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Platfroms: Xbox 360, Playstation 3. Xbox version reviewed.
There's no question in my mind that Viking: Battle for Asgard is the bloodiest hack-and-slash epic I've ever seen, making the horrifically brutal God of War look like The Chronicles of Narnia by comparison. Where most warriors might feel content that an enemy without a head is no longer a threat, Viking's hero, Skarin, doesn't stop until both arms have been lopped off and the top half of the torso has been severed from the bottom. All of this comes with an awful lot of claret splashed around, and in gory slow-motion detail when you pull off a particularly vicious combo attack. With a lot of games, I might have suspected that all this ultra-violence was designed to cover a lack of gameplay, but with Viking it just ain't so. It's also one of the brainiest hack-and-slash epics I've ever seen.
In case you haven't seen our preview, this Norse fantasy thriller pits Skarin - chosen hero of the goddess Freyja and the gods of Asgard - against the forces of Hel, goddess of the underworld. In practice, this means exploring the three sizable island territories of Midgard, wiping out Hel's grunts and minions, releasing Viking captives, gathering gold, discovering useful magic items and completing any number of miscellaneous tasks. Release enough Vikings to form an army and complete any other related objectives and you can trigger a huge set-piece battle. Here your guys square up to Hel's goons, and it's up to you to turn the tide of battle in their direction by taking out archers, champions or heavy infantry or defeating the shamans responsible for the continual flow of hostile forces.
It's a fairly simple structure, but one that offers you the sort of freedom you don't usually get in this sort of game. While the available tasks are contingent on what objectives you've achieved already - releasing one set of captives may give you a nugget of information that opens up a new mission - you're free to wander the island doing whatever open task you like. The islands are covered by a network of standing stones that offer instant travel from one section to another, and once the island has loaded once there are no boring loading times to break up the action. As a result, Viking is a surprisingly free-flowing experience and it's rare to find yourself stuck in a frustrating situation. If you're finding one objective too tough, you can usually come back to it later when you're a little more prepared.