Reviewed: April 23, 2008
Released: March 25, 2008
Take one hulking warrior who looks like the poster boy for steroid abuse, throw in a bunch of manipulative mythological gods who trick him into do their earthly dirty work then betray him at the very end and you have all the makings of a God of War game. But waitÖthis hero has long flowing blond hair and no facial tattoos, plus, its on the Xbox 360 so it couldnít possibly be a God of War game. Well, youíre right, but Viking: Battle for Asgard is the next best thing and probably as close to playing as Kratos as you will ever get on a non-Sony platform.
Vikings are cool and itís a shame the genre hasnít received more attention. Microsoft was planning a massive Norse MMO several years ago but that idea got scrapped, so if you want to wear a horned helmet and swing a sword youíd have to go back more than a decade to play The Lost Vikings, which, while great fun (in a cute and cuddly way) doesnít come close to representing the violent blood bathing combat we expect when you mention the word ďVikingĒ.
Battle for Asgard not only delivers the blood, gallons and gallons of it to be sure, it also does a fairly respectable job in presenting a surprisingly authentic Viking experience, both in lore, locations, and a gameplay model that is very much like playing World of Warcraft by yourself.
Youíll take on the role of Skarin, a warrior of epic proportions, both in skill and size. His ripped torso is clad in leather and he dual wields a sword and an axe so he can kill twice as fast, and much to the delight of this gamer, engage in all sorts of brutal finishing moves that never get old no matter how many times you repeat them. We meet Skarin as he succumbs to a fatal blow in battle, but before he is whisked away to Valhalla (Norse version of heaven) Odinís daughter, Freya appears and gives Skarin a ďget out of heavenĒ card provided he serves her and defeats the lord of the Underworld, Hel, and her minions.
Sounds like a traditional task and a traditional game until you realize that Helís minions are many and they have infiltrated Midgard with thousands of troops and are bunkered down into massive fortresses with all sorts of evil beasts and powerful shamans. Perhaps Skarin could use a little help after all, so you set off to cleanse the land of evil and recruit a few good men.
Battle for Asgard takes place on three massive islands; Niflberg, Galcliff, and Isaholm. To put things into proper scale, if you were to walk across Niflberg it would take you about 8-10 minutes. Galcliff is easily 3-4x the size of the first island and Isaholm is somewhere in between. These are massive islands full of mystery, adventure, danger, and treasure.
Viking is both an adventure game and a button-mashing combat game. One minute youíll be exploring the landscape in search of gold and captured Viking brethren and the next youíll be hacking and slashing like you were playing N3 or Samurai Warriors. Itís a great mixture of genres that is perfectly balanced.
All three islands are laid out with similar goals and objectives, and in a way it almost seems as if you are playing the same game three times over, but each island offers enough new challenges, fresh scenery, and fun adventures that it never gets stale. Your primary objective for each island is to cleanse the land of Helís minions, remove her shamans from special portals, and replace them with your own. Naturally, these portals are usually located in some heavily fortified city so youíll need to build an army before you make your assault.
Before you worry about the final battle on each island youíll need to take on numerous secondary missions as shown on the wonderful map screen. On this screen you can see available waypoints for missions as well as magical obelisks that will transport you quickly around the land, saving a lot of walking around time. There are numerous obelisks on each island but you have to find them in the world before they appear on the map.
The secondary missions are actually quite intelligent and integrated into the story. You'll need siege equipment so you must free the lumberyard from enemy rule, but then you find you must also rid the forest of enemies so the construction workers can chop down the trees. If you want flaming flask bombs youíll need to liberate the vineyard or brewery, and if you want supplies for your troops there is a large farm that needs rescuing. And donít forget to clear out those enemy watchtowers so Helís forces canít see you coming until itís too late.
As you explore the land you will encounter numerous enemy camps, which invariably have a dozen or so fellow Vikings imprisoned. Youíll also find smaller groups of Vikings bound to stakes, usually in out of the way places. The more Vikings you find and free, the bigger your army will be for the final battle.
It takes a lot of cash to finance a war, so youíll always want to be on the lookout for sacks, urns, and chests, all containing various amounts of gold. While these items offer a slight glow or flicker in the real word, they are far easier to detect if you purchase the three treasure maps from the shopkeeper on each island. Now the locations are revealed on your mini-map. You can also find kegs of mead from a scuttled cargo ship scattered about the beaches, and the town barkeep will purchase any you find and return to him. As your bank balance grows you can purchase magical power-ups for your blade as well as useful items like throwing axes, explosives flasks, and healing potions.
Combat is pretty slick and follows the rules of fast/light and slow/heavy attacks and of course, you can combo the two styles to create some pretty fancy moves. But first, youíll need to find the magical shrine and summon the Viking warriors of old to train you, and each new move costs some goldÖthe stronger moves cost a lot of gold. Youíll learn awesome combos, leaping attacks, and a devastating stealth attack that offers a one-button kill.
Speaking of stealth, on each island there will be at least one stealth mission that requires you to sneak into the enemy fortress before the final battle. These are a big change from the rest of the gameplay and could trip up some gamers who are only in this for the button-mashing combat. You first have to find a way into the city (hinted at on the map), then stay out of sight or kill anybody who does spot you before they can sound the alarm. As a fan of stealth games like Splinter Cell and Vampire Rain, I loved these parts, even when I died and had to try again.
Along with your health meter, which slowly refills over time, you have a power bar that refills as you collect red orbs that float away from dead enemies. There are also green orbs for faster healing. The red bar fuels your magical attacks, and once invoked will continue to power your sword with elemental magic until the meter is drained. There are also a series of Rage Crystals that you can fill by doing powerful attacks. You can then invoke Rage Mode and perform even more devastating attacks which are usually instant death for all but the largest of foes. Each type of Rage attack costs a certain amount of crystals.
Most of the battles have you outnumbered, so you really need to master the combos and directional attack system. If you can manage to free some Vikings while the enemy is still around they will fight by your side for the rest of that encounter, but all freed Vikings return to your island base until you blow the horn that summons them to the final battle.
There is one other quest item youíll be needing before you go to war. On each island there is a dragon rune, and you will need to find this rune, charge it with magical energy, then take it to the dragon shrine to summon a dragon. There is a dragon on each island, so by the time you get to the third and final battle you have some pretty impressive air support at your disposal.
So, to sum it all up, you explore the land, free Vikings, collect gold, completed secondary missions, summon the dragon, and once all the prerequisites have been met for the final battle you blow the horn and go to war, and this is when things get totally epicÖweíre talking Lord of the Rings and Narnia epic. Youíve never seen battles like this on any game before.
Once you begin the final battle you are in it to the end. You cannot die, and if you do fall in battle you will merely spawn back at your nearest shaman. While you have no direct control over the hundreds of Vikings in your army you can assist them by invoking the magical powers of your blade. By enchanting your blade with fire, ice, or electricity, youíll send out a shockwave that bestows those same powers on all nearby warriors. This makes them highly effective in battle.
But your men are mostly here to clear a path in order for you to reach the enemy shamans or other key battle targets. As long as enemy shamans are chanting the enemy units will infinitely respawn. You'll need to cut your way to those evil wizards, destroy the surround staffs of power, and then finish them off. Most battles have multiple shamans, magically infused warlords, and giant ogres.
When you take down the larger targets youíll earn dragon runes and these can be spent to summon your dragon to take out key targets using the overhead battle map. Targets vary in cost, so you have to make some tough decisions. Do you take out the wall of archers to help your men, or do you target a shaman to save you an entire encounter. Once you choose your target a cinematic shows the devastating airstrike, and these get really awesome when you have two or three dragons coordinating their attacks.
Youíll also get to enjoy several God of War button-matching attacks, usually on the Legion Warlords or the giant Ogres. Sadly, the button patterns are always the same so once you know how to kill an Ogre nothing ever changes. Personally, I think this button-matching gameplay device has run its course and gamers are all pretty tired of itÖespecially when I have to beat on the B button to open a chest or pry open a door. I understand they want to make these actions take time, but just have me hold down the button and fill up a meter or something.
Words and even screenshots cannot begin to describe the intensity of these battles. The level of chaos and mayhem is exhilarating with literally thousands of troops fighting in some of the most amazing AI-scripted melees in gaming history. Kudos to the designers for taking battles that rival the scale of Lord of the Rings and making them totally interactive. Each battle is preceded by a short, but thrilling cinematic as both sides prepare for battle and is completed when you finally take control of the enemy's magic portal, remove their shaman, and summon your own. You'll then need to protect your shaman as they convert the portal from Hel's influence to Freya's.
One complaint I had with the game was that you really couldnít save your game or replay any of these awesome battles. I would have loved a Siege mode that would have unlocked after the game had been completed, so you could revisit these epic events, or at least allow me to save my game in unique and multiple locations. As it is, the game autosaves regularly, but always on top of itself, so you cannot backtrack to previous islands. This presented a major irritation when I finished the first island battle and was whisked away to Galcliff before I had a chance to bag some skulls on Niflberg. Now I have to replay the game from scratch to get those missing Achievement points.
Another serious complaint I had with the game was that while you are prevented from accidentally falling off a cliff (unless you actually jump off), if that same cliff has a short wall or fence next to it you will automatically hop over it if you inadvertently touch it, resulting in a not-so-spectacular plummet to your untimely demise. This really sucks since the designers like to hide bags of gold along walls and fences next to seaside cliffs, so one minute you are grabbing for the bag and the next you are swimming with the sharks.
And my final complaint is with the final boss fight against Hel. I donít mind ridiculously hard boss battles if they are intelligently executed, but the final encounter with Hel is insulting to anybody who dedicated the time and effort to get that far. The big battle outside the castle wasn't a problem and neither was the 30-minute battle as I spiraled my way to the top of her tower. I'm talking about the final faceoff with Hel. It took me over an hour to beat this bitch, and that was after consulting an online walkthrough after the first 45 minutes of frustration, only to learn that the entire battle was about BLOCKING Ė something you donít even have to do anywhere else in the game. At least now I can replay this battle and beat her in the 10-15 minutes it really does take.
Viking has a very unique look about it, maintaining a balance of fantasy and reality with heavily stylized violence. At first, and even second glance, the game looks like World of Warcraft or any of the other popular MMOís. The islands are huge with unique features so you can always locate yourself with landmarks. The narrative is told through stylish artwork and voiceovers, while the rest of the in-game cinematics use the game engine. The HUD is minimal and doesnít interfere with the action.
There is a clever weather system in place that has the parts of the island under enemy rule dark, cloudy, and even rainy, but once you complete whatever objective is in that area, the sun comes out and everything is bright and cheerful. Itís a very clever system that immediately informs you the moment you cross into enemy territory.
There are some truly majestic locations. The giantsí fortress in the final island comes to mind, as you must make your way to the depths of a volcano to infuse your sword with magic for the final battle. You see these giant doors and giant chains with links so large you could walk through them. On this same island there is also a large city that has been split in two by the shifting rocks of a volcano. A makeshift bridge over a lake of lava now spans the two parts of the city. Island two is easily my favorite location with two epic battles in two giant cities with multiple levels, bridges, towers, and secret passages.
Skarin looks amazing, at least in design and detail. His animation can be a bit goofy at times as he almost gallops across the landscape. Itís amusing to watch him go down a steep hill and see his arms outstretched trying to maintain his balance. Once in battle you will relish the insane combats and gallons of spilt blood as you decapitate, dismember, or even cleave your foes in half at the waist. The blood flies and so do the body parts and entrails. What other game has you impaling your foe on your sword then hacking off his arms and head with three vicious follow-up strikes of your axe?
Viking comes at you in 1080p quality and a solid framerate, but you will see some framerate issues during the larger final battles but nothing that remotely hinders the gameplay or your enjoyment of the experience. Considering the sheer number of warriors on screen at any time mixed with loads of special effects and spraying blood, I was impressed it was as smooth as it was.
For those in need of a PS3 comparison, the framerate is considerably worse on Sonyís console, and there are numerous other technical glitches like Skarinís glowing amulet which causing funky lighting and shadow issues, plus the graphics, overall, are washed out, and some of the special visual effects (like combat training) have been removed entirely.
Letís give a big round of applause to the composer and what I can only imagine is a massive orchestra complete with chanting choir voices that created some of the best battle sequences in video game history. By the time the pre-battle movies were over I had my face painted blue and was ready to free Scotland or join Lancelot in the quest for the Grail. The music is as epic as the action and easily the highlight of the entire audio experience.
Voice acting is limited to the artistic cutscenes, and all other in-game dialogue is text only, so break out those reading specs. Youíll hear plenty of grunts and groans and guttural roars during combat and there are some uninspired cheers from your Viking brethren when you free them, but nothing terribly outstanding or memorable.
The sound effects are much better and include all sorts of environmental effects (usually rain), and the plodding footsteps of Skarin, which often sound like a galloping (or trotting) horse, which actually matches his awkward running animation. There are more direct sound effects like pulsating portals, roaring dragons, crumbling stone, and when you go into any populated area things get lively with ambient noises of the mead hall, archery competitions, and the bustle of the shop area. The Dolby Digital mix works nicely to surround you in the experience and even let you know when somebody is sneaking up on you.
Viking is going to take most gamers 15-18 hours to finish assuming you are going into this to complete the game and not merely finish the mandatory quests. It took me about 16 hours from start to finish - 4 hours for the first island, and 6 hours for the two that follow, and that includes 90 extra minutes wasted on the final boss, which probably equals the time it would take me if I had been allowed to go back and get the missing gold and skulls I am missing from the two cities that have them. So a complete replaying of the game is definitely in my foreseeable future. Yes, Iím an Achievement whore.
Speaking of those elusive gamer score points, I managed to get 835 of the 1000 possible on my first pass on the normal difficult. Most of the challenges will come naturally through the course of the game like summoning a dragon or learning 8 combat moves, or powering your sword to full strength, but some goals like 100 fatalities, 100 stealth kills, or pushing 20 guys off a cliff will take some dedicated effort. Youíll need to complete the game a second time on the Hard difficulty if you want the final 135 points.
Viking: Battle for Asgard is a massive, and sometimes daunting game. There is so much to do and you pretty much have the freedom to do it in whatever order you like, although some missions have some qualifying objectives creating a bit of structure to the story. I loved the diverse mix of exploration and discovery (treasure hunting) one minute followed by insanely fun and bloody combat the next. It truly is the best of both genres.
And nothing can possibly prepare you for your first large-scale assault. Youíll really feel like a Viking warlord when you lead hundreds, possibly thousands of men into battle, while a dragon circles above waiting for you to point out a target in need of incinerating. Normally, battles of this size are reserved for RTS games, but Viking makes it work at a personal and an epic scale.
I loved this game from the title screen to the closing credits. I basically divided the 3-island game into three separate gameplay sessions and had a great time searching for treasure, rescuing Vikings, building my army, and unleashing all the powers of Asgard on Helís minions and eventually Hel herself. If you crave the brutality of God of War with the adventurous spirit of World of Warcraft, and the massive battles of games like Kingdom Under Fire or N3 then Viking: Battle for Asgard is an adventure you donít want to miss.