Fighting alongside hundreds of rampaging Vikings is the sort of thing PS3 and 360 are meant to let us do, and given Creative Assembly's Total War background it's no surprise to learn that Battle for Asgard - despite its third-person action premise - is focusing fairly heavily on that. What makes this particular deviation interesting though is the idea of influencing the battle rather than just managing it. In essence, gameplay is split between preparing the ground for war and then making sure the war goes to plan. A bit like Dynasty Warriors with funny hats. And dragon air-strikes.
You take up the role of Skarin, a young warrior picked by the Gods to defend the mortal realm of Midgard from a rampaging hussy called Hel and her undead Viking army. Hel got booted out of Asgard by Odin, and she's none too happy about it, so she's trying to find the wolf-god Fenrir and bring about the apocalyptic battle Ragnarok to get her own back. Woman hath no fury like Hel scorned - to get that one out of the way nice and early.
Shown off in remarkably pretty pre-alpha form at Games Convention, Battle for Asgard's rolling hills, craggy mountains and lolloping oceans sprawl comfortably around towns and forts, most of which are under Hel's control and need to be wrested back. To achieve this, however, you're going to need to build up an army. Doing that involves picking up missions from your home camp, where you can also buy up equipment and train to upgrade your combat abilities. Objectives are spread all over the vast terrain, which the developers tell us can be explored at any time - except, rather like Crackdown, you might not be up to dealing with the challenges lurking in certain areas until you've done some of the earlier bits.
The mission we're shown involves taking out a barracks in a city, which lies at the foot of a hill next to a coastal inlet bordered on the far side by a vast mountain. You have various options for approach - the far side would give you a better overview and the advantage of height, while a full-frontal assault would give you the element of surprise, albeit until troops were mustered. Our demo guardians opt for a round-the-back approach, sneaking over a fence and stealthing towards the objective, staying out of sight of hornblowers and bumping off dozy adversaries as opportunity presents itself.
"Bump" is a rather pitiful verb in this respect, however, because what actually ensues is the closer to the Disney's Tarantino vision of long-forgotten PS2 title The Mark of Kri (which isn't a useful reference point, necessarily, but is always nice to shoehorn into a preview). In short, you're cleaving people in two and then splashing around in their blood. Gratuitous, yes, and more than a bit evocative of God of War, but with good reason: Norse gods are just as fickle and perverse as their Greek counterparts, and do enjoy a bit of politicking and messing around with the lives of men and, in this instance, brutal bloody violence, which helps build up a kind of combat currency for use against more troubling enemies.
This we're given a taste of as our CA handlers bolt the demo forward to an actual battle. Our action in destroying the barracks will have weakened the town we wanted to reclaim, while other missions have helped gather a friendly army, and equipment - liberating a lumber mill, for example, adds a battering ram to your arsenal. With all that done, the time has come for invasion, and so your forces rumble down the hill and crash against a counter-strike from the incumbent enemy. Here you are quite welcome to get stuck in, but as with your pre-emptory soloing beforehand, serving the broader objective of a team victory is subtler than simply ringing the front door bell and then punching whatever sticks its head through the gap.
So, instead you try and draw out enemy champions, whose giant swords cause untold damage to your gathered horde if fought in their midst. Basic attacks (you know, mashing) are swift but less impactful than they might be, but they do help build up your pips - the combat currency we mentioned earlier. With five to fill up, you can then perform more elaborate attacks by reeling off button combinations (X-Y-Y, etc.), which result in more elaborate attacks, and killing moves that border on Quick Time Events, and call to mind some of Heavenly Sword's finishers. Creative Assembly says that the combat system's all about giving the player "blow by blow control" of a fight.
Dealing with bigger enemies helps, then, but so too does targeting particular units and defences. Enemy shamans are often seen cloaked in blue light respawning your adversaries, and finding and crushing them is a good way of stemming the tide. In our demo session, Skarin clambers up the side of a tall hill, handhold by handhold, until he's on the back of a shaman, bringing down his shield and crushing the respawns - and the banks of archers that have been weakening his comrades on the fields below.
At every point the idea is to give the player options - and this is more evident in the culmination of our demo, a massive fight to breach the thick walls surrounding Skarin's opposite number, Hel's Harbinger. Having been introduced to dragons earlier, you're able to call on one to land a dragon strike at a critical point, dispatching a shaman in a bolt of crushing flame, while your battering ram pushes forward through the thinning enemy and punctures the fort's exterior. Without dragons, you would have had to find a way up the battlements to reach the shaman. Or you could have taken a radically different tack, approaching from the sea. It's not clear quite to what degree you'll be able to vary your actions - whether there are set points of insertion or a Crackdown-style selection of obvious routes left for you to discover - but in either event the general blend of combative and strategic variety, married to this idea of influencing battles rather than sweeping the battlefield clean yourself, give definite cause for optimism.
Creative Assembly may not have said much about Viking up to now, but that's due more to the fact they like to get things ready before spouting off than anything, so it's no surprise to hear they're making good progress, with an early 2008 release pencilled in. There is potential for multiplayer, but I wouldn't cross your fingers - CA is serious about telling a story, and making Skarin an empathetic character, and they're not comfortable thumping in more characters unless they can be fleshed out to the same degree which, given the time remaining, seems unlikely.
Irrespective of that, the team's renowned attention to detail and the sturdy state of the build we're shown, suggests the Battle for Asgard is one to get dressed up for, and we hope to bring you more on it soon. After all, we love a good fight, and Creative Assembly's no slouch when it comes to delivering them.
Viking: Battle for Asgard is due out on PS3 and Xbox 360 in early 2008.