As both a Dane and an Englishman, I often feel an ancestral conflict deep in my core. Sure, I was born on the shores of England, but my great-great-great (you get the point) grandpappy probably popped over to your equally-great gran’s abode and raided her pantry. Due to the rising popularity of Viking culture in popular media, I can finally find solace. No longer are Vikings these horned helmet wearing, bloody thirsty berserkers who pillaged in the name of an equally blood-starved pantheon. No, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla takes things in a more cultural direction and explores the finer aspects of Viking society.
Well, sort of. You play as Eivor Wolf-kissed, a highly influential Viking warrior of the Raven Clan. After a fair few shady dealings, you plonk yourself on a longship and make your way to England. There you will colonize/conquer/pillage the new world in the name of Odin and forge a new path for your people. Sprinkle in a few more shady dealings, a handful of betrayals, copious amounts of murder, a couple of mushroom trips, and the odd rap-battle, and you have yourself a story for the ages.
What really drives the story forwards, despite Eivor being wonderfully likable, is the characters you encounter. The cock-sure Sigurd, the adventurous Randvi, the mysterious Basim, and the bat-shit insane Ivaar, just to name a few, stand out long after the credits have rolled. If they aren’t likable, interesting, or purposefully designed to be hated, then they don’t exist. The cast here was spot on, and bumping into the many that recurred throughout the story’s runtime was a joy.
Like all games in the long-running series, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla uses a mixture of historical accuracy and made up nonsense to weave an enticing tale. For the most part, it succeeds. The saga of Eivor is rich with intrigue, brutality, and mythology which helps keep the game focused in all the right ways. I didn’t care that the events weren’t historically accurate, and the behaviors of every character weren’t likely to be representative of the time, because the game made you feel like a Viking. Almost constantly. Which if you ask me, is more important for a piece of entertainment media.
The story and characters might be a bit on the “made up” side, the world in question is less so. Whether you are spelunking in the frigid mountains of Norway or sailing up the eastern coast of England, the game manages to slap you in the face with vista after vista. Sprawling Saxon towns, war camps, derelict Roman ruins, Viking longhouses, verdant forests, and dank swamps turn what could have been a large, empty map into something that begs to be explored and experienced. Each county, kingdom or shire looks and feels different, which goes a long way when it comes to staving off repetition; after all, this is a 50+ hour game. You even get the opportunity to explore more…surreal landscapes should you be so inclined.
Exploration is massively incentivized thanks to Ubisoft’s love of filling their maps with things to do. Each area has 3 categories worth of things to collect. These are Wealth, Artifacts, and Mysteries. Wealth is basically hidden treasure. This could be chests filled with upgrade materials, ability books, or new pieces of equipment. Artifacts are your basic collectibles. These could be simple tattoo recipes or something a bit more interesting like a Roman mask. Finally, Mysteries are your side quests – for the most part. These are easily the most interesting aspects. These are split into a few subcategories, but the most numerous and interesting are the World Events. These act as tiny little nuggets of small-scale storytelling. These personal tales were a joy to find, and because these last no longer than five minutes a pop they felt like neat little distractions. The tone of these events are the polar opposite of the main story as well, which can be quite heavy and larger than life. I often found them quite touching, or humorous which was a wonderful change of pace.
Part-time Vikingr, Full-time Rap God.
Outside of these “tracked” goals, you also have a few little minigames in which to partake in. These are normally found in camps and settlements, and consist of a dice battling game, a drinking contest, and flyting. These are well-made little distractions, but the only one I actively sought out was flyting. Flyting is basically a rap battle between Vikings. It was almost surreal seeing Eivor, a character who may have just slaughtered a few hundred people in a siege, dropping sick rhymes on some unsuspecting fool.
We can’t talk about Vikings and not discuss raiding. When you reach England, you will have access to raids. You hop on your longboat, sail to a monastery, blow your horn, and slaughter everyone who stands between you and treasure. Buildings will burn, people will die and it feels amazing. It perfectly embodies what one would imagine being a Viking was like. Lightning fast, mercilessly brutal, and incredibly lucrative. There are plenty of these scattered around the map, and I never got tired of finding, and plundering a new location.
Now we have established the wonder of meandering and interacting, we can get into the gameplay – which is nowhere near as interesting or well crafted. The game is more or less split into exploring – which we’ve established is spot on – and combat and stealth.
Combat is fairly simple. You have light and heavy attacks, a parry, a dodge, a bow you can whip out, and a few abilities you can use from time to time. You have a stamina gauge that depletes whenever you perform or fail to perform just about any action that isn’t a light attack, which incidentally refills your stamina. This gives the combat a sense of momentum. You are encouraged to be on the offensive at all times. Need stamina? Attack the enemy. Have stamina? Attack the enemy with passion. The problem with it is that it never felt comfortable to engage in. It feels messy, even clunky, against a large group of enemies and abusable in one-on-one encounters.
Fight Like A Vikingr, Sneak Like A Howler Monkey
Stealth on the other hand feels like a complete afterthought. The game is called Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, but I assassinated maybe one guy in the entirety of my playthrough and I am fairly certain it was by accident. I never felt that the game wanted me to legitimately be sneaky. Practically every scenario I encountered descended into me versus a fortress of dudes. Which is where the game’s strengths lie. Sure, the combat isn’t fantastic, but it’s better than this.
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla also has the added joy of being an RPG. Everything you do will contribute towards Eivor leveling up and learning new passive abilities down one of three animal-based trees. You can dabble in Bear and become a heavy-handed brute, pick up some Raven for some stealthy shenanigans or go along the Wolf branch if you want to embrace your inner archer. Each area has a recommended level, so exploring is somewhat restricted if you want to keep your head attached. That being said, it is very possible for a low leveled character to explore high-level areas if you have the chops. Just avoid wayward arrows. They’ll probably be the end of you.
Character building also comes in the form of equipment, which also follows the same Bear, Wolf, and Raven theming. Decking Eivor out in some heavy plate armor looks cool, but won’t do you any favors if you are trying to ambush someone. The weapons are the star of the show though. You can make Eivor hold practically any weapon you find, in any combination, and her attacks will change based on that. You can play it safe and go sword and board, you could whip out a two-handed Dane ax and go to town, or dual-wield some flails and cave in some Saxon bonces. If you wanted to get creative, you could instead dual-wield giant shields and run around looking like a bipedal tortoise, or if you are like me, grab two claymores and wildly swing them around until everyone is dead.
The final piece of the progression puzzle is Raventhorpe – your settlement. As you complete story related quests and go out and “acquire” resources, your home-away-from-home will expand. This opens up new vendors, a few new mechanics such as fishing, and a number of passive abilities that will help you along the way. I honestly thought this was a bit of an afterthought and spent next to no time in Ravensthorpe, and when I was upgrading things, I didn’t really give much attention to what I was doing and felt no negative impact by doing so.
A Visual And Audio Treat…With A Catch
It is impossible to ignore how good Assassin’s Creed Valhalla looks. The game is a sight to behold. Character models are covered in rich details, the world, no matter where you are, is vast and beautifully realized. Watching your longboat sail the Norwegian archipelago, or down the many rivers that litter England is a sight in and of itself. In combat, animations are wonderful with Eivor effortlessly tossing the recently deceased to one side, before dismembering his mate. As someone who lives in England full time, I can confirm that Assassin’s Creed Valhalla absolutely looks better than real life. It even sounds amazing, with music that perfectly fits the game’s world and themes. Voice acting is another highlight, with most actors managing to nail their characters. There were a few misses here and there, but overall, the game looks and sounds great.
It is a shame then, that the game runs like crap on the base Xbox One though. The game chugs whenever there is any amount of action on screen, making combat, something I already thought was a bit clunky, feel terrible. Walking through any settlement shows a noticeable dip in performance as well, putting a damper on exploration. That would be forgivable had the game managed to maintain a level of polish throughout. Unfortunately, the game is a big bug-riddled mess with constant visual glitches and audio hiccups. On numerous occasions quests bugged forcing me to reload earlier saves to resolve, and the game crashed on a semi-regular basis which certainly helped to mar my experience as a whole. It is clear the game needed more time in the oven before release.
All that being said, however, I enjoyed my time with Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. The combat might be clunky, the stealth might be an afterthought and the game might be rougher than a scouring pad, but the game’s story, characters, themes, and world more than made up for these shortcomings. Eivor will go down as one of the better protagonists in the series, and her saga is one that is certainly worth experiencing…ideally after the game has had a patch or two.
ASSASSIN’S CREED VALHALLA IS RECOMMENDED
Many thanks go to Ubisoft for an XBox review code for this title.
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Forged in the rainy wilds of northern England, I carved a path of mediocrity through generations and genres. My play style is often described as: “optimistically awful”.