You don’t judge your progress in Viking by high scores, percentage complete or rankings. You measure it in blisters - that old school badge of honour. The more pus you have swilling round beneath your swollen fingertips, the more pallid thick white skin that’s built up on your digits, the harder you’ve fought. Because in this game if you can still feel your thumbs midway through the first level, you aren’t anyone.
This is old school hacking and slashing. Swords cleave skulls and axes rip windpipes as each enemy is reduced to man-mixed-grill. And it’s all performed by a barbarian whose genes seem to stem from a sordid bunk up between the World’s Strongest Man and an eighteen-wheeler. So with a swift tap of a button someone loses an arm, a couple of stabs of another button and a skeleton finds himself deep-throating a broadsword and with a flurry of taps on yet another button a drawbridge comes down or a door swings open. Yes, every part of the pad takes a pounding, but don’t mistake this rapidity for vapidity. Just because the button-presses are numerous and fast, doesn’t mean that they are brainless.
Because while Viking has as many hacked off heads as the Nth Highlander straight-to-DVD movie, it’s nowhere near as one-dimensional. Sure, it wears its heart on its sleeve, a liver in its top pocket and a fashionably knotted scarf of entrails, but there’s enough roaming to garnish this gore. Because while the tightly scripted story of Norse gods has a plot to push and set-piece drama to deliver, this is a game that knows when to funnel and when to let you wander.
So each one of the three hefty islands begins by allowing you to stroll around taking on small missions, light fights and seemingly unimportant side quests. But along with earning money, skills and (sadly, but predictably) magic, you’ll also find yourself liberating a beer hall full of identi-bearded Viking warriors.
It’s because our hero Skarin is more than just a deceased warrior, resurrected by the gods to hold back the massed forces of the underworld and protect their realm from Evil’s incursions - Skarin is also a leader of men. So throughout the game these liberated square-jaws join your unshaven army. And while they never fall under your direct command, they are vital to your progress.
Each island of the three then climaxes with an epic set-piece battle, or two. Well, ‘battle’ doesn’t do them justice - these are wars. They make Dead Rising’s mass retail ruckuses seem like playground slaps. And even with literally hundreds of warriors shambling about, all fighting, all blocking and all dying, somehow everything remains fluid, detailed and HD-pretty. The only real comparison is with an RTS but those collective crusades tend to be seen from eight miles high, not within eyeball splattering-radius.
The only thing that lacks luster as these warrior automatons make a believable stab at swashbuckling is the sound. This is meant to be Good-vs-Evil clashing on the cusp of Armageddon but somehow it lacks so much atmosphere as to be eerie, not scary. War should be louder than this, not least to compete in tera-decibels with the legendary Brian Blessed’s bellowed voice-over. Where are the clinks of mace on chainmail, the howls as Viking bone is twatted into powder and the banshee screams of Berserkers in battle? Sure, the score is good and the vocal acting more than up to scratch, but the SFX are just too wimpy and sparse both on the frontline battle and while you wander.
Perhaps a little more smoke and a few shinier mirrors might do the trick, because without the wailing of war or perhaps a few dramatic but harmless trebuchet shots landing nearby, you don’t always feel the drama in your very marrow, as you surely should. This is a fight for the survival of your people but you don’t feel part of the whole, just the ‘hole who started this war.
As you might have guessed, this being a game in which Brian has megaphoned in the narration and which has a rating on the box broadcasting its whorey-goriness, Viking isn’t subtle. The platforming element is so light you’ll only notice it when you accidentally press jump in a mid-fight fumble. The puzzle parts extend as far as a glowing arrow and hammering that poor old action button again. But who cares when the finishing moves - triggered with a single tap of a button and shown with slo-mo aplomb - are a biology lesson by broadsword? When heads, ribs, limbs and offal are pinged across every screen, and when stumps seep enough blood to transfuse a hemophiliac blue whale? Exactly. These guys aren’t just dining in hell tonight; they’ve ordered coffee, booked a room and have already stuffed the monogrammed dressing gowns into their little wheelie Samsonites.
While these pre-rendered dismemberments are easy to pull off, getting to deliver the final blow isn’t always so simple. While the lowliest grunts can be diced with a few blind stabs at the buttons, the Legion promote enough freaks to ward off any complacency in combat. So special moves have to be earned, learned and used, while defeating any of the myriad of sub-bosses requires that you master the ducks and dodges. And with a generous smattering of restart points even the Kratos-inspired Quick Time dispatches for these ‘end of area’ nasties don’t shred your nerves.
The combat system too copes well with the massed battles - even if the camera sometimes struggles. It immediately locks onto the nearest enemy, but a jerk of the analog stick will soon see it picking up the guy behind, or to the left, or the right, making it ideal against groups but also suitable for mano-a-mano mash-ups. But don’t expect any of Dante’s acrobatics, juggles or perfectly timed counter strikes because with a block that works in 360 degrees and doesn’t demand precise timing, this is a fighting system designed to be mastered by all, not memorised by just a few solitary hardcore.
The camera does cause more substantial problems, however, when Skarin stoops his bulbous frame into a ‘stealth crouch’. To emphasise the effect, the camera drops in low over his shoulder, instantly placing any low scenery such as fences or boxes that you might be hiding behind smack into the centre of your view. It’s not really a problem on the open spaces of Midgard but when you’re sneaking through a packed enemy encampment, it can be annoying.
While unleashing hell at your signal might be what makes Viking stand out as a slasher, the mass battles aren’t the best part of this button-masher. They are the dramatic bookends, the climax when the sap rises and the fluids spurt. The real joy is in the unexpected but magnificently vicious scuffles with an unseen patrol, the fifteen or so hours spent exploring the hills of Midgard or spearing a snoozy sentry as he squirms in his sleeping bag.
But for all the glee of the slaughter, Viking is a game butting its head against the limits of its genre. There isn’t great variety in the tasks or the bosses you face and a few more genuinely off-story quests would be nice. But the exploring adds life and longevity far beyond the standard eight-hours-start-to-finisher slasher, and you probably won’t notice the complete lack of any multiplayer element, or the lack of chained combos, platforms, acrobatics or rankings because Viking is happy to just be a slasher.
Anyway, your poor mortal brain already performs billions of calculations every second: walking, breathing, and keeping you dry in the groinal region (hopefully). So after a long day of left, right, in, out, clench, clench, release, why not enjoy a game that doesn’t challenge every synapse in your cerebrum to pop and fizzle? Especially when the sweet release of olde-school slaughter in Viking: Battle for Asgard can numb your brain at the same time as your thumbs.
Mar 25, 2008