Beer and skittles.
I can empathize with Viking: Battle for Asgard, which teeters on the edge of Ragnarök, the mythological Norse Armageddon. Game reviewing is like an ongoing war, fought by a bunch of lunatics because we enjoy the fighting, and when we reviewers are finally laid to rest (professionally), we’ll probably spend our golden days in the guild halls of our favorite websites, drinking nonstop and laughing about the horrors we’ve seen.
[image1]And every now and then in the middle of the fight, Duke calls upon the elemental power of Beer, and every GR grandmaster within fifty feet finds a cold beer in our hands, so we let out a hearty cry and start hacking away at Rock Band or Worms! Live or that copy of Mass Effect that I swear I’m going to finish (but first let me get in a round of Rock Band).
I get this feeling while playing Viking, whenever I call for fire or ice to bless my hero Skarin and his entourage of a hundred beardy brutes, as we crash against a wave of undead soldiers and take back the once verdant islands of mythical Midgard.
Viking (originally titled God of War: Extreme Norse Edition) puts you and Skarin in the business of harvesting the heads, arms, and torsos of the armies of the Underworld. It is a real-time brawler set in an open countryside, instead of the traditional series of levels, here the liberation of Midgard is yours to plan. Skarin is an adventurous guy, too; when he isn’t leading armies against the goddess Hel and her demonic Legion, Skarin likes to summon dragons, hunt for kegs and gold, and slay giants. You know, just for kicks.
Unfortunately, Hel is holding the islands - and your whole army - under lock and key. Like an 11th-century Rambo, you’ll have to sneak around the outskirts of small villages and thin the enemy ranks before charging in to save the day, bloodily. You’ll make up for all this sneaky nonsense when you’re ordering dragons around in Dynasty Warriors-ish army showdowns. Each victory rolls back a little of Hel’s blood-red blight, restoring the sunshine over a part of the island.
[image2]Though Viking is short, with only five major battles taking place on three islands, it’s got a well-balanced load of quests and rewards to ease you from start to finish. You may burn through one quest in five minutes, but hey, there’s another one nearby, and a treasure to pick up right next door... Before you know it, you’ve burned two hours just cruising through the game. The whole Treasure Map bit, where you can see gold pickups on your radar, adds a new and fun twist to exploring the world, and you’ll be spending that gold on new moves and upgrades well into the final island.
Viking makes its best effort to be graphically “next-gen”. Bring on the shine, bring on the polys, lots of special effects and incidental animation give the game a polished look. Lush bloom and shading, vivid cut-scene illustrations, and little details like a foot slipping on a ledge have visual impact and cause the controller to respond.
The ambition goes a little too far, however, as minor bugs like pop-up eat away at the last level. More character lighting or at least a glow effect would add that last inch of oomph to character movement; plus, it would keep enemies from disappearing into the shadows as soon as they step beyond Skarin’s personal space. The game generally looks fine, though, and I was surprised to see only a few seconds of slowdown pop up, even with a few hundred characters in the huge army battles.
Combat animations are also too slow and narrow for the task of slaying an entire invading army. Controlling Skarin will initially feel like molasses, but it only takes one or two blunders to learn the proper butchering method. You’ll fill your arsenal with spells and special moves before you even know it, and biased controller preferences between systems are minimal. The PS3 buttons are more friendly toward button-mashing microgames, while the Xbox trigger buttons feel better for blocking and deploying special moves.
[image3]Not surprisingly, the soundtrack is fantastic. When you enlist the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, your soundtrack is probably going to sound like that. But maybe they spent too much money on music. A few monsters scream but make no noise, and you fight a few key battles in an awkward silence. When the sounds are there, and they usually are, they’re fine. A Sir Ian McKellen soundalike leads a fine voice cast in performing the half-decent script, in a fair variety of accents and inflections.
However, you might wish they had something more meaningful to say. Viking starts as if it’s going to explore a theme of hope, but no, it’s just empty flowery language. It fails to take advantage of cool concepts like the Freya-Skarin/Hel-Drakan parallels, and totally deficient as a recollection of Norse mythology. Is it a huge problem?
Not really. I can forgive a few lost words about hope and parallelograms. Viking is a weekend of relaxing ultraviolence, giving Xbox owners an easy thousand points to chase and PS3 owners a short, sweet adventure to pad their shelf. Best of all, nobody has to feel guilty about it.
Now if only Duke will summon another round of Beer from the mighty heavens of the GR fridge.