I know quite a few of people who hate War of the Vikings. They truly detest it. Hardcore fans of its predecessor, 2012’s War of the Roses, these people mourn the level of complexity of Roses‘ damage system. They miss the depth of Roses‘ custom loadouts–the literally thousands of possible combinations of weapons, armor, perks–for example, they miss Vikings‘ inability to choose from one of three different groove types in your sword, each impacting the balance of its damage/speed/stamina cost. They particularly loathe the fact that Vikings features about 30 different types of one-handed axe, but the differences are all aesthetic–in game, regardless of how many coins the axe was worth (don’t worry, coins are earned after battles. They’re not microtransactions like in War of the Roses.), every one-handed axe will perform exactly the same. As will all weapons of the same overall type.
I also know a lot of people who love War of the Vikings. Sick of Roses‘ reliance on flashy, over-complicated custom loadouts, these people took Vikings‘ move towards simple, skill-based gameplay as a huge breath of fresh air. No longer do they see people run around bashing the living shit out of everything that dares to move, destroying their weapons, shield, and skull by flailing a fuck off massive war hammer around. These people recognised that the main result of Roses‘ huge level of complexity, while initially appealing, was the enormous difficulty in ensuring that gameplay was properly balanced. They recognised that it wasn’t. Hence the abundance of war hammers. They also appreciate Paradox’s step away from the microtransaction-based free to play model that War of the Roses morphed into.
Okay, now we’ve had an introduction to capture your attention, dear reader, we’ll get down to the review proper. War of the Vikings is the second title in the War of the franchise after Roses (I’m not quite sure what they’re calling it. Maybe just the War franchise? But then what would it be good for?), set in the Viking Age (specifically, their conquest of modern-day England) developed by Fatshark (who also developed the excellent but lacking in players Lead and Gold, and the disappointing Krater) and published by grand strategy gods Paradox Interactive. It follows on from the hand-to-hand combat featured in its spiritual predecessor, the Mount & Blade series, which was also published by Paradox and first released in 2008.
The most important aspect of Vikings is, without a doubt, the combat. Not prepared to fix what isn’t broken, the essential combat system has stayed fairly similar from Roses. Attacks can be made in three directions–left, right, and overhead–and to successfully defend, you must be aware on where your combatant is preparing to attack from and counter accordingly. Readying your swing involves moving your mouse in your chosen direction as you click-and-hold the left mouse key. Fair warning: coordinating your timing and movement will take time to get used to, but it’s hard to imagine a better control system for this style of game. Once you get the hang of how, where and when to move your mouse, attacking will become second nature as you learn to focus on movement.
Should you choose to wield a one-handed weapon, you will also carry a shield on your left arm. It’s inadvisable to rely too much on the flimsy bit of timber between yourself and your foe–while big enough, your shield will be useless if you’re not ensuring that you’re actually positioning it before your enemy’s strikes, otherwise you’ll be left frustrated while axes keep managing to find their way to your head. Again, remembering to point your shield at the tip of your enemy’s weapon does take getting used to, but there’s nothing quite like the feeling of satisfaction after wearing down your enemy’s stamina by making successful block after successful block.
The main new addition to Vikings‘ combat system (save the limited customisation, but we’ll get to that in a tic) is the “special attack”. Depending on your equipped primary weapon, pressing F will make your soldier do a time-consuming yet devastating blow that instakills almost every time it lands. Of course, winding up for these special moves leaves yourself open to attack from a clever foe more often than not. After you’ve played a while with the same weapon, you’ll begin to remember just how long your special attack takes to strike–if you enter a face-off with an enemy soldier and begin to run at each other, knowing exactly how far away to press F so that they’ll be within striking distance by the end of your special attack wind-up is incredibly satisfying. I fist pumped at my computer multiple times after pulling off this move–however, as with everything else in Vikings, an experienced player will be able to see what you’re doing and counter it.
Vikings‘ engine has also improved hit detection since Roses. When you land a hit, the game calculates whether you hit flesh, mail, cloth, leather, plate, etc, and adjusts the amount of damage done accordingly. It’s totally possible to find the gap between an enemy’s helmet and shoulder pads with a well-timed swing of your axe. I struggle to think of any fighting game in which landing a hit is this satisfying. Something about connecting a perfect swing and shortening your enemy by a head just feels amazing. The swing and damage notifications are also more intuitive and less intrusive than they were in Roses.
There are two primary types of combat in Vikings, and no, I don’t mean ranged and melee. In any given game, fighting will usually be concentrated around one dynamic area of the map. Sometimes you’ll kill more of your friends than your foes as twenty Vikings and Saxons go toe-to-toe, axes flailing around without concern for who they hit, javelins flying in from all angles. As you would assume, it’s these sort of battles that encapsulate the hectic, brutal side of the combat, as you’ll frequently see a head roll past your feet in the mayhem, recently detached from its body. Running into the melee, dying, respawning, running back into the melee–this is where half the fun of Vikings lies.
The other half lies in the one-on-one encounters you’ll frequently find yourself in on the bigger maps. As you make your way from your spawn area to the bigger battle, you’ll occasionally come face-to-face with an enemy soldier. This is where the true beauty in Vikings‘ combat resides. You lock eyes, each sizing the other up, not wanting to make the first move. Duels can take over a minute to resolve, hacking, slashing, and pausing to regain stamina. Other times, it can all be over in a few seconds, with a well-timed special attack or a quick flurry of sword blows, not allowing your opponent time to think about what is happening before it’s too late. For me, it tended to end with a second enemy sneaking up on me from behind and bringing the business end of a two-handed axe down on my head.
There are four primary melee weapon types in Vikings. One- and two-handed axe, one-handed sword and the hard-to-master spear. There’s also the bow, throwing knife, throwing axe, and javelin, and every character is outfitted with a swift-moving dagger. That’s it. As I said before, there may be over 20 different types of one-handed axe, but the differences are purely aesthetic–every one-handed axe in the entire game performs the same, as does every sword, and every throwing knife. I was incredibly disheartened when I first discovered this, as it seemed to take away my entire motivation to continue playing and levelling up. A few levels in, however, and I came to fully appreciate the brilliance of such a simple system.
This is bare-bones, skill based fighting. No amount of levels will give you access to better, stronger gear, which is a common feature in multiplayer games that more often than not results in horrible imbalance and difficulty for new players coming in. It also contrasts completely with Roses‘ unusually detailed customisation options. Sure, Vikings still allows you to choose different-looking weapons, aesthetically, and if you have some spare coins it’s a nice way to show off, but it is truly brilliant that a new player can access pretty much all the same gear with all the same stats as a level 60 player from the moment they start. The shield customisation is brilliant–as certain emblems are only available from level 30 onwards, these decorations often serve as warnings to newbies to stay away from the soldier (or shieldmaiden) with a cape and a lion on his shield.
War of the Roses suffered from abysmal optimisation, which hasn’t been fixed for its successor. Despite my rather beefy system, I was forced to run it on low graphics settings–this isn’t a huge issue, but it’s definitely not ideal. Net code isn’t great, with a ping of over 150 resulting in almost guaranteed teleporting and other unpleasant happenings. I really, really miss the executions from Roses, and its replacement in just swinging at your downed foe is nowhere near as reliable or satisfying. Additionally, even if the audio design is quite well done, the soundtrack is average–it doesn’t really induce the bloodlust that a game about Vikings killing Saxons killing Vikings should be looking to instil.
I’ve written far too much about War of the Vikings. If the incredibly deep customisation options of War of the Roses was your thing, then that’s totally fair enough–although many players have been turned away from Roses thanks to its adoption of a free-to-play, microtransaction-based model. Prefer the simpler, more cartoon-y style and first-person perspective of Torn Banner’s Chivalry: Medieval Warfare? Again, I understand. But Vikings is a truly fantastic combination of the intuitive control system of Roses and the simplistic balance of Chivalry. The warfare is brutal, the sense of camaraderie organic, and the combat has an unusual but interesting balance of being rather hard to pick up, but brilliantly fluid once mastered. My only worry with Vikings is that the player base will slowly wane, but hopefully the occasional free weekend and Steam Store discount will prevent that from happening–there’s always one populated server in Sydney, and that’s all I need, anyway.
We all have our medieval arena combat game of choice–mine is War of the Vikings, without a doubt.
Select Start Media was provided with a review copy of War of the Vikings: Blood Eagle Edition by Paradox Interactive.