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One of Creative Assembly’s early console games is Spartan: Total Warrior. It’s a spin-off of the Total War series and features hack and slash gameplay. Their next console release would be Viking: Battle for Asgard, another hack and slash game but this time, focusing on Norse mythology. And it was eventually ported to PC. Developed by Creative Assembly and published by Sega, Viking: Battle for Asgard was released for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 in March, 2008 and PC in October, 2012. For this review, I played the PC version.
After being banished from Asgard, the goddess Hel seeks to bring about Ragnarok – a battle that will destroy Asgard and the gods. Freya, the goddess of love, sets out to stop Hel and the war spills over into the realm of Midgard. Freya chooses Skarin as her Champion to defend mankind from Hel and her army of resurrected Viking warriors known as the Legion. The plot isn’t very compelling and loses steam pretty quickly. It doesn’t really do anything super interesting with the mythology it’s based on and is more or less just a setup and backdrop for the gameplay. If you like the idea of hacking up enemies as a Viking warrior and leading armies into battle, then that’s what will probably keep you engaged. If you’re looking for a good story, look elsewhere.
Battle for Asgard is an interesting game because despite borrowing many elements from other games and genres, it does manage to retain its own identity. That doesn’t mean it’s a great game, though, and sometimes it comes across as a budget title but the gameplay was good enough to keep me going all the way to the end. Your objective is to liberate islands from Hel’s Legion. To do that, you must free prisoners around the islands and build up an army of warriors to lead into battle.
You play as Skarin and once on an island, you’re free to roam around and do as you please. After you’ve liberated an island, you move onto the next. Each island is open but there are some areas that require keys or explosives to gain access. You will discover new locations by exploring and interacting with NPCs and you can fast travel around the islands using Leystones. Unfortunately, after you leave an island, you can’t go back which means you can’t acquire any items or collectibles you may have missed.
Skarin can run, jump, dodge or evade, block, and when enemies are nearby, he’ll crouch automatically and can perform stealth kills. He carries a sword and axe and can perform normal and heavy or charged attacks and can chain attacks together to perform combos. Gold is the game’s form of currency and can be spent at Battle Arenas on new moves and can be given to Shopkeepers in exchange for items like health upgrades and potions, maps of Gold locations, throwing axes, flaming pots, and Weapon Runes. Weapon Runes are the elements fire, ice, and lightning and you can also purchase increased levels for each one, making them more powerful. These runes allow you to imbue your weapons, and the weapons of your warriors with these elements until your Weapon Rune gauge is depleted. This gauge can be refilled by acquiring the red orbs released by defeated enemies. Fallen enemies also release green orbs which replenish some of your health and when you attack foes they release blue orbs which grant you what I’m calling “strength” which is required to perform certain attacks.
The islands are filled with different places of interest like farms, caves, camps, quarries, watchtowers, and lumber mills and it’s your job to liberate each one. Once you’ve liberated a major location, you can talk to an NPC who sends you on a quest to do something and once completed, they send their men to join your army. Once you’ve liberated all the locations or freed enough prisoners, you’ll have a big enough army to march to the Legion’s Fortress, whatever their what I’ll call “base” is on the island and wipe them out. That’s basically the formula for the entire game.
The quests the NPC’s send you on aren’t very interesting. You typically have to find additional prisoners, eliminate enemies, or retrieve something. In general, the plot, quests, and worldbuilding aren’t really the game’s strong suits. It’s the combat and big battles that are the highlights. After you’ve liberated the first island, you’ve basically seen almost everything there is to see. And then you get to do it again two more times.
Battle for Asgard is a repetitive game. You just hack and slash your way to victory on each island. But I found it surprisingly compelling. I would even say addictive. You can perform finishing moves and no matter how many times I watched Skarin decapitate, stab, and cut enemies in half, I never got tired of seeing it. Each strike feels satisfying and watching blood spill and an enemy’s head fall onto the ground always felt rewarding. But I won’t pretend the gameplay isn’t repetitive and it’s not like there’s a lot of depth to the combat, either. It’s a button masher and not just in terms of combat but also when it comes to freeing prisoners, using Leystones, and interacting with things. They all require mashing a button. It does become a little annoying. I’m also not a fan of the quick-time events which are only required to defeat certain enemies.
Knowing when to strike and block is important but the actual moves and combos aren’t difficult to master. You press two buttons and Skarin will perform a variety of attacks. If you hold down other buttons while pressing the attack buttons, Skarin can perform special moves and some of the moves you learn will alleviate much of the challenge. At least on the Normal difficulty. Once I got the hang of things, the only times I would die was when I was overwhelmed. You’re usually always outnumbered and being surrounded is dangerous because enemies will attack you from every direction. I would often try to attack one enemy but then another would attack me and interrupt my move and after a little while of that, I would eventually die. It’s not easy to outrun foes so once you’re in the fray, you either fight or die.
I think Battle for Asgard’s biggest selling point is the big battles. By big battles I mean hundreds of NPCs fighting all around you. It’s actually quite impressive. As cool as they are, it can be annoying when you’re literally surrounded by your own warriors and enemies, and get attacked by an enemy you didn’t see coming. It’s very easy to lose track of what’s going on. To take over the enemy fortress, you have to complete certain objectives like killing specific enemies and some end with a fight against a boss.
Unfortunately, the big battles are few and far between. You can only trigger them at certain points and they’re basically scripted. Taking over enemy fortresses and ambush quests – those are the only times you’ll get to experience the large-scale battles. You don’t actually have any control over your army, either. Your warriors and enemies are simply fighting around you. You just need to focus on your objectives and fight your way through the mobs. You don’t get to command any warriors but you can command dragons. At certain points in the game, you’ll get to summon dragons and they will aid you in battle. By completing battle objectives, you’ll acquire Dragon Runes that can be spent to command them to fly by and kill a bunch of foes at certain locations.
I think not having some kind of recruitment mechanic is a big missed opportunity. The big battles are what make the game stand out but throughout most of the game, you’re a lone wolf. If you free prisoners while enemies are still in the vicinity, they will engage them, otherwise they run straight for the nearest Leystone. You can’t command dragons to aid you outside of the big battles and you can’t bring any warriors with you anywhere. Building up an army is simply a matter of liberating locations and freeing prisoners which is required to progress through the story and you’re only building up an army to basically complete one or two quests on each island.
Enemies come in different types but the variety doesn’t change much throughout most of the game. Common foes include warriors wielding melee weapons and archers. Some carry shields and you can learn moves that will easily break them. You can sneak around which, in this game, is not as fun as fighting and, luckily, stealth is never required for anything. The only times I preferred sneaking was when I spotted Horn Blowers because they will alert all enemies in the area to your presence so it’s wise to take them out as soon as possible. Assassins are quick and will jump on you, Shamans can summon additional enemies, and every so often, you’ll have to engage Champions which are big tough types. I might even consider them bosses or at least sub-bosses along with Giants which appear more often towards the end of the game.
The islands are filled with hills, beaches, mountains, and feel like generic fantasy land locations. In fact, the first two islands kind of look and feel the same. The only reason the third island feels different is because it’s covered in snow. I guess you could say Battle for Asgard is an open world game but getting around quickly becomes tedious. Luckily, Leystones, which act as fast travel points, are seemingly everywhere so wherever you are, you’re usually never too far from one. The big problem with the islands is that they don’t feel alive. There’s no people roaming around or interacting. Liberated locations will be filled with your warriors and enemies are everywhere else. The only reason to explore is to find gold, collectibles, and quest items. Skarin doesn’t move fast and despite the abundance of Leystones, having to run around to find NPCs or travel back to a location to deliver a message gets boring. Sometimes it’s quicker to kill yourself so you respawn back at your what I’ll call home settlement’s Leystone, allowing you to fast travel to another near where your objective is. Nothing interesting ever happens in the world and outside of killing enemies and liberating locations, there’s nothing to do. Being able to fast travel from the map screen, a sprint mechanic, or a horse would have been appreciated. Just something to get you around faster.
I can’t say there’s anything exceptional about the presentation. From the visuals to the audio, nothing stands out. I do like the enemy designs and some details like the visible blood on Skarin’s weapons. Enemy-controlled locations are always shrouded in darkness and after you liberate them, they become bright and sunny. Enemies will growl and you’ll hear a lot of bangs and clangs during combat. Unfortunately, the soundtrack is lacking. Music kicks in during the more intense battles but other than that, there’s not much to listen to. On a positive note, I did not encounter any serious bugs or issues but for some reason the frame rate is capped at thirty. Yes, even on PC. I noticed it dip quite a bit but surprisingly, not during big battles. It would typically dip during transitions from darkness to daylight and vice versa.
I did enjoy Battle for Asgard. It’s not an amazing game but I do think the combat is fun and definitely carries the experience. Despite the repetition, the combat is the only reason I kept playing and being part of the large-scale battles is a ton of fun. There’s just something about slashing your way through hordes of foes as warriors and enemies battle it out all around you. And they actually kill each other so the fighting is more than just a backdrop. Granted, Skarin is the only one that can actually accomplish anything but it’s easy to lose focus on that and enjoy the gameplay. I felt like I was actually part of active battles, spilling the blood of my enemies as warriors fought by my side. It’s very cool. It’s only a shame there’s not more of it. Everything else is lackluster. I feel like if the developers took more time, a lot of the game’s issues could have been resolved. There are several cool ideas here but the game never reaches its full potential. It could have been a lot better.
I would recommend Viking: Battle for Asgard because despite it’s issues, there is some fun to be had and copies are cheap as of this review. It’s the kind of game that has moments that will stick in my mind, that I’ll remember years down the line. After a while, I’ll forget the plot, I’ll forget about the quick-time events, I’ll forget about the dragons, I’ll probably even forget the name. What I will remember is the violence and large-scale battles and that’s what I’ll talk about when I describe it to people years from now. That’s the kind of game Battle for Asgard is.