With their rich mythology and culture, and a healthy dose of horned helmets and big axes, it's surprising that computer games featuring Vikings are so few and far between. But now Human Head and the Gathering Of Developers are looking to change all that with their Unreal engined third person action game, Rune.
Rune's story is a classic Norse tale of vengeance in which you play the role of Ragnar, a young Viking determined to find the man who killed his father, a Dark Viking by the name of Conrad.
The game itself is appropriately rough hewn, with the focus very much on traditional Viking values such as death, destruction, and drinking. There are puzzles, but they usually come down to whacking something very hard until it breaks. Ragnar doesn't open doors, he smashes them to pieces with a dirty big hammer...
Rune's levels are designed to be destroyed, and you can often smash your way through doors and cause all kinds of mayhem as you fight your way through a location. For example, in one level you can chop down a support that causes part of the ceiling of the building you are in to collapse.
Later on you will find a monster chained up in a courtyard. Break its chains, and the monster will run straight through the nearest door in a shower of splintered wood, giving you access to another part of the village and distracting some of the guards.
Combat is all up close and personal, with a wide selection of melee weapons including Viking favourites like swords, axes and war hammers. It's not just a case of running up to somebody and whacking them over the head repeatedly though - there is room for finesse, even when you are wielding an axe almost as tall as yourself.
Weapons can not only be wielded normally, they can also be hurled at enemies, and there is nothing more satisfying than seeing your sword impale itself in an enemy, and then watching as he falls to the ground clutching at the blade sticking out of his chest.
You can also use your "rune power" to charge up weapons for special attacks, which can suck the life force out of an enemy and use it to replenish your own health, or freeze an enemy solid as ice. Strike them while they are still frozen and they will shatter into a hundred little pieces. There are also fire, lightning, and even sonic attacks for some of the weapons, meaning that you should never run out of interesting new ways to dispatch an enemy.
Locational damage is implemented, which means that with a little practice you can hack off limbs, quickly disabling your enemies. Remove a man's sword arm, for example, and he will wisely make a run for it. There are also shields which can be used to defend yourself against your enemies' blows, but which can only take a certain amount of damage before they are shattered.
Another nice touch is that you can pick up whatever weapons and shields an enemy is carrying once you have killed them. And in a move that is sure to please the gaming violence lobby, you can even pick up an enemy's severed arm and then beat their friends over the head with it. Tasteful, if ineffective.
Blood And Booze
And as Ragnar battles his way through hordes of Dark Vikings, dwarves, snow beasts, stone crabs and other enemies, he will gradually work himself up into a frenzy of death and destruction.
The more enemies you kill, the higher your blood rage rises, currently shown by a little bar along the bottom of the screen. Take a rest from the killing and the blood will subside, but when the bar reaches maximum you will become berzerk, gaining a temporary burst of increased strength and speed to help you to cleave your way through your enemies.
All that slaughtering is thirsty work though, and when Ragnar's health starts to dip it's time to look for an inn. Throw back a swift pint of mead and your health will increase again. Ragnar must have a good tolerance for the alcohol though, because however many pints he downs, he never seems to get drunk...
Casting The Runes
Thanks to the Unreal engine that powers the game, Rune looks suitably moody. Blood gathers on your sword as you hack your way through the game, with snow falling around you and torches flickering. Levels are well designed and beautifully textured, from ruined villages to ice caves and even the pits of Viking hell itself.
Human Head have also added a few new features of their own to the engine to give their game that little bit extra. One of the main additions is skeletal animation, which allows more variety in Ragnar's moves without chewing up your computer's precious memory and hard drive space.
Different parts of Ragnar's body are seperately animated as well, allowing him to look around freely. This isn't just for visual effect though - his eyes tend to focus on enemies and important objects, giving you a welcome hint when you are stuck.
The third person camera is also looking good, doing a solid job of focusing on the action while keeping itself away from the walls. And to help things in tight confined areas, Ragnar can become translucent to allow the camera to see through him when it gets too close, instead of just giving you an extreme close up of his back.
Rune could well be the Viking action game we've all been waiting for, with vicious but intelligent combat, gorgeous visuals, suitably rousing dynamic music, and a healthy dose of mischief and mayhem. You can drink mead, lob axes and swords around, cleave enemies in twain, sever their arms, and engage in a bit of wanton destruction.
Looting, pillaging, and drinking. What more could you want from a good Viking game? Rrrraaaaagh!