King's Bounty: Warriors of the North Preview (PC)

If there’s one thing that Vikings hate, even more than members of their own family or the prospect of all the ale running out, it’s the Undead. Which is a bit of an issue for the denizens of Endoria’s northernmost islands, as there suddenly appears to be rather a lot of the formerly living popping up all over the place.

It falls to Olaf, the hero of Warriors of the North, the latest entry in the King’s Bounty series, to rid his fellow Vikings of this unfortunate plague of vampires, cursed ghosts and animate skeletons. The second son of the Northling King, and with a chip on his shoulder the size of a battleaxe when it comes to his older brother, Olaf’s quest takes him on a tour of not only the Northern Lands, but also into the depths of Dwarven dungeons and a return to Darion, setting of the earlier King’s Bounty games - and judging by our hands-on time with the latest preview build, he’s going to have his hands full.

A sign of things to come?

When Katauri Interactive resurrected the King’s Bounty name in 2008 with spiritual successor The Legend, the game’s mix of free-roaming exploration, deeply tactical turn-based combat and completely off-kilter humour soon earned it a cult following. A sequel, Armored Princess followed a year later along with an expansion pack for the latter in 2010, by which time, while still hugely enjoyable, each iteration was beginning to feel rather familiar.

Warriors of the North adds in a huge new land to explore, a new rune magic system, new companions in the form of the Valkyries and content that we’re promised will take the best part of sixty hours to complete, but for all its charms it’s hard to shake the feeling that, four years on, the latest King’s Bounty may need to offer more tweaks to the formula than are currently on show.

That’s not to say it isn’t tremendous fun getting back into the saddle and roaming the lands of Endoria. The game’s art style has always managed to stay just the right side of cute and colourful without descending into tweeness and the Northern Lands are the most enthralling environments yet seen in the series, from the rustic charms of the opening stronghold and its surrounding to the icy wastes and arctic grandeur as you head further north. Hunting for hidden secrets in every nook and cranny is a pleasure in itself.

For those unfamiliar with the King’s Bounty games, they feature an open world where your mounted hero is able to explore at will, collecting treasure, soaking up magical blessings and conversing with the local NPCs in classic role-playing game fashion. Plenty of strange and twisted creatures lie in wait in its forests and dungeons, and if they touch your character the game switches into a turn-based combat system played out on a hexagonal map.

It’s off to Valhalla with you lot.

The twist is that your hero does not enter the fray, instead deploying up to five different troop types per battle, the numbers of each being determined by your Leadership characteristic. As you rise in level, you can choose to allocate your resources on thousands of cheap, disposable villager units or concentrate on a select bunch of powerful creatures. From common types such as archers and axe-bearing Berzerkers to Dragons and even the undead, the range of unit options is enormous, as are your available tactical choices as Olaf can support from the sidelines with a variety of special movement and attack commands and magic spells and abilities.

It’s an incredibly detailed and satisfying combat system, which makes your choice of class all the more important. The warrior Viking brings melee bonuses and a measure of rage-filled leadership, the Paladin-like Skald’s charisma can draw more units to his banner and resurrect casualties, while the Soothsayer makes up for his relative lack of forces with devastating magic options, such as summoning creatures.

With the punishment for defeat being a return to your stronghold and the loss of all your precious forces, requiring you to build them back up from scratch, you have to be wary when choosing to stand your ground. Fortunately, the new development combo of Lab-13 and an in-house 1C team have improved the visual signifiers of your enemy’s relative strength as they roam the land, with information relayed as to whether they are weaker or stronger than your own force. You’ll also want to invest in upgrading the Scouting skill as it will allow you to ascertain the exact composition of enemy forces.

The additions that have been made for Warriors of the North, if not game-changing, encourage experimentation to use to their full potential. Between the elaborate threefold skill tree, the new Rune Magic school - packed with suitably ice-themed attacks - and in particular the Valkyrie companions there’s a lot for any fan of tactical turn-based play to get their teeth into.

Eat Berzerker battle-axe, spider!

The Valkyries are the highlight. Whereas in previous games, the players gained bonuses from wives, husbands or children, Olaf can have up to five supernatural warrior maidens as followers, each of them sporting a different type of magical power. The fire Valkyrie, for instance, will blast a swathe of destruction through enemy ranks with her area-of-effect attacks, accompanied by some gorgeous graphical effects.

As always, there’s a lot to like and plenty to uncover in this latest King’s Bounty game, such as the often hilarious (if presently typo-ridden) dialogue, with an early conversation where Olaf convinces an imprisoned Necromancer to gift him a magical item before laying into him giving a taster of the whimsy on offer. But whether Warriors of the North does quite enough to progress the series on from previous entries remains to be seen.

Most Anticipated Feature: Unleashing the full power of the five Valkyrie companions on to a massive army of unsuspecting Undead.