The Assassin's Creed franchise is one of my more beloved series of games. I was floored by the first game: the innovative gameplay, the incredible representation of the Middle East in the Crusader era, even the way plot interwove between past and present felt so fresh. It was such an exhilarating gaming experience. That first time you wind through a crowd, stalking your prey, clamor up to a vantage point and time your strike, and soar through the air and pull off an aerial takedown of a Templar target; there are few moments in all of video games that stand out so breathtakingly.
Assassin's Creed II came alone and basically did everything from the first even better. The few warts the freshman effort did have were airbrushed out of existence by the second. It also introduced an exciting new multiplayer unlike any other game on the market and raised the ante of the plot and locale with the intrigue and intimacy of the narrow avenues of Renaissance Italy. The game kept moving from strength to strength from there, even if it did forget how to count with AC III coming three sequels after II. Not everything it tried to pull off was done perfectly, some of it wasn't even a good idea (*cough cough* Den Defense), but the core loop of running and knifing as a member of a loyal brotherhood pitted against its eternal enemies across time and the globe was always a treat, a highlight of the gaming calendar.
Five major games in to the series, and a few mobile offerings on the side, we finally hit Assassins Creed III, thoroughly concluding and wrapping up the franchise's plot lines both past and present. The gameplay is still satisfying and fresh, and Revolutionary America presents an outstanding backdrop to continue to embrace new elements, notably the open world of the rugged colonial wilderness and, even more importantly, the sea. It is after AC III that the game itself kind of stands on the precipice. It's unclear where to take it from here. It's unclear whether it even should be taken anywhere. Yet, the game was the most pre-ordered in Ubisoft history, and had sold over 12 million copies within a few months after release. So of course a sequel would be incoming, and it would be both the best and worst thing all at once.
Because in Assassins Creed IV: Black Flag we got both what was probably the single best game of the entire franchise, and at the same time we completely lost our way with plot and gameplay. While the sea was just a minor element in III, Black Flag embraced it as a core mechanic. Not just the gameplay, but constructed the whole theme and feel of the world around sea shanties, naval battles, and even whaling as a mini-game. And while the game overall was a triumph, what went out the window were the core elements of the Assassins Brotherhood itself. Narratively, no longer was years of devoted training required to reach the technical skill of an elite Assassin. Apparently now all you have to do is chase down an existing brother while half starved on a deserted island and knick his little knifey thingy. We threw reason out the window so we could helm a frigate and shoot cannons. It was worth it for the sheer joy Black Flag gave us, but it set a dangerous precedent.
Seven years later, these precedents of III and Black Flag, the open world and the departure from any semblance of grounded narratives, have come home to roost in Assassin's Creed Valhalla. We've traded our Jackdaw for longboats, and expanded the Nordic fjords and English countryside to epic proportions, but I can't help but wonder if we lost our Assassins in the exchange. Valhalla tries desperately to toe the line in between a classic Ubisoft open world game and the next iteration in the Assassin's Creed franchise, but there are many ways those two ideals are at odds with each other. Narratively it doesn't make a lot of sense. Early on in the prologue our protagonist, Eivor Wolf Kissed of the Raven Clan, meets up with two of the Assassins Brotherhood and they gift him a hidden blade. He (or she depending on whether you chose an interchangeable Male or Female Eivor) spins it around to the outside of the forearm, brashly proclaiming he has no intention of hiding such a magnificent gift. The Brotherhoods are a subtle group, operating in the shadows across time. Vikings are not subtle characters, yet somehow can effortlessly transition to master assassin with a gift and an offhanded lesson here or there. Much of the rest of the plot is spent shoehorning an Assassin's backdrop behind a very Viking foreground. I didn't find the recipe very convincing.
A few hours into the game the Prologue concludes with Eivor and his brother, the trusted leader of the clan, off to England to raid their way into their own fortunes. On the front foot the game is nearly all Viking with an assassin's blade as his wrist. As the plot progresses, the Assassins and especially their eternal rivals, the Templars, grow more and more into focus. However, by the time the Assassin'ing really picked up, I was already entrenched in my disappointment at the ways it had affected the Viking'ing.
United by a common enemy or not, the game still spends the majority of the time feeling like an open world Viking game, and it's a good time. The focus is on exploration, raiding, settlement building, forging alliances, and dipping into the mythic lore of the Norse. The game never really diverges from its foundation as a historical sim, as much as it desperately wants to embrace the supernatural. Psychotropics and classic tie ins to the Assassin's Creed canon of gods and angels try and explain away the less reality-based portions of the tale, but throughout you can tell where the game cries out to break free.
There are some obvious tributes throughout the game world from the Vikings television series but even more so I thought from the BBC series The Last Kingdom. But in game play I kept feeling this homage to God of War, only confined to doing so with the restrictor plates on. Maybe I was biased when the first time I picked up what essentially is a special ability, it was an axe throw—something you spend more than half the game in God of War executing. But I couldn't quite shake that God of War feeling because, simply, the best parts of the combat, that range of special abilities that can be mapped to certain button combos and need a recharge to perform just felt so Kratos-esque.
While the main combat play is a little clunky—you mostly dodge, black, counter, light strike, heavy strike—the special moves are the facet that really starts to open things up. But here is where the mismatch of the raiding, warring, rooting tooting Viking and cold, calculated, shadows of the Assassin spanning space-time who needs to uncover the hidden secrets of every last corner start to wear at the seams binding the two. To unlock these special Viking combat abilities we must first test the exploration of the Assassin, as they are all hidden away in collectibles: books at the bottom of some dungeon or behind some locked door. It feels like a missed opportunity for the normal progression of the Viking. We do not learn or level up our abilities through the skill tree or some other Viking method, they exist to be found about in the world of the Assassins collectibles. There is a skill tree, but it widely is used to raise stats like attack and defense and unlock more passive abilities, not change the nature of combat. The end result of the overall combat system is satisfying, even if I do miss the high-flying exploits of Assassins past.
There are times it shows its warts like when storming a fortress: caught in the middle of an epic battle, tearing down the ramparts and barging in the gates, you run head first into a thrall of soldiers guarding the inner courts only to be engaged, calmly, one at a time, as they rotate through their challenges only after you've dispatched the last. It's not so much the combat that is lacking as it is the singular nature of the way the AI engages. It's like the SNL skit where all the ninjas talk about how, instead of attacking Bruce Lee one at time, maybe they should try all attacking at once. Same logic applies. But then the lack of fluidity in combat, and more importantly the mostly unnecessary stamina meter that limits fluidity would be put to the breaking point. Combat ends up functional and enjoyable, but much like the mysticism of the plot lines seems to lose something trying to hard to tether it to a reality with stamina and limitations on a more free-flowing dance like the Batman Arkham series enjoys.
There are also plenty of noticeable quality of life improvements throughout the game. Horses, longboats, and all the trappings that make the world easier to traverse are themselves easy enough to wield. And where they aren't, like in docking a ship or trekking a long distance, they have buttons mapped to automate the deed. A long press of triangle when near that dock will snuggle it right up alongside. A long press of square sets your steed or ship on its way to automatically follow the road or channel, and a long press of triangle will even self-navigate it to whatever is marked on your map screen as the destination point. If you need to get from point A to point B, either there is a fast travel option or the game will not make that a slog for you, unless you really want to chance getting lost in points C, D, E, and F along the way, and often you will.
So much of the core of the game is this world-building epic Viking tale, and oh what a wonderful world there is to tell it. Ubisoft has been doing open world games for a while now, and this is as fine an example of their expertise in the arena as any. The locales heave with the breath of life. The fog rolls in over the squidgy swamps. Ruins of a forgotten Roman past dot the landscape and tower above the trees. Churches, farms, settlements, and even cities build out the population and fill up the whole thing with character and storytelling in the many, many side quests and tasks to engage in or ignore. Wildlife teems in abundance. But because we still have to inject some assassin'ing in there to earn use of the title, we can't really stretch our legs and let loose going full Viking in this playground.
But whereas the way the Viking world is tethered to that of the assassin, and is unable to let loose; the assassin world is also burdened by this expansive, beautiful, yet ultimately restrictive open world. For me, the key elements of the assassin part of the game requires the density of cities as its playground. That's why Venice and Rome and Milan and Istanbul made for such iconic locations. They combined historic landmarks you can visit to this day and be inspired by the recreation both in and out of the game; but also race along the rafters above the marketplaces and chase down your mark to finally ascend down with that epic killing blow. So much of the part of Viking raider pits you as a stranger in a strange open land, unwelcome and out of place in the few locations where you can really let your assassin flag fly.
There are other ways these two worlds mix like oil and water. For example, the game is littered with exploding barrels, the tropiest of gaming tropes to begin with, and they stand out as one hit kill boxes of pure frustration. This is never more prevalent than in one of the earliest missions, a raid on a fishing village, where you have to burn down supply wagons. Each wagon is bordered by both exploding barrels and enemies. So if choose to go Viking and actually engage the enemy, prepare to die over and over again as stray arrows from friend or foe absentmindedly strike the barrels. If the explosion didn't obliterate you, the fire that engulfs your body surely will in mere seconds. It's like a Sisyphean trap, an endless loop of burning away and giving you one open world, but forcing you into one path to complete the task because of the limitations placed when the other world collides, because why on earth do we even need exploding barrels in this Viking world? Well, because the AC open world begs for exploration puzzles and collectibles that don't really add anything to the Viking experience. But in this AC world, we need to tear down destructible walls and only an exploding barrel trope will do.
Speaking of collectibles, the narrative weight of the Viking experience takes a hit as it freely allows you to jaunt back and forth between Norway and England, lest players get locked out of trophies for progressing too far too fast. Weighty decisions to move the plot forward have no real consequences when I can fast travel back to the fjords to pick up a missing flying piece of paper. This busywork is all well and good when placed in terms of glitches in the AC matrix, but is another data point picking at the seams of the Viking life.
To be fair, these are only moments where the clash becomes a head on collision. Incidents that stand out, but that are only fleeting when compared to the normative experience of raiding and running missions and exploring. The vast majority of the playtime is not spent in frustrating loops, but in enjoyable gameplay, in options to push the main story or get lost in endless side quests, in that choice between following the marker point on the map or dallying off into so many distractions that might uncover any of a number of treasures in gear, supplies, or even storytelling.
And so the story goes, two games sharing one space, often at odds with each other, up until the point where you are pulled forward to the present day bits because apparently we still have to do that in Assassin's Creed games. Look, it’s not just that the present/near-future day interludes in between main story chapters are boring and badly paced, they’re poorly acted and shot too. No one plays this game to jump into a walking simulator when the modern blokes we all stopped caring about many sequels ago jump out of their VR tanning booths. We've wrapped up the Assassin's Creed present and near-future plot lines in previous games haven't we? Continuing to dip into that well is unnecessary. Why not just drop those sections entirely, add a little voiceover for continuity, and embrace what makes the games great—not keep trying to force feed plot lines that have nothing to do with 99% of the game and that I can't imagine anyone is still paying attention to. I would rather play Abstergo Creed where we are just randoms walking into a VR amusement park to connect with past lives than have to sit through any more of these side plots that just serve as MacGuffins to give us an excuse to connect to past lives.
I'm not trying to detract from the whole package of Assassins Creed Valhalla. This is still a good game, but it is only good and not great because it borders on the edges of two better games that are at odds with one another. This worked in Black Flag because I rolled my eyes at the inane plot and was having too much fun on the Jackdaw and in the multiplayer to care. But in Valhalla, there is no multiplayer and the clash can't be papered over because of the way this wide open England creates too much space for the Assassin to flourish and the tenants of the Assassin keep limiting they way the Viking could conquer. However, when the Viking is conquering and the Assassin does find those spaces to perch, each presents itself well and leads to some exhilarating stretches of play in an immense and beautiful playground. There is so much to do here between the main plot, the many side quests, and all of the nooks and crannies to explore. The path is well laid out and you're never without options to pursue and choose to pursue at your own pace and discretion. There is so much the game does well and does right and that cannot be lost in this review. I just think the restrictions the game places on itself by trying to do too many things in one package prevents it from fully realizing its own potential.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
First picked up a game controller when my mother bought an Atari 2600 for my brother and I one fateful Christmas.
Now I'm a Software Developer in my day job who is happy to be a part of the Gaming Nexus team so I can have at least a flimsy excuse for my wife as to why I need to get those 15 more minutes of game time in...