Assassin's Creed Valhalla Review
The Assassin’s Creed series is thirteen years old this year. In that time we’ve been taken to the Middle Ages, Renaissance Rome, Napoleonic France, Victorian London and more. In 2017 there was a step-change: going back in time to Ancient Egypt, and then Ancient Greece in 2018, with a whole new game mechanic mirroring that of The Witcher and other large-scale RPGs as opposed to the episodic narrative arcs of the previous Assassin avatars. By Greece it all worked brilliantly, thanks to Ubisoft Montreal and later Ubisoft Quebec. Here Ubisoft Montreal is the developer once more, taking bits from Origins, Odyssey and new innovations to deliver what is an incredibly large, compelling and downright impressive Viking simulation.
You play as Eivor, a young Viking warrior, for the most part, although as is de rigueur for an Assassin’s Creed game there are modern day moments. For the first five hours or so, depending on what you do and how distracted from the main path you become, you are really just learning the game mechanics and completing an act driven by the opening scenes. It’s helpful to have the time to get to grips with the sheer array of things going on in the game, but perhaps a little too restraining for experienced Creed players. The disguised tutorials are at least a real part of the game and aren’t laborious, unlike for example the first few hours of Black Flag where it never seemed like you would leave tutorials behind. However, once the game opens up things become a whole lot more interesting.
When I say interesting I mean to say that you’ve a feast of content to explore, experiment with and enjoy. There’s the central storyline, itself kitted out with delightful vignettes of multiple quests, and there’s the opportunity to just go from town to town exploring, challenging folk in a flyting duel (basically rhyme better – what a brilliant mini-game, kind of like Monkey Island to be fair!) or just getting blind drunk, ideally winning a wager at the same time. You can look for mysteries and solve them, take part in world events or climb towers and jump off of them. Oh my, leaps of faith look incredible on the PlayStation 5 and still as wonderful as always on any platform. You can sail, or take on a contract, or build your settlement. There is so much to do I doubt anyone could find the game boring. For most, it will be compelling for the duration, which will likely be fifty or so hours if you’re interested in completing the main parts of the game, and many more if you are absorbed in the world.
The narrative itself is a good one. Following Eivor through their life, and trying to work out what their importance is in the present, is of interest just to see and hear what happens. The character is fun and the story a good one, definitely superior to that of Origins and at least as good as Odyssey. Given the game is set during the time of the Vikings there is lots to draw on to enhance what you are told and for sure Norse mythology comes into play. Plus a lot happened to the Vikings in real life and we get to see a lot of that play out in one form or another. Basically you’ll want to play this game because of the feels in your stomach, the story, the character and the variety of activities on offer.
As this is an RPG, there are lots of numbers hanging around should you be interested. It’s not very complicated but you have an experience level – or power level as it is herein – and each item, be it a weapon or pair of boots, has a variety of numbers which impact how it will play, alongside the unique perks. For an axe you’ll want to know its power, maybe its speed and so on; for your rations bag you’ll want to know how many portions of health it can restore if full. You don’t have to engage if you don’t want to. Just pick the new weapon you’ve found or been rewarded with, or pick the one which looks the coolest or yields the fanciest and most gory death animations, and my, there are some surprisingly hardcore deaths dished out in this game. I played mainly on the default difficulty (you have a choice of four in this instance), starting out using a sentimental axe as long as I could, upgrading that when I had the requisite materials and otherwise ignored weapon stats. It’s not Dark Souls.
In terms of your power level, you have a very complicated-looking skills tree. It’s got multiple branches which are linked to various others dependent on the route you take. Sure, one branch is focused more on melee, one on ranged combat and another on stealth or assassination benefits, but each will generally make you stronger, healthier, more powerful. As you start out you don’t know what comes next, mind. The tree is shrouded in fog and until you unlock one particular skill those linked to it do not appear clearly., so you might end up down a path you didn’t want. Whilst that could be frustrating, it never bothered me for two reasons. One, I didn’t find anything that hindered me in what I was doing and two, you can reset and start again as often as you like (questioning the lack of transparency in the skill tree from the start).
The game looks good on the PS4 Pro and better on the PS5. It also just runs better. Typically it’s hitting 60fps and looking smooth as anything in doing so, as you’d expect. There was no clipping or any bugs of any kind aside from some odd texture flicker in certain cutscenes during one particular boot-up only. Additional bonuses on the PS5 version were some of the obvious and expected ones, such as faster loading times thanks to the SSD and haptic feedback where coded by the devs to make use of the DualSense. All round, there’s nothing to complain about on the PS5 and everything to get excited by, especially when Ubisoft really integrates the new system’s features to its games.
On the PS4 Pro things weren't quite so good. There was a lot of clipping and multiple audio stutters. There was also a repeatable game-breaking bug. If I jumped up by a ladder, and was close enough to the ladder that I was covering part of it, my character got stuck and could not do anything aside from funky dance moves in the spot they were just hanging. To fix it I had to reload my last save file (the autosave is very regular thankfully). This happened once every five hours on average and in different places. So it wasn’t the end of the world, but it was annoying.
None of that impacted my enjoyment of the game, though. Although it’s slow to start with, once things start happening, the game opens up into a magical world full of environments to explore, mysteries to investigate, monasteries and forts to raid and more. Whilst sailing you can hear your crew singing, or tell stories. As you are following the river automatically to your quest objective areas of interest will be highlighted and you can choose to take the detour, or carry on. Most excitingly, and an improvement over previous iterations, is that your power level and what the game needs you to be at to have a fair chance of winning combat by skill are well-matched. You’re unlikely to have issues unless you go totally off-piste all on your own. Which you can, but then you know it’s your problem and not the devs’. Combat is a fairly similar dance to that which we’ve seen before – lock-on to your target, attack them with a light attack, a heavy one, stealth attack them or hit them from range. Or often, utilise a combination of those methods, to deliver really cool, combo attacks or just take down multiple foes during many phases of attack. Once you get your hidden weapon it is like you’ve always been an assassin, but it being Vikings there is a lot of blood, a lot of dismemberment and different weapons to those which you might be used to. I mean, axes are important here and fun to use, but you can find swords and spears and all those kinds of things should you choose.
Fighting in Valhalla is all about the glory. So you can take on one individual, locking on and dancing around them, dodging when needed and attacking when appropriate, or you can just look to parry them, which has a fairly large window this time around, and get things done in less time and with better animations. But, you might want to just be a little bit more haphazard. There will often be lots of enemies. You’ll want to deal death to the brunt of them as any allies will likely be slower and less capable than yourself. Sure, clearing as many out via stealth methods or long-range attacks first is good (brilliantly entertaining in certain circumstances), but if you blow the horn to sound a raid, well, good luck with that!
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is a gigantic undertaking but one which Ubisoft Montreal has managed to deliver. The characters are interesting, the gameplay quality and the variety of activities ensures you’ll likely be playing this until the next Assassin's Creed comes along. It really is that big, especially when considering post-launch plans and the expansions therein. It’s objectively as good a game as Odyssey, with subjective improvements in some places and other parts which might not feel quite as fun. It doesn’t reinvent the series like Origins, nor is it the first to really make it all gel like Odyssey did, but if you are interested in the series of games, or great RPGs in general or even just the Vikings, then Valhalla will not disappoint.
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