Viking: Battle for Asgard, based loosely on Norse legend and written by Rhianna Pratchett (Heavenly Sword), daughter of acclaimed fantasy author Terry Pratchett, looks as if it might give Norse mythology the shot to the arm that games such as God of War and films such as Jason and the Argonauts did for Greek mythology. Viking also follows on from the success of another Scandinavian action story, Beowulf--complete with evil goddess Hel, who bears a passing resemblance to Grendel's mother, as portrayed by Angelina Jolie in the recent re-imagining of the Anglo-Saxon legend. The game is Creative Assembly's first next-generation title.
Before seeing the game itself, we were greeted by a stylised cutscene that served to flesh out some of the story. It seems that Skarin, the game's protagonist, had been slain by the forces of Hel, the ruler of the underworld. Thankfully, Skarin is resurrected by Freya, the goddess of love, who looks like a Scandinavian Princess Leia, complete with matching bun hairstyle. Fighting for her and the good of all humanity, Skarin will have to stop Hel from unleashing Ragnarok, the Norse version of Armageddon. Fortunately, Skarin won't be alone in his battle with the forces of evil. Throughout the game you'll amass a small army of Vikings by freeing them from the bonds of the undead that Hel has under her control.
The world in Viking exists not in Asgard (the "heavenly realm") but in Midgard (the mortal realm) and consists of three islands: Niflberg, Galcliff, and Isaholm, with each island over a square kilometre in size, according to Sega. You can explore each on foot, but with so much to traverse it's easier to use Leystones, which are portals that let you teleport to previously visited areas. Throughout each island you'll have to perform a wide variety of quests that include freeing enslaved Vikings, finding valuable artifacts, and destroying enemy strongholds, as well as side quests, such as helping townsfolk collect mead located along the coast. No word yet on if you'll be able to pillage the local towns in true Viking style, but we wouldn't count on it.
When enemies are nearby, the land is shrouded in an evil veil, which is evident through dark, stormy weather and lightning. Once you've cleared an area of undead Vikings, the clouds will part, the sun will shine, and life will return to the land.
One of the main appeals of Viking is the battles that take place. Creative Assembly is certainly no stranger to large-scale warfare, given that it developed the Rome: Total War real-time strategy series. Although not on the same scale as RTS games, Viking features key battles with hundreds of onscreen warriors at certain parts of the game. Once you've amassed a large enough force, you'll be able to attempt such sieges. The first such one we saw was the Battle of Darkwater, which occurs when you reach the end of the first island.
In each battle you'll have specific goals to complete, such as taking out the opposing force's shaman. Both sides have at least one shaman who will keep resurrecting fallen soldiers while the battle plays out, a factor that gives rise to a stalemate situation. By taking out the other side's shaman, your fellow comrades will have a chance of victory. Shamans are heavily guarded, so you'll need to be tactical while on the warpath. To make this process easier, you can call on dragons to take care of strategic enemy forces such as a group of archers. Calling on dragons uses dragon runes, which can be gained by defeating "champions" in battle.
Champions are supernasty enemies. Though their appearances vary, the ones we saw looked like giant ogres and required some control-pad mastery beyond the usual hacking-and-slashing affair. Once you've weakened a champion, you'll be required to perform a chain of quick button presses, displayed on the screen, to finish your foe once and for all. Jumping around on the back of a lumbering beast and then plunging your sword into the back of its neck certainly is a satisfying way to finish it off.
Once you've killed a champion, it's time to use your tokens and dial a dragon. Hitting the back button on the Xbox 360 controller takes you to a battle overview screen, called the Eye of Asgard--essentially what the goddess Freya might see while helping your forces--and adds a degree of strategy to the game. On the screen you'll see major objectives, which you can direct your dragon to attack. There are different ways to approach each scenario, and you can choose to attack champions and then use the tokens you've acquired, or try attacking the target head-on.
The second battle we saw, the Battle for Thornvik, located on the island of Isaholm, is roughly 80 percent through the game and was on a larger scale. In this battle, Sega demonstrated how you'll have to defeat the forces outside a castle before you can break in and attack the larger force inside. It was suggested this isn't the only battle that will involve more than just one stage.
Viking appears to be an interesting blend of Norse mythology in an action adventure setting with some RPG and strategy elements thrown into the mix. There'll be numerous characters that Skarin can talk to throughout the game, and this will result in new side quests becoming available. Skarin won't level up in the game, but he can unlock new moves and equipment at shops and by learning new techniques in battle.
The game looks as if it might wind up as sumptuous as a feast fit for a Viking. Although what we saw wasn't final code, it was nearing completion and showed good use of light blooming, shadows, detailed characters, and lush countryside. It also didn't seem to suffer from any lag despite having plenty of detailed characters on the screen at any time.
Furthermore, Viking has some high-quality in-game artwork, with cel-shaded, stylised cutscenes and comic book-styled speech bubbles above characters' heads that indicate when they have something valuable to say to you. Though not to the same degree as XIII, Wind Waker or Viewtiful Joe, the cartoons were a nice touch.
Viking: The Battle for Asgard will be available on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 on March 28 in Europe and March 25 stateside.