Viking: Battle for Asgard
When the creators of the Total War PC franchise gets to grips with Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, you expect something special - it's just that opinion is divided on how noteworthy Viking: Battle for Asgard actually is. A 5/10 kicking from Kristan doesn't bode particularly well, but the anguished, outraged howlings of the Eurogamer posse in response to the original review was enough to intrigue me about Creative Assembly's debut 360/PS3 offering.
For the record, I love the concept behind this game. The notion of merging elements of Crackdown, Onimusha and Dynasty Warriors (three games I really like) and seriously upping the ante in the level of detail in the open world is more than enough to get my attention - and keep it. I also found that Kristan's repeated stabbing of the heavy attack button in order to effortlessly kill everything in the game didn't seem to work for me. I just got overwhelmed and pummeled, meaning that some semblance of strategy was required to progress. And once I started trying out new attack tactics, Viking took over my gaming me-time and didn't even begin to slacken its vice-like grip until I massed my first army and charged into battle. What I like about this game is similar to my difficult-to-explain penchant for Assassin's Creed - something clearly special has been created here, but you get the sense that the developers didn't quite know how to best exploit it.
I think the problem here is that Creative Assembly became too focused on the player's task at hand without realising that there's a lot more gaming enjoyment to be gleaned from an open world. What would Crackdown be without its rooftop time trials, its varied combat system and agility/bonus orb-collection shtick? What if the game kept to its GTA roots and didn't have you scaling the buildings at all? What if there was no online co-op? I suspect you'd be left with a game of significantly less appeal. So it is with Viking: Battle for Asgard, the gameplay of which basically involves moving from location to location, killing a bunch of people, or collecting something before moving on and repeating the same process.
But just like Assassin's Creed, I felt a die-hard compulsion to play this game all the way through to completion - if only because I loved the environments and the tactics in single-handedly wiping out an entire fortress of opponents. And again, just like Ubisoft's critically flawed AAA-er, I wanted to test this engine and whatever gameplay opportunities it represented to breaking point. One thing's for sure though, it's an experience I'd only recommend on Xbox 360 - and not just for the easy gamerscore boost.
On the face of it, initial impressions indicate that PlayStation 3 owners appear to have received an acceptable conversion of a project that clearly led on Xbox 360. There's a lack of vibrancy about the graphics, and the sense that the whole engine is not running quite as smoothly as the Xbox 360 code, but the basic gameplay - and that superb realisation of its Asgardian openworld - is basically identical... up to a point. However, the closer you look at the game, and the more deeply you play it, the more obvious it becomes that Creative Assembly had quite a lot of trouble converting to PlayStation 3, and eventually gave up the optimisation effort when the challenge became too great.
The first thing you'll notice is that the beautifully crisp levels of detail inherent in the Xbox 360 game are somewhat more blurred on PlayStation 3; yet another example of the infamous PS3 'Vaseline Effect'. There's definitely something rather odd about the rendering method - as far as we can tell, the two buffers used to create the anti-aliasing effect are being merged then blurred, the kicker being that each of those buffers appears to be based on a 960x720 resolution. While not a massively big deal during gameplay, a key aspect of the game's appeal is the wonderful level of detail on display - and PS3 owners are missing out on some of that. More than that, there's clear evidence that draw distance on the PS3 game is more limited than it is on Xbox 360.
All of this I could live with, but Viking is a game where the whole point of each sprawling level is to build up a massive army to lead to victory in an astonishing, colossal battle. And so we reach the point where Creative Assembly basically gave up on PlayStation 3 owners. The in-game engine splutters, heaves, and drags its sorry arse through the motions, exposing the player to enormous drops in frame rate complete with a bonus - and completely unintentional - slow motion effect. In effect, what is the crowning glory of the Xbox 360 version is little short of an embarrassment on PS3.
It's a real shame because while it's often the case that the PS3 is technically short-changed by the majority of cross-platform projects I put to the sword, in most cases it only has a limited impact on the core game experience. This is definitely not the case with Viking: Battle for Asgard, where the whole pay-off for your in-game endeavors is savagely compromised.
I really like what Creative Assembly has done with this game and it's obvious that there's a rich vein of potential here, but clearly there's a lot of scope for tweaking the experience to avoid a lot of the 'gotchas' inherent in Viking's execution. I really want to see a sequel, and let's hope that any new development cycle also includes time for improving the engine's performance on PlayStation 3.