History books and legends paint the Vikings as a marauding, nomadic group of pillagers who would stop at nothing to burn villages and steal anything in sight. With this sort of heritage, the thought of playing a video game starring berserkers like the Vikings is an inviting one. But Rune: Viking Warlord proves that a solid concept is nothing without strong execution and that exorbitant amounts of carnage will never mask a game's faults.
In Rune: Viking Warlord, you play as Ragnar, a newly christened warrior who must defend his kingdom against several of his clan's defectors. It's the typical "you against the world" theme that surfaces often in video games, but the fantasy settings in which the game takes place undermine the legitimacy of the research that Human Head claims to have done for the game. The plot moves slowly, with few twists or unexpected developments to keep you on your toes. Because most of Ragnar's associates are killed in the game's opening cinema, interaction with other characters is kept to a minimum, and it's easy to wonder why Ragnar is risking life and limb to save a kingdom that he will ultimately inhabit bereft of his closest friends. While Rune's story is both hackneyed and forgettable, the lack of an engaging plot is only the beginning of its problems.
Solid gameplay can often carry a game with a limp plot, but Rune's droning hack-and-slash mechanics place it on ice. Ragnar has just three classes of weapons at his disposal: swords, maces, and axes. Each weapon class has five upgrades available and special attacks that may be used once enough runes are collected. Projectile attacks are both limited and risky. You can pick up the lopped-off head of an enemy and either throw it or use it as a melee weapon. Throwing your weapons is also possible, but it can put you in a bind because they will often fall in places where they are not retrievable. Enemy placement is moot due to the inept AI, which causes foes to instantly charge Ragnar once he's in sight. If you've grown tired of jumping through hoops to find a switch to flip, Rune certainly won't invigorate your interest in the adventure genre. Some rooms will have up to five switches, and the game's puzzles revolve around finding which doors were unlocked by each switch. The combat in Viking Warlord is 100 percent melee. Ragnar can swing his weapons at will, but he is unable to perform any sort of timing-based combinations. Enemies run up to Ragnar, a few buttons are mashed, and they're dead. This gratingly dull process is repeated throughout the game's entirety and grows old well before its completion. You may lock on to enemies, but they're so ridiculously stupid that it's never a necessity. As if the repetitive nature of the gameplay weren't enough to liken playing Viking Warlord to a trip to the dentist, it takes the PlayStation 2 a couple of infuriating minutes to load each small section of the levels. A distinct lack of boss fights doesn't really help the game get past its vapid gameplay, either.
Normally, the multiplayer mode in any beat-'em-up or hack-and-slash game is relegated to a cooperative version of the single-player quest. But this is not the case with Rune: Viking Warlord. Instead, there's a pointless deathmatch mode for up to four players with the use of a Multitap. There are seven maps that closely resemble the locales seen in the single-player quest, as well as a gladiator arena, for a total of eight choices. Playing the multiplayer mode before finishing the game can ruin a bit of the single-player experience. There are 21 different characters unlocked from the beginning, so it leaves little mystery as to the foes you'll face later on in the story mode. You may adjust the time and kill limit, but the weapons available in each deathmatch are the same every time. You can also eliminate power-ups if you prefer a more balanced battle. The same problems that plague the single-player mode of Rune bog down the multiplayer mode as well. The combat just isn't deep enough to warrant repeated play. Unless you and your friends enjoy taking turns slashing one another, the multiplayer aspect of Rune improves its replay value only marginally.
The PC version of Rune runs on the Unreal engine and can still hold its own against some of the more recent PC releases. But the PlayStation 2 incarnation is plagued with myriad of issues that make it look more like a Nintendo 64 game than something from the second generation of PS2 software. The muddy, blurry, and repetitive low-resolution textures are the primary culprit. The water textures are especially poor, and they don't react in any way when Ragnar is swimming. Extensive fogging is used to hide draw-in, causing you to run into dead ends looking for doorways, and special effects like real-time lighting are rare. The story is told via real-time cinemas, but the animation and lip-synching are poor and the direction lacks focus. Thankfully, there's an option to skip them altogether. While there are 45 different sections included in Rune, you can traverse 10 at a time before the environments begin to change. Enemies are equally repetitive, with just a few for each of the handful of areas. There are a few nice touches, such as a real-time shadow that follows Ragnar around the levels and enemies that will fight each other if you watch from a distance, but this is where the compliments end. The little details that separate quality games from the piles of shovelware are nowhere to be found in Rune. Despite a limited amount of polys onscreen at once, Rune's frame rates falter when entering expansive areas. On a whole, its visuals are reminiscent of those of a low-end first-generation PlayStation 2 game.
The voice acting included in Rune: Viking Warlord is one aspect of the game that is up to par with its PC sibling. Most of the voice actors have heavy British accents and gravely voices that lend themselves well to the rough-cut Viking mythos. The acting can be overdone at times, but it shows that the talent used for the game's voice work at least took their jobs rather seriously. The Nordic music used in Rune fits its theme quite well, thanks to its low-toned drums and medieval wind instruments. The dynamic music increases in intensity at just the right moment to warn you of impending enemies, and on the whole, the sound has made it through the port virtually unscathed.
Even the handful of people who have waited their entire lives for a Viking-based adventure game to hit the consoles will be disappointed by Rune: Viking Warlord. It disregards almost everything about Vikings that make them interesting. Its graphics are some of the worst on the PlayStation 2, the gameplay is dull and repetitive, and its uninspired multiplayer mode adds little value. If you're itching for an adventure game for your PlayStation 2, save yourself valuable time and money and look elsewhere.