What Would Beowulf Do?
So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by and the kings who ruled them were notorious bureaucrats. If we are to believe Creative Assembly then there was only one thing the Vikings loved more than slaking their bloodlust by cleaving asunder the skulls of their foes to revel in the cascade of crimson riches within, and that was paperwork. “Nearly time to lay waste to that settlement, lads: we just need to fill in this P137 Insurance document and mail a copy to Horgvar the Collator, and we’ll be all set to pillage in four to six weeks.”
The justification for this entirely facetious assertion is this: attacking an enemy-held settlement in Viking requires the player to meet a checklist of “assault criteria.” Oh yes, you can tell you’re in for a fun ride when they break out the c-word. Some of these criteria are fairly mundane: capture a lumber-mill to facilitate the construction of siege equipment; recruit more men to your army. Others sound more outlandish, but somehow come across as being humdrum in practice- something like summoning a dragon takes on a unexpected level of monotony. The setting for this thrilling quest of heart-pounding box-tickery is the realm of Midgard. The player assumes the role of a Viking warrior, Skarin, roped into a battle between two goddesses, Freya and Hel. Skarin travels between islands, raising armies, razing enemy strongholds, and repeating this process until ennui overcomes the player and they slump into a coma filled with nightmares about compulsory stealth sections.
In terms of art design Viking is remarkable. I’ve remarked upon it, so I guess it must be. Exaggerated Nordic vistas yawn about the player; enormous pillars of carved stone jut from a stylised, undulating sea; it looks the biz, pure and simple, provided it’s not in motion. If this were a review of the game’s screenshot potential it’d be right up there in the rarefied air of Mount Average. For fans of nice scenery, I would certainly suggest splitting a rental with a friend or stealing a copy, just to take in the sights. So much effort has gone into making the game look attractive, though, that the gameplay quickly runs out of things to say about itself and becomes the archetypal one-trick pony*. Raise army, find gold, buy upgrades, do execrable stealth section, attack enemy town, fight boss, get teleported to next island, raise army, find gold…
The game appears to see nothing wrong with expecting you to do the same thing over and over without complaining. The game appears to see nothing wrong with expecting you to do the same thing over and over without complaining. Oh, I’m sorry, did I repeat myself? Annoying, no? Viking just glances up occasionally and says “oh- you’re still here? I thought you would have left by now. Well...I guess you could go liberate this vineyard if you wanted to. Then there’s this watchtower...if you’ve got time.” Well, how about you think of something interesting for me to do, and I’ll think about doing it? Is there not enough boring junk to do in real life, now, that we need to simulate it?
Catering for the player’s enjoyment is not Viking’s main concern. You wander about the large-ish maps with only an uncooperative, stubbornly non-zoomable map and a Viking compass for company...sorry, apparently, the compass is called a “Brisingamen”. Not a compass.
The game simply doesn’t explain what to do a lot of the time, a consequence of an “approach the objectives in whatever order you see fit” mindset which just leaves the player without direction. Consider it a silver lining that this lack of direction is alleviated by there very rarely being more than one thing to do. Free bastard Vikings. Stealth section. Kill bastard enemies. Bastard repeat. It’s hard enough to get motivated to free the bastard Vikings: never have I encountered a landscape as full of ungrateful, thankless cretins as I did while saving Midgard from Hel’s forces, and this comes from someone going to university in Yorkshire. Liberating Viking plebs from the jails dotted about the landscape generally elicits a reaction of:
“Cheers for freeing us, Ska (I can call you “Ska” can’t I?)...but we’ll need you to fetch this item for us before we join you in your noble quest of ridding our homeland of its demonic plague.”
“Nice of you to release us from our fetters, but you’ll have to prove yourself before we follow you.”
“Prove myself? I killed your captors and I freed you, you lazy, unappreciative ****er! They even let you keep your swords and armour when they put you in that flimsy, wooden jail, and you just sat there! You know what? How about you fight the rest of them off on your own and come find me if you want some backup?”
It ill befits a Viking to be everyone’s *****. You think Beowulf would put up with this ****? “Hey Beowulf, before you go can you fix this shelf?” Pshaw! Get Unferth to do it: I’ve got a dragon with my name on it.
Happily, the game does allow you a Vita-Chamber type method of resurrection. Say what you will about this killing the challenge, but it’s better than me killing my cat when the clumsiness of the combat mechanics compel me to throw him through the window. It’s clear that the devs wanted a certain clumsiness in combat, and if I was in a good mood I’d concede it gives things a bit of weight and lends the proceedings a slower and more measured pace than other games of its ilk. The combat system is best applied in one-on-one encounters, where careful blocking and dodging, and slow but strong counter attacks are called for. No sweeping area attacks here: this is personal.
Is it pretty? No. Is it effective? Erm…no.
Problem being, as the box proudly touts and as any frickin’ idiot could have told them, Viking is about “epic” battles. Massive battles. “Hundreds of people on screen” big epic massive battles.
Technical limitations are not without their uses. Time was people would ask “when will we be able to have hundreds of people fighting on screen at once?” and the devs could reply, quite earnestly and without fibbing, “oooh, not for a while yet- technology just can’t cope.” As technology comes closer to being able to cope with such scenes, though, it’s time to admit that advances must be made in combat systems, because the ones we have now simply can’t cut it when so many people are brawling. Viking
’s is an intentionally graceless system, but intentional incompetence is still incompetence. It’s little solace when you’re surrounded by thirty enemies but you have no area attack beyond a disappointing buff for your comrades, leaving you to be hacked to pieces and respawn. The “epic” battles are too flawed to be fun and too reliant on perpetually reappearing enemy forces to be taken seriously.
“So, what you’re saying is the combat is flawed?”
“Maybe I should just avoid the enemies, then?”
You could be forgiven for thinking that.
“In order to do that, I’d need some sort of well thought out and skilfully implemented stealth section…”
“DID SOMEONE CALL FOR A POORLY THOUGHT OUT AND LAZILY IMPLEMENTED STEALTH SECTION?” bellows Viking, getting quite the wrong end of the stick and feeling like its longboat has finally come in. It may sound as though I think the game is shallow: I do. But if a shallow game does what it does competently (Crackdown, say) then the game can still be enjoyable. Viking’s stealth sections are a super example of what Crackdown did well to avoid. The enemy AI, the whole game, is not designed for stealth. There is no gauge to show how visible you are, and exactly how far the enemies can see or hear is never made explicit. These are important, fundamental things to know in order for the player’s experience to be tolerable. Ever since the “2001 Bill of Compulsory Inclusion of Stealth Sections in Action and Adventure Games”, it has often been overlooked that stealth sections need a certain amount of predictability and logic about them. Such a mantra sits uncomfortably alongside Viking’s “explaining things is for gays and pussies. Let’s go crack some skulls!” philosophy.
And clearly, I wasn’t invited to the awards ceremony at which QTE’s won all the prizes for “Most Sensible and Intuitive Way to Control a Game.” QTE’s are not exciting; they’re not fun. If they’re too surprising then you’ll almost certainly fail them meaning you have to reload or just try again, begging the question of why it was there anyway. Viking
genuinely believes that a QTE will spice up the otherwise intolerably pedestrian existence of the player, and it is wrong. Just try doing anything in this game: “Tap B to open door”; “Tap B to open chest”; “Tap B to set explosives”; “Tap B to quit”. When did just pressing
a button once
become so embarrassingly passé? It’s not as though the speed at which you tap B is challenging in itself, so the requirement to tap becomes arbitrary. Combat with boss characters is also resolved in a QTE fashion: you hack at them to weaken them, then jump on them and follow the onscreen prompts. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that it’s almost as thrilling as surveying mineral deposits in Mass Effect
At one point the Wikipedia page for the game claimed, “Throught (sic) the game the player has the ability to attack other factions (sic) villages and rape their women. This plays out much like the mini game in grand theft auto San Andreas where the player had to sexually please his girlfriends in many different ways like San Andreas this caused much controversey (all very, very sic).” Given the state of near catatonic boredom I spent most of the game in, I’d have thought something that eye-catching may have jolted me out of my stupor: either Wikipedia was wrong (needless to say, this is unlikely) or I completely missed out on this barrage of graphic rape imagery. What the game does have is oodles of dismemberment: too much, actually. Enemies fall apart from your regular attacks as though their limbs were attached with blu-tac. If they survive your initial onslaught, you can employ the finishing moves, a deluge of impaling and torsos being hacked in two, which quickly become tiresome. How in good **** do you make hacking off limbs boring? The same way you make summoning dragons and leading an army of bloodthirsty Vikings into battle against a horde of demons boring, I suppose. The game has a knack for it.
Is there anything to like about Viking
? Skarin’s running animation shifts in a nicely reactive way according to the slope he’s jogging about on. Running to the edge of a platform causes Skarin to stand on the edge and wobble his arms for balance, rather than just plummeting into the void as if you’d meant to accidentally kill yourself. Given that I very rarely run over the edges of platforms and fall to my death on purpose this is surprisingly considerate of Viking
. Penultimately and ultimately: some of the scenery is nice, and Brian Blessed narrates.
Yes indeed, Brian Blessed lends his considerable vocal talents to the proceedings. The apparent poker faced ethos of the game is starkly at odds with the outrageous verbosity of Blessed’s Flash Gordon-
This leads me to conclude that it’s a funny beast, this Battle for Asgard
, although most definitely not a “funny ha-ha” beast. Apart from one crude shagging joke, I’m not sure there’s a single piece of humour in the game, unless the whole thing is one giant piss take to see how long you’ll play the same level over again, or a surprisingly subtle comment on the hopeless tautology of violence in a society based on a warrior code.
There is a hint of dramatic irony about the plot, a smugly Crackdown-esque ‘ooh, maybe you weren’t working for the good guys after all...whaddya think of THAT, college boy?’ But by the time you’ve got to the point where you might find out what’s really going on with the story, you just want to stick two fingers up at the game and say “You actually think I give a **** after all the garbage I’ve just put up with?”
The thing I found most amusing during the game wasn’t even “funny”, although I think it speaks volumes about how the experience damaged my mind-state. The main “villain” (“ooh, maybe she’s not a villain because...screw it, who cares?”) is called Hel, meaning frequent references to “Helspawn” and “Hel’s forces”. You know, like “Hellspawn”. But with one “L”. I looked it up, actually, and ‘Hell’ derives from the Germanic ‘Hel’ which…yes, I know, I’m talking etymology. That’s a good indication of how bored I was.
It’s a difficult game to like. It seems either oblivious to, or contemptuous of, how bored the player is getting, and is impressive looking enough to make this belligerent attitude a real waste of opportunity. This game needed a sense of humour, which Fable, surely the source of its visual design inspiration, at least got right. It needed more than one, very boring, side mission. It needed interesting conversations and less denture-grinding dialogue: one of the first things an NPC tells you is:
“Gold is a valuable currency, Skarin, even in these dark times.”
“Well, no **** Milton Friedman! Gold is a valuable currency? There was me thinking I’d be paying for my axes with magic beans.”
It needed a better tutorial, and it damn well needed to explain what the player is supposed to be doing. Fortunately, it’s not a disappointment because I hadn’t really heard anything about it: silver linings all round. Viking is not a sleeper hit, or more than the sum of its parts: it’s boring, and it doesn’t care if you’re having fun or not. Avoid, and get your testosterone fix from this instead:
*and what is this one trick ponies do? Juggling? Fire Breathing?GigantorSubscribe to posts?