides and the roles are reversed, with the Vikings having their own authentic historical language. It’s a brilliant system, adding to the game’s thick atmosphere and believability, while also creating a deeper level of chaos and opposition.
I hadn’t expected to enjoy War of the Vikings as much as I did and I certainly hadn’t expected to give the last word to the strange beauty of weird words. But it’s touches like the languages and the customised shields, as well as the improved and more immediate combat, that prevent the game from being a mere re-skin. I want to play more and to experiment with perks and upgrades. I'm not convinced online play will replicate the enjoyment of battling with a room full of people, and even if I do stick around, I’ll probably never manage to be anything more than a crappy fake rabbit. With a beard. And a shiny shiny shield.
War of the Vikings is currently in Early Access and is available for purchase. The final release, due early March, is likely to be slightly more expensive than the current buy-in.