Friday, May 21, 2010

Review - Viking: Battle for Asgard

It's about time I got something on this blog other than Achievement awards!

Viking is a game that got a pretty tepid reception from most reviewers. It's metacritic score (68/100) is decidedly mediocre and it didn't do much volume in sales. So maybe I'm tipping my hand here a bit, but this review is partly a defense of a game that I think is a bit of a hidden gem. I liked Viking. In fact, I was surprised how much I enjoyed it.

Viking is a third person action/hack-and-slash game set (obviously) in the world of Norse myth. You play as Skarin (pronounced Scar-in), a Viking warrior felled in battle by demonic forces who is chosen by a goddess to stem the tide of evil. Over the course of the game, you'll travel to three different islands, free imprisoned warriors to fight beside you, and drive hordes of enemies from the Viking homelands.

Now, that's a pretty basic setup - kill the baddies and free the good guys. Sprinkle in some Norse mythology with about the same depth as a Thor comic book and that's most of the story. However, I was surprised to discover that there's a fascinating undercurrent to the plot. You spend the game fighting as the champion for the beautiful goddess Freya and against the forces of the evil goddess Hel. While that seems pretty straightforward, you slowly learn over the course of the game that everything is not as it seems. I don't want to give away a bunch of spoilers, but I will say that Norse gods (much like the mythos of the Greeks and the Romans) make for interesting characters precisely because they share the same foibles, shortcomings, and penchants for jackassery as their human counterparts. Best of all, the game provides a pretty satisfactory ending (though not the one I was hoping for) that wraps up the loose ends. These days they usually end games with cliffhangers to set up sequels that may or may not ever get made.

It wasn't just the story that was a pleasant surprise. Gameplay consists of roaming freely across maps and finding enemy encampments to attack. I wouldn't exactly call this open world gaming in the vein of Grand Theft Auto, as you often have to perform tasks in specific order to advance. Still, there's a strong exploration element that rewards the player with money and allies to further Skarin's goals.

At its heart, Viking is a hack-and-slash'll definitely be stomping the skulls of a LOT of Hel's forces. The battle system in Viking is solid, with a number of combat moves to employ (and you can learn more in the battle arena for a price, though what ancient spirits of dead warriors want with cash is unclear). What's interesting about Viking is that there are a number of enemy types, and specific combat moves work better on some than others. You could get through the game spamming nothing but the basic attack, but some enemies would be awfully difficult to defeat. It's a system that encourages the player to learn a few different combat options so they'll be ready for anything.

And you'd better be ready, because Viking does not kid around about throwing you into the fire. Hel's forces are honestly not so hot in the fighting department, but they make up for it in sheer volume. The game is not bashful about sending a dozen or more enemies after you at the same time, especially if you rush blindly into danger. The game also features massive battles between your Viking army and enemy legions. These are a sight to behold, as soldiers clash in combat and tamed dragons assist you from the skies. The only bad news is that the larger battles can tax the Xbox 360 hardware, causing some stuttering and other graphical issues (burning the game to your hard drive helps).

If all that wasn't enough, Viking features a cleverly integrated stealth component that comes in quite handy. As long as you haven't been seen by an enemy, Skarin creeps along to show that he's in stealth mode. If you sneak up on an enemy, you can perform a stealth kill with a single button press. This ability is absolutely vital during sections where you need to skulk through an enemy stronghold to accomplish some task. The reason I love this system is that there's no "stealth mode" vs. "combat mode"'s all seamless.

As for gripes, there are some legitimate ones. Like almost any hack-and-slash game, Viking gets pretty repetitive after a while. The pattern for liberating each island is virtually identical, so by the third and final island you'll probably have had enough Viking-themed fun. That's particularly true because the game stops throwing new enemy types at you and focuses on pitting you against more enemies, which just has the effect of making each battle longer. I could have used one less island and more story elements, particularly about the gods. And I suppose I should beat one of my favorite dead horses when it comes to third person action titles - the camera. To be fair, the one in Viking isn't terrible, but it still loves to play tricks on you at inopportune times. Things like lurching around the screen at a key moment or reorienting itself so that you can't see enemies that are attacking you. There are even a few caves/dungeons with instant death pits (why???) that would be obvious to a person walking around but can be near invisible given the camera angle.

Those issues aside, Viking was definitely a pleasant surprise. It isn't a long game and doesn't require much of a time investment for people willing to give it a shot. Given it's repetitive nature you may prefer it as a rental or at a bargain price, but it's definitely worth a look.


  1. Sounds like this stealth mode is far superior to the one in ACI and II; is that a correct assumption? Which stealth mode did you like better?

  2. Stealth in Assassin's Creed 1 was a giant pain in the ass, moreso because enemies could see through your disguise so easily. What's strange is that Assassin's Creed games put you in the role of a sneaky guy, then do very little to reward you for being stealthy. Viking puts you in the role of a battle hardened warrior and then practically requires you to be stealthy at times.