God of War
Norse mythology – the Aesir pantheon, Nine Worlds, Jörmungandr the World Serpent, and so forth – is a key component of the Viking Age. 2018’s God of War is a grimdark love letter to that mythology, one that makes clever use of those myths and characters to tell an intricate, original story. Interestingly, God of War opts to explore elements of Norse Paganism that have been less represented in popular culture – the heavyweights of Thor and Odin are unseen background players, while lesser figures like Thor’s sons Magni and Modi feature prominently – making it an ideal starting point to expand your knowledge of Viking religion.
While God of War is set in the fictional realms where many of these myths take place, its gameplay and plot elegantly mirrors the broader strokes of the Viking Age. That era of human history saw the Norsemen of Scandinavia leave their borders and explore new lands, raiding and expanding into Iceland, Greenland, and Europe. In God of War, an older Kratos has left Ancient Greece behind, embarking on an unfamiliar journey where he must adapt to both the needs of his son and the strange new realms that he travels through.
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is not the first time that Ubisoft has tackled Vikings – they’re one of the main factions in the developer’s medieval battler, For Honor. While they’re very much a pop-fiction version of Vikings – we’re talking full horned helmets, furs, coloured war paint, the works – For Honor’s Norsemen are still more grounded than many other gaming depictions. Don’t expect Kratos’ magical axe or the godly powers of Jotun’s Thora, as For Honor eschews mythology in favour of gritty hand-to-hand combat.
The detailed fight mechanics of For Honor may not be the most ‘realistic’ combat engine, but they do capture the ruthlessness of raider strategy. The Vikings are believed to have been some of history’s fiercest warriors, fuelled by their belief that dying transported them to the heavenly Valhalla, and For Honor certainly captures that dedication to battle.
While there’s not a hidden blade or stealth kill in sight, the intricate parrying system does provide a battle experience with a similar amount of depth to the newer Assassin’s Creed combat mechanics. Also, For Honor’s Vikings can chokeslam an enemy and then decapitate them with an axe, which just screams “For the glory of Valhalla” and all that, yeah?
If you’ve ever looked at a map of the areas raided by Vikings, you’ll have noticed that they’re almost all in the upper regions of the northern hemisphere. With raids keeping them away from their homelands for months at a time, this meant that the Norsemen frequently battled for survival against the elements. That fight is at the heart of Northgard, a strategy game that sees you guiding a clan to victory while the seasons change around you – which creates unique strategic challenges to overcome. Come winter, food production plummets, while wood consumption skyrockets. Your warriors fight poorly in the snow, making violent expansion and defence a struggle. To survive, you have to prepare.
Forward thinking is vital to almost every RTS, but the way that Northgard spins planning around the seasons helps anchor it in the world of Viking raiders. This gruelling nuance is offset by an embracement of mythology – you’ll meet jötnar (giants), valkyries, kobolds (somewhere between a goblin and a fairy), and undead draugr on your journey – meaning there’s always something interesting to see on the far side of winter.
Total War Saga: Thrones of Britannia
With not a god, draugr, or lightning-wrapped hammer in sight, Total War Saga: Thrones of Britannia is a grand strategy game that focuses on a more historically accurate representation of Viking strategy and expansion. Plus it all takes place in the same setting as Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, so a campaign is good research for the journey ahead.
Set in 878AD, after their defeat at the hands of King Alfred, you choose one of two varieties of Vikings – the land-based Grand Army or the ocean-focused Sea Kings – and proceed to raid, pillage, and eventually settle as much of Britain as you can. Or, you can opt to defend the isles from the Vikings by playing as the Saxons or Gaelic clans, but that’s likely not your intention if you’re reading this.
Conquering the Saxon and Gaelic factions on Thrones of Britannia’s detailed map requires savvy strategies, from the use of the Norsemen’s famous Longships in naval battles, to fully embracing the slave trade if you’re comfortable really throwing ethics out the window. You can also tactically deploy the iconic berserkers; warriors clad in furs who worked themselves into a terrifying frenzy before battle. Historic texts suggest that they believed their power was drawn from bears, and so they snarled and howled as they fought. The image of the berserker has influenced many video game characters – God of War’s Kratos among them – but Thrones of Britannia shows you the historical origins of one of pop-cultures most recognisable warrior archetypes.
The Banner Saga 3 Review Screens
The Banner Saga
While the Vikings were famous for plundering and fighting, they were also a people with a strong love of storytelling. The Banner Saga is an emotional RPG trilogy that pulls its inspirations from the great Norse sagas, particularly their epic scale and morally-ambiguous heroes.
The series asks you to oversee a caravan of Vikings travelling through a myth-like world that’s under threat from the terrifying Dredge. Think of it like Game of Thrones – shocking twists, unstoppable evil, and gradually expanding scope included – but with the weight of responsibility entirely on your shoulders instead of George RR Martin’s.
Drawn in a beautiful style reminiscent of Disney’s early animated movies, The Banner Saga is always striking to play, from its delicately wrought conversational segments to the tense turn-based tactical battles that evoke the strategic satisfaction of XCOM and the fantastical heroism of Dragon Age. The trilogy forces you to make tough decisions at almost every turn, some of which put the moral quandaries of even The Witcher to shame, and the saves that carry your choices from one game to the next makes its finale all the more satisfying (or, indeed, heartbreaking).
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
Similar to the trends of God of War and The Banner Saga, Hellblade uses the Norse mythos to tell a complex, emotionally devastating story that deals with themes of mortality, trauma, survival, and change. Its protagonist Senua is not actually a Viking – she instead belongs to a Gaelic Pict confederation, hailing from what we now know as Scotland – but her journey takes her into the Norse underworld of Helheim on a quest to defy the god of death itself. Her journey is filled with monsterous foes, but Hellblade’s true antagonist is Senua’s fracturing psyche – and overcoming that mental trauma is the only way Senua can succeed.
That narrative is built on the bones of a hack-and-slash action game, its brutal violence interspersed with clever puzzles, making Hellblade an ideal second course if you’ve already tackled God of War and are hungry for more. It’s a heavy, unrelenting journey, but certainly one worth taking.
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla releases Holiday 2020, which means you’ve still got several months to try out a few of our Viking game suggestions and refresh you knowledge of all things Norse. Did we forget your favourite Viking game? Why not let us know about it in the comments. And for more Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, check out the first details of the gameplay and story.
Matt Purslow is IGN’s UK News and Entertainment Writer. You can follow him on Twitter.