From the first scene, in which a camera swirls around a large rock as a somber narrator provides lengthy, droning exposition, you'll get the sinking feeling that Rune, the third-person Viking-themed action game by Human Head Studios, is not going to break any new storytelling ground. It's quite accomplished technically, but Rune represents an incremental advancement of the action genre rather than a radical rethinking. Rune's one gimmick - the explicit absence of ranged weapons - is both its most unique feature and biggest failing. This simplistic melee combat system combined with weak enemy artificial intelligence makes Rune an ultimately shallow and repetitious experience.
The makers of Rune have stated that they performed extensive research into Norse mythology to create the game's story. While this is probably true, it turns out that every fantasy tale ever written may have been a result of this same research. Rune relies on such hoary high-fantasy staples as goblins, dwarves, castles, skeletons, dungeons, and magical swords. You play the part of Ragnar, newly appointed hero of your Viking village. But if it weren't for the fact that a few of the game's characters are well-known Norse gods and that Ragnar wears a hat with pointy horns on it, you'd be just as likely to think you were playing a game set in any other fantasy universe.
The game's story - such as it is - is generally advanced through in-engine cutscenes. The voice acting isn't terrible - unless you count the actor who plays the part of the lead villain, Loki, whose performance is way too over-the-top. Luckily, you can skip the noninteractive story portions of Rune without missing any important game details. But, oddly enough, the game doesn't always let you actually skip them. Some scenes are interruptible with the action key, while some aren't - and there's no apparent pattern.
The game's plot and storytelling deficiencies don't really matter, because Rune is a pure action game. You control Ragnar from a third-person perspective, as in the Tomb Raider series or the recent Heavy Metal: F.A.K.K. 2. The designers have done a great job overcoming the camera problems inherent to this type of game. In fact, you could make a case that they've solved them for all time. The camera always stays at your back. You look around with the mouse, as in a traditional first-person shooter. If you back up to a wall, the camera moves inside Ragnar, and he becomes translucent. You can use the mouse wheel to zoom in and out on him. You can actually zoom in to a first-person mode, though it's generally useless for fighting since you can't see your weapon. The end result of all this is that your view is virtually never obscured; the camera control is both intuitive and seamlessly integrated into gameplay - the holy grail of third-person action game design.
Rune uses the Unreal Tournament engine, and it looks very good. You start out in a beautifully rendered Viking village. It has a nice open design and some bright colors, and it promises that Rune will offer some unusual settings. Unfortunately, in the very next stage, you're plunged into a series of dark caves and dungeon hallways that comprise the first quarter of Rune's roughly 45 levels. The caves are, maybe, 15 percent prettier than the caves you've been forced to march through in countless other games. But at some point, being able to render the same scene slightly better than in the last game cannot be considered progress. These first levels are especially dreary, but Rune does get better.
After the caves, you'll visit castles, Viking towns that look surprisingly like Unreal's Nali villages, and some Dwarven workshops filled with giant rotating gears. These places are all more than competently designed, and a few of them are actually quite impressive despite their familiarity. The darkness of the environments even occasionally works to Rune's advantage. Seeing nothing but the glowing eyes of a pack of undead through the murk of a cave is effectively creepy.
Rune also wisely dispenses with any kind of heavy-handed soundtrack. The environments are filled only with appropriate ambient sounds and the blare of combat. Music occasionally underscores some of the action, but it's subtle enough to be ignored. The silly taunts hurled at you by some of your foes are significantly less unobtrusive - they get old fast and often seriously detract from the grim atmosphere Rune attempts to evoke.
Rune is almost completely linear. Puzzles generally involve flipping a switch and figuring out its purpose or simply hunting around for the hidden ledge that will permit you to reach a higher point. Everything is stripped down to the bare essentials. You can jump, climb ropes, and hang on ledges to pull yourself up. The jumping tasks Rune includes are generally easy. It isn't a game about precise maneuvering.
This leaves combat as the core of Rune's gameplay. All 15 items in the game's arsenal are variations of a sword, a mace, or an axe. The left mouse button swings your equipped weapon. With most of the weapons, you can combine the mouse click with the forward, back, right, or left movement keys to get a different swing. You can also toss the weapon a short distance. If you're holding a shield, the right mouse button will raise it - at the expense of being able to attack at the same time. You can pick up runes, which provide your weapon with energy. When you have enough energy, you can exchange it for what amounts to a spell effect. Each of the weapons has a different rune power. By nature, some are defensive (for example, they can make you invisible), but most increase the potency of the weapon.
The problem with the combat system, and ultimately the problem with Rune, is that it's entirely too simple. You can defeat virtually every enemy, or pack of enemies, by using the same strategy: strafe left and right while you press the attack button. The timing changes a bit from foe to foe, and a select few require a little running around on your part. But, generally, your experience in the game's first battle is remarkably similar to the one in most every battle afterward. It's fun for a while, but the entertainment value runs out before the game is finished. It's possible to defeat enemies with more advanced maneuvers just for the sheer challenge of it, but rote tactics will see you through the entire game. In fact, you can easily beat Rune without ever raising your shield.
In games with ranged weapons, the architecture can help differentiate one battle from another. Put a few snipers in a position or add an enemy who's lobbing area-effect munitions, and you force the player to use the environment tactically by locating cover and ducking in and out of weapon range. Without any ranged weapons, every battle in Rune becomes identical. You wait for your enemy to close in on you and then start swinging. The levels become backdrops rather than part of the action. And it doesn't help that the enemies aren't particularly smart. Obstacles often confuse them, as most will simply run directly at you regardless of the terrain. So for instance, if you put a pillar in between yourself and an enemy, he will often keep running in place toward it without attempting to navigate around it.
The Unreal Tournament engine provides Rune with a stable basis for its online component. Rune's melee-only conceit actually gives the multiplayer mode a freshness that lacks in the current crop of shooters. Facing off with an opponent and clanging your weapons on the ground for a few seconds before running full speed at each other, swords drawn, is an experience unique to Rune. You can even pick up an opponent's severed head and beat him to death with it after he respawns. But these novelties, no matter how pleasurable, can't carry the entire game. Multiplayer often devolves into a bloody mess of mindless button mashing. Out of the box, Rune supports only deathmatch and team deathmatch, which means the developers are relying on the mod community to create some interesting content.
The best platform action games introduce a series of player skills and then gradually force the player to combine them in a long sequence of increasingly complex tasks. Rune introduces a simple skill, puts that skill to a simple test, and then keeps repeating the test for 20 straight hours. It's an undeniably beautiful-looking experience created by a team of skilled technicians. And that makes Rune's failings, as a game, even more disappointing.