The reviews of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla mark yet another occasion where I wonder what on earth the mainstream games media have been smoking. “A saga for the ages!” exclaims Eurogamer, who are clearly hoping I’ll forget that they once gave the Bad Company 2 single-player campaign a 9/10 rating. “A big, bold, and ridiculously beautiful entry to the series!” bleats IGN, presumably because they couldn’t find a more generic set of superlatives for their review strapline. And quoth the usually-on-the-ball PC Gamer: “Valhalla is Ubisoft’s best Assassin’s Creed to date!”, a statement that quite overlooks the fact that the series has undergone so many reinventions over its 13-year history that it’s like comparing Doom to Doom 2016. But assuming, for a moment, that that’s possible: as someone who has also played and reviewed quite a few Assassin’s Creed games, I am here to tell you that Valhalla is nowhere near Ubisoft’s best Assassin’s Creed to date. In fact it barely scrapes in ahead of the worst of the pack, and it is a remarkable step down from 2018’s Odyssey.
The Assassin’s Creed franchise has always been a bit of a weird one for this. Its constant reinvention and evolution is why we’re up to twelve Assassin’s Creed games now without the formula starting to stink like a long-dead horse, but it seems that the cost of this is the developers periodically getting nostalgic and returning to gameplay elements that the series had left behind for good reasons and which no longer fit the new look. This is why the series’ first leap to a true open world pirate simulator in Black Flag was immediately followed up by a return to the now-staid city-based parkour of Unity, and it’s why the move to a Witcher-style open-world RPG in Origins and Odyssey has now been countered by the downright reactionary Valhalla. Valhalla is not as immediately obvious a regression as Unity was — it is still an open-world RPG — but it nevertheless feels like a significant step backwards that makes the fundamental design mistake of being led by criticism from old-school fans who didn’t like the direction that Odyssey in particular took the series, and which feels like a throwback itself as a result.
I would open by talking a bit about Valhalla’s premise, but at this point if you’ve played an Assassin’s Creed game you know what the premise is because nearly every single one of them has exactly the same opening no matter what time period they’re set in — the protagonist character is living an idyllically happy life with their family when they’re suddenly all murdered by the Templars, leaving the protagonist as the sole survivor who eventually falls in with the Assassins so that they can get their revenge on. This is how 2 started, it’s how 3 started, it’s how Unity and Origins and Odyssey started, and so it’s no surprise that Valhalla starts the same way, with this particular protagonist being Eivor the Viking and the time period in question being the Viking invasion of England, which is where the action moves to after a brief (by Assassin’s Creed standards, anyway) introduction sequence set in Norway. Ninth century England is a set of squabbling minor kingdoms rather than a single united country, so it’s easy pickings for the Viking raiders who have permanently set up shop in the north of the country. Those minor kingdoms are also riddled with Templar1 agents, which is where Eivor comes in: she and her brother Sigurd found a settlement called Raventhorpe and set about adventuring in the surrounding regions, alternately deposing kings who are Templar agents and helping other kings who are being targeted by Templar agents, whilst trying to build up a political power base for extremely poorly defined reasons.
This is the first problem Valhalla has compared to its immediate predecessor: the player’s goals are extremely open-ended, to the point where I might be inclined to call them frustratingly vague and the game overall directionless. England is divided into around fifteen distinct regions, each of which has a core questline associated with it that can be activated from the planning table in Raventhorpe. Working through these questlines in order gains allies for Eivor’s clan, but what exactly Eivor is planning to do with these allies is never explained. There’s not really any overarching storyline connecting the regions together, and some of them are what, in other games, would pass for jokey sidequest content. (Valhalla doesn’t really have any proper sidequests to speak of.) Eradicating the Templars is a thing that you do more by coincidence than anything else; there’s three regions where you go there with the express purpose of murdering a bunch of illuminati-wannabes and in the rest of them it just turns out that, by a strange and incredible set of coincidences, your primary antagonist happens to be a Templar. Eivor’s personal stake in killing all of the Templars is greatly diminished as she murders the main culprit behind the deaths of her family before even setting foot in England, so it’s impossible to shake off the impression that her path through Valhalla meanders aimlessly in a way which Kassandra’s did not in Odyssey. There, there was a war between Sparta and Athens driving everything. Here, everything is an atomic series of political scuffles, with little interdependence between regions and no chance for the story to build up any momentum or even any stakes for the player.
The opening hours of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla are, admittedly, quite pleasant. The starting region of Norway is a very strange choice for a tutorial zone because it’s mountainous and has very few roads and is actively hateful towards a new player trying to get around for the first time, but once you get out of there and into the regions immediately surrounding Raventhorpe you see how Valhalla can, in fact, be quite a charming game. It’s all pleasantly rolling green hills dotted with villages and towns (except for East Anglia, which mirrors the real East Anglia by being mostly swampland), around which you gallop and clamber in search of the points of interest scattered around the terrain. The usual Assassin’s Creed sync/fast travel points do exist in Valhalla but there’s fewer of them than in previous games, and so a larger portion of your time in Valhalla is spent on horseback getting from point A to point B. In these starting regions, where the terrain is quite accommodating for horseback riding, this is not so bad. Because boats are theoretically a core part of Assassin’s Creed now the game also gives you a Viking longboat to traverse England’s rivers that you can (in theory) summon by blowing a horn, but there’s no boat combat in Valhalla, the rivers are not terribly useful for getting around since 90% of the map’s surface area is landlocked, and anyway the boat wouldn’t even spawn for me most of the time — Eivor would give her horn a mighty toot and then look around quizzically as absolutely nothing happened, before I resignedly got back on my horse and travelled to my destination the hard way.
The actual main use of the boat in Valhalla is for raiding. While the primary historical research for this game appears to have consisted of watching all six seasons of Vikings on the History Channel2, this does at least mean that Valhalla is aware that the Vikings raided a few monasteries in their time, which is why Ubisoft Montreal have turned it into a major mechanic. Once you’ve actually managed to spawn the boat you can sail it towards one of the many monastery locations that are exclusively and conveniently located on riverbanks and shorelines. When you get close enough you can Push E To Raid, which causes your crew to leap out and charge towards the churches and chapels; monasteries are always defended by twenty or thirty soldiers who politely wait for you to carve your way towards them before attacking one at a time so it’s not like you need your crew’s help to dispose of them, but you do need their help to break down doors and push the heavy lids off of the reliquaries to get at the juicy valuables inside. And the first time you do so, you will be confronted by this:
This made me laugh a lot at the time — English monasteries, famous for their collection of blessed hammers and sacred tongs! Valhalla knows that since it is a game about Vikings it should have some raiding in it, but it’s been implemented in the most stereotypically bland Ubisoft way possible: you don’t raid for gold or treasure, but instead for construction materials to upgrade your settlement — a compulsive tic in their games ever since Far Cry 3, where the primary reason for hunting animals for their animal bits was so that you could make a bigger bag to store the animal bits in — which is why the loot reveal is so utterly absurd. Raiding a monastery doesn’t feel like I’m carrying away jewels and precious relics, it feels like I’m going down to the local branch of Wickes for some paving slabs and cement so that I can finish the water feature in my settlement garden, and the crew is only along because I need somebody to help me lug them back to the car. Eivor isn’t even allowed to kill any civilians while she’s raiding; if you so much as catch somebody with a backswing you get the standard “Civilian casualties will cause desychronisation!” warning. Your crew does set fire to houses as they rampage through the monastery compound which gradually fills the air with burning smoke, which is a nice atmospheric touch — and about the only thing Valhalla does that actually looks like a raid. Otherwise it’s just a standard Assassin’s Creed combat encounter where you kill all the baddies and open the three boxes and then a banner pops up saying “RAID COMPLETE”, after which the monastery population immediately forgets that you exist and goes back to their normal business.
Speaking of combat, Eivor’s power level has been toned down from the superhero antics that Kassandra got up to in Odyssey. She can’t leap down from mountains or smash shields with a single punch, and while she does have leap and kick abilities they feel far less satisfying than the Odyssey versions. On the one hand I do understand pulling things back a little from the full-on demigod that Kassandra became at the end of Odyssey, purely because it’s a bit hard to narratively justify it twice in a row. On the other it means that Valhalla can’t help but come off worse in the inevitable comparison between the two; combat is noticeably duller, and not just because Eivor isn’t hitting as hard. Despite the introduction of gear weight and a stamina bar and a Sekiro-esque defence bar for enemies that should supposedly make things a little more gritty and Soulsy, combat is still just a matter of “counter these enemies, dodge these enemies, don’t worry about stamina at all because you’ll never run out as long as you keep Light Attacking, and all of the baddies die long before their defence bars are depleted”. I got away with ignoring every single new element that had been introduced and which was supposed to be dragging me back and making me think a little more about when and where I hit people, which is a fairly good indicator that they should have just ditched them entirely and gone with what felt fun.
This, sadly, is a question that Valhalla rarely seems to ask itself, instead preferring to wallow in the past while blithely assuming that gameplay mechanics from a decade ago will be just as fresh today. Take the signature Ubisoft open world activity of clearing out a fort. Odyssey’s forts were fairly tricky despite Kassandra’s superpowers; there were a lot of guards and tough enemies who would swarm you if you made too much noise, and there was the additional threat of a Mercenary showing up and forcing you to retreat for a bit. Storming a fort was always preceded by a bird surveillance phase to scope out the guards, climbing the walls to access a less-guarded portion that you could clear out with Chain Assassinate, and then disposing of as many guards as you could as quietly as possible so that when your cover was inevitably blown you’d thinned their numbers to the point where you could win the ensuing melee. Despite my power level in Odyssey I never felt that forts were so trivial that I could just ignore most of the game mechanics and walk in the front door, but that same power level (and Odyssey’s general willingness to disregard plausibility if it enabled a fun and satisfying gameplay mechanic like Chain Assassinate) meant that when the guards did inevitably come for me I had a lot of options and that the ensuing brawl was always fun.
This stands in stark contrast to Valhalla’s take on forts. First off, you can’t use your bird for surveillance because the bird has been nerfed into the ground; it doesn’t highlight enemies and can’t see through walls or find quest objectives, meaning we’re back to the bad old days of repeatedly pinging your immediate surroundings with Eagle Vision like a shit submarine in order to find your target. Valhalla also makes the very strange decision to put far more emphasis on stealth than either Origins or Odyssey did — Eivor has a cloak she can conceal herself inside to lower her profile, and Valhalla also sees the return of the tedious sitting-on-a-bench-to-blend-in mechanic because that was something the fans were apparently screaming for — but then makes it both useless and pointless. It’s useless because even with the cloak up guards will notice you from twenty metres away and going in for an assassinate is impossible because they’ll instantly spot you inside ten (and once they’ve spotted you they’ll psychically communicate your position to every other guard in the fort), and it’s pointless because the penalty for blowing a stealth run is just that you have to fight the guards, and Valhalla’s guards are such incredible pushovers that it’s actually far quicker to just Kool-Aid Man yourself through a wall and beat the shit out of everyone than it is wasting time trying to sneak around.
This is the strange thing about Valhalla’s combat: Eivor’s power level might be a fraction of Kassandra’s, but the guards are so weak and feeble that this doesn’t matter. Each of the normal ones dies in two or three hits, and while there’s a healthy number of golden elite enemies sprinkled in amongst them they can be easily staggered, knocked over and pummelled to death. You don’t even need to use any abilities to achieve this; the only ability I bothered to use outside of bossfights was the Valkyrie Leap — which is a sort of HULK SMASH attack that stuns the target — but regular attacks seemed to work almost as well, especially if I could ping-pong them against a wall. Now, weak enemies aren’t necessarily a problem if there’s a lot of them, but here we run into Valhalla’s second problem, which is that another “classic” Assassin’s Creed behaviour Valhalla dredges up from the crypt is having most of the guards slowly circle you at a safe distance while you kill them off two at a time. They never swarm you the way Odyssey’s soldiers did, and the only time they become remotely threatening is when you’re facing a lot of archers who aren’t hobbled by the melee AI behaviour that demands they form an orderly queue to be butchered. As a result it is incredibly easy to slaughter a fort’s worth of guards in Valhalla because they’re individually so wimpy and you’re only ever fighting two or three of them at once — it’s certainly far easier than engaging with Valhalla’s awkward stealth system, as Chain Assassinate has also been nerfed so that you can only ever kill a maximum of two people with it.
And after chewing my way through this bland, repetitive combat for over sixty hours I really have to wonder: who on earth was asking for this? Who looks at Odyssey’s combat — which is nowhere near perfect, but which remained perfectly serviceable throughout a similar length of time — and goes “That’s neat, but what I really want is a version of this that removes all of the fun parts?” I can only assume that these changes are based on feedback from die-hard Assassin’s Creed fans who didn’t like the fact that you couldn’t do all that much assassinating in Odyssey — but guess what, you can’t do that much of it in Valhalla either because all of the systems that have been reintroduced to enable it work at cross-purposes with the rest of the game. The combat is hardly improved by the combat finisher animations, either, which play every you time you kill an elite enemy and which only have one animation per elite enemy type — and it might as well be the same for all of them, because every single one is “Eivor kills the enemy with their own weapon.” It’s already boring by the fifth time you watch her do it, which is a bad sign when you get to watch it another thousand times over the course of the game, and as an additional insult some of these finisher animations are over ten seconds long.
The equipment and levelling systems are also partially to blame for this repetitiveness, although here I’m a little more understanding because, despite this being yet another part of the game that isn’t fit for purpose, I can at least see that the motivation behind the changes was to fix the parts of Odyssey and Origins that did have genuine problems. Odyssey was afflicted with the same issue that cripples a lot of RPGs nowadays: equipment drops not being fixed, but instead being generated based on your current character level when you picked them up. This made gear less meaningful overall as you were constantly changing it out for a replacement with bigger numbers and not actually putting together something that supported your playstyle. Valhalla sees this and correctly identifies it as a problem; however, its solution is to go way too far in the other direction by stating, as one of its core pillars, that “Every piece of equipment should be unique!” And let it never be said that Ubisoft can’t work to a set of design goals because this is exactly what they have achieved. Every piece of equipment in Valhalla is unique. That hammer you picked up in Norway? You’re not going to pick up another hammer with better stats two hours from now; in fact there’s only one other hammer in the entire game. That hammer is all you get if you want to hammer people, so it is certainly meaningful in that respect. The same goes for the rest of the weapons and armour in Valhalla, as there is precisely one of everything and while you can pick up two or three different sets of heavy armour (for example), each of them will have a different set bonus that, in theory, should make each one fairly distinctive and suitable for a specific playstyle.
However, Ubisoft Montreal didn’t think this all the way through: if I pick up a hammer at the start of the game, and it is one of only two hammers I pick up in the entire game and I’m supposed to be able to use it throughout the entire game if I like the ridiculous DONK noise it makes whenever it hits people — which is probably the key reason I stuck with Valhalla through its odious combat encounters — then they have to figure out a way to make it just as relevant when I’m level 300 as it is when I’m level 1. There are several ways they could do this, none of which are particularly elegant, but because they’re Ubisoft they went with the worst one: spending the resources you collect in the open world to upgrade your equipment, where each item has ten levels and spending 25 iron and 50 leather upgrades it from level 1 to level 2 with an associated stat boost. I have always disliked this mechanic at the best of times since I see it as the game forcing me to scale my own equipment instead of doing it for me, but Valhalla takes it to truly ridiculous levels because of the amount of resources you need to upgrade things to the highest levels. We’re talking thousands of resources to max a single item when the average chest you find contains fifty of each — multiply that by eight (head, torso, arms, legs, back, bow, main hand, off hand) and it’s no surprise that after sixty-six hours I was still some considerable way off having a full set of max level gear despite being reasonably thorough in my resource-hunting. This discourages experimentation since switching away from the gear you’ve spent hours and hours upgrading is a significant drop in power (there was an absurd moment where I found the twelve magic slabs and used them to pull Excalibur from the stone, which turned out to be considerably worse than the Blacksmith Hammer I’d been using for the last 60 hours) and so what actually happens is you end up using the same weapons and armour for most of the game.
(One piece of grudging praise that I will allow for Valhalla here is that upgrading a piece of equipment also changes the way it looks, with both armour and weapons becoming more elaborately ornate as you progress through the quality tiers. I do like it when games do this, although I’m also convinced that the only reason Valhalla does so is because it’s very aware that people are never going to change up their look by changing their equipment and so it has to do it for them.)
The skill system, on the other hand, is just plain weird. Much like Valhalla itself it’s a huge amorphous mess with all the depth of a child’s paddling pool, and it’s difficult to describe in full without getting into paragraphs and paragraphs of boring detail, so I’ll just describe the experience I had with it instead. The skill system started me off in the centre of the tree, with an immediate choice between three different routes: Bear, Wolf, and Cat- uh, Raven. In theory each of these routes is devoted to a specific playstyle, with Bear for melee, Wolf for ranged and Raven for stealth. I like stealth gameplay so I went down the Raven path to begin with, only to discover, to my extreme bafflement, that very few of the skill nodes had anything to do with stealth. Most of them were generic stat upgrades — +5 to health, +2 to Light Attack Damage, +2 Melee Resistance — and included nodes that buffed Hammer damage, which had not previously struck me as a particularly stealthy weapon. Each collection of 10-12 skill nodes with these generic stat upgrades has what is supposed to be a big-ticket ability at the centre of it, but most of them are passives because the active combat abilities — the leap, the kick, and so on — have been removed from the levelling system entirely and thrust out into the open world as collectibles. You now pick up Books Of Knowledge to unlock them rather than levelling them up through a skill tree, which not only robs the skill tree of its most interesting features, but which also means it’s now possible to miss abilities entirely; I didn’t find the kick ability until about three hours before I finished the game.
What’s left in the skill tree isn’t enough to give it the flavour it so desperately needs. The lack of stealth-focused abilities in the Raven tree and the general non-viability of stealth in Valhalla caused me to switch over to the Bear tree instead, only to discover that this was almost exactly the same as the Raven tree: a collection of +5 to health, +2.6 to Melee Damage, +2 to Heavy Attack nodes. There are some minor differences, like the Bear tree boosted Fire damage instead of Poison damage, and the Raven tree had a couple more +Assassination damage nodes than the Bear tree did, but otherwise it was left to those passive ability upgrades to distinguish the two trees from one another. The Bear tree’s passives are more immediately useful than those in the Raven tree because melee is really the only viable way to play, but I had absolutely no way of knowing that ahead of time because Valhalla refuses to show you the entire tree at once, instead shrouding the vast majority of it in fog and only uncovering new segments once you’ve unlocked adjacent skills. This makes it impossible to plan ahead, and because the +stat up skill nodes are distributed randomly in a confusing web structure (so there’s no discrete +Melee Damage path, just a chain of single nodes with +Assassinate Damage, +Melee Resistance, +Stun and one +Melee Damage node at the end of it) you cannot choose to focus on one area over others. You have to level up everything at once just to progress through the tree, and because all of the trees are the same — I eventually unlocked every single skill on it, so I know that the Wolf tree is the same as the other two except with a few more +Ranged Damage nodes — your decisions here are, effectively, meaningless.
This strikes me as a very similar design mentality to the equipment upgrades. There, the game could quite easily scale the loot for you but chooses to make the player spend a lot of time and effort doing it themselves. Here, the skill tree is so shallow that it could quite easily be replaced by a standard levelling system where you automatically get stat upgrades with each level, and then a skill point every three levels which you can use to buy one of the abilities. However, Valhalla thinks it’s more engaging for the player to have to do their own stat ups, even though it’s quite deliberately constructed its skill tree to remove any hint of choice and any possibility of an actual meaningful character build. As it stands it’s just pointless make work, a cargo-cult implementation of a skill tree that assumes the satisfying mechanic at the heart of it is the clicking on nodes to unlock them, not the build planning that sits behind this process. I’m pretty much convinced at this point that the sole reason they hide the vast majority of the skill tree from you for most of the game’s length is that if they showed it to the player at the start they’d figure this out far more quickly than the twenty-odd hours it takes to branch into an alternate tree and discover that it’s identical to the one you just left.
It is truly astonishing to me that Valhalla goes out of its way to sabotage the two great gains the series made with the leap to full-on open world RPG gameplay: fulfilling combat and character progression. Without those, Valhalla is left to fall back on the staples of the Assassin’s Creed series, except we’ve just seen that the stealth and assassination don’t really work so what is left? The free-running and movement? Well, while I’m here I might as well lay into that as well, since another thing Valhalla does is attempt to row back from everything being climbable a la Breath Of The Wild. Everything still is climbable, sort of, except when it isn’t; the climbing and free-running system is incredibly clunky and restrictive in comparison to Odyssey, with Eivor stopping halfway up a cliff face and refusing to climb any further because the angle isn’t quite right, or remaining glued to the side of her boat because she can’t jump off things unless the camera is at a perfect right-angle to the surface that she’s on, or continually climbing over a perfectly good window because there’s no way to tell the game you want her to climb through it instead. Valhalla reminded me rather unpleasantly of the tower climbing puzzles in Assassin’s Creed 2, where you could go up the wrong route and get yourself stuck in a dead end because there were no more climbable surfaces — except there the climbable surfaces were at least clearly marked, whereas here it’s impossible to predict what you can and can’t climb. It’s also quite buggy, with narrow cave entrances that won’t let you through, the ability to dead-end yourself so thoroughly on a cliff that you can’t even climb back down (and because it’s so difficult to get Eivor to jump off of anything this necessitated fast travelling somewhere in order to escape) and on one occasion becoming stuck in a small divot in the ground that the game was convinced Eivor was perpetually sliding into. Again, I had to fast travel out of that one. Even travelling around on the horse quickly becomes a massive pain in the ass because it can’t go up hills faster than walking pace and the later areas in Valhalla are rather implausibly mountainous. Ambushes are a constant irritation, too, since whenever you get ambushed by wolves in the wilderness, which happens approximately every fifteen seconds, the horse automatically slows down so that the wolves can catch you and knock you off of it.
Bugs in general are a huge problem in Valhalla. I know buggy Ubisoft games are a bit of a cliche but I genuinely can’t remember the last time I played one that was quite this bad. Those repetitive combat finishers are a prime culprit; I do not understand why Valhalla insists on playing one every time I kill an elite enemy when they only fire properly a third of the time. The rest of the time they’re either desyncing, with Eivor snapping the neck of an invisible enemy while a guard chokes and collapses ten metres away, or else helpfully breaking bossfights as the game tries to play a stun animation that makes the boss quite literally vanish; that one needed a reload to fix. The game tracks NPC positions incredibly poorly at the best of times, with even named NPCs popping in and sliding around during cutscenes — and the less said about the background NPCs the better. This is particularly bad news given Valhalla’s antiquated love of escort quests; on one occasion the NPC I was escorting got stuck at the bottom of a ladder and wouldn’t climb it no matter what I did, and on another they got stuck six feet under the ground, occasionally taking a break to teleport into mid-air for a split second before burrowing back underneath it. Both of those didn’t just require reloads, they required full reboots of the game so that it could reset the NPC positional data. Even the physics system is screwy: at one point during a bossfight with a legendary elk everything seemed to be going swimmingly and I had it down to 20% health, at which point it kicked me so hard that I got sent into orbit. I’m not even joking; I could briefly see the edges of the skybox, and obviously I did not survive re-entry and had to do it all over again from scratch. The high prevalence of bugs and lack of polish across the entire game isn’t quite Valhalla’s biggest problem, but it is a pretty major one and doesn’t exactly help my perception that it’s yet another AAA game that was pushed out of the door long before it was ready.
Anyway, we’ve established that the combat sucks, the character system sucks, and the free-running and general travelling about sucks. This leaves Valhalla with just two arrows in its quiver: the story and the open world. I already laid into the story and won’t repeat myself here, but something which stood out throughout was just how primitive the storytelling is. I don’t just mean “Valhalla is badly written”, although it is, but rather that I was struck by the similarities between Valhalla’s cutscenes and the cutscenes from main scenario quests in Final Fantasy 14: A Realm Reborn. ARR was rushed and the cutscene tooling sucked so 99% of its cutscenes consisted of two people stood in one spot having a boring conversation. The vast majority of Valhalla’s cutscenes also consist of two or three people stood in one spot having a boring conversation, likely for the same reasons: because this game was also rushed out to launch simultaneously with the new generation of consoles and/or the Christmas release window, and because the tooling for it is nowhere near as capable as what they had in previous engines. Assassin’s Creed 3 has the most wooden protagonist in the series and a story that makes very little sense, but it has also more bespoke animations and camera behaviour in this eight minute set of ending cutscenes than Valhalla contains in its entire sixty-hour running time — and as that video proves, this can make the denouement to a story memorably dramatic even if the lead-in is terrible. Valhalla also moved me to look up this infamous clip of NPCs invading one of Unity’s cutscenes because its NPCs do things which are very similar, but the cutscene itself is remarkably well-constructed compared to Valhalla’s feeble offerings. The thing that really confuses me, though, is that Odyssey used the same engine and (presumably) the same tooling and still managed to overcome these limitations on occasion, with the introduction of Brasidas and Testikles falling off the pier being far more dynamic than anything you can find in Valhalla. These static cutscenes ensure that the already-discombobulated story feels even shabbier, and in fact put me in mind of last year’s high-profile Eurojank RPG Greedfall. And with all of the art and animation resources available to Ubisoft, that is not a comparison that Valhalla should be inviting upon itself.
Finally, then, we come to Valhalla’s open world3. Considering my uniformly negative opinion of the rest of the game, it’s nice to be able to say that my opinion of Valhalla’s world is mixed at worst. Just like Origins and Odyssey it looks stunning (if you disregard the bugged NPC behaviours, anyway) and it’s very aware of how to leverage those looks to good effect. Its version of Viking Britain doesn’t really look like anything I recognise as Britain — I grew up in Kent, which is plenty green and pleasant but nowhere near the ridiculous fairy-tale look depicted in Valhalla — but then I strongly suspect that’s also a criticism I could have made of Odyssey if I’d ever actually been to Greece at any point. It was at least interesting to be reminded that Valhalla takes place just a few centuries after the end of Roman rule in Britain, and so the English towns and cities are all built inside the ruins of the older Roman ones; I’m not a massive fan of the architecture (Brotherhood took the same approach and I hated it there) but it was an effective way of portraying a society quite precariously in flux.
Valhalla even has a decent mechanical innovation for its open world that I’d quite like to see other Assassin’s Creed games pick up and run with: it pre-sorts the points of interest that infest its regions into three categories, Mysteries, Wealth and Artifacts. Mysteries are an assorted collection of “World Events” that have replaced standard side quests, optional encounters with tough monsters and enemies, puzzles based around standing stones and cairns, and some deep cave spelunking to find the usual Precursor artifacts. Wealth nodes consist of the Books of Knowledge that grant new abilities, new pieces of equipment, and chests containing resources for upgrading your equipment. And Artifacts are a wholly useless set of time-wasters that just reward cosmetic tattoos that you’ll cover up with your armour and statues for your settlement that you’ll never see because you’ll rarely go back there, which is the main reason I appreciated this sorting into categories: past the first couple of hours of the game I could just ignore all of the Artifact nodes, and once I’d gone past level 300 I stopped paying quite so much attention to the Mystery nodes as well because I didn’t need the XP. Categorising the points of interest like this so that the player can target the things that are most useful to them is probably the single concession towards not wasting the player’s time that Valhalla makes.
Really, I have no fundamental objections to anything that Valhalla does with its open world. I even think it could have been quite good if its regions had been put together with a bit more time and focus. Its key problem is, sadly, a common one found in modern AAA open world games: it’s too damn big. Because there’s very little water in England the combined surface area of its regions is comfortably larger than Odyssey’s map of islands, which itself represented a significant size increase over the open world in Origins. Naturally, increasing the size of the game by 50% means that the developers have to put in 50% more things, but because development time and resources are finite this means you are at best spending 66% of the time you were previously spending on each point of interest. This probably explains why all of the World Events are so shit; nearly all of them can be wrapped up in under ten seconds once you’ve figured out what to do, because they all involve performing a single task for a questgiver who is stood right next to whatever the quest objective is. Because of the sheer number of World Events in the game Ubisoft were clearly struggling for inspiration here too given how many of them are based on internet memes; I don’t mind the occasional subtle meme reference, but having Eivor literally say out loud “The cake is a lie!” probably did more than anything else to turn me against Valhalla. Given how regressive the rest of the game is it shouldn’t surprise me that it also thinks mindlessly parroting jokes that had already been flogged to death a decade ago represents the pinnacle of humour, but it does and it is terrible.
The Wealth nodes have the same problems that come with high volume; Ubisoft Montreal have tried to build a puzzle around each one where it’s inside a locked house or the top of a church steeple and you have to figure out how to get to it, but when there’s four or five hundred Wealth nodes in the game and all of them have these access puzzles it turns out there’s only so many variations you can come up with. Wealth node is twenty metres underground? Look for a well that’s blocked up with wooden planks and jump inside. Wealth node is behind barred door? Look for a window that you can shoot an arrow through to break the bar. Wealth node is behind locked door? The key will never be outside of Eagle Vision range. There’s occasional spins on the concept but the general shape of the solution is the same for each one, and so these puzzles inevitably become tedious time-wasters instead of the pleasantly light challenges they should be. To be fair to the designers who put these locations together I do not think there is any concept that could survive this amount of repetition; this is a failing that comes about from the desire to be able to put “The biggest Assassin’s Creed game yet!” in all of the marketing and review straplines and then inflating the size of the game to the point where everything and everyone is spread so thin it’s on the verge of collapsing entirely. Instead of fifteen crap regional storylines, would it not have been better to have ten with working cutscenes and connecting plot hooks? Instead of fourteen hundred points of interest, could we not settle for a mere thousand and put the effort saved into bulking them out a little bit more? What’s so bad about having a game that lasts a “mere” forty hours if those hours are reasonably satisfying, instead of sixty-six hours of barely-suppressed tedium?
Unfortunately I don’t think that’s a consideration that ever figures into the modern AAA development process, where there’s an insatiable need for each successive game to be bigger and bigger to the point where playing them to completion feels alarmingly like taking on a second job. I hate games that do this. I don’t have a first job right now and completing Valhalla still felt like an awful chore that I probably wouldn’t have bothered with if I had literally anything else to do with my time. Where Assassin’s Creed Odyssey was a forward-looking game that serves as fantastic proof of what the series could gain by shifting to a proper open-world RPG experience, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is too fixated on recapturing past glories and so merely stands as a sad testament to what the series has lost in that move. Not only does it come off poorly when compared to Odyssey, but it’s also markedly inferior to the games it’s hearkening back to; games like Brotherhood and Revelations and even Assassin’s Creed 3, which weren’t great even at the time but which were produced with a great deal more focus and which knew how to make the most of their strengths. Valhalla’s attempts to crowbar those strengths back into the new formula just exposes how bad Assassin’s Creed is at stealth and storytelling now, and it compromises far too much on the things that Origins and Odyssey did well in order to try and fit them in. Sadly the resulting collection of buggy, bland mediocrity that comprises Assassin’s Creed Valhalla doesn’t appear to have affected either the review scores or the sales numbers, so I really doubt that Assassin’s Creed is going to course-correct in time for the next iteration. And that’s the most annoying thing about it: it dooms the next Assassin’s Creed to being crap as well. That is the mark of a truly bad game.
- They’re not called Templars here because the Templars don’t exist yet, but that’s simply a branding issue because they’re otherwise functionally identical. ↩
- Which is about as historically accurate as the Sci-Fi channel’s Sharknado is scientifically accurate. ↩
- Well, not quite finally, I could go on for several thousand more words but unlike Valhalla I hopefully know when to stop. ↩
Very enjoyable thoughtful analysis, thanks!
Desync on killing a civilian during raid is hilarious. https://pbs.twimg.com/media/CQuSXwVWgAAN3_9.jpg
I loved Odyssey even if DLCs were on the meh side. There are plenty of problems with Ubisoft open world formula but as long as no one makes proper historical games that are not just about the map we’re stuck with AC series probably being closest to what sci-fi writers and Star Trek TNG creators imagined videogames to be. I’m aware of all the ahistorical stuff (and I mean ahistorical not in a sense of the usual whining about skin color and sex) but no piece of fiction will ever give me so detailed picture of a historical setting. I’ve spent countless hours playing postgame, getting meaningless levelups and doing mostly badly written quests (as well as less verbose and therefore better written randomly generated quests) just enjoying vistas and architecture and gameplay. It’s probably the best action-RPG I’ve ever played. The story might be worse than in many games but I play the game, not a story.
I like Valhalla combat system a little more. Odyssey was somewhat poorly balanced. Healing skill trivialized the game and playing without it would be a nightmare. Valhalla forces me to use everything on Nightmare difficulty and I do care about enemy defense meter. Valhalla also drops hard limits on power levels; it always bothered me that enemies 3 levels ahead of you got additional buffs to be an unbeatable beefgate in Origins and Odyssey. But Valhalla setting is a bleak and boring version of vanilla fantasy we saw a thousand times. Everything else you’ve said sounds true. Sad!
I’ve been reading your AC reviews with great interest and picked up Odyssey (after giving up at Revelations) because of them. One thing I feel it does better than the game it mostly copies, the Witcher 3, is using a compass instead of a minimap and giving actual clues as to where things are rather than a map marker (which required you to look at the minimap). Sometimes I felt W3′s graphics were wasted as I was mostly following dots on a minimap. I was surprised the AC devs had identified this as a problem and added the ability to toggle vague or exact map directions.
It’s also always interesting how these games simultaneously feel AAA quality and janky, probably depending on for how many games they’re been iterating on a feature and how rushed they were to get the game done on time.