Viking: Battle for Asgard — Run Away!

A highly touted, much-anticipated (at least by us) PS3 release, Viking ultimately falls flat on its lumbering, running face.

2 out of 10, THIS GAME SUCKS

Do you like to run? Do you like to run around a huge, empty world and pick up bags of gold? Do you like to run back through terrain you just spent 15 minutes running through? Then would you like to run some more? If you answered “Yes!” to all these questions, then Viking is the game for you. A more fitting name might have been Viking: Battle of Marathon.

The game, much like the similarly disappointing Assassin’s Creed, begins well enough. The undead legions of the Norse goddess, Hel, have overrun human settlements in her quest for vengeance against her fellow gods. You, the Viking warrior, Skarin, are saved from death in battle by the goddess, Freya, who wishes to save the realm.

Unfortunately, Skarin is a lifeless cardboard cutout with no personality. It appears Freya chose you as champion for no particular reason, other than that you dress differently from all the other vikings, who all dress the same. There is no backstory here; you don’t have a personality or motivation worth mentioning (unlike the compelling, family-murdering Kratos in God of War). You are just a random dying warrior Freya saved.

For the first few hours, I was enjoying myself. The ample violence and brutality of kills was enough to keep me interested. One particularly violent joy in this game is one of your finishing moves, where you whack the enemy’s head right off. As if he’s not dead enough already, you then hack down and take off his arms. I thought it was humorous, as it certainly is overkill (pun intended).

However, after a few more hours, the excessive running around began to slowly bleed out any enjoyment I felt. Thankfully, there are leystones, which serve as teleport points between areas in the game. Unfortunately, they can be few and far between, and they don’t help you with the recurrent backtracking in certain areas. Since the developers decided to make this game so running-intensive, they at least should have provided a sprint option to navigate more quickly.

The combat in Viking (like in many other games) steals amply from the God of War series. GoW continues to be the gold standard in hack-and-slash and must serve as the standard of judgment for games with similar combat systems.

When compared to the rapid-paced action of the GoW entries, Viking cannot compete. Skarin is more like a lumbering tank, and anything but your fastest attack takes a few seconds to initiate — and there are charged attacks that take even longer. It leads to a lot of awkward standing involved, while you and your enemies charge up. This all gives the game a clunky, ponderous feel, lacking the graceful and seamless fluidity in GoW combat.

That being said, there are powerup moves you can acquire to make combat a bit more interesting. However, the developers created built-in limitations for these powerups: you need to acquire crystal orbs from defeated enemies to utilize your new moves. Many of the moves require two crystals, and you can only stock five crystals at a time. So, once you run out (and you will quickly), you are back to standard stock attacks. It’s a needless restriction that contributes to the overall annoying nature of combat. Finally, when performing finishing moves on enemies, the game goes into slow motion. I cannot tell whether this is due to software/processor glitches or if it’s intentional. In any event, by the time you perform your 357th killing move in slow motion, you will be bored to death and wish it was over more quickly.

Here is my theory on these games: If you aren’t going to improve upon GoW-type combat, then at the very least, don’t do worse. I’d rather developers steal directly than drop the ball.

To obtain the advanced moves, you must visit the battle arena. There, a warrior spirit from Valhalla will train you. Oddly, you have to pay this ghost in gold for new skills. This bothers me. If there was a priest there, who demanded cash for access to the spirit, as a tithe to the Gods, I’d be fine with it. But directly paying a ghost in gold seems pretty stupid to me. What use does he have for gold? The developers should have gotten creative and had you drag him the head of a bad guy as a blood offering or something. I could see a ghost wanting that. It’s too bad designers get so comfortable with the gaming conventions and fail to see that gold as payment for all things is just a perpetuation of lame, status quo gaming. Details matter more and more in games, and paying a ghost in gold to train you is a sign of laziness.

You can also power up your axe and sword with fire, ice, and lightning runes. This works as a sort of hybrid between the magics and Rage of the Gods in GoW. You have a red meter that, when activated, powers up with whichever element rune you choose. It remains powered up until the meter drains to empty. These powerups are largely useless at lower levels. Your enemies crackle with minor energy damage (lightning), turn blue/white (ice) or run a bit red (fire). It improves later in the game, but still, this was another area where the developers were clearly lazy and went for a modest effect, rather than taking the time and energy to create something interesting and effective.

Another combat-related problem that Viking has is that the power orbs you pick up from dead enemies (these are red/green orbs that are blatantly stolen from GoW) don’t automatically flow to you—you have to get close enough to absorb them. This kind of sucks when you whack a guy and he falls off a cliff (there are lots of cliffs) or you step away a few feet to hack another person. This was a notable problem in GoW1 that was fixed in GoW2; in the sequel, the orbs automatically came to you after a kill. It is inexcusable that the developers of Viking would fail on this detail. Running around in a little circle and backtracking after every single kill (you will rack up hundreds) soon gets tedious.

One area worthy of praise is that you automatically go into a “stealth” mode when approaching enemies. You can purchase a combat upgrade from the warrior spirit that will allow for even better stealth and stealth kills. In some cases, enemies are actually asleep (why do undead warriors need sleep?) and you can initiate a quick kill on them. This is pretty cool, and I’m glad they thought of it. I enjoy these little details (when they get them right).

For most of the game, you will spend your time running around to free captive Vikings. These freed warriors will eventually amass into an army to attack a fort, stockade or stronghold. It remains unclear why Hel’s minions are capturing Vikings and allowing them to remain fully armed, armored, and dangerous in ramshackle wooden prisons. It also remains unclear how 15 fully armed and armored Vikings are not able to smash out of their dainty wooden prisons, but Skarin alone is able to do so on their behalf.

I’d also like to know why Hel’s minions are keeping fully armed and armored Vikings captive rather than just killing them. It could be that the undead eat them for food — that would be fine with me. But it still doesn’t explain why they are left fully armed and armored (sorry to beat this to death).

The objectives in the game are outlined in a map much like the one in Assassin’s Creed. However, it doesn’t really tell you which objective (there can be several) you should accomplish first. In some cases it’s intuitive, but in others, you run to an objective, only to find it is locked (you need a key) or blocked (you need explosives or something). You will then have to spend 5 to 10 minutes running to the next objective, hoping beyond hope that it is not locked.

At some point you will have freed enough Vikings to form an army and can call them to battle. The cutscenes here are pretty dramatic: dozens to hundreds of Viking warriors marching on dozens to hundreds of evil undead. You then take control of Skarin and the battle is on. While conceptually enticing, these mass battles fail in application.

Your Vikings do help you kill the bad guys, but they are strategically ineffective. First, there is so much going on, it is difficult to locate Skarin.

Second, you can in no way direct your army. They are morons. Many objectives require cutting through the enemy to kill multiple shamans who are raising undead reinforcements well behind the front lines. Viking allies hit the first wave of attackers and never penetrate much. That means you will have to wade through (and avoid) scores of creatures to get to the shaman. The game should have at least allowed for calling half a dozen Vikings to assist in your attack — a strike team of sorts.

You will also unlock dragons to assist you in battle. How awesome, you say! Locate a dragon gem, charge it with magic, place it on the dragon summoning stone and awake to service an 800-year-old beast! Look out, bad guys! I’m coming to battle and raining fire on you! Well, it’s not that easy. After you enter a large battle, only then do you find out that you also need a dragon rune to call the dragon to aid. Where do you locate one? Good question. After killing the first shaman in battle (shamans tend to be major battle objectives) you get a dragon rune! Now you will be ready to rain fire down on the other shaman! Not yet. You need two runes to destroy a shaman. So you have to destroy a second shaman before killing the third shaman.

Also of note is the development that shamans just happened to arbitrarily be carrying the one and only magic item Skarin can use to summon a dragon and destroy him and his fellow shamans! That seems awfully convenient. I was sure that, as the game went on, my enemies would wise up and destroy all the useless-to-them dragon runes they were carrying, so that I couldn’t use them, right? Nope. They carry them throughout the game. Idiots. I have no problem finding magic items in odd locations (like where I found the dragon gem), but the notion that bad guys would carry a rare and useless-to-them method of their own destruction for no particular reason irks me to no end.

Ok, finally, I was thinking I’d get some awesome cutscene fire rampage! Think again. You click the buttons to summon the dragon, it appears in the sky, it dives quickly, it breathes fire on the shaman, and (in the first battle) the battle abruptly ends. You’ve won. It all takes about 3 to 4 seconds (I counted) and was extremely anti-climactic. The quick dragon summoning you see in the commercials/trailers for this game is all that is actually in the game. At the very least, I thought it would be like summoning Bahamut (or Neo Bahamut or Bahamut Zero) in Final Fantasy VII on PS1. Remember how cool that was (and 10 years ago at that)? All the air in the vicinity got sucked up, the screen went black, and then a dragon appeared in space and spewed forth a laser that incinerated your enemies? This was nothing as cool as that.

So here we are again, where a PS3 game is trumped by scenes in a PS1 game from what, a decade ago? By way of additional comparison (to see how Viking fails to stack up), see the summoning videos of Final Fantasy VII on the PSP, as well as from the PS1, below.

It is a sad commentary on the state of PS3 development that the summons for the handheld PSP are excessively superior to the dragon summoning on the PS3 for Viking. It is absolutely ridiculous (I’m having buyer’s remorse. Perhaps I should have bought the PSP instead of PS3).

Viking Dragon (what you will see in battle is when the dragon burns the beached longboat at 1:21):

FFVII Crisis Core Bahumut PSP (holy shit is this cool!):

FFVII Crisis Core Phoenix PSP:

All Original FFVII Summons:

FFVII Bahamut Zero (PS1):

The voice acting in Vikings is subpar. Your allies all have cheesy British accents and stilted speech patterns. The script is about as cardboard as Skarin’s personality.

I was willing to cut Viking a lot of slack, because on paper it seemed tailor made for my interests: an ultraviolent hack-and-slash Viking game (my dream)! However, that only goes so far. This game ain’t no GoW2 (the greatest warrior game to date, and if you are going to aim for this target, you’d better not miss), nor does it come close.

Viking, much like Assassin’s Creed (review here) is not a finished product. I can only conclude the developers made an economic decision and rushed the beta version to market without proper testing and quality control. This seems to be an increasing pattern for PS3 releases (see Assassin’s Creed, Turning Point: Fall of Liberty, Army of Two, Turok, etc.). You may enjoy Viking for about 2 hours. I did. But after that, getting through it is a marathon that will test your endurance for repetitive stupidity. My advice would be to pass this game up and go replay God of War 2. It might be the only thing capable of washing the bad taste of Viking out of your mouth.

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