Considering how simple hack-and-slash games are on paper, it's amazing how many times they get ballsed up. Only a few can claim to have mastered the art: Sony got it spot-on with God Of War and almost got it right again with Heavenly Sword, while Team Ninja delivered the stunning Ninja Gaiden Sigma, but few others come to mind.
You can add Viking to the list of failures.
Build-up to the game has focused on the supposedly epic battles, so let's get those out of the way first. They're anything but. The amount of characters on screen at once all too often slows the game down to a crawl, and their actions don't actually have any significant impact on the outcome.
See, the objective in each battle is for Skarin, and only Skarin, to kill a number of well-protected shaman. Until this happens, your army, enemy grunts and Skarin himself respawn for as long as it takes. Sure, you can summon dragons to take down groups of archers and the like to help your army advance and therefore offer better support while you go after a shaman, but everything else around you may as well not be there.
What you end up doing is pushing your way through crowds of fighting troops or leaping over them to get to a shaman because nothing else on the battlefield matters, which as you can imagine looks a bit ridiculous. And every single battle plays out this way only in a different location.
Reaching these final battles on each isle involves a long, slow and repetitive process of ticking off objectives on a map one by one until you've fulfilled enough criteria to launch an assault. You'll need to untie captured Vikings to bolster your army; liberate watchtowers, farms and quarries; recover items needed to summon the dragons; and find gold to spend on learning new moves.
Barring one or two instances when a specific objective must be completed first, each isle map is open from the beginning and you can complete the objectives in any order.
Dotted around the map are teleporting Leystones, but even with these you'll still spend an unhealthy amount of time running through barren landscapes to the nearest objective. The worst example of this is when you clear out a dead-end cave of enemies and must backtrack all the way out again.
You simply won't care about what you're doing or why you're doing it either. The voice acting is wooden and never suits the character's appearance (all old men speak with the voice of a 30-something), Skarin never says a thing throughout the game so he's reduced to a giant beefcake even Arnie would refuse to play, and you have no control over any of the friendly Vikings you rescue. Insipid and soulless are two words that spring to mind.
The only reason you'll stick with it is for the combat, which manages to be fantastically gory while avoiding being completely mindless. Enemies love to surround you and hack away while you're dealing with someone else, so careful use of the block button followed by a quick thrust or special move is much more effective than simply hammering away.
The other trick is to take advantage of the fact that considerate enemies won't attack you when you're performing a finishing move, so wounded enemies with a r button floating above them should always be your first priority. I'd even go so far as to say the game becomes tense and exciting on a couple of missions that involve creeping into the heart of an enemy fortress to steal a heavily guarded item. Don't worry, it doesn't last.
Viking is sadly, a massively missed opportunity that's dragged into the depths of mediocrity by a boring story, an uninteresting hero, repetitive missions, endless wandering around, hit-and-miss sound, disappointing battles and lots of slowdown. The combat is fun, though samey, but it can't carry the game. We want a lot for our money these days. Viking doesn't deliver.
Worth a weekend rental if only for the gore, but definitely not deserving of any more of your time or money. God of War on PS2 is much better. We'd go for that instead. You won't regret it.