War of the Vikings review: Brutish fun, but not quite ready for Valhalla
At a Glance
I lock eyes with the Saxon scum from across the battlefield. He's one mean-looking warrior, crimson garb and rusty sword. With a grunt he comes charging at me, but I've packed a surprise—my trusty hunting bow.
I notch and fire my first arrow. It sails harmlessly over his left shoulder. I barely notice, as I draw another back. This one skitters off the rocks to the Saxon's right. I loose a third—he catches this one on his shield.
And then he's upon me, all whirling metal and foul-smelling clothes. I try to pull out my axe but he chops off my head before I can do so.
I am a terrible Viking. Even I wouldn't let me into Valhalla.
Wars with no name
War of the Vikings is Paradox and Fatshark's follow-up to 2012's War of the Roses. Like Roses before it, War of the Vikings is a third-person, multiplayer-only, medieval combat game. It's similar to playing a multiplayer shooter—team deathmatch, conquest, et cetera—except instead of rifles you're hauling swords, axes, and longbows into the fight.
Bows pull you into a first-person view to fire, while melee weapons utilize mouse movements to direct your blows—click the mouse and move it right, for instance, and you'll set up a right-to-left swing. A right-click will pull up your shield, if you have one, or set your weapon to parry.
It takes a fair bit of getting used to, though you can have just as much luck in most matches wildly swinging like some sort of Viking Hank Aaron, hoping against hope that your blade makes contact with some soft, fleshy part of your opponent instead of the shield for the umpteenth time. Hit detection seems to rely a bit more on prayer and a bit less on skill than I'd like.
If you get really lucky, you might even chop some poor guy's head off. Makes you wonder why he even bothered wearing that helmet.
Wins net you coins, which can be redeemed to customize the look of your soldier. Upgrades are all purely cosmetic, but there's a lot of them if you're really invested in your character—new shield designs, beards, weapons, and even a cloak if you hit Level 30. Your Saxon and Viking characters are upgraded separately, though the custom class slots are shared between both—your sword and bow class is accessible no matter which team you're placed on.
War of the Vikings is not Dark Souls. It's not the Viking equivalent of Arma III. It's Call of Duty with medieval weaponry. It's an arcade-like, chaotic mess. I'm sure there are players out there that take the game deadly serious, and those players are probably a lot better at the game than I am. They're probably a lot more angry at certain parts of the game than I am. Me? War of the Vikings is the perfect palette cleanser. It's a game you can pop into for ten minutes, de-stress, and then hop out again secure in knowing that Vikings are still rad.
Waiting for Valhalla
In fact, the biggest problem with War of the Vikings is it doesn't retain a ton of players. Even in peak hours the server populations are pretty low. In off-peak hours, finding a low-ping server is nearly impossible. I've played a lot of games hosted in Miami and Chicago this week with ping upwards of 100 milliseconds—not by choice, but because the West Coast servers were empty.
I have to wonder if being available via Steam's Early Access program hurt War of the Vikings. While the game is better now than it was a few months back, I can't help but think that a lot of the audience has already tested the game, played their fill, and left. War of the Vikings has that "multiplayer game past its peak" feel instead of that "hot, fresh new servers" feel.
And as I said, there are quite a few problems that are going to make a serious player flip out, especially since they're issues that should've been sorted out in Early Access. Hit detection can be terrible, especially since you do have to often resort to playing on high-ping servers. There are going to be plenty of times you swing and your sword turns into wet paper mache, weakly flopping through the air and missing the enemy right in front of you.
The respawn system is similarly broken. I died plenty of times only to start my next Viking life in the midst of an already-engaged battle, chopped down mere seconds after I was born by a blow intended for somebody else's head. This might not be a fixable problem—the maps are small, and with twenty-four players crammed in it's no doubt hard for the game to spawn you in empty territory. But that doesn't make it any less annoying when you're booted back to the respawn menu mere seconds after getting back in the game.
Those coming from War of the Roses may also find War of the Vikings a lesser experience. There are fewer weapon distinctions here, and thus fewer options in combat. I'm not going to say War of the Roses was a simulator-type game either, but Vikings feels even more arcade-y in comparison.
But at the end of the day, I'm pretty satisfied with what I've played of War of the Vikings. It goes down like a cool tankard of beer on a hot summer day. A cool, arcade-like, silly-at-times tankard of beer. And if that beer has started to skunk a little bit? If that beer needs more full servers, better hit detection, and a better respawn system? Wait, I've forgotten where this metaphor goes.
The point is, War of the Vikings ain't going to Valhalla anytime soon. But I'll settle for a few hours of Midgard in these tedious spring months.