Titan Quest is my favourite clickety-clicky hack and slash game. It doesn't have the intelligent dynamic design of Soldak's games, the meaty character building of Path of Exile or the polish of Diablo III, but it's mythological worlds and monsters are beautiful. It's bright where so many are dark (including the creators' own follow-up Grim Dawn) and now that I've mentioned it I want to play through the whole thing again.
At its best, Vikings: Wolves of Midgard [official site] is like Titan Quest transported from Hellenic lands to the frozen axe-grinding of Norse mythology, but the early build I played fumbles some of the ARPG fundamentals.
The plot, such as it is, involves the burning of your home village and the revenge that ensues. That revenge comes with a big side of hunting and gathering, as you rebuild the village, collecting the necessary materials which are scattered across the handmade landscapes. Across the two quests that I played, the village acts as a hub and base, with new vendors and craftspeople unlocked as buildings are repaired and people are rescued.
That emphasis on rebuilding appears to inform the loot system as well, and that's the key area in which the game stumbles. Part of the joy of an ARPG is in the little clusters of treasure that spill out of enemies, and the larger fountain of loot that erupts from a boss critter is often more important than the sense of catharsis that comes from surviving a tricky encounter. Combat in ARPGs doesn't often require tactical acrobatics – it requires preparation and patience, and the reward is something new and shiny rather than a learning experience.
Vikings is no exception. The creatures look the part, with snarling packs of wolves putting up little resistance, and hulking great trolls requiring some nifty dodging and rolling as they hammer the ground with slow but deadly blows. While there's nothing to match the gory carnage of a gib-scattering blow in Diablo III, playing as a shieldmaiden wielding a two-handed hammer, you'll send smaller enemies ragdolling across the screen in a satisfying fashion.
There are no classes – shieldmaiden is simply the name given to the female character who has the same skills as her male counterpart - but you must choose a starting weapon that goes some way to defining your approach in the first quest at the very least. As your prowess with the weapon increases, you'll unlock new skills. These were mapped to the face buttons of a controller in the build that I played, though mouse and keyboard controls will be available. That the game plays so well with a controller is perhaps indicative of the combat's reliance on dodging and varying strikes rather than hammering/clicking away while trusting your health bar to last longer than an enemy's.
By the end of the first mission, I had a full set of skills for my two-handed weapon. These ranged from a simple ranged attack, in which the hammer is hurled and then returns like a boomerang, clobbering every monster in its path, to an area of effect strike that sees Mjolnir called down from above. It's disappointingly feeble, Mjolnir, killing smaller enemies on impact but only taking a chunk out of the larger creatures.
Presumably, as I levelled up, these skills would become more powerful but presumably enemies will become more powerful as well. Putting Mjolnir on the table that early, even if it is in the form of a temporary summon rather than as an actual weapon, takes some of the edge off the mythology. And that cuts (or WALLOPS) to the heart of my main concern about Viking's loot systems.
There are alternative weapons and armour sets, but the majority of the items that drop from enemies, even bosses, are in the form of crafting materials. You travel, you kill, you collect, and then you return to the village and have craftspeople take all of the materials and make something new. Not only does this lead to deferred satisfaction – no new look or new stats until you've actually converted all of the crap into a useful item – it also means you know precisely what you're getting. In Diablo III, a blacksmith creates something unpredictable by adding random buffs and qualities to an item, but here you unlock new weapon and armour tiers, and then present the goods to climb up to each new tier.
As things stand – and this may change during development or in later levels – the crafting system is a replacement for rather than an accompaniment to a traditional loot system. It allows for a tidier but much less compulsive method of progression, and there simply aren't enough options to introduce the variety of character build that I want from an ARPG.
The ability to replay quest areas to gather more materials once the objective has been met hammers home the need to progress through repetition and grind rather than making the kind of bold leaps and sideways steps that come from unexpectedly finding an unusual weapon in a miscellaneous enemy's back pocket.
With all of that said, it's worth hammering home that the combat itself instantly grabbed my attention in a way that Diablo's never has. The stamina meter that drains as you use abilities and roll out of reach requires some basic conservation of energy and careful application of skills, and bosses require some fast dodging and striking. There are various ways in which the environment plays into the sense of urgency a well.
On the first quest, the frozen wastes sap away at a second 'stamina' bar. If that drains completely, health starts to drain away and the only way to reverse the process is to reach one of the campfire scattered across the map. That makes every encounter with a group of lesser enemies potentially life-threatening. Deal with them too slowly and the cold will take its toll.
The developers promise variants on this feature as the hero moves through different environments and that's as pleasing in that it means the entire game won't be spent in ice and snow as it is as a mechanic. Blood on snow is always striking but the first map is a little too white – it's like fighting across the surface of a marshmallow. The second quest is a little more interesting, with the environmental damage dropped but with a dripping, dank forest to make up for it. It's certainly prettier, even as the trolls tear it apart.
Vikings is an odd game. The combat is just that bit more involving than the usual ARPG clicking and cooldown management, but the loot system is almost entirely lacking. If that last changes before release, this trip to Midgard should be a pleasant enough diversion, but without the joy of sparkly lootdrops, these wolves will struggle to stand out from the pack.
Vikings: Wolves of Midgard will be out early next year.