by Sergio Brinkhuis
reviewed on PC
Something Hog Day
I am stuck in a time loop. The first hint of this came when I reviewed The Great Whale road a few weeks back. A feeling of Déjà vu washed over me when the game explained its back story. It roughly went something like this: disaster struck, your Thegn is dead, the clan is in tatters and you are in charge of building it back up. The story was almost identical to that of Vikings: Wolves of Midgard which I reviewed a couple of weeks before. Today’s Expeditions: Viking starts in the exact same way. Fortunately this time loop does not include any rodents that are trying to predict the weather but men of steel carrying… steel.
To be fair, there is nothing wrong with a back story that sets you on a path of regaining former glory. Axe in hand, friends in tow and wind in the sails of your own Viking longship – who could argue with that? And Expeditions: Viking tells a magnificently twisty tale of exploration, discovery and betrayal to boot.
Your settlement has been neglected by your father – the previous Thegn – for years. Few able-bodied men remain, the village fortifications leave much to be desired, your economy is virtually non-existent, you are without ship and have only the most basic weapons and armour. And none of these predicaments just exist as background props to the game’s excellent story either – your success in Expeditions: Viking depends on how you deal with each problem individually. One of the most inspired aspects of the game is that the game does not tell you how to solve all these issues, it just hands you leads and possibilities.
There is one decision the game does force upon you, and that is setting sail to Britain. Your father died there and curiosity got the best of you – you need to find out what happened to him. Moreover, the island is said to be flush with plunder and you’ll need whatever wealth you can scrounge up to strengthen your village. Your adventures in Britain, and the many decisions that you will make there, will have a profound impact on how the game progresses. A good portion of your choices are mutually exclusive. There are factions in Britain that may be willing to trade with you or even fight on your side but all put their own agendas first. Aligning your agenda with theirs could prove beneficial but you can’t be friends with everyone – a case of “the enemy of my ally is my enemy”.
There is an incredible amount of variation in the game’s turn-based combat, eclipsing that of any other turn-based game I’ve played. A lot of that comes from character traits and the choice of weapon. Spears, for instance, have a 2 hex reach that can be extended by another hex using a special trait. Archers can shoot burning arrows that set your target on fire, or shoot twice with a penalty to the shot’s accuracy. There are ways to deal with heavily armoured foes, like using your axe to pull his shield towards you or stunning him entirely so that he can no longer dodge or block attacks. Many melee characters have the Attack of Opportunity skill that triggers when you walk past them or disengage. One trait will let you literally run circles around enemies without triggering such an attack as long as you don’t walk away from them. And if a shield is broken there is a trait will let you repair it in battle so you can withstand more of the enemy’s pummelling. It’s just the tip of a veritable iceberg of possibilities and almost every trait you pick feels useful.
Even the starting position and the direction you come from when you enter combat make a difference. In one battle I was both outnumbered and outclassed by my enemies. I lost the battle twice but felt both times that I should be able to win if I’d enter with more of my clansmen crouched behind cover to avoid the barrage of arrows in the first few turns. For the third attempt I walked up to the enemy following a much narrower path and it worked beautifully. The enemy still set two of my men on fire but I brought water to douse the fire. They also still poisoned someone but now the healer had antidote equipped. I came out on top and my new approach had made all the difference.
Like its predecessor, Expeditions: Conquistador, Viking features a camp mode that really sets it apart. In camp, you characters rest, heal, hunt, craft, repair and preserve. These activities are not just for show. Healers can restore health points in battle but serious injuries must be treated in camp. They will need medicine, which is crafted from herbs. Rest and sustenance is equally important – a tired and hungry warrior doesn’t fight at full capacity and will eventually lose interest in your cause. Excess rations and medicine can be traded or sometimes used to gain favour so even if you don’t use everything you need to keep your party happy and healthy your overnight stays can prove to be a boon in your adventures. Where Conquistador was murderously difficult, Vikings is a little more generous with the camp benefits which I think will make the game a little more accessible to newcomers.
Possibly the most striking aspect of Expeditions: Vikings is its ability to conjure up scenes that make you feel you really - are - a Viking Thegn exploring the mysterious British Isles. The time period in which the game is set – after the Roman occupation and during a period where Britain was ruled by many kings who were in constant strife – is the perfect setting for an exploration game. Story wise, shifting borders, backstabbing politics, the rise of Christianity and the diminishing power of those considered heathens make a fantastic backdrop for whatever tale one wishes to spin. The game’s many locations support the setting well, alternating between Viking and English settlements in various states of prosperity. With Christian influence reaching new heights, churches can be seen standing tall next to the crumbling remnants of Roman architecture. That sounds like pure chaos but it’s dampened by beautifully painted natural environments and the more organic building style of the period. And then there is the weather. When the sun shines the physical room around you seems to warm up until the weather changes and rain and thunder give you a chill. A remarkable achievement for a game that does not rely on AAA graphics to do the heavy lifting.
But it’s not all sunshine. Immersed as I was, the occasional crash to the desktop would pull me straight out of my reverie. The dialogue trees occasionally screw up. A handful of times I would meet an NPC that did not acknowledge a task was done after sidestepping the quest’s beaten path and completing it before I was expected to. Fortunately, these and a few other issues I found were all fixed quickly after I reported them to the developers. I’m sure there will be others but my experience so far tells me that LogicArtists will be able to support and tweak their game after its release.
Expeditions: Viking spins an absolutely wonderful tale of exploration and conquest. The setting, the story, the ambiance –my imagination ran wild in ways you’d expect to experience reading a good fantasy novel. Betrayal angered me, new friendships elated me, and changing the balance of power in Britain made me feel equal parts devious and mischievous. Reconstructing my home, making it safe, strong and prosperous made me feel proud of my achievements. Every battle, every camp site and map scrubbed clean of its hidden treasures felt like it played a part in the grand scheme of things. There aren’t a lot of games that can pull something like this off even adequately. Expeditions: Vikings does it masterfully.
Amazing ambiance, good story, alluring combat
A few bugs remain