For a studio that made its name in strategy games, it's quite a risk for Creative Assembly to take on the action genre. However, Viking: Battle for Asgard made a successful debut at Leipzig this year, and the developer has been hard at work improving the game since. We attended a recent Sega UK preview event to see the game running on the Xbox 360 and talk to the British developer firsthand.
Currently running in alpha form, the demo showed the main character, Skarin, as he explored the large gameworld. The islands will be around 1 km in size, so you'll need to make use of portal stones to move quickly. The main portion of the game will be small quests in which you'll build your army by liberating people such as quarry workers and farmers. Eventually, you'll take them into battle against six boss characters, and it's these epic 1,000-soldier battles that are set to be Viking's calling card.
Our demo gave us a good chance to check out both elements of the game. It started with a typical quest, in which Skarin is tasked with liberating a group of captured men. He can take the aggressive approach and just fight the patrolling troops, or he can take a more considered route and sneak into the quarry and free the men without anyone noticing. The Creative Assembly representative showed us the latter method, and after a successful rescue mission the men immediately join Skarin's army. The representative then chose to show off some of the smaller battles, and while they're much less grand in scale than the boss fights, they can still feature around 100 soldiers.
The larger battles play out like the epic conflicts seen in films such as Braveheart and The Lord of the Rings. The way that the two sides charge into battle will be familiar to fans of these movies, and although the game's set in ancient times, the designer isn't beyond employing a few Matrix-style camera techniques. The game features slow-mo replays featuring you hacking off enemy limbs, while some of the atmospheric fog and foliage effects really make this a nice-looking game up close. Zoom out, though, and you begin to appreciate the full scale of the battles, with hundreds of men fighting hand-to-hand while dragons soar and rain fire from above.
Thanks to Creative Assembly's history in the strategy genre, there are tactical elements to the combat. You'll have to order dragon attacks while in the thick of the battle, and these special attacks can be bought by collecting tokens in the field. The biggest number of tokens will come from destroying the larger enemies, especially the berserkers, assassins, and giants that appear once the battle starts to get under way. Creative Assembly claims to have created an advanced artificial intelligence system that responds dynamically to trends in the battle. It's described as a butterfly effect model, where one grunt can change the course of the entire battle.
Close combat is based upon a combo system, with moves linked together according to the buttons that appear above Skarin's head after each successful strike. You'll be able to practise your moves with none other than the ghost of Valhalla, who will train you and allow you to spend pips earned in the game on more advanced moves. The main tactic in battle is to take care of your shaman, who sits at the back of the battlefield and heals your men. The shamans are pretty easy to kill, though, and it's your job to find the one on the enemy side, break through his shield, and kill him to stop the army from healing. Eventually, you'll come up against a character called Draken, who is pretty much your evil equivalent and the ultimate baddie in the game.
At this stage, Creative Assembly looks set to make an interesting debut in the action genre with Viking. The main attraction of the game is definitely the epic battles, but it looks as though they'll be relatively few and far between during the main campaign. We're also sorry to hear that there will be no multiplayer mode in the final game, but if the single-player can marry a strong story and engaging combat, then hopefully we won't have much to complain about. We're sure we'll see more of the game before its Q2 2008 release, so keep an eye on the site for more on Viking as we get it.