When you hear that the team behind Spartan: Total Warrior (and the Total War series) are involved in a next-gen project, you begin to get a strange feeling that you've heard it all before and what you get at the end result isn't what you were expecting. So, when I heard that Viking: Battle for Asgard, was coming to the 360 I kind of zoned out, put the game on my peripheral radar and forgot about it. I purposely ignored all but one trailer and left the game in the dark, that way I could approach it with a sense of a new player, with nothing spoiled and no preconceptions.
I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that, if you like open world games with a lot to do, like Crackdown and Assassin's Creed, even Fable in some ways, then Viking is spot on and right down that particular alley. Now Viking has some problems, there's not many and some people who clamour about repetition in games will probably whine there's not much substance to the various missions in Viking and the story isn't really told very well at all.
Let's address this for a moment. The missions have less repetition than Assassin's Creed and I found that whilst AC was an enjoyable game, the various flag collection, timed runs and other elements really pushed me away from the game in places. Viking has nothing like that, its hack and slash with some stealth mixed in. In the end the game allows you to play it as you want, you can even improvise in some of the later sections and that's something you don't really see from many so-called open world games these days.
As for the story, you're Skarin, a norseman who is brought back from the dead by the Goddess Freya, to battle Hel's legions who have taken over and enslaved everyone, killed the rest and are generally causing various kinds of affrays all over the battlefields and plains of Midgard. Skarin is initially fairly weak and can only survive rudimentary battles with Hel's warriors, that's fine since there's very little you can do until you begin to follow your quest lines. There are hidden gold bags, urns, treasure chests and a shop in the game, from these shops you can buy various items like health power ups (permanent), throwing axes, health potions and so on.
Your inventory is limited and you can only carry 3 health potions. There's also a blacksmith who'll put power runes into your weapons for a price, so it's important that you get as much gold as possible. The other reason you'll want to stockpile your gold is the various Battle Arenas (one for each map) these are where you'll learn your new abilities and combos, these are simple affairs but the way the combat system works you're going to find they're useful additions to your arsenal when you face off against a dozen or more foes all trying to trade blows.
The game is a 3rd person hack/slash title with the emphasis upon freedom, you're not locked down into a single linear campaign level after level, you're given a series of goals and sub-objectives, a map (the Brasingamen) and you can mark locations of interest using the X button whilst viewing it. These goals are similar from map to map (of which there are 3 massive locations to explore) however unlike Assassin's Creed, whilst the goals are similar, the setups are vastly different.
Not every single quest is cut and dried either, you might rescue a Viking encampment only to be told that something prevents these men from joining your cause, so you must go and solve that part of the quest before you can gain the warriors. Why do you need warriors, because Viking isn't just a 3rd person hack/slash game, it has a massive battle that you're part of when it comes to attacking big fortifications and objectives. These battles are excellent and they allow you to call forth a dragon (or two) to destroy certain objectives providing you have the dragon gems to power the attack.
Prior to the massive battle you end up doing sub skirmishes, freeing Viking prisoners and generally hacking legion warriors into tiny bits. You'll accrue enough of an army to prepare for an assault. It's not all blood and battle though, you can if you wish, approach the various slave camps with a stealthy eye and use sneak tactics to stealth kill your enemies, whittling them down until there's only a few left you can dispatch in a bloody ballet of torn limbs and crushed skulls. It allows you to improvise even in the direst of circumstances usually, switching from a sneaky backstabber to a mighty warrior who can cleave a path to the goal.
It's up to you how you take on these odds, since if you happen upon a horn blower, he will summon reinforcements unless you cut him down or kill him before he becomes aware of you. I managed to survive one those battles where I ended up wading through a slew of around thirty or so summoned troops who came running in from all areas of the enemies 2nd biggest fortress in the game. It was a legendary moment where I used all 3 of my potions and barely survived, when I saw Skarin standing triumphant though, I knew this game was something special since I was able to win via tactics and the application of various simple combos and techniques.
These were also a mix of berserker types, warriors, heavy shielded warriors and thug-like wimps. Skarin's health bar was depleted almost to nothing and if I'd have died it would have been right back to the start of the massive fortress that I was trying to infiltrate (I'd died once before there) so it was a real nail-biting moment that made the victory all the more sweeter. I'm glad that the developers allowed you to regenerate health if you're in a spot where there are no enemies and Skarin's not in his stealth pose. It saved trying to leave and get more potions, because I needed all that health when I stumbled upon a kind of mini-boss, the Legion Commander.
These hulking brutes take a lot of practise to kill; you need to use combination attacks and well timed dodges/counters until they finally drop to one knee. Once the B button flashes you enter a quicktime event ala God of War where you must bash buttons to finally end your foe. The payoff is usually a lot of gold or some item you need, like a key to a chest full of gold or a cage where your men are held captive. Fortunately the combat system is up to the task and whilst there are occasionally some niggles with the camera, it's responsive and allows you to perform a variety of attacks with finishing moves against numerous types of foes.
You can use two kinds of attacks, swift and heavy, A and X respectively. Skarin is capable of trading blows with different warriors, dodging, countering and activating special powers with only a couple of button presses. It's a bit tricky at first to know that you must hold down LB to use your special combos, whilst countering is enabled by using the LT to block and then tapping Y to dodge then A at the right time (making sure you've let go of the LB) to finish them off or strike a hard blow. It all becomes fairly fluid if you spend some time with it and with the application of the runes, fire, ice or lightning from your sword, you can become a whirling dervish of punishment.
The true highlight of the game is when you reach the final fight on each island, the massive battle and the sense of struggle is epic. You begin usually outside the main gates or objective, and then you have to kill a number of shamans whilst you destroy targets of opportunity as you attempt to reach the final Legion Commander of the base and end their miserable life. Complicating this is the fact that you have masses of enemy warriors and your own legions to contend with, it becomes confusing and a lack of any kind of targeting icon means you might hit the wrong enemy when all you want to do is wade into the sub-commanders and kill them for precious dragon gems.
Get enough dragon gems and you can call in an aerial attack by one or two of your dragons, these little cut-scene events are truly worthwhile since you can use them to get rid of pesky archers or save up dragon gems and take out the shaman targets without having to wade in with your axe and sword. Once you finish all of these objectives you move further into the war zone and eventually you'll face the boss of the level in one on one combat, the victor (you) earns the gratitude of Freya and the loser (him)gets sent to Hel who is no doubt not pleased her little lapdog lost to such a wimpy mortal.
These battles are truly excellent and whilst they might seem repetitious, they have enough variety and enough going on to make them truly worth fighting. They are good chances to blow off steam and if you die, you respawn in from the last checkpoint (your own shaman) ready to fight again!
Death in the normal game pretty much takes you to one of the many leystones (magic stones used to get from area to area, since the islands are fairly big) and the enemies that you might have killed before in an area, will have respawned.
With all this pretty fun gameplay there are the camera issues I mentioned and sometimes the enemy AI seems a little too clever, but all in all it's a good gameplay experience and it marries well to the excellent visuals. The islands have very little in the way of pop up and you can see for miles. The game's engine handles large open spaces and cramped interiors well enough, there are numerous caves and tunnels to explore and the level design is such that the way to a place isn't usually too obvious, it forces you to think outside the box a little and explore, climbing or shimmying ala Tomb Raider to reach different areas and pick a less guarded route into a base or encampment.
The use of textures is excellent, the lighting and weather effects as you transition from Hel controlled areas (dark and rainy) to the bright sunshine and light of the conquered zones gives you an idea that you're battling to drive away the darkness. It is a great looking game that has a superb attention to detail in both terms of the levels and the main characters, the enemies and the allies. The sound is likewise visceral and marries well with the rest of the game elements, the crunch of bone, the clang of steel upon steel and the cries of agony all supplement the experience and make it a more mature affair.
The combat animations are right up there with the recent Conan game and some of them are brutal, with heads and arms flying off all directions. The animations in general are all spot on and Skarin kind-of lopes along in a determined way or sneaks around when he gets close to enemies.
The voice work reminds me of Fable, and I am sure they managed to peg a number of those voice actors to work on the game. The dialogue is a bit long winded but it's delivered with a lot of enthusiasm by some of these actors. Of course having Brian Blessed narrating made the game even more of a sell for me, since he has the perfect voice for this kind of game and if he's not Odin, well, he certainly should be!
The spot effects, the music and the rest all tie in nicely and I have to say that Viking was a totally excellent experience that merits the score. A few niggles keep it from being a really mega game but overall it's one of those games that should be played if you have a hankering for an open world game that's a bit different from the best sellers out there.
I certainly would love a sequel.