Review: Vikings – Wolves of Midgard

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Review copy provided by publisher

Diablo may have shaped the action RPG genre, but its legacy has been a bit of a mixed blessing. New titles that challenge its dominance seemed to always come up short of the expectations it set, and only in recent years are we seeing games succeed while breaking away from the original mold. Vikings – Wolves of Midgard certainly tries to do just that, introducing a host of mechanics and refinements to the familiar formula that set it apart in key ways. Some of them work, some of them don’t, but the overall package is a solid one for hours of hacking, slashing, and looting.

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You’re a viking, you sack villages and take their stuff. Except this time, the tables have been turned on you. A cadre of frost giants have shown up and leveled your village, leaving you as the new chief of like three dudes and a pile of kindling. From that humble beginning you forge forth to the towns and caves and strongholds of your foes, pillaging what you can and destroying the rest. Your journey will involve both war with mortal foes and dealings with demigods, eventually leading you to the very brink of Ragnarok itself.

Your ruined village is the centerpiece of the game, a hub for trading and upgrading that itself will be upgraded over the course of your adventure. Throughout the three campaigns you’ll unlock additional NPCs who’ll take up residence there to offer services like crafting items and socketing runes. These NPCs can also be upgraded to provide items closer to your current level, using the four resources you’ll collect in your adventures. There’s no crafting system to worry about here, shops just make things you need, but your balances of gold, wood, iron, and glowy magic rocks must be maintained if you want to keep your village on the cutting edge of pillaging technology.

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With your village serving as a home base, you’ll set out in your trusty longship to the battlefields that comprise the campaigns. There’s no vast world to journey across here, just individual missions based around sacking towns or hunting down creatures of Norse myth. Each mission map is sizeable, of course, and comes with three side objectives that reward you with lump sums of resources. Following your objectives you’ll sometimes need to solve light puzzles to advance like runed locks or breaking things with a ballista, but most of the focus will be squarely on hacking through hordes of foes. At the end of each map is a boss with phases and gimmicks to contend with, a nice change of pace from the mooks you’ll slaughter on the way there.

They’re not exactly simple mooks to dispatch, though. Vikings makes an effort to turn its combat into a more active affair, and they succeed with a few caveats. You have a dodge roll bound to RMB that can get you out of harm’s way, and will be essential to surviving fights with giants or foes with heavy attacks. Your healing is also limited to charges on one of your equipment pieces, usually just 3 or 4 until you can reach one of the healing altars dotted sparsely around each map. These two factors together mean that avoiding damage is pretty important here, but at the same time most of the combat is still paced like a conventional ARPG where you trade blows with weaker foes. They strike a good balance between wimpy, numerous enemies and big, deadly ones but you need to be on the ball about dodging attacks if your health starts to vanish.

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Honestly most of the innovations to be found in Vikings follow a similar pattern of working, but with their own unique drawbacks. Many maps have widespread environmental hazards like freezing temperatures or poison gas, requiring you to limit your time in exposed areas. It’s a neat idea at first but it can easily become a chore in later areas where safe zones are more spread out. Instead of experience you collect blood to sacrifice at altars for new levels and skill points, but you actually have to collect the blood that falls from enemies which can screw up your pacing and leaves the possibility of missing experience you earned just by not picking it up. And the skill trees are divided by weapon type and offer no respecs, so you’re pretty much going to pick a combat style at the start and ignore all other kinds of weapons forever.

It took some time to adjust to these differences, but overall they never really gave me pause when playing the game. What did were some of the technical issues I encountered in my adventures. Movement is fluid and responsive for the most part, and combat has a really solid visceral edge to it, but getting stuck on edges of objects is pretty common too. One level turns you into a giant golem-thing halfway through, but for some reason doesn’t let you pick up any of the loot your foes drop after that point (and you can’t backtrack after facing the level boss). And right now there’s a pretty hilarious bug where the pieces of the ultimate unique weapons you find magically duplicate and turn into finished weapons if you try to stash them, which can easily be used to gain infinite resources.

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Despite all this, I still couldn’t help but enjoy ransacking coastal villages and kobold camps. The core combat is just a blast, with big meaty swings of giant hammers and swords, free use of your weapon powers, and some gory eviscerations that the game loves to zoom in on in slow-motion. The story is a solid tale of revenge and conquest that stretches into the mythic realms, propped up by some fine voice acting and detailed character models (most of the VO cast is straight from the Vermintide games, if you’re a fan). It’ll take you upwards of 20 hours to plow through the campaigns and there are additional difficulties to take on after that, though Vikings has none of the endgame progression that folks might expect now from Diablo III rifts or Path of Exile maps. You’re just here for the story and the killing, and there’s plenty of both if you’re looking for something that massacres to the beat of its own war drum.

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