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Assassin's Creed Valhalla

Assassin's Creed Valhalla

Written by Randy Kalista on 11/16/2020 for PC  
More On: Assassin's Creed Valhalla

A blond-haired, blue-eyed Scandanavian is the man, the myth, and the legend behind Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. It’s Beowulf writ large. It’s Hulu’s Vikings TV Series: The Game. And, if I’m honest, it’s the only Assassin’s Creed I’ve really been waiting for since 2013’s Black Flag.

After 13 years of the Assassin’s Creed series, it’s easy to forget that every Assassin’s Creed is somebody’s first Assassin’s Creed. So here’s the gist. If you want something more in-depth, you’ll have to consult a wiki, because I don't have the word count to explain it all. But it goes something like this: 

Since the real world of science fiction writers collectively decided in the early 21st century that “time travel is lame,” Ubisoft invented a time traveling concept which doesn’t technically use time travel. Instead, there is a modern day component and a historical component to each Assassin’s Creed video game, with two time periods literally strung together with DNA strands.

In the modern day (or at least near future), there is a snarky hacktivist group that is bent on exposing the evils of a Google-like super corporation. That evil corporation is trying to acquire an ancient relic that will let them, I don't know, rule the world. The hacktivist group, on the other hand, is the balancing force preventing that from happening. There’s a device called the Animus which allows this not-time-travel to happen so that, in Valhalla, we get to visit Norway and England, torching the shire and looting churches in the 9th century. It's the early 870's AD—the year is only three digits long—which leaves plenty of artistic license for Ubisoft to play with.

So, we good? 

All the sci-fi gobbledegook is window dressing. All the historical action-RPG stuff is the meat and potatoes of Assassin’s Creed. While the hacktivist-slash-super-corporation stuff is integral to the series, we’re here for the Vikings. And boy is there a lot of Viking stuff to do. More than you’d think.

Because while it’s true that “history is written by the victors,” it appears the opposite was true for the Vikings in real life. The Scandinavian nations that began sailing west to England, conquering and settling ("pacifying") portions of it, weren’t in the habit of writing much down while they were going about the business of conquering and settling. Instead, it was the conquered peoples of England, etc., that did most of the writing. Even back then, sex and violence sold well, so those are the stories that emerge out of the Age of Vikings for this Northern European people group.

While Valhalla doesn’t say, “The Vikings did nothing wrong,” it certainly capitalizes on the narrative that raiding and pillaging was only a piece of the Nordic pie. In fact, in-game, I'm not even sure there's any benefit to lighting thatch-roofed huts on fire. It certainly recreates the Viking aesthetic, but it's not like you're racking up more experience points for smoking out the hamlets. Regardless, Valhalla attempts to fill in the other blanks of what we ultimately know of Viking culture and society.

For instance, I came home in Norway, immediately lost a drinking contest, sat down for a bard’s tale, my head lolling to the side, mouth gaping open, as my blurry-eyed drunkard tried to ingest a strangely forgettable tale of Norse mythology. I then stepped into what I think was a Viking rap battle, basically, by “flyting” against another rhymer throwing disses at me—while I geared up to ruin this man’s whole career. Then I was rolling a weirdly complex game of dice against a gambler chilling outside the jarl’s hall. I relieved him of about 200 silver coins.

Beginning right off in Valhalla, a daring rescue turns into a fitful tale of revenge. You play as Eivor, a male or female Viking that you can swap between at will throughout the story. Eivor is frustratingly handsome and/or beautiful. BroViking’s voice is smoky like beef jerky, while femViking tries too hard to use her Big Girl Voice. Forcing too much speech to come from the diaphragm doesn't mean female Eivor is a bad voice actor, but it made me opt for male Eivor more often than not. Either way, your tattoo choices, hair colors, and sick Assassin’s Creed-style weapons and armor have you looking formidable from the get go.

Likewise, in top Assassin’s Creed form, the world is a wonder to behold. Sometimes you’ll ride off into a color-drained night, with even the moon a featureless monochrome in the sky, and the green drapes of the Northern Lights will hang down like a veil from the Milky Way. Sometimes you’ll ride over trackless hills in the snow, or follow a trail that is only one set of footprints going up, and one set of footprints coming back down. Those footprints might take you past a bull elk that tosses you 20 feet up into the air with the man-sized coat rack he’s got on top of his head. That might also be the first time you have to hit the reload button, too. By the way, push down on your D-pad and you’ll find the quicksave button hiding under there. Assassin's Creed can be something of a cake walk. That is, until you reach those intentional difficulty spikes lurking around the map.

All the things that make this a very Assassin’s Creed game are here. You’ll see a sharply inclined peak with a single tree at the top and you’ll think to yourself: I know exactly what to do here. You’ll see a snowy bale of hay at the foot of a tower and you’ll instinctively make that leap of faith like it requires no faith at all. You'll see treasure icons pop up all over the cartography and not even have to be told to pop that lid and get that loot. And you'll bring all your gamepad's triggers and buttons to bear on your enemies' faces with an entire skill tree that branches outward like a sky chock full of constellations. 

It’s sad that such a signature move, the leap of faith, is taken for granted. I’m guilty of doing that, too. I’m trying to chase that parkour high in photo mode, and I can almost get there, but a circling camera and a hawk’s cry aren’t quite enough to stir the old Assassin’s bones in me that I know are there, lying dormant. I’m looking for Valhalla’s sleeping giant. The thing that refreshes this whole series for me in one deep breath. But I’m not finding it in those leaps. They lack the drop in my stomach they used to create.

And another staple of the series, the wristblade assassinations, aren’t doing it either. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll yoink a dude into a pile of hay and shank him for breakfast. Or I’ll leap off the top turnbuckle and drive that shwing right into an Englishman’s neck. But it hits too softly here. You don’t feel the blade going in anymore. You just sort of float on top of an enemy, and your blade sort of floats into them. It’s a weird thing to get wrong in a game that’s been doing this for over a decade now. Both of those actions are crucial in Assassin's Creed gameplay. But in Valhalla, I'm unconvinced. I don't know if it's bad camera angles, a lack of camera shake, or slightly lagged sound effects, but none of it hits the way it should hit.

The options menu is deep and wide. Teams upon teams of people put together accessibility options that I’m, admittedly, privileged enough to never really need. But the menus are likewise deep and wide for explorer-type gamers like myself. I count nearly 20 different individual pieces of the HUD that you can deactivate. I can turn every second of every minute of gameplay into a screenshot. It doesn’t matter what the save game file tells me, I know that probably half of my hours were spent in photo mode. Adjust the focus. Greater depth of field. Vignette the borders. Add some noise to the hyperactive number of pixels smoothing everything over. Being an in-game photographer while playing Assassin’s Creed is a blessing and a curse.

The interminable gameplay loop is good, even when you’re just exploring, doing seemingly nothing at all. Fill your satchel with berries for rations. Take your axe to some iron ores that chime like Nirnroot. Climb to the top of a peak so sharp it looks like an advertisement for Ginsu knives. Trade war stories with a guy that’s got an axe stuck in his head. Pillage some lovers’ hut so they can get their kink on. Blow your goat horn and raid the local Hobbiton. Perch atop ancient Roman ruins for a lovely panoramic. Slap some leather and iron together to bolster your blade's stats.

Pluck that bowstring, wield that hammer, beef up your ration bag, and yes, try out that two-shield fighting style you heard the developers talking about. Full Captain America times two. Then build up your settlement in England, constructing, among so many other shops and farms, an armor smithy to embolden your weapons loadout. But run with your tail tucked whenever a Crusader comes around. You’ll know what I’m talking about when the game suddenly turns into Dark Souls and all those killer finishing moves you’ve been perfecting suddenly don’t have a snowball’s chance in Helheim.

The open world is indeed a wonderful work of art here, with sprawling English countryside and unforgivingly steep Norwegian fjords. This isn’t a one-to-one recreation of either, but Valhalla hits the high points of each, relying on historical documents and archeological digs to come up with a goodly portion of what's built here. Though it turns out, even after all their research—and by its own admission—Ubisoft is sometimes only accidentally correct in what it's rebuilt. But: fair enough. It’s been a few centuries. The historical record will only get you just so far when it comes to the Vikings, remember. 

And as much as my heart beats for this romanticized Viking romp, there are some things that didn’t feel right: not just the pillowy wristblade kills and floaty leaps of faith.

There are inexplicable shifts in location during the opening chapters. Like raiding a village to the southwest with my brother, when the very next scene has us, without explanation, at a village to the northeast. I know that’s where the story wants to take me next, but there is a huge disconnect as to how I physically reached that point. Not sure why Ubisoft couldn’t trust me to make the few kilometers by boat over to that new spot. I’m not the most hardcore gamer, but I know how to follow a waypoint, is all I’m saying. They do it a few times and it’s needlessly disorienting. 

The fighting is sometimes bad up close. Nowhere does this become more obvious then when you’re simply trying to bash open some crates for loot. Especially when you’re indoors, it can become impossible just to bash a box or clay pot, with Eivor swinging for the fences but batting .500, maybe. Or that time I was fighting a zealot, took a spear through the chest, was teleported 100 feet away and 100 feet in the air, then summarily dropped to my death. Or all the times Senu, my raven, my eyes in the sky, would target lock something on the map, only to have that locked target disappear. Or the time I had to replay a mission involving a nudist sect because the mission objective wouldn’t trigger properly upon completion. I swear, that’s the only reason I played the nudist mission three times. Honest.

I could go on about those errors, but none of them were gamebreakers. Technically the nudist mission was, yeah. But the rest of Valhalla plays out so wonderfully, and takes so many world-building cues from The Witcher 3 and Red Dead Redemption 2, that that stuff is forgivable in the grand scheme of things. 

Valhalla is all about family ties, brotherly love, and sibling rivalry. It doesn’t touch the level of drama introduced in, say, God of War’s father-son struggles. But Valhalla’s first major side quest was a full-on investigation of treachery within a Danish ally’s inner circle. That mission went from a retaken settlement, to a fog-laden swamp, to a secret underground tunnel, to interrogating folks around the shire about what they'd seen or hadn't seen the night of a devastating internal attack. And I’ll tell you what: by the time I had to settle the investigation and point my finger at a culprit and say, “That’s your bad guy,” it wasn’t a gimme. It wasn’t a no-brainer. I had to put some thought into that case. And I was still nervous I might be pointing out the wrong person in the lineup. I didn't save scum that part. I may never know if the imposter is still among us.

On a more micro scale, there are so many small details that I do still take for granted in an Assassin’s Creed. How your footfalls match the angle of ground you’re standing on. Frosty breath in the cold. Dripping wet and shivering when you climb out of glacial waters. The trenches you leave when walking through deep snow. The snow caked onto your boots when you reach the muddy road. The mud that washes off your boots in the rain. All of these things add up to a world worth hundreds of hours to explore, even if none of it takes center stage.

You can milk the narrative, speaking to every single person in the jarl’s longhouse like you’re checking off a side quest. Or you can get through the talky bits, guns blazing, as it were, skipping over that pesky narrative arc and troublesome character building. Me? I’m in the milk-it-for-all-it’s-worth camp. But you can sail right on past all of that if you want, easy peasy.

The modern day parts of Assassin’s Creed are as inevitable as they are inescapable. Sometimes it feels bogged down. Especially when you’re digging through dozens of desktop files on a laptop, reading through weirdly dry expositions about “what is reality?” and so much talk of “the simulation within the simulation.” It can come off like an unwelcome conversation with Elon Musk who’s about two hits away from telling you how The Matrix is real.

The main story is the overarching epic of the Raven Clan. That’s you. Those are your people. It hits the bullet points in the history books. But the small, succinct, optional side quests are where the fun storytelling happens. These are very human moments—and often very funny ones—doing the show-don’t-tell part of the narrative very well, portraying people’s thoughts and feelings on stuff that would otherwise be relegated to a codex entry.

I have to pay Valhalla the highest compliment a reviewer can pay it: I don't want to write about it, I just want to play it. This series has its sweet spots dialed in. It really comes down to whether or not you love the time period and the set dressing. I love this time period. I love this set dressing. And Ubisoft more or less just follows its own recipe here. I'll be dipping my horn into this barrel of mead all winter.

Everybody has their Assassin's Creed. Mine might still be the pirate's life in Black Flag. But Valhalla is basically Vikings vs. knights, filling out the other two sides of my personal trifecta. The assassinations might've gone soft, but the northern European world building hits hard.

Rating: 9 Excellent

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

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About Author

Randy gravitates toward anything open world, open ended, and open to interpretation. He prefers strategy over shooting, introspection over action, and stealth and survival over looting and grinding. He's been a gamer since 1982 and writing critically about video games for over 15 years. A few of his favorites are Skyrim, Elite Dangerous, and Red Dead Redemption. He lives with his wife and daughter in Oregon.

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