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Game Name:  Medieval - Total War: Viking Invasion Expansion
Developer:  The Creative Assembly
Publisher:  Activision
PC Release Year:  2003
Review Date:  January 23, 2017

While it may be way past due to say this, oh my god!  Up is down, black is white, and what is left of the United Kingdom has voted to leave the European Union.  It was never my intent to review another Total War game so soon, having completed retrospectives on Rome and Mongol Invasion just last year.  But in honor of our English-speaking cousins across the pond, and as a way of trying to ignore the frightening rise of an ugly populism in the West, it seemed like the perfect time to throw myself into the most British-themed game I could find.  If I am being honest, what fits that bill better than Medieval: Total War’s Viking Invasion expansion, with its ultimate objective of unifying Britannia under the banner of a single Dark Age monarch, all while fending off incursions by pesky Danes?  Even if I am a bit burned out on the series of late, it seemed likely that I would at least be treated to some unorthodox gameplay.  After all, the Creative Assembly is known for experimenting with new mechanics in its interim releases.  If this playthrough did anything, though, it proved that my assumptions are all too frequently proven incorrect.  The staid and conservative game design that I ended up finding may have been a draw for gamers who were originally turned off by Medieval’s expansive scope and new features, but it simply fails to provide enough substance today.

 

This is all the more disappointing because Viking Invasion depicts a time and place that few video games dare venture.  Normally I would use my own family lineage as a guide, and pick a Polish or German faction for a campaign in this type of strategic sandbox, but with the title’s furthest eastern reaches being the fiords of Scandinavia, I was pleasantly forced out of my comfort zone.  Having no connection to these warring factions, and always possessing a bit of a soft spot for an underdog, the Irish seemed like the perfect people to lead.  With decision number one made, I was swept off to the now-familiar overworld map that provides the context for Total War’s famous tactical battles, where I immediately began to think that I had made a mistake.  Éire was made up of a scant five territories, and I already controlled two of them.  Another two were controlled by a rebel faction that is notorious in this series for failing to go on the offensive, and the fifth was owned by the Scots who were cut off from their reinforcements on Britain’s main island.  Making matters worse, all of the zones were staggered in such a way that I could commit my forces from one territory to another without ever needing to defend more than two regions.  There was the very real fear that I could easily consolidate power on this secluded portion of the game map before launching an invasion of greater Britannia and steamrolling my way to victory. 

 

Of course, then came the arrival of the longboats that give Viking Invasion its name and everything was flipped on its head.  With a naval landing of Huscarles on Ireland’s southern coast, I quickly found myself beset on all sides and struggling through a three-front war.  Oddly enough, I was overjoyed.  At last, I thought, here is the type of challenge that a longtime series veteran can truly appreciate, and appreciate it I did as clawed back control of those southern territories, expelled the Danes, and finally conquered the whole of Ireland.  Unfortunately, this unexpected sea landing was not something I would ever see again in my playthrough.  After the first amphibious assault occurs, smart gamers will quickly wise up and reallocate resources to the development of a navy.  This is because a sea zone with a defending fleet in it prevents landing parties from coming ashore, so the only thing standing between players and permanent peace of mind is a line of friendly vessels patrolling the coastline of each territory.  They do not even need to be top-of-the-line warships; just boats that, when massed, can keep the sea lanes populated.  While a defense like this may take some time to establish, since a bizarre design choice kept the entry-level port from being able to build any type of boat at all, expansion became just as easy as I feared it would be when I initially looked at the game map.  Before long, I was rapidly gobbling up new lands on the main British Isle.

 

Victory in any game should not be a foregone conclusion when a player is just twenty percent of the way through a campaign, but since that was the reality I faced, there was plenty of time to focus on Viking Invasion’s other flaws while slogging my way to the finish line.  For starters, there surely could have been a better way to illustrate the technological deficit of the Dark Ages than to foist artificial barriers onto the city development side of the gameplay.  Naval recruitment restrictions were bad enough, but it is just as unreasonable to have to spend time and money clearcutting forests before farms, and the income stream that follows, can even be built.  In the same vein, it definitely seems silly to require construction of two different buildings in sequence, a warrior hold and then a muster field, before the absolute worst troop type is available for training in a given region.  Since peasants are unlikely to hold the line against a more professional military force, players will need to pursue a number of other time-intensive infrastructure improvements before they can field even a halfway decent army.  It also would have been nice if some of the new gameplay elements that were introduced in Medieval: Total War had not been rolled back a bit in this expansion.  Religion, which is a central pillar of the main game when players have to deal with a meddling pope and Islamic jihads, is represented here as merely another way to keep people happy so they do not revolt against their liege lord.  While not to undercut the unit diversity that this title does manage to present, with Welsh bandits and Celtic warriors as prime examples of what worked, the non-Viking troop rosters also feel just a little too similar compared to those of the distant factions in the main game.  Finally, the real-time battle interface is not much improved from the original Shogun, and represents a painful and frustrating way to command armies compared to the experience offered in more recent Total War releases.

 

If not for the gems that I have discovered on this journey into PC gaming’s past, I might wonder whether it is too tall an order for any retro game to maintain the attention span of modern gamers.  After all, we live in an age when new Steam releases can be predicted with an exponential function, and while most of them cannot be described as anything more than shovelware, it would be unfair to say that all of the 4,200 digitally distributed games that came out last year were trash.  Buried somewhere in that mess are the diamonds that borrow heavily from historically influential series like Total War; making it such a hard proposition to play an early Creative Assembly expansion that fails to deliver a twist on their now classic gameplay formula.  Barbarian Invasion introduced the idea of roaming hordes, Fall of the Samurai simulated how gunpowder matched up against Kitana, and The Warpath Campaign gave players the chance to defend North America from European colonialism.  Say what you will about the wider gameplay in Rome, Shogun 2, or Empire, but at least the novelty of their expansions helps keep these titles relevant today.  By comparison, Viking Invasion seems like a halfhearted effort to move the structure of the first Shogun into the realm of feudal Europe, and most of today’s gamers will balk at spending their time on such a simple premise.

Verdict:  Not Recommended