Despite Diablo's popularity, games like it are few and far between. That makes Kalypso's upcoming console and PC game Vikings: Wolves of Midgard all the more exciting. Combining Diablo-style gameplay with Norse mythology, Vikings looks to be a killer action-RPG. Read on for hands-on impressions!
Vikings: Wolves of Midgard comes from Slovakian developer Games Farm and Kalypso, publishers of the Tropico series as well as the upcoming PC games Urban Empire and Sudden Strike 4. Games Farm previously developed Air Conflicts: Secret Wars for Xbox 360 as well as several smaller titles. Vikings is the developer's largest and most ambitious game yet.
Wolves of Midgard is heavily based on Norse mythology and Viking lore, so fans of Marvel's Thor and the History Channel's Vikings TV series will recognize many elements of the game's setting and story. In the realm of Asgard, an ancient conflict between the Norse Gods the Aesir (which includes Odin, Thor, Baldur, and others) and the angelic Vanir (Freya and others) creates disarray among the nine realms.
The Frost Giants of Nifleheim (of which Loki is secretly a member in Marvel lore), realizing the gods' distraction, seize the opportunity to unleash war on Midgard – Earth. The Fimbulwinter (a catastrophic global freeze) they release threatens to wipe out humanity. It also portends the coming of Ragnarok, a climactic battle that will destroy the gods and all of the nine realms.
Ragnarok is fated to be the end of all things, but must it happen now? In the Viking village of Ulfung, one person might have the power to stop the impending destruction.
Rise as chieftain
The first thing you'll do is create your character. Vikings doesn't offer distinct classes. Instead, you can play as either a male warrior or a female shieldmaiden. The warrior possesses greater strength while the shieldmaiden excels in agility – standard videogame stuff. The lack of real classes is perhaps a step down compared to Diablo III, but you could think of Vikings as a streamlined approach to the same genre.
After customizing our hero's appearance, we're thrown into the midst of battle. Jotan (Frost Giants) have invaded the village of Ulfung and killed its chieftain. Our hero must rescue the surviving villagers and defeat the sole remaining Jotan and its army of Tomte (goblins). After driving out the invaders, the townsfolk show their thanks by making the player the new chief of the village.
The newly rebuilt village serves as Vikings' hub world. Players will return to the village between raids (missions) to interact with NPCs and purchase upgrades. Initially, our hero has access to an altar, a Skald (medic and poet), and a smithy. As the game progresses, the village will grow and offer new services to our hero.
The smithy is where you'll go for new weapons and armor. Unlike Diablo, it seems that players primarily acquire equipment from NPCs rather than as loot drops. Again: streamlining. Each purchase requires gold, iron, and steel. The smithy initially offers only a basic assortment of weapons and armor, but you can upgrade it to increase its wares. The blacksmith can even assemble fragments of mythical weapons found throughout the realms into legendary equipment.
Players will make blood sacrifices to the Aesir gods at the altar. Enemies killed in battle drop hearts and blood, which act as a currency at the altar. The offerings you make will unlock new abilities and bonuses on your upgrade tree. Each tier of abilities belongs to one of the traditional Norse gods. For instance, making an offering to Loki will unlock the ability to dual wield weapons. Other upgrades include exposure protection (to reduce cold damage), physical defense and health buffs, and more. Like the smithy, the altar itself can be upgraded in order to access new abilities.
Although our village survived the attack of the Jotan, we desperately needed food and wood for repairs. We could find both in nearby fjords, but the trip would not be without peril. A Jokul (ice demon) now occupies the area, spreading ice across the region. The raid, titled 'Dealing with Jokul,' would be our first real mission.
Many of the areas the Wolves of Midgard visit will be frozen and inhospitable, quite similar to what I imagine Canada must be like. Vikings deals with icy climates via a frost meter located below the player's health. The longer your hero stays in the cold, the more he or she will begin to freeze. In addition to the frost meter, your hero will complain and ice will build up around the periphery of the screen. Should the meter fill all the way up, he or she will quickly lose health and die.
Naturally, approaching a fire will restore warmth and save our Viking. These fires are strewn intermittently around each icy area, providing a respite during your exploration and travels. Freezing is a serious threat. As your frost meter gets close to full, you'll have to urgently head for the next fire (always indicated on the minimap at the top of the screen). Enemies, treasure – nothing else matters besides warming up again.
As we search for the Jokul, we battle unfriendly wolves, murders of crows, and plenty of goblin-like Tomte. Vikings' combat closely resembles that of Diablo III on consoles. You start with only a basic bow and the ability to roll by hitting the right analog stick. Initially I wanted to use the right stick to aim, but being able to dodge in any direction certainly comes in handy.
You'll gain new abilities by leveling up. As a bow wielder, one of the first attacks I learned fires a glowing projectile that penetrates multiple enemies like a railgun shot. Later on, I picked up a homing shot as well. The various abilities our Vikings gain all have cool-down timers, so you can't just spam them endlessly. That includes the healing power, which also has limited charges. To refill its charges, you'll have to visit a shrine. This mechanic works similarly to refilling Estus Flasks in Dark Souls.
Vikings were known for their berserker rages, so of course Wolves of Midgard has a Rage mechanic. As you fight, the Rage meter at the top corner of the screen fills. Once filled, you can unleash it at any time. The screen goes pale as your warrior's senses become heightened from the bloodlust. Raging provides a nice damage boost, until it runs out.
Traveling through the frozen fjords (and completing a few optional side objectives), I finally reach the Jokul's lair. The ice demon sits atop a crystalline throne. To damage it, you'll first have to hack away at the throne. But you also have to stay warm by running to glowing spots in the ground before they disappear. It's a clever integration of the game's freezing mechanics.
The Wolves are coming
After defeating the Jokul, we encounter a shipwright you can repair the tribe's longship. Soon a villager named Helga pleads for us to take the longship to the remote island of her birth. She senses that her father is in danger. And it turns out that he is indeed, as a gigantic troll has attacked his settlement.
Helga's island is an example of a non-icy area, with plenty of trees and beaches. Over the course of the adventure, our Vikings will visit other warm locations – including more of the nine realms threatened by the impending arrival of Ragnarok.
Vikings promises an expansive campaign as well as a New Game Plus mode. It will support two-player online co-op. Although the version we played is still early, the visuals, sound, and gameplay already impress. Throw in a gritty mythological narrative (with some occasional wry dialog for good measure), and Vikings could end up being the best Diablo-style game since Diablo III.
Vikings is due out on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Steam in early 2017. Preorder the Steam version now to get a discounted price, exclusive customization items, and a digital art book and soundtrack.