Ever since I slogged my way through God of War's "X-Treme Canon" take on Greek mythology, I've had this inexplicable urge to find a decent next-gen Norsey equivalent. I chalk this up to a Teutonic-by-way-of-Ireland bloodline and a weird 21st-century version of ancestor worship, mostly because the alternative (a deep-seated urge to stare at shirtless muscle-bound warriors that was imparted to me by a childhood stocked with too many He-Man action figures) isn't something I like to think about.
It's been slow going so far. Conan had its high points, but it was ultimately too derivative of God of War's style to be anything but a clone. Beowulf's only worthwhile asset was a naked, gold-painted Angelina Jolie, and the game managed to make even that tedious.
It's a stark field, then, that Viking: Battle for Asgard (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3) joins for battle. The spiritual successor to Spartan: Total Warrior (which itself was a spin-off of the Total War series), Viking follows its hero through a storyline that looks more than a little like a Norse-themed repaint of the aforementioned God of War games. Viking warrior Skarin, chosen by the goddess Freya as her champion after his death, fights the twisted minions of renegade goddess Hel in a bid to preserve both the mortal realm and the realm of the Norse gods.
Viking is one of those fervent efforts that frustrate that much more every time they barely miss the mark. I want to defend Viking for its almost-greatness, but it's like a high-school friend who would have been really awesome if he wasn't such a total jerk. Every time I come up with a really great point, the game turns around and does something buffoonish and makes me feel like a fool.
The brunt of this scorn is mostly borne by Viking's combat. The bar has long since been set for combat in this kind of game. Keep it fast, keep it fluid, and for the love of Odin, try until your dying breath to keep it from getting too repetitive. Viking takes this ball and swims with it, creating a system so unrelated to the genre's best predecessors that no matter how halfway-intuitive it eventually becomes, each button-press gives rise to a sensation that can only be alleviated by yelling "You're doing it wrong!" into a headset mike and praying that the game somehow understands.
Early-game Skarin, despite being among the Vikingest of Vikings and the avatar of an Asgardian goddess, brings an anemic move set to the table. Slice quickly, slice slowly. Occasionally, slice cinematically. Repeat as desired. New moves and combos are, of course, unlockable, but most of them are variations on the same theme, and none of them have the outlandish panache we've come to expect from divinely empowered killing machines.
This might be less of a problem if the system itself weren't so sluggish. Viking's combat is far more dependent upon slow, single, heavy-damage attacks than its contemporaries. Combine this with a lock-on "system" that makes Skarin control like Mr. Magoo with a horned helm, and more than a little frustration begins to build.
This is driven home in what are both the game's best and worst sequences: the much-ballyhooed mass battles. After freeing enough allied warriors to provide sufficient cannon fodder and completing various other pre-war tasks, you're allowed to send your troops en masse to an occupied town and oversee its retaking. This provides for something that approaches genuine innovation. Hundreds of random skirmishes will erupt during the onslaught, most of which you can join in or ignore at your discretion.
None of these really matter for anything other than slowing frame rates to a crawl, though. An allied healer will keep churning out new soldiers as the old ones are cut down, and trying to hit the right undead Norseman in a hundred-NPC melee is like swinging a flyswatter at a beehive and trying to hit the third one from the left. Eventually, these fights become an annoying buzzing in the background to be shoved through so that Skarin can get to some key point that only he can access to keep things moving. At its best, it's novel; at its worst, it's like shoving through a mosh pit to get to a bathroom.
But despite all that, I couldn't help but like Viking. If a Zelda game met Fable and Altered Beast while on vacation in Scandinavia, and their love-child was left in the wilderness to fend for itself, it would probably end up something like Viking. It's not a baby I'd pay $60 to keep, but $8 to make it dance for me for a week wouldn't be a waste of money.