It's nice when a game comes along that pleasantly surprises you. I admit, I judged Viking: Battle for Asgard by the screenshots, writing it off as yet another one of those grimy, violent games so plentiful that they're almost their own category: the "Bloodletting in Brown Clothes on a Cloudy Day" genre.
Viking is a little more than that. Not purely an action game like God of War nor an adventure role-playing game like Fable, it's a little of each. In fact, the one game it resembles most in terms of structure is probably Crackdown, since its "flow" involves reclaiming enemy-occupied areas bit by bit, until you've made the world safe again.
Players take the role of the Viking Skarin, a personality cipher (not a word of dialogue in the whole game) and – clean-shaven and helmet-free – disappointingly un-Vikinglike.
(Yes, yes: Historically speaking, Vikings didn't actually wear helmets with horns. But being that the game pits you against an army of zombies, it's not exactly a history lesson; a nice Nordic-thug stereotype, complete with a huge Wagnerian horned helmet and a beard so long it's tucked into his belt, wouldn't have hurt.)
The game initially plays out like a Scandinavian remix of God of War: On the brink of defeat, Skarin is visited by a seemingly benevolent deity (Freya, this time) to be given a second chance. And like God of War, the terms of the deal end up making Skarin feel he might've been bamboozled.
Viking's combat, though, isn't much like God of War's at all. The pace is slower, the enemies aren't especially hardy, and though there are a bunch of attacks available, players can coast through the game with just a couple of easy-to-repeat techniques. At first, this makes for a somewhat dull game, especially the one-on-one encounters. But the method to this madness is revealed as you get a bit farther in and start bumping into 5 or 10 enemies at a time, and then hundreds; in those settings, combat that's simple and allows single enemies to be eliminated quickly makes sense and creates some really interesting encounters.
An example: When performing a "fatality move," other enemies stop and politely allow you to finish murdering their friend before resuming their attacks. This sort of battlefield eye of the storm becomes something to exploit when you're vastly outnumbered. Pulled off correctly, a player can strategically move from enemy to enemy with carefully "executed" execution moves, laying entire crowds to waste unscathed.
Another surprise is the game's world. Not only is it totally open (à la Grand Theft Auto), but it streams flawlessly with hardly a load time – even when you die and reappear at your home base or teleport to a new area. It's especially impressive given the detail of the maps, rife with crumbling ruins, forests, rivers, and mountains, not to mention some pretty sweet-looking ocean views worthy of a Viking game.
But none of this remedies Viking's fundamentally repetitive game play. There isn't any real depth here, and the pattern of the game (talk to townspeople, liberate key settlements, raise your army, fight large battle) becomes too familiar too quickly – and then it's over. So while Viking turned out to be a nice surprise, it's only because expectations were low.