Like Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and Origins before it, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla continues the series trajectory into a full-fledged open-world RPG. Though Ubisoft has dug up some of its stealth-action roots to make that style more appealing, Valhalla’s focus is on the absolutely massive recreation of Dark Ages England, brought to life with stunning beauty and a level of detail I’ve rarely seen. It’s been an impressive showcase for the Xbox Series X (and presumably the PlayStation 5, but Ubisoft only gave us access to the Xbox version ahead of launch), playing in 4K and a near-constant 60 frames per second. You have to put up with some new progression system ideas that don’t quite deliver, and an abundance of bugs, but there’s a staggering number of things to do, explore, and discover in and around Valhalla’s more atmospheric storytelling.
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla’s story follows Eivor, a male or female Norse Viking who grows up with a chip on their shoulder and vengeance in their heart after some particularly dastardly events in the opening cinematic. From those starting moments, the table is set and soon you and your brother Sigurd are off on a grand adventure to England, a land ripe with wealth and glory, and already well-integrated with Danes and Norse from years of Viking invasion and conquest. That sets the stage for your arrival in England as you settle the land and forge alliances to protect and expand your fledgling homestead against the chaos and political dust storm of warring factions across England’s four kingdoms: Mercia, East Anglia, Northumbria, and Wessex.The last time Assassin’s Creed tried letting us choose to play as a male or female protagonist the results were hit or miss, especially on the male side. Here, however, the performances of both the male and female versions of Eivor are admirable, though some accents drift a bit. (At one point I could’ve sworn female Eivor made a stop in Boston from the way she crushed the word “harbor,” but quickly enough it was back to Norse normal.) These brief moments are absolutely the exception to the otherwise steady and earnest delivery throughout, which is also true of most of the main characters. Outside the main cast, though some random NPCs can be a little… much. But special mention goes out to Sigurd, who channels fiery intensity and flirts with crazy in his performances, and that performance is accentuated by fascinating facial expressions that often lean uncomfortably close to the latter.
Even so, the siblings’ quest for wealth, glory, and power throughout England is darker, sadder, and more grounded than the tones of the past few games had led me to expect. There are moments throughout where the griefstriken, bittersweet, and just plain bitter resolutions reminded me of The Witcher 3’s Bloody Baron delivery. This is a dirty, dingy world where life is cheap and nearly everyone is scratching and clawing to gain power – or to keep it – regardless of who gets burned along the way.
One particular instance found me helping the leader of a nearby shire – regions within the four kingdoms (no hobbits) – who had discovered a traitor in her inner circle and charged me with rooting them out because she loved each one of them as family and couldn’t trust herself to see past their lies. The resulting few hours of investigation brought me to the end of the road, and I made the best decision based on the available information I had. To be honest, I’m not sure I was right; I still don’t know. If the person I accused was guilty, Valhalla never gave me more clarity, and the uncertainty seems very intentional. My judgment was accepted and the consequences were swiftly doled out, and that was that. I’ve found myself thinking about that decision ever since. But that’s the business of eighth-century England, I suppose.
A World Separated by an Ocean
Valhalla’s vast interpretation of The Dark Ages of Britain is massive, and when coupled with a significant portion of Norway, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla presents a staggeringly large playground through which you ply your trade. And no matter where you are, it’s absolutely stunning.
As I played it on the Xbox Series X, running 4K resolution and 60 frames per second, it may be the most beautiful Assassin’s Creed world yet; certainly the most satisfying to sit back and watch. The snow-blanketed tundras and mountainous ranges of Norway are breathtaking, especially at night as the aurora illuminates the sky above. The rolling green hills of England, cut up by iconic stone walls, are a ready canvas for the rays of light that pierce through the muggy cloud cover, casting shadows that slowly roll across the landscape. It’s hard to overstate how gorgeous a scene can be when the various lighting and weather effects systems are all working in unison. When I stormed the banks of a small riverside church, ready to pillage and plunder, the streaks of light bombarding the dense fog lit up the screen and enveloped the Christian cross in a scene that could’ve been pulled from a Dennis Villeneuve film, only with more heavy-handedness.
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Beyond the beauty and thick atmosphere of the locales themselves, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla’s England is in turmoil. It’s home to clashes between Danes, Norse, Saxons, Britons, Picts, and more, all of whom have stuck a claim in one hunk of rock or another and will kill you to defend it – or to take it, depending on which side of the fence you happen to land on. It’s a confusing mess of integration that creates an excellent social and political knot into which to tie this story, compounded by cultural and religious elements that really drive a sense of otherness in the many different regions, even if they’re just down the river.
But as all Assassin’s Creed games do, the undercurrent of Assassins versus the Order of the Ancients runs everywhere. It’s well represented in the various factions, and even in the decaying bones of the Roman Empire whose structures and architecture not only litter every region, but serve as excellent places to delve into the necessary long-forgotten tombs, crypts, and subterranean structures the series needs to hide its ancient order secrets. Again, that’s similar to Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, but much of the legwork of hunting down The Order is optional outside the main antagonists that inject themselves into your tale and force that storyline.
In fact, the Assassin’s Brotherhood elements that rope Eivor in start softly, slowly weaving in and out of their story with admirable restraint before the usual Dan-Brown-ification picks up and reveals everything is touched by these organizations in one form or another. But the focus rarely shifts completely from the Eivor’s more-engaging efforts to build a network of alliances throughout England’s four kingdoms and its many, many shires.
One final note before we move on, without spoiling anything: as a huge fan of mythology, I’m stupidly excited for everyone to see Ubisoft’s interpretation of the Norse pantheon and Asgard. Tackling something so mystical and otherworldly had to be tough, but the end result is a more “realistic” and granular take on it than you’d be used to if your familiarity revolves around the Marvel Cinematic Universe or comic books. That’s not a slight on either, just an acknowledgement that this is a refreshing change of pace, especially considering how insane Norse mythology is when you get into the weeds.
To Go A Viking
Many of Valhalla’s consistent high points come as you live the life of a stereotypical Viking. Aboard your customizable longship, you’ll sail along snaking rivers and lead your clan in raids against the gold-swollen churches and monasteries of England, bloated with supplies and materials needed to build your new settlement that then acts as your homebase and quest hub. The pageantry of raiding is powerful: as you charge in, thatch-roof huts erupt in flames while priests and villagers wail and scurry throughout the fray. Even after so many hours, I’ve yet to grow tired of blowing the horn as we approach the shore, and running up the hill as imposing stone steeples adorned in crosses and decoration tower over. It’s a welcome distraction from longer and more involved quest chains, and provides a quick hit of combat serotonin when you just need to bury your axe in something.
Like many wars of that time, eventually you’re going to have to siege a castle or fortress, and that’s where Valhalla really cranks up the medievalness. These mass assaults often serve as the payoffs for longer quest chains, pitting your armies against whatever upstart king, jarl, or noble calls themselves lord of the lands you aim to conquer. These battles are fever-pitched and chaotic, and while they’re often impressive to look at they usually require a small checklist of orderly tasks to complete: ram the gates to smithereens, breach the inner keep, and kill the despot at the center. After a few of these you can start to pick up the patterns, but often they involve scouting defenses and softening up the opposition before going in, so that adds an element of strategy to it even if it eventually boils down to you taking on the big bad guy at the end. Still, breaking through fortifications with siege weaponry and working toward the inner keep is a very cool spectacle and captures the grandeur of all-out warfare that’s befitting a story of conquering kingdoms.
But when you’re done pillaging on your raid or shoring up an alliance with the new ruler you’ve installed, it’s time to spend those supplies and raw materials. For that we return to the Settlement, a place to invest your resources that serves not only as your quest hub, but as a separate layer of progression with tangible benefits.
As you begin to build out your settlement you’ll construct vital locations like a merchant to quickly buy and sell goods, a barracks to recruit and hand-pick your raiding party, a stable to buy mounts and upgrade riding abilities, a blacksmith to upgrade weapons and armor, and much, much more. On the surface, these are welcome additions and giving you stake of land to handle your business definitely beats tracking down merchants in the big wide world. It’s a little bastion of productivity that you’ll revisit again and again, and serves as the welcome “come home” location where you’ll plan your campaign across England, and dive into side character backstories and storylines.
At first, the settlement had me excited, because I love a good management experience – especially when everything offers some kind of reward to further power my character. Eventually, though, as upgrades and management started to slow down and shifted away from unlocking cool new things to getting statistical bonuses, the allure of my settlement began to dwindle and I found myself spending less on my building plans and more time just getting my shopping done before I went out to discover new interesting things. To be fair, there are strong elements at play in your settlement – like the shopkeepers and characters that live and work there which you’ll get to know and potentially care about – but I hope it’s a mechanic that Ubisoft continues to flesh it out in future Assassin’s Creeds entries because I’d love to see more variety, customization, uniqueness, and integration into the core gameplay to make me want to spend time there for reasons other than a trade and quest depot.
Trying Things Out
While Valhalla faithfully sticks to the open-world script of Origins and Odyssey, there are some new systems in play, for better and worse. This time around, skill progression and abilities have been decoupled, meaning you no longer gain cool new abilities automatically simply through leveling up. In fact, the entire level system is effectively gone. Though you still earn experience, and it’s still cached at steady intervals to reward you with skill points, you don’t gain levels in the traditional format.
Those skills points you earn are spent on the Skill Tree, which is more of a web, linking various clusters of unlockable upgrades into constellations that you work your way through along the three main regions: combat, stealth, and ranged. On paper it’s a good system, and slightly reminiscent of Skyrim in style, but for me it’s ultimately a step backward, for two reasons.
First, while you’ll know which direction to invest in from the start depending on what pillar you want to go toward first, once you’ve unlocked the skill at the center of the cluster you’ve got to decide which direction to move from there. Do you work toward the left, to the right? Normally you’d likely take a look at the skills further down the tree and figure out where you want to end up, but that’s the rub: every neighboring cluster is hidden by fog until you spend the necessary points to unlock the node that connects one cluster to another. What this means is you don’t know what the skill in the next group is going to be until you spend a few points to head that direction. That’s really frustrating early on, when you sink your valuable early points only to reveal a skill you don’t care about.
“But there’s still value in the smaller nodes between the main skills in each constellation,” you might say, being technically correct. And that’s true. But these nodes are only minor statistical upgrades, offering “+2 to melee” or “+1 to heavy melee attacks,” for example. Those are useful, but they’re numbers. Numbers aren’t fun. Wielding a two-handed greatsword in each hand so you’re a tornado of sharp edges? That’s fun! But do you know where that skill is? Not until you stumble upon it, or just look it up online. That’s not a great experience.
Secondly, these unlockable skills at the center of the clusters are more passive, or augmentation to things you can already do, rather than the cool new abilities you’d normally find in a skill tree. Granted, a lot of them are incredibly useful – vital even – but while being able to stomp on a downed enemy or control an arrow you fire from a predator bow are very useful, they’re not as impactful as being able to light your weapons on fire or kick someone off a bridge to their doom.
Those game-changing new abilities are hidden throughout the world in books of knowledge, so unless you’re exploring and hunting them from the get-go, the big-ticket abilities may not end up in your arsenal for dozens of hours. Because of this, for the first 10 or 15 hours I felt like Valhalla’s combat was underwhelming next to Odyssey’s bombastic style and flair. I was eventually proven wrong, of course, and it became as flexible, fluid, and brutal as ever after I unlocked enough skills and found enough abilities. But the whole system is skewed toward the mid-to-late game, which left me feeling fangless for over a dozen hours. It just takes way too long to start adding complexity to combat. So if this isn’t your first Assassin’s Creed game, know that the initial scuffles can seem very bland hack-and-slash affairs until you’ve started discovering some tools in the open world.
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