Vikings currently have a pretty good reputation in the world. Just look at the stereotypes: those horned hats and the amusing accents, not to mention the fun examples of Hagar the Horrible and Thor. Who could have anything against a bunch of energetic, thickly accented guys who dress like a bunch of giants cosplaying as dwarves? Historically speaking, the answer would be the Saxons – the inhabitants of what was then called Britannia, who spent a good portion of their time trying to figure out how to keep these guys from delivering axes to the throats of their countrymen, courtesy of an overhead swing and a whole lot of screaming in terrifying devil-tongue.

Fatshark and Paradox Interactive’s War of the Vikings serves as a reminder of those days long past, building on the system that made War of the Roses so popular among gamers who love close-quarters combat, and I’ve gotten my hands dirty – and bloody, really – playing the current build of this Steam Early Access-enabled game. There’s still months of development ahead for the game, but even as it stands it gets one thing right: melee group combat in a third-person perspective.

Historically, melee combat has been a difficult thing to get right in a 3D game. Third- and first-person experiences tend to be dominated by ranged combat – hence you have First- and Third- Person Shooter as wildly popular (and populated) genres. First/third-person stabbers? Not so much, especially once we leave the realm of 2D out of the equation. But the guys at Fatshark have invested a lot of time and energy into finding a way to make melee combat feel fluid and natural  – establishing a gameplay style that relies on a mix of good timing, defensive maneuvers, team cooperation and tactical retreats.

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Let’s talk actual experience here. The first thing I did after initially loading up the game was hop into one of the servers to get into some Team Deathmatch action. You’ve got two sides to pick from here – Vikings and Saxons – but other than spawn location and uniform appearance, that doesn’t seem to factor in all that much at the moment. Several classes are available as well, differentiated mostly by weapon selection and passive abilities. Initially, I went with the thane – who wades into combat with a sword and shield, along with a couple of throwing axes, abilities to attack while dodging and regenerate stamina on a kill, while picking up increased movement speed when chasing enemies from behind. There was also a (for me) locked “Jack of all Trades” ability granting additional character customization.

Having not had the chance to play much War of the Roses, this was my first experience with Fatshark’s melee system. Right away, I picked up that War of the Vikings’ combat experience is a more deliberate one – running headlong into combat with your sword swinging is generally a recipe for ending up dead on the grass. One reason is because it actually takes a brief moment to pull back your blade arm in preparation for a swing on a standard attack, which can create an opening for an opponent to take advantage of. Another reason is due to the defenses available to players – having a shield or axe-hilt held up at the right moment, in the right position, can negate an enemy attack entirely. This led to a whole lot of strafing around enemies, waiting for them to slip up at just the right moment where I could swing my sword and slice off a good portion of their health – or, more often, an opponent taking advantage of my poor swing to run me through.

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Every primary weapon type also gets a special attack, and for the thane’s sword this is a thrusting maneuver – faster than a regular attack, and incredibly deadly if it manages to connect with flesh instead of a shield, or worse, the air left behind by a wisely dodging opponent. When enemies were running away, I had the opportunity to either chase them down for a mid-run tackle, hurl one of my two throwing axes at them, or break off altogether and find a new enemy to harass.

Team deathmatch was the only mode apparently available, and it’s easy to see why this would be the initial offering: cooperation is not only important in War of the Vikings – it flat out comes naturally. When I’d face off against a single opponent, many times the combat became a drawn-out battle of wills with each of us seeing who would get impatient, make a risky move, and end up paying the price for it. But when I’d show up to intervene in another opponent’s fight? Even as new as I was to the game, that usually made for a dead enemy at my feet – and opponents who go down living can be satisfyingly finished off with one more strike to make sure they stay down. Emphasis on the “make sure,” as I quickly discovered that downed players could be revived by a friendly teammate if they weren’t finished off, letting them rise to their feet with full health and, most likely, a grudge against whoever put them on the grass to start with.

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The point here is that teamwork both matters, yet also comes naturally in War of the Vikings – as opposed to games where it matters, but getting anyone to cooperate with you feels like herding cats. It helps that assisting allies also grants experience points to players, which will no doubt have a use as development proceeds – even without the immediate payoff, it definitely encouraged me to take the bare couple of seconds required to try helping a player get back on his feet again. I also found that if you’re wounded but still standing, you can recover yourself to full health if you can just find six seconds of time where you’re not interrupted by stabs, chops or arrows to the eye socket.

Now, the core gameplay of War of the Vikings is promising – but this is still around the earliest phase of the whole “early access” thing. Map choices are limited, the gameplay mode is singular at this point, and a whole lot of weapons and effects – even blood, if you can imagine that – are on the ‘to-do’ list. There are more weapon loadouts to come, additional weapons (spears and javelins in particular), more character customization and maps and… really, just more of everything. The whole package looks encouraging at the moment, because the fundamentals Fatshark is working with feel so solid as-is. The team also seems pretty responsive to bug reports and suggestions, and has an appropriately interactive attitude for a Steam Early Access game. I’ll be keeping my eye on this one as the game is built towards a full-fledged release, and I’m looking forward to seeing what the team does with the game.