Creative Assembly's Mark O'Connell
By Emannuel Brown, 20th March 2008
Earlier this week we arranged to sit down and pick the brains of Creative Assembly's Mark O'Connell over a few beers in a London pub, and this is what the man has to say about his eagerly awaited new title - Viking : Batle for Asgard.
For the benefit of our readers, could you just give us a brief overview of Viking, and outline the key features that separate it from its peers.
Well, primarily, Viking is an action-adventure title, set in the mythical realm of Asgard. The gods are battling with each other over the providence of Midgard, which is where you come in. The plot itself is based on Norse mythology, which hasn't been explored very much in the videogame world; and whereas players will be familiar with the source material of a greek-mythology based title, Viking will allow players to learn new material and at the same time will hopefully be unaware as to how the story will progress.
Speaking of Norse mythology, how much of a role does that play within the mechanics of the game?
Viking has a very rich and deep storyline, written by Rhianna Pratchett...
Terry Pratchett's daughter?
Yep. I won't list all of the features of the game tied into the myths, but the storyline is extremely deep and varied, and the combat is extremely visceral and violent - which was very meaningful to the Vikings. We didn't want it to be the case that you'd be slicing through enemies with no weight or connection, so we've made it so that if you're in a one-on-one battle you can have a really good sword fight – parry and block properly – and also be able to deal with group situations with enough armoury to get the job done.
We've also included a great deal of stealth – if you choose to use it – so any situation you go into, you can take a number of approaches, either heading into battle swinging your sword and axe, or looking for other opportunities to approach your target. You can free people from cages to come to your aid, or set up ambushes, that sort of thing.
Also a huge selling point for us are the battles. We have thousands of people on-screen at once, each with their own AI routines, which means that every time you play the game you'll end up with a different experience. Some times your soldiers will come to your aid, other times they might be pinned down by archers or held up fighting a champion, that sort of thing. Part of the challenge is recognising these situations, and responding accordingly to the threat.
Was the Viking setting the only consideration? Or were any other settings bandied about at any point?
The team were very passionate about the idea right from the start, and there were certain things that we wanted to do with the game that made the setting a perfect fit. It's helped us add a tremendous amount of variety and depth to the gameplay.
The open-world structure of the game will be a little unfamiliar to fans of God of War, Devil May Cry and the like. What were the primary reasons to go with this approach?
Well, as this is our first next-generation title we really wanted to make the most of both the technology and the ideas that we had for the game. We specifically wanted to make it so that players weren't shunted down a particular path, and could explore the island in any order that they wish, unlocking new moves and playing at their own pace. We just think it adds a lot more variety to the core gameplay.
This is the same team that developed Spartan: Total Warrior for the PS2 a few years back. What can you say about the lessons that were learned in developing that game?
The feedback for Spartan was almost universally positive really, and whilst this isn't a direct sequel of any kind, they certainly took the experiences they gained on that title and ran with them to create a proper next-gen version of the same approach.
Another aspect I'd like to touch on – after having played the game today – is the amount of gore and violence...
We're not banned!
Indeed! Did you run into any problems with the BBFC at any stage over the content?
It's kind of a different thing to other games, as these are primarily undead Viking Warriors and the like...
Granted it isn't a completely realistic approach, but there are human opponents - and the level of visceral brutality is up there with the the most graphic examples I can think of in gaming.
Well, the Vikings were very much tools of violence, and very much 'fight to the last man is standing' in their approach to combat. In that respect, we didn't want to water anything down for the player. On the other hand, we didn't want to go for buckets of blood and cartoon violence, we wanted the combat to fit into the look and style of the rest of the game. In that respect, we never had a problem with the ratings (note: Viking is an 18 certificate game in the UK)
Obviously Creative Assembly is best known for the Total War series, and there are elements of the same strategic approach to be found within Viking. How did you guys find the balance between the two approaches?
For this game I think we've struck a fine balance. The action elements are all in place – the combat, platforming and traversal, exploration, that sort of thing – but also the strategic mechanics and to a certain extent resource management make the cut as well. You can spend your money on learning new skills, buying upgrades and new spells, increases to the life gauge or treasure maps; it really is up to the player as to how to manage the flow of the game.
An RTS game would be a different approach, and wouldn't fit what we wanted to do with this particular title. We wanted Skarin (the lead character) to be very much one man on a battlefield, rather than directing units to various locations. We wanted to feeling to be that you're very much an integral part of the battle itself.
So you'd never consider doing a pure Total War game for consoles instead of the PC?
We listen to all feedback certainly. We're currently working on Empire: Total War at the moment, but who can say what we'll do in the future.
Lastly, are there any differences between the PS3 and 360 versions that we should be aware of?
None whatsoever, they both look and play exactly the same. Even in terms of control, they both map to the same buttons.
Viking is due out in the UK on March 28th.