Fancy a bit of sword-and-board on the coast of merry England? Brenna got an early look at War of the Vikings, Fatshark's beardier and more brutal followup to War of The Roses.
War of the Vikings producer Gordon Van Dyke is very excited about his new game, for several reasons: it improves on the already proven formula of War of the Roses; it gives Fatshark the chance to shed some historically accurate light on the oft-misrepresented Viking invasions; and it's full of beards.
Beards are really important to Van Dyke. I'm not sure why; I guess everyone has a hobby. The inclusion of amazing beards presents an interesting tension for War of the Vikings; historically, the cultures that produced Vikings (Viking is a profession, not a culture, Van Dyke explained) were pagan, and as such, hadn't embraced the Roman fashion of going being clean-shaven. On the other hand, an elaborate lengthy beard is not an asset on the battlefield, especially during the up-close-and-personal melee which still dominated warfare during this period.
To solve this dilemma, Fatshark is building builds into its unlock system. Van Dyke said that in both War games, the developer hoped to avoid de-emphasising skill; unlocks are mostly cosmetic rather than providing the kinds of perks that make it impossible for newbies to compete with veterans. The longest and fanciest viking bears will be reserved for the best players; the kind of warriors who can afford to be showy and cocky, because they're so skilled.
On the Saxon side, things are a bit different; this is another area in which Fatshark has had to compromise on its historical accuracy ideals, because in reality, towns founded by viking raiders (like York, did you know that?) and Saxon settlements were pretty similar, and warriors from both factions would have looked almost exactly the same. That's not ideal for video games, so Saxon design has been tweaked to reflect the strong Roman influence that lingered in Britain.
What definitely is historically accurate is the presence of women on battlefields. Van Dyke described his meeting with an expert on viking warfare and home cultures, pantomiming his delight when the archaeologist confirmed that women could and did become vikings. Free from the encroaching Christian and Roman values which undermined female independence across Europe, the pagan Nordic nations followed a meritocracy. Becoming a viking was like being an elite athlete; if you had the skill and trained hard, you could choose a career which brought you fame and fortune. It didn't matter what you kept under your loin cloth as long as you were good with edged weapons.
Although Fatshark intends to introduce a flashier version at some point, to represent elite, less realistic Valkyrie-type units, when War of the Vikings launches women characters will use the same basic character model as male ones. Given how women would have had to bind themselves for battle and loaded themselves up with armour, this isn't as silly as it sounds, and Van Dyke is both adamant and proud of his intention not to introduce "boob armour", which makes absolutely zero practical sense. On the Saxon side, Van Dyke admitted women in battle were far less common, as only very wealthy women from independent families would have had the chance to choose a warrior life. He seemed happy to sweep this one under the rug, too, along with beards.
Since the game itself is still a ways off, we mostly spent our time chatting about how rad beards are, how ridiculous chainmail bikinis are, and how the vikings were actually much cleaner and more civilised than the cultures they kept beating up and selling into slavery. But Van Dyke did show me some alpha footage, casually captured last time he was back in the office and which he said was already out of date. The map on show was set around a monastery, and the action seemed to split between a garden inside the walls and the edge of a forest outside.
Van Dyke gestured excitedly at the screen, pointing out power attacks, how one weapon was used to advantage against another, and how one player easily fended off two others by remaining calm and timing swings correctly. The battle as a whole was quite chaotic; the two factions may have begun at opposite ends but once the opposing forces closed in on each other the flow of battle shattered into multiple little knots of duels - one-on-one, two-on-one, and three-on-one.
The impression I took away was of a game that's doing the best it can to to represent a period of history, and doing it a lot better than popular culture and even many history books have done (did you know vikings never wore horned helmets? I had an illustration of one in a text book at high school). The non-historical concessions are made consciously, with careful consideration, and in the name of crafting a better game.
War of the Vikings is due on PC in early 2014. It will be on show at gamescom, PAX Prime and Tokyo Game Show.