Viking: Battle for Asgard doesn't sell itself all that well. The opening few minutes are packed with plenty of walking, talking and collecting, but not a whole lot of action - something pretty high on your list of expectations when you boot up an 18-rated game with a dual weapon-wielding Viking on the front cover. It feels very much like a shinier, less ambitious version of Fable, but then you actually start to fight. While The Creative Assembly's second foray into the home console market isn't nearly good enough to rank up there with the hack 'n' slash genre's best, it's far more entertaining than it really has any right to be.
You play as Skarin, a shunned warrior whom Freya (daughter of Odin, king of the Gods) takes under her wing in order to battle against Hel, the goddess of death, and her devastating army. You see, Hel wants to enslave all mankind and destroy Asgard, the realm of the gods, and it's up to you to stop her. You won't be alone, with a whole army of warriors at your disposal should you be able to convince them to fight - or rescue them from slavery.
Set in a free-roaming world where load times are non-existent, you're free to wander around and take missions as you see fit. Each area has a series of small missions which Skarin must complete in order to build up his army, before embarking on the big siege mission that will liberate the land from Hel's army. Many of these essential recruitment missions simply require you to kill a load of enemies or retrieve some items which you hand over in exchange for use of men.
For some reason, this all becomes rather addictive. It shouldn't really, seeing as you're doing what amounts to the same tasks over and over again, gaining a larger and larger army (which you can't use until the final showdowns), but the combat is so brutal you can't help but march onward. Combos and new special moves can be bought (from the training area or a shopkeeper), allowing you to eviscerate enemies in ways that are hard to put in words. It's pretty simple stuff, with your ultra powerful slashes and magic proving far too much for most the enemies, and even if you die you'll be able to warp straight back to where you were thanks to the abundance of travel gates, or leystones as the game calls them.
When the final battle of an area finally comes you'll be witness to some of the largest battles ever seen in video games - a spectacle only possible on next-gen systems - but also find that most the action is carried out by the AI, not you, and that the difficulty is woefully tame at points. You can even call in for air support from dragons should you have any spare runes (which are pretty easy to get hold of), wiping out entire sections of enemy resistance in one foul swoop.
As entertaining as the game is, it's abundantly clear that things could have been a whole lot better. The combat is dumbed down in the extreme, failing to even match up to the so called button bashing found in god of war, and it's nowhere near as fluent. The stealth mechanics aren't too hot either, with no on-screen sign of how visible you are until en enemy adopts an attack stance, at which point it's far too late. As mentioned earlier, the army you build up is also only of use during specific end of area fights. It would have been great to call for support during any of the fights that you get into, but you're just not able to do so.
Even with some basic combat, a decent RPG levelling system would have elevated the game into near must-have status. Sadly there's no character progression through actions, with all upgrades being bought. You'll collect coloured orbs, something that seems essential in hack 'n' slash games, but it's money that you trade for moves and items. If anything this rewards the looter more than it does the warrior, with treasure chests, money bags and vases all hading out vital currency if you look for them.
Visually Viking is a mixed bag too. There's no denying the brilliance of seeing huge battles taking place before your eyes, but the character designs are painfully generic and animations are often clunky. Certain sections of the map look great, while others look barren and unfinished, and the frame rate stumbles quite often during the colossal fights that otherwise look jaw-dropping. The audio, too, varies in quality. Cutscenes voiced by Brian Blessed are brilliant, as are the bloody sound effects, but at times you'll be wandering around with barely an audible sound, not even a background soundtrack.
In the end Viking is a bit of a guilty pleasure. It's kind of like admitting to liking Bad Boys 2, in that you know it's a dumb movie, full of moments no right thinking human should find entertaining, but you can't help yourself. Don't be fooled into thinking Viking is anything more than mindless fun though. Serious connoisseurs of the genre are better off waiting for Ninja Gaiden II - a game in which you won't be able to defeat the majority of enemies using a single move.