War of the Vikings is an interestingly timed game. Hot on the heels of History Channel’s Vikings TV series, with a couple of Ragnar Lodbrok references chucked in for good measure, there’s probably not a better time to release a video game centred on the tumultuous wars between the Norse and the Saxons. Of course, this isn’t really about those wars; this is simply a competitive multiplayer game in which the Viking theme is just a lick of paint over a game that was released two years ago. So yes, although developers FatShark and Paradox seem to ignore it, this is essentially a spiritual successor to War of the Roses which, lest we forget, really kicked off the increasingly popular medieval combat genre.
There is one thing you should know about War of the Vikings before you play: not a whole lot has actually changed over the past two years. If anything, there’s actually a little less on offer here than there was in War of the Roses. For the most part though, it’s a similar experience with a more popular theme. So what does that actually entail? The game gives players a chance to fight with medieval (well, technically Dark Ages) weaponry in a competitive online environment. Most people will liken the experience to Chivalry: Medieval Warfare, a game which may not have invented the genre, but certainly took it to new heights of popularity. Matches can handle up to 32 players at a time across a fairly small variety of match types.
It’s one thing you’ll notice from the get go, unfortunately. There are only four modes available to play and while they do each offer a unique experience, it’s a flaw that cannot be avoided. Titanfall has received a lot of heat as of late for its lack of game modes, and War of the Vikings is equally lacking in this regard, and as with the sci-fi FPS it holds the game back in terms of longevity. Of course, while Titanfall was a rather standard shooter FPS, FatShark’s game is anything but run of the mill. The controls are unusual, the presentation rather niche and the gameplay methodical. It’s unlikely to ever find a mass audience due to this, but that doesn’t mean it can’t hold its own.
Indeed, a good game of War of the Vikings is incredibly satisfying and there’s very little out there which can provide a similar experience. The downside to this satisfaction is the high skill required to attain it: the game has a difficulty curve that will undoubtedly scare off many potential players. It was an issue with War of the Roses too: the somewhat unnatural control scheme, in which a click and drag of the mouse swings your weapon in the direction of the drag, is a bugbear throughout the initial 5-10 hours of play. There are very few games that can claim a learning curve that lengthy. Of course, by the time you’ve practiced enough this is a non-issue, but those looking for a quick ramble will be disappointed. In essence, the game encourages a sense of commitment that typically only exists in publisher Paradox’s most complicated strategy titles.
As with those games, War of the Vikings is much more enjoyable when you’ve got a grasp of the ins and outs. The game offers an amusing array of weaponry and clothing for your Viking or Saxon avatar, ranging from simple swords and axes to deathly javelins and huge great axes. Each of the weapon types also has a variety of aesthetic options which include some seriously fancy designs. The variety of customisation options are, on the whole, excellent: you can adapt a lot of your avatar, even (or is it obviously) his beard. The only thing that’s noticeably missing is the option to select a female avatar. What’s the point in having a game about Vikings if you’re not going to have a shield maiden option!
There’s also the obligatory but effective perk system and a class mechanic that sorts players into standard warriors, strong heroes and long-range skirmishers (archers, basically). It’s an attempt to make the battles more dynamic but be under no illusion, there’s variety here, just no real sense of organisation. Yes, there are teams and yes, there are even squads, but these certainly don’t prevent games from becoming a real trainwreck of disorganisation. The standard Team Deathmatch mode is by far the worst in this regard: foregoing any sense of strategy most players just charge from one enemy to the next. The more canny players will form groups but it still tends to all end in a confusing melee. Realistic? Certainly. Fun? Not so much.
The other game modes fare better on this front: the conquest mode in which players must battle over sequential capture points is hit and miss, but can host some of the best battles to be found in the game. The final two modes, Arena and Pitched Battle, are akin to Search and Destroyfrom Call of Duty and place a greater importance on the life of your character. Arena in particular is great fun, pitching two teams of four against each other in a best of five round mode based on a very small map. It brings out the best in War of the Vikings, eliminating the confusion of the other modes, instead focusing on player to player combat and strategic thinking. It wouldn’t be surprising to see this mode become the primary focus for long-term players.
This all comes in a package that, as mentioned, does feel somewhat niche in presentation. In that it’s unlikely to appeal to most gamers. The visuals are mostly good, nothing to write home about but they get the job done. Aside from this, however, the game just feels like it was designed in 2006. No music plays at any point other than the main menu, leaving you only with the amusing but grating sound of the ridiculously over the top voice acting. There’s no matchmaking system in place; the lobby mechanic is perfectly effective, just a little out of place in a modern online-only game. The UI is minimal to say the least, which is one of those Marmite kind of things, and there’s a sense that the game hasn’t been balanced terrifically well.
It’s this rough around the edges feel that dominates the playing experience of War of the Vikings. What’s interesting is that some players are clearly drawn to this imperfect vibe. It makes the game an aquired taste of sorts: many players will struggle to climb the initial difficulty curve and even those who do might get sick of the lack of variety before too long. For the minority though, War of the Vikings is the ideal successor to the equally niche War of the Roses: it’s unusual, brutal, but incredibly fun at the right times. The viking theme doesn’t hurt, either, and will certainly work well to attract many more players than the English Civil War theme ever did. If you’re a fan of that original game, then this is a must buy, but for those simply intrigued by the prospect, it could easily be a bit too messy to enjoy.