Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3
My biggest fear when I'm going to get my first look at a game I've been looking forward to is that I'll come away underwhelmed. It happens more often than you might think - someone on the development team taking you through the early levels while it becomes all too clear that this wasn't the game they hyped or you imagined. You bite your tongue and prepare for the worst, your only hope being that, in the last month or so before the game goes gold, something magic happens to turn things around.
Sometimes, however, your expectations are reversed for the better. Despite a few misgivings about the huge difficulty spikes and painful boss battles, I loved The Creative Assembly's Spartan: Total Warrior. Moving from the complex strategy of the Total War series to a massive scale action game was a risky move, but Spartan pulled it off, adding new layers of tactics and a satisfying combat system to the kind of battlefield brawling introduced by the likes of Dynasty Warriors and Kingdom Under Fire. With Viking, I expected a bigger, better, bloodier HD version of Spartan, with everything turned up to eleven. When I heard about the open-world elements being introduced, I wasn't 100 per cent sure how it would all come together. Now, having had an all-too-brief 45 minutes to get to know the game, I can say that Viking is quite a bit more than I expected. It's a game that brings to mind games as diverse as God of War, Crackdown, Oblivion, Ninety Nine Nights and even S.T.A.L.K.E.R. or World of Warcraft, if only for a fleeting moment. This, in case you're wondering, is good.
Viking is best described as a bloodthirsty heroic fantasy epic set in a world of Norse Mythology. The dark goddess, Hel, has been banished to the Underworld. Not one to take this lying down, she raises an undead army to assault the human realm of Midgard. Not entirely chuffed at Hel's antics, mighty Odin dispatches the goddess Freyja to set things to rights and she, in turn, chooses as her champion the Viking warrior Skarin. It's up to Skarin - you - to raise an army, liberate Midgard and take the battle right back to the gates of Hel's fortress.
How you do so is partly up to you. Viking takes place across three sprawling islands, the smallest being 1km in size if taken to full scale. Each is also a seamless environment, with no loading to break up the flow of play. You're free to explore these islands, finding and freeing groups of your captured men while taking on additional missions which will advance the story or give you access to vital equipment or supplies. Talking to a guy in your home village may open up one option, freeing up a band of Viking troops might then lead to another. While there's a definite tree structure to the missions, there is a certain amount of flexibility as to the order in which you can take them, and there are always plenty of background tasks, from searching hidden caverns to dispatching enemy patrols, to keep you busy.