Viking: Battle For Asgard has a problem, and a befuddling one at that. It doesn’t make any sense that it’s not brilliant.
Of course, there are reasons why this review carries the score it does, but Viking’s shortfalls just seem so peculiar when compared to the surging competency of its strengths. The stall it sets out is confident and vivacious: a thirdperson adventure with a laudable overarching vision, with you, as Viking Skarin, trotting around the land, battling the Hel scourge and liberating captured troops before recruiting them into your army. The payoff for accruing such human resources and other supplies is that each of the levels – there are just three, but each is sizeable – climaxes with an all-out brawl of heroic proportions, as the Hel HQ is assaulted and toppled.
Out now for 360 and PS3, Viking is built upon arcade values, and nails them with efficient, spry energy. Combat is slotted together from basic combos, blocks, dodges, fatality kills and a handful of special attacks. It’s not complex, but it is brawny enough to convey the sensation of brutality while remaining clean enough to be wieldy. And however weary you may be of stealth elements, here they’re integrated splendidly. When Skarin comes within detection distance of enemies, he automatically hunches into stealth mode, with no loss in movement speed or mobility. When spotted, he’ll draw his weapons, and so the whole system keeps you naturally informed without intruding. It’s worthwhile, too; picking off a handful of Hel archers or shield-bearing warriors on the fringe of a battalion feels like it tips the odds in your favor when you’re eventually noticed. And the Hel actually want to fight. Try to run from a fracas, and you’ll be cut down by Hel dashing and slashing at your cowardly hide, and rarely missing. Once a fight has started, it has to be finished, meaning your chosen moment to stride into view can often feel daring.
Then there’s the technical pedigree. The visible portions of each stage take in widely spaced landmarks, and enemies are present even if they’re little other than splotches on a beach, viewed from a towering cliff, and transporting yourself between teleport stones dotted across the landscape is instant, wherever you decide to hop to. Its visuals set up a vibrant pitch between Oblivion’s verdant countryside and Fable’s cartoony warmth, while the size of its stages hit a certain grail – they feel expansive, but not overly so, in terms of covering ground on-foot. And its populations are immense, hosting genuine legions of allies or Hel soldiers.
But for all that groundwork, and just an hour or two into Viking, a heavy-set blandness begins to seep through. It’s unavoidably clear that your role, for all the game’s freedom for traveling, is virtually one-note. Head to a quarry, farm or watchtower. Cleanse it of Hel. Recruit troops or tick another box that takes you one step closer to the criteria for initiating an assault on the Hel base at the far end of the stage. That’s not the entirety of the experience, but that’s how it seems, all too soon. The framework feels woefully underemployed. There’s no significant sub-questing, and there’s an unhealthy absence of character progression. The climactic battles are hectic, but there’s still a repetition of process that undercuts the achievement of what’s in motion; dragon sorties are thrown into the fray, but you’ll need to kill elite Hel or a shaman to earn the requisite gems, and then use them to kill remaining shamans, and this procedure dominates. Suddenly we’re back in that period, a few years previous, when open-world games were providing strong worlds and making players feel freshly empowered – Destroy All Humans, Scarface, Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction – but failing to provide equally absorbing missions.
There are still moments of focus that reward. Clambering through a longboat graveyard – Skarin is capable of more than just slashing and skulking, after all – is pleasing, a rare moment of exploration rather than traversing. And the pure stealth missions, involving the infiltration of the Hel’s most well-guarded settlements, are an unexpected thrill. They’re lengthy and mistakes can be final, but the organic nature of the mission and the leagues of opponents that lurk just the other side of a low wall results in some distinguished tension. But, for a game to be so savvy at its fundament and exhibit such talent, and yet feel so stumpy, is almost absurd. It’s as if it aimed to be a bloodthirsty, blade-spun spin on Crackdown – each major set-piece showdown is seamlessly woven into the world around it, with plentiful angles of approach – but having it star an army-of-one brawler instead of a superhero means that lack of conceptual variety is harmful. Sadly, Creative Assembly poured its grand battlefield nous into a console mould more effectively with Spartan: Total Warrior.