Being a Viking, according to Wolves of Midgard, involves battering oversized wolves for their pelts, performing blood sacrifices to get stronger and kicking the brown stuff out of your closest neighbours for no other reason than just because you can. A gleefully Norse take on the murder and loot formula that Diablo so excellently pioneered all those years ago, Vikings: Wolves of Midgard might not do a whole heap of anything new in regards to pushing the genre forward, but it duly enraptures attention with a solid enough rendition of the fundamentals that it infuses with a charm all its own.
Solid Norse-tinged hack and slash gameplay
Thrusting players axe-first into the depths of Norse mythology, Wolves of Midgard wastes no time in taking advantage of its evocative setting, as would be Vikings find themselves taking on all sorts of enemies ranging from slavering dire wolves to insidious swamp witches and colossal, towering frost giants. Make no mistake, this is essentially Diablo with Viking folk in it and if that appeals then, well, you’re in for somewhat of a treat with Wolves of Midgard.
Rather than affixing players to a particular class or role as the genre often prescribes, Wolves of Midgard instead has players choosing between five different Norse deities with each offering a particular fighting style and set of skills, or ‘gifts’ as they’re called, to match. Throwing your lot in with everyone’s favourite bro-god Thor for instance, allows you to focus on two handed weapons and strength based attacks, while jumping on the Loki bandwagon on the other hand, places a premium on dual wielding and attack speed. In truth, the system offers little else that conventional class choice methods already do, but in the context of its Norse setting and deity worship such a system makes perfect sense.
Beyond its slightly unconventional character generation, anybody familiar with the erstwhile charms of Blizzard’s Diablo III will find a welcome familiarity in Wolves of Midgard’s practiced genre beats. The rhythm of smacking something until it dies in an explosion of gold/loot and then upgrading your character in turn is now a warmly familiar one, and Wolves of Midgard doesn’t significantly deviate from this well-trodden path of game design as it boasts a wide range of magical weapons, armour and equipment for even the most ardent hack and slash fan to get their teeth into.
Much like the character generation process, the Norse theme of Wolves of Midgard permeates in other aspects of its design, too. Levelling up for example, is achieved by making a blood sacrifice at an altar, with a level increase bringing with it the opportunity to boost your stats and activate new abilities in your chosen deity skill tree. So far, so Diablo then. Where things change up a little though, is in how Wolves of Midgard goes about quantifying the precious experience points that it hands over to the player for each successful kill.
Wrinkles to the formula
Combat in Wolves of Midgard is built around combos, with each kill strike allowing provide a brief window of opportunity for you to cover distance much more quickly to your next target in order to continue the chain. As such, the satisfying free-flowing quality of the scraps in Wolves of Midgard is more akin to something you might see in the Batman Arkham titles rather than genre efforts such as Diablo.
Further afield and away from the numerous mobs and mostly easily dispatched rabble that you’ll come across, the boss encounters in Wolves of Midgard actually provide a staunch and varied challenge, with each encounter forcing the player to improvise against different methods of attack in order to be successful. In short, don’t expect to just stand in front of a big bad and trade blows until they fall over because you will hit the ground long before they ever will; hint – the evasion roll is and will forever be your bestest friend.
Something else that Viking does that other dungeon crawlers do not is that it forces the player to consider the natural elements that surround them. Extended exposure to the cold for example, can damage your character if left unchecked, thus necessitating the seeking out of safe areas, such as warm campfires to ward off the potentially perilous chills. Relatedly, I’ve seen other critics bemoan how this system actually makes Wolves of Midgard less enjoyable, but I couldn’t disagree more; the frequency of safe spots coupled with the enemy densities that exist in-between actually lends the game an aspect of fair challenge that no other dungeon crawler currently has, and as such, Wolves of Midgard is all the better for having it.
When you’re not burying the business end of your axe into the ugly mugs of your enemies, you’ll be spending time upgrading the Viking village that serves as a hub for improving your character and obtaining/selling equipment between missions. You’ll want to spend a good amount of time upgrading your infrastructure too, as improved buildings provide both better equipment and additional abilities that can be unlocked once you have reached the requisite character level.
On that note, the process of upgrading your Viking home away from home is actually pretty easy and simple to get your head around. To do so, you need only to have the right quantities of wood, iron and gold; with all three of these resources not only being found on fallen enemies, but also in the environment as well, and can be obtained such as cutting down trees and so forth. Another way that you can gather these much needed resources is by going ‘Full Viking’ and raiding other villages, either scouring them for a single large sum, or, subjugating them over the long-term to receive smaller, but regular tributes that are given for every raid. Again, though not necessarily a ground-breaking feature, this village building aspect of Wolves of Midgard both freshens things up a little and also neatly dovetails into the Norse theme that sits at the crux of the experience.
A nice surprise that I hadn’t counted on going into Wolves of Midgard was just humorous it can be given its rather stark and brutal subject matter. While the hammy voice acting doesn’t do the game too many favours, the main protagonist actually turns out to be quite witty and provides a sly brand of humour that reliably entertains. One such example is when the village comes under attack from a holy army, and our hero confronts the leader of the attack, proclaiming just how much better Norse gods are than their gods and yep, you guessed it, when the player vanquishes the foe our hero utters the words “told you our gods were better than yours.” Classic stuff.
Chinks in the armour
Somewhat predictably, it’s not all sunshine, axes and dancing naked through the halls of Valhalla however, as Wolves of Midgard does have some shortcomings which prevent it from quite reaching the heady heights that it should. The first knock to Wolves of Midgard otherwise impressive calibre, is the uninspiring state of the side-quests.
Simply, all you do is kill/destroy x number of this or that, and then you’re done. Granted while many other genre efforts don’t tend to push the boat out in this area, Wolves of Midgard seems to do less than most, with such quests offering the limp incentive of merely awarding extra resources to improve your village, all the while being negatively compounded by the lack of any real narrative connection and recycled maps. Essentially then, such side-quests feel much more like chore-ridden distractions, rather than the meaningful additions to Wolves of Midgard primary quest structure that they should have been.
By far the most troubling issue with Wolves of Midgard however, is the puzzling absence of a local multiplayer mode, banishing co-operative play exclusively to the realms of online. Indeed, in a genre which has built a great deal of its popularity on couch co-op thrills, the omission of such functionality in Wolves of Midgard is absolutely baffling and hopefully, going forward, is something the developer should look to resolve via a patch if it wants the game to have legs that extend far beyond its initial release.
Vikings: Wolves of Midgard is very much a flattering imitation of the genre giants that have preceded it, rather than a pathfinder that breaks new ground as its titular people did all those hundreds of years ago.
By delving so deeply into the established dungeon crawler playbook then, Wolves of Midgard offers up little in the way of surprise, but the game isn’t entirely bereft of innovation as its exposure and hub building system both add worthwhile wrinkles to a genre where refinement typically comes in measured steps, rather than leaps and bounds.
Elsewhere, while the recycling of maps, poor side quests and lack of split screen multiplayer are invariably problematic, Wolves of Midgard nonetheless acquits itself ably with a good grasp of hack and slash fundamentals and a welcome injection of humour that frequently borders on the acerbic and sly.