In the last few years, I’ve likely put more time into Diablo III than any other game. Despite sinking 100+ hours into it on three separate platforms – PS3, PS4 and Xbox One – I still find myself revisiting it every once in a while for a quick blast of demon killing.
Every time a new Diablo clone materialises, I get slightly excited. Knowing the four acts of Diablo III like the back of my hand by now, I long for something new; something that can offer me the same satisfaction when I mindlessly slash my way through hordes of bloodthirsty hellbeasts. Unfortunately, it’s rare any action RPG ever comes close, and despite its at-first promising veneer, Viking: Wolves of Midgard falls far short of its inspirations too.
Unlike the open map of its counterpart, Vikings: Wolves of Midgard is more level-based. A ship from the hub town will transport you to each new destination where you’ll have one primary goal – usually resulting in a boss fight – and several, optional, secondary objectives. As such, how involved and explorative you want to be of Vikings is entirely up to you. Taking time to traverse all the nooks and crannies of each level to complete the optional goals will reward you with money, experience and loot, but for me, running straight to the next checkpoint as quickly as possible was sometimes the only option.
You see, Vikings: Wolves of Midgard‘s difficulty is all over the place. While at times you’ll slay enemies with no trouble, at other times, you’ll feel mercilessly underprepared as a group of rogues surround you, with some hits taking almost all your health in one fell swoop. Even on the easiest difficulty, Vikings is no cakewalk. Sure, there’s nothing wrong with a challenge, but when you consistently have to play by looking at your health bar rather than the action unfolding on-screen, where’s the fun?
Worse still, the game features a survival mechanic. Find yourself in snowy climes and you’ll have a cold meter that quickly fills up, continually damaging you unless you find a fire to warm yourself up at. It’s a rather pointless addition that serves no real purpose other than adding an extra layer of frustration when you’re trying to explore. There are items that offer extra resistance, but the benefits are hardly noticeable.
Checkpoints are far and few between in some areas, yet only a few steps away from each other in others. They feel incredibly random, and can be extremely frustrating considering you’re taken back to the last checkpoint on your death – in some cases, it means right back to the beginning of the level. Plus, unless you’re on the set path straight to your goal, you’re unlikely to pass checkpoints, so trying to clean up the additional objectives often feels too much of a chore, with the pressure of constant death not really worth the small return you’ll receive.
There’s also not much reward in slaying enemies. There’s no feedback and you have little control over where you swing. Whereas Diablo will automatically target you to the nearest enemy, here, you’ll often find yourself swinging your weapon into thin air, or facing away from the enemy you intended to target. There’s none of the thrill of slaying multiple foes in one swing that you’d expect from other games of the genre; it all just feels rather flat.
It’s not all bad though. Vikings: Wolves of Midgard does actually look pretty nice. Environments are well-crafted and include a great amount of detail in all aspects of each location. From muddy swaps to snowy mountain tops, there’s plenty of variety, and each locale is just as interesting as the last. The game performs fairly solidly too – there were a few drops in framerate during fraught combat, and it felt a little worse in co-op than it did in single player, but it’s certainly not enough to make playing the game feel jarring in any way.
As you progress through the game and level your character up, things start to feel a little better. Getting extra abilities and finding stronger weapons does make the random difficulty easier to deal with, and having a larger roster of special attacks to use makes combat a bit more enjoyable. It’s just a shame that the act of levelling up in itself is something of a chore, and skills are doled out painfully slowly. In Diablo III you’ll find yourself equipped with a fairly robust skillset after an hour or two of playing, but Vikings: Wolves of Midgard will have only handed two or three abilities to you by the time you’re six hours in.
Rather than levelling up being an automatic fanfare, you collect ‘blood’, which then has to be offered to an altar. In the beginning, you’ll generally gain one skill level for each level you complete, but it feels slow, especially considering gaining a new level will only give you the offensively low benefit of an extra 1% (or 2%, if you choose armour) to the stat of your choice. It at least gives you a couple of skill points that you can assign in a skill tree – but the skill trees themselves pose another problem. There are a number of different trees, but they’re tied to specific weapon loadouts. Some perks will only be available if you use a two-handed weapon, or a sword and shield, etc. You can put points into any tree, and change your weapons at any time, but considering points are doled out fairly conservatively, you’re not going to get much benefit unless you stick with the same loadout. It can make proceedings rather boring – and means that a lot of the loot you pick up is rather pointless. I chose to stick with the one-handed skill tree, yet 80% of the weapons I’ve picked up have been two-handed. Gee, thanks.
All in all, Vikings: Wolves of Midgard isn’t terrible, it’s just not particularly good, either. It looks nice, but its gameplay facets are lacking a lot of polish, and what should be a cathartic and enjoyable timesink ends up being monotonous and annoying. If you’ve worn out your Diablo disc, Vikings: Wolves of Midgard may fill a tiny bit of the void but mostly, its painful similarities yet numerous missteps will likely just frustrate you.