Reviewed: August 18, 2001
Released: July 30, 2001
When a game is released that uses a well-known graphics engine there are immediate assumptions and expectations that title must live up to. When that engine is as popular and powerful as the Unreal engine these expectations are even greater. After all, the Unreal engine has powered some legendary titles including the popular Deus Ex.
But as with games, game engines don't always port to consoles very well, and in the case of the Unreal engine one only need look to the PS2 version of Unreal Tournament to see this clearly is the case. Epic Games wisely decided to drop future plans for the PS2 after the dismal failure of Unreal Tournament. The PS2 conversion of their engine just wasn't up to the task of handling the textures, colors, or even maintain an acceptable frame rate on the next-gen console.
Epic's failure didn't stop Human Head Studios from taking a shot at developing a game with the questionable engine, and Rune: Viking Warlord is the result of their attempts at bringing an epic quest to a console that is in dire need of a good adventure game. While their new game offers a rich adventure-filled quest, it is heavily bogged down in a mire of bland graphics and toe-tapping load times.
Everyone loves a good Viking game and surprisingly, there are very few of them available. Rune puts you in control of Ragnar, a young boy who has been chosen to "save the word" - how cliché. Ragnar is armed with a decent supply of 15 unique weapons that are true to the era including axes, swords and maces, and our hero even gets to dabble in powerful Rune magic that enchants his weapons and definitely adds some spice to the combat.
The levels are adequately populated with structures and people, some of which are critical to the story and other are there just to provide ambience and push you in the right direction. The levels are very short and you will find yourself at the between level "save mission" prompt about every 10-15 minutes. Even worse is that the game suffers from some insanely long load times. Expect a 30-60 wait as each new level loads. When these lengthy interruptions occur as frequently as they do in this game it really takes you out of the story and reminds you that you are playing a game.
Controlling Ragnar is excellent and the left analog stick moves him around while the right controls your camera direction. Attacking and blocking is done with the R1/R2 buttons so moving and fighting is a smooth procedure. You may want to adjust the analog sensitivity as the default configuration is a bit mushy and not as responsive as you may want.
One annoying control quirk is the inability to cycle through the weapons in both directions. With only a single button assigned to the task you can only go forward through your arsenal. This could conceivably cause problems later on in some of the more challenging combat situations when you find yourself frantically scrambling for the right weapon and accidentally "just missing it". Imagine if you had 15 channels on your TV and you could only use the + button on your remote.
Enemy AI is fairly challenging. They will often seek reinforcements, block your attacks with their shield, or even throw weapons at you when they can't get close enough to attack. There are some unique opponents you will encounter like the flame-clawed Hellhound, or the fearsome Frost Giants of the Nordic mountains.
The storyline for Rune is excellent and really grabs you from the opening movie. I am quite familiar with many aspects of Norse Mythology and Rune follows them with exacting detail as you explore more than 40 unique environments.
If you have played Unreal Tournament on the PS2 then you know what to expect with Rune. The frame rate hovers around 30fps but can and will drop lower if a lot is going on. The colors are rather dark and muddy. While this is usually acceptable on a PC game, console gamers normally require brighter and more colorful graphics on a TV.
Rune is dark, very dark. Using the S-Video cable helps brighten things up a little, but you will still be forced to adjust the brightness on your TV if you are playing in anything other than a pitch-black room at night. The darkness combined with the low resolution can often make it hard to identify items or locations necessary to completing your adventure. Often your journey will lead you into a cave or underwater area and it can become very difficult to find your way around.
The characters are well modeled and covered with detailed textures. Ragnar himself features over 7,000 frames of animation for ultra smooth and realistic movement, combat, and control. The game engine and character graphics are also used for all of the game's many cinematic sequences that are used to propel the story forward. These are not quite up to the quality of the rest of the game. Often the animation is nothing more than a series of still shots, almost like those old animation flip-books only this one is being flipped to slow.
Textures range from high quality rippling water, bubbling lava, and exquisite rolling clouds that rival the PC-quality of the original Unreal to the more muddy landscape and building textures. Some levels look gorgeous and others look like they are from another game.
I love games where the dialog is spoken rather than having to read lengthy paragraphs of story material. When the dialog is delivered by quality talent the experience is that much better. While the actors reading the lines for Rune won't win any awards they do an exceptional job of conveying emotion and suitable accents for their unique characters and for the time in which they exist.
There is little attempt to lip-synch the graphics to the speech and even when they do it just doesn't quite match. I also noticed several locations where the speech stuttered and sometimes even entire words dropped out. This usually occurred only in the longer segments of dialog. The shorter sentences played out perfectly.
I also noticed that the captioned dialog often contained more words than what was spoken. While these missing words and phrases were not necessarily important to the overall story, it is worth mentioning to those who might tend to look away during cutscenes and just listen to the dialog.
The music in Rune is exceptional and features some rich scores to accompany the action and the movies. The use of period-specific instruments help to enrich the experience and the music rises and falls to fit the current mood of the game.
Sound effects are excellent, especially during battle with the clank of sword against a shield or an axe crushing a helmet. Smashing wood, creaking doors, chirping birds, and other ambient effects help to immerse you in the game world.
With more than 40 unique environments, Rune easily falls into the "epic quest" category of adventure gaming. This game will take you a long time to finish. Expect 40-60 hours of pure adventure, but with the gripping storyline the time will fly by.
While there are multiple difficulty levels there is no real reason to replay the game once you have finished it the first time. The adventure doesn't really change. You can try your hand at the multiplayer, but it is so crippled by the engine that you probably won't spend too much time there.
Rune: Viking Warlord is a great adventure and potentially a great game that is held back only by the engine it was designed around. Everyone loves a good adventure game, especially when that adventure involves Vikings and Norse Mythology.
The simple fact is that the PS2 is going to be seeing a lot of adventure games this holiday season including; Soul Reaver 2, Resident Evil: Code Veronica X, and the anxiously awaited Devil May Cry. If you need to satisfy your craving for action and adventure before any of these titles arrive then Rune is worthy of a look either as a rental or at a discounted price.