When the blood’s not flowing it’s also a surprisingly beautiful game. Midgard is one of the finest fantasy worlds we’ve seen on this generation of consoles – packed with the sort of rushing waterfalls, jagged rock and stormy coastal scenery that you’d expect from a Wagnerian epic. The Viking settlements and structures show a real eye for Norse style, and even the gloomy caves and rain-soaked battlefields look impressive. Skarin and his foes, meanwhile, are superbly modelled, lit and animated. At times, Viking looks like the sort of classic fantasy painting that used to adorn book covers in the days before people got embarrassed about reading tales of dragons, magic swords and hulking barbarians and wanted to pretend they were reading something more artsy and sophisticated instead. I think this is a good thing (the artwork, not the change in book cover design) and if the odd moment where the grass pops in in the background is the price you pay, then that’s something I’m willing to live with. I also love the way in which the atmosphere changes depending on whether Skarin has liberated an area from Hel’s control. As Skarin enters a Legion-dominated area, the skies darken and the rain and mist creep in. Once liberated, the sun streams in and the whole world comes to life again. It makes you feel good about crushing skulls and lopping off limbs.
Admittedly, there are times when the world doesn’t feel quite as real as it might. It doesn’t help that your Viking chums and monstrous foes only have a handful of 3D models and textures to go round, nor does it help that very few of them have any personality to speak of. It’s slightly annoying that you can explore an area once and clear out every member of Hel’s legion, then you’re sent back half an hour later on a mission and they’re all back again along with a significant artefact that has – mysteriously – only just appeared. Meanwhile, the landscape isn’t quite as interactive as you might hope. Only a few structures can really be clambered around on, and it’s frustrating to think that you might be able to sneak into an enemy encampment over crates or rooftops, only to find that the game has rather arbitrarily said no. In some ways, Viking feels like a heroic fantasy version of Crackdown, but the great joy of Crackdown was that you knew you could go anywhere if only you had the acrobatic powers to do so. In Viking, you’re more constrained by the game as to where you can go and what you can do.
That said, the basic exploration and combat gameplay is never less than entertaining, and the set-pieces – the battles – are almost everything you might have hoped. Each is divided into a series of stages, with the completion of objectives in one stage opening up the next. While your Viking chums charge into the fray, it’s up to you to add support or lead them in the right direction by example, storming in to tackle elite enemy forces or troublesome pockets of resistance, while eliminating shamen or destroying any of Hel’s champions that march your way. Best of all, you’re also tasked with picking targets for your ultimate weapon – the dragons. You’ll need to purchase their services with tokens earned by battling champions or shamen, but once you do you can send them to preset targets which they’ll promptly wipe out in flame-grilled style.