Thanks to war, hunger and disease, most Vikings died before they turned 30 years old. In Fatshark's War of the Vikings, you'll be lucky if you last 30 seconds. This is the follow-up to the Swedish developer's medieval battle game, War of the Roses, and it follows a similarly ruthless path.
A multiplayer-only game, it takes the tropes of the first-person shooter and applies them, broadly, to a third-person melee style of fighting, where instead of modern armies, it's Viking raiders laying waste to Saxons on desolate cliffs, in rustic villages and through snowbound mountain passes. Forget rifles and shotties, here you get swords, axes, spears and bows. Most of the damage is done up close, and most kills are gained in just a few well placed strikes.
Learning how to deliver those strikes is the biggest barrier to entry in War of the Viking's unsentimental scrum. As with War of the Roses, the game uses mouse and keyboard (there's no controller support) to simulate the actions of close quarters combat using ancient weapon techniques. Hold down the left button and you charge your attack. Flick the mouse in the direction you want to strike and release the button to swing. The same is true of parrying, only using the right mouse button.
In intent, it echoes Dark Souls, with its emphasis on timing and caution, but the inputs lack the crisp efficiency and the movements lack the fluid grace of From Software's classic. It's also similar, in principle, to how The Elder Scrolls delivers special melee attacks by modifying the strike with directional movement, only here the special attacks are triggered by a single button press while it's the standard attacks that require practice to get right.
It's a system that is both ingenious and infuriating, in other words. Only the smallest mouse movements are required, but finding the balance between registering the direction and sending your viewpoint off-kilter takes a lot of patience. Especially when you have to master it while being sliced to ribbons by other players, since the brief tutorial - the only single-player content in the game - barely covers the basics. Coupled with WASD movement control, getting used to the hold-flick-release attacks is a lot like patting your head while rubbing your stomach. At first your instincts rebel, but eventually you get past the hump and it clicks into place. After that, War of the Vikings becomes enormous fun - but it's still not for those with high blood pressure.
New for this game is a stamina gauge, something that War of the Roses didn't have. In that game, you could charge around with your weapon raised and then strike when you found a target. Not any more. Raising your weapon will tire you out if you don't strike within a few seconds, a shift towards realism which changes the tempo of the combat. What was a rather zany knockabout melee becomes a more tactical affair, as choosing the right moment - and right angle - to attack from is now more important than ever. It adds depth and authenticity to the fighting, but at the cost of a little of the fledgling series' boisterous fun.
As mentioned earlier, this is a game where two good hits will take you down, so there's very little room for error. This also means that wild, random flailing can also bear fruit. You'll score more than a few lucky kills this way in the early going, helping you level up but also obscuring the importance of skilled play.
Levelling up is the key that unlocks War of the Vikings' true appeal. Once you reach level 4, you have access to all three classes - warrior, champion and skirmisher - and the option to start creating and customising your own character build. From choosing your preferred weaponry to dictating your heraldry, it's here you get to tailor the game to suit your way of playing and the steep learning curve of those early battles levels out into a smoother long-term journey towards mastery.
Visually the game is a little rough around the edges, with an occasionally jittery frame rate and noticeably limited character animations. Yet it's also hugely atmospheric, successfully conjuring an earthy historical setting that feels very true to life. In some cases, it's almost a pity that none of the game modes allow for more tempered play. In the frenzied rush to engage the enemy, you'll charge past lots of lovely scenery that it would be interesting to explore.
Those game modes are expanded from War of the Roses, though still rather limited by the nature of the game. Arena, Team Deathmatch and Pitched Battle are all essentially the same thing but played at different scales. Arena matches offer 3v3 no-respawn clashes in compact maps, while at the other end of the scale, Pitched Battles are exactly what they sound like - large lobbies, generous maps and the sort of mass slaughter you'd expect from a game called War of the Vikings.
Conquest is the only one that shakes things up, a hardpoint capture mode that plays differently from its FPS cousins due to the close-quarters nature of the combat. It's not about accumulating points either, but simply holding on to as many of the capture spots as possible. This means you can't just dash from one to the other, taking and retaking the same locations to win the match. You need to actually take and hold them, as the winning team is whoever controls the most points when the timer runs out.
The game has been in varying stages of early access play since last year, but there are still balancing issues to be ironed out. The pace of combat means it's hard to gauge the relative benefits of the various swords, axes and armour types, but more problematic are the ranged weapons. Archers use stamina with every shot fired, but have infinite arrows. This means that two or three players with bows can work together to dominate certain maps by targeting the same chokepoints over and over. There's no damage indicator to show where damage is coming from, so in some matches you'll fall the floor as a pin cushion many times before you can even work out where your killers are hiding.
It's limited, but also unique. It's scruffy, but also capable of surprising beauty. It's frustrating, but also incredibly fun
Missing from War of the Roses are the horses, which will be either a vast improvement or a sad tragedy depending on your experiences in that game. Yes, these mounts could completely unbalance a game, but they also resulted in some of the funniest and most memorable battle stories. They've apparently been omitted here for reasons of historical accuracy rather than gameplay balance, so it would be nice to see them added as an optional extra.
Also needed: a more elegant matchmaking system. Or even any sort of matchmaking system. At the moment, all you can do is choose a server from the list and hope not to be dropped into a lobby full of people who have been playing since December and have unlocked things like flaming arrows.
So War of the Vikings, much like its predecessor, is a rough diamond. It's limited, but also unique. It's scruffy, but also capable of surprising beauty. It's frustrating, but also incredibly fun. On balance, it's a game I admire more than I like, but I'm glad it exists and can see why, at least for the niche audience that clicks with its offbeat rhythm, it's already a beloved cult favourite.