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Review - we take a look at the third person Viking action-adventure from Human Head

Dark blue icons of video game controllers on a light blue background
Image credit: Eurogamer

Expectations were high for Human Head's third person Viking action-adventure game, "Rune". After all, with a healthy mixture of gory dismemberment, silly horned helmets, big axes and plenty of tankards of mead, what's not to like? Add to that some gorgeous graphics courtesy of the Unreal engine, and a development team founded by former members of Raven, the company behind the Heretic and Hexen series, and things were certainly looking good. And although the final result is somewhat disappointing, we're happy to report that it's still well worth a look...

Ragnar sails into the sunset


As the game begins you find yourself in the big furry boots of Ragnar, a young Viking warrior who has just been inducted into a group sworn to defend the rune stones of Odin, father of the gods. As luck would have it, almost as soon as you have passed your final test a raiding party is assembled to aid a nearby village, which is under attack from a band of evil Vikings who worship the trixter god Loki. But things soon go pear-shaped, as you are ambushed en route and your longboat sunk by the powerful enemy leader Conrack.

Death is not the end for Ragnar though, and as you sink to the bottom of the cold scandinavian seas you are rescued by Odin, to avenge your father and the rest of the villagers who Conrack has slaughtered. Fate, it seems, has it in for you. Although Odin's disembodied head will pop up to guide you from time to time, you can't expect any more divine intervention, and soon find yourself battling your way through caverns, fortresses, mountains and Hel's dominion of the dead and damned.

This has to be bad news

It's Just A Flesh Wound

Combat itself is frantic and gory, with a wide range of axes, swords, clubs, maces and hammers on offer. Ragnar and his weapons soon became caked in the blood of your victims as you slice, dice and pummel your way through the hordes of enemies that the game throws at you.

Hot-blooded vikings everywhere will be glad to hear that your weapons can reduce your enemies to bite-sized pieces. Arms, legs and heads are severed with frightening ease as blood and gore splatters around you. To add insult to injury, you can even pick up severed limbs and beat people around the head with them. Decapitated heads can be thrown around like basketballs, and make a reassuring squelching noise as they hit something. This is certainly not a kid's game... And as you cleave your way through your enemies, your bloodlust level will gradually increase. Kill enough enemies in a short enough time (or find the right power-up) and you will go into a berzerker rage, during which your eyes glow red and you become temporarily invulnerable.

To add a modicum of intelligence to the proceedings, you will also find a range of different types of shields, which are held in your left hand and will absorb some or all of the damage from your enemies' blows. Switching between offensive and defensive postures takes a brief but crucial moment, which can leave you open to attack if you're not careful. Combined with the fact that some of the larger weapons and monsters can damage you regardless of whether or not you are cowering behind your shield, this means that defence proves to be somewhat less useful in practice than you might hope.

That's not to say that combat is simply a case of charging in and hammering away at the fire button. Although some of the weaker creatures you will come up against are easily dispatched in this manner, taking on well-armed vikings and the more powerful monsters is dangerous, and frequently lethal if you get careless. The best approach is usually to circle around your enemy, trying to land a blow on an unprotected part of their body, but even this can be rather hit and miss. I found the most certain way to win the game is simply to run like hell whenever possible - hardly a strategy that the Vikings would approve of...

Welcome to Hel

We'll Call It A Draw Then?

Which brings us to the first of the game's failings - combat often seems to be as much about luck as skill, and a couple of fortunate blows from some of the more powerful enemies is enough to kill you outright. The snow beasts can reduce you to your constituent parts in a single strike if they manage to jump on you with enough power. A moment's carelessness or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time is enough to leave you reaching for the reload button, and this can make things a little frustrating at times.

There is also a severe lack of variety in the monsters, particularly earlier on in the game. Hel is, as you might expect, mostly filled with skeletal warriors, who can only be killed by decapitating them. They all look much the same though, and whether or not your attack succeeds in slicing off their heads seems to be almost entirely down to luck, making combat with them very tedious, and the whole Hel section of the game downright repetitive. Equally, the goblin caves are (unsurprisingly) dominated by goblins, and slaughtering hordes of the nasty little creatures can get boring after a while.

Luckily when you finally reach the surface things start to look up, as there are a wide variety of vikings to battle, with different appearances, weapons and shields making them more interesting and dangerous opponents. Sadly they are let down by shoddy AI at times, and you will often see monsters running into walls, or simply standing still as you cut up their friends a few feet away. They seem to lack any kind of initiative, and if they spot you standing on a ledge above you, instead of trying to find a way to reach you they will often cluster around below you and jump up and down getting agitated.

All in all combat is something of a disappointment, although the wide range of weapons and ease of control makes up for its shortfalls to some extent. The rune powers also add some interest to the proceedings, with each of the many weapons having its own unique ability which can be activated by using some of your limited supply of rune energy, which is replenished by picking up the rune stones that are scattered throughout the levels. Special powers range from the ability to freeze enemies or turn them to stone, to vampiric attacks that allow you to absorb their health as you damage your foes.

It's rather dark, but I'm sure there's a lever somewhere round here...

A Born Lever Puller

It's not all about combat, though sadly the "adventure" elements of the game mostly come down to climbing on to ledges and running around looking for a lever to pull. Luckily the environments which you find yourself exploring are mostly pretty spectacular, thanks to the heavily modified Unreal engine that powers the game.

Some of the Hel levels are rather drab and claustrophobic, but other parts of the game are truly stunning, from vast ice caverns to rivers of molten lava and snow-covered Viking towns. Ragnar and the other characters are detailed and smoothly animated, with intricate texturing that is more than a match for anything we've seen in a third person game before. All of this does come at a price though, and you will need a good graphics card, plenty of memory, and a reasonably fast processor to make the most of the game's visuals.

The in-game cutscenes are also rather impressive, and the sight of Odin's huge one-eyed head appearing in front of you is enough to put fire back in your veins. Or maybe that was all the mead our hero was drinking... Mead gives you back some of your lost health, as does meat, fruit, and edible lizards, giving Ragnar a well-balanced protein rich diet. Probably. By the end he should be something of a porker though, as Rune relies on providing you with plentiful supplies of food and drink to cure the many wounds you will receive in the almost constant fighting throughout the game. Often you will be at death's door, only to find a table with a big chunk of meat and a couple of pints of mead waiting for you.

The impressive opening caves of the game


Rune isn't as good as we were hoping, but given how high our expectations for the game were that's perhaps hardly surprising. Combat feels a bit random at times, the opening levels of the game can get a bit repetitive, and there are also a few nasty little bugs and scripting errors which sneaked through beta testing. These can make some levels impossible to complete in certain circumstances, so make sure to grab the latest patch from the Rune website if you do buy the game!

But at the end of the day, Rune is still one of the best third person action games currently available. Its stunning graphics put most other third person games to shame, the ferocious hand-to-hand combat makes for a more visceral experience than is usual in this rather stale genre, and the heavy dose of Norse mythology provides an interesting and unique setting for the game. Fun and blood-soaked in equal measures, and with a truly epic scope. Just don't expect too much from it.


Human Head interview

7 / 10

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