Game name: Assassin’s Creed Valhalla
Release date: November 10, 2020
Available on: Ubisoft Connect
Genre: Action RPG
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Disclaimer: Review code provided by Ubisoft.
I have a weird relationship with the Assassin’s Creed franchise. When the first game came out for PC (after a pretty lengthy delay for a non-exclusive title) it was an adventure that offered an experience that had yet to be matched by a competitor. Rough around the edges and very repetitive, yes, but nonetheless impressive, innovative and with potential that screamed for a sequel. Of course, since it was a big AAA production, it got that sequel (which managed to improve upon pretty much every aspect of its predecessor) and then a bunch of other sequels. Somewhere there along the way (fair, I’ll tell you exactly where: Assassin’s Creed 3) the franchise lost my interest, and it turned into something I’d buy to enjoy some random open world action, but wouldn’t finish, or wouldn’t truly care about the story. Then, after a few stumbles, Ubisoft decided to switch things up and released Origins, which put the franchise on a course that would lead towards a more RPG-like future, and had an extremely likable protagonist in Bayek. Odyssey followed, going even further down the RPG path, and featuring Kassandra and a renewed “present day storyline” that managed to put me back in the Assassin’s Creed hype train, which leads to today’s Assassin’s Creed Valhalla review, where I’ll share my thoughts on the latest entry on the franchise after non-stop playing it for a week.
Before we start this review in earnest, there’s a caveat, which is that if you loved the original, non-RPG Assassin’s Creed games and were hoping for a return to those days, then Valhalla won’t be what you wanted. However, I think that even those who hated Odyssey’s commitment to gear, levels and skill trees will enjoy this trip to the Viking Age. There are enough changes and tweaks (as well as returning features from earlier titles that weren’t in the previous two games) that Odyssey and Valhalla can at times feel very dissimilar, even though the graphically look almost alike, and share a lot of the same gameplay systems.
Story-wise, Valhalla continues the present-world narrative started in Origins, and it manages to reach a satisfying conclusion that I won’t spoil. I also enjoyed the nods to the real world, even if Assassin’s Creed‘s “present” isn’t exactly set in our timeline. The past storyline can be a mixed bag at points, with some unbelievable narrative choices during quests that were otherwise highly enjoyable and made sense. Overall though, I feel that Ubisoft have finally nailed the RPG aspect of the game’s storytelling, compared to Odyssey, which tried to let players enjoy an adventure tailored by their choices, but often failed when it came to more personal stories. Valhalla is far better in this regard, and at certain parts of the story I was genuinely gutted by choices I had to make because they affected people that had been with me since the start. Eivor is also a very charismatic protagonist and the voice actress who plays her (I chose to play as female Eivor, but you can also choose to play as a male, or let the game decide for you) did an amazing job bringing her character to life.
The settlement our hero and their companions build upon arriving in England is also very closely related to the game’s storyline, and while it’s also a gameplay mechanic (you can upgrade it with resources and alliances forged through relatively long and in-depth questlines) it mostly served as a way of showing me how far Eivor had come in her quest for a new home in this foreign land. Every time I finalized a row of upgrades and the settlement’s tier went up, new people showed up there, or people I knew had stories to share or personal questlines for me to help with. This isn’t a completely new idea (it’s an RPG trapping that has been used many times in the past) but seeing it applied to a big budget powerhouse like Assassin’s Creed Valhalla felt nice (I know that the homestead in Assassin’s Creed 3 was an attempt at doing this, but I think that it was underwhelming). There’s a big difference between being asked to care for characters we’ve just met in the game, even if the writers tell us that we’ve known them all our life, and caring for villagers and friends who have actually been there since we first set foot in the land, and we’ve visited countless times when coming back from a raid or a quest.
Of course, as I’ve mentioned in the previous paragraph, the settlement is also a gameplay mechanic that lets players unlock new questlines and upgrades with the resources they obtain from raiding or alliances. Right from the moment we first set foot in England and claim the land that will over time become our new home, we’ll get a number of precarious houses that require resources in order to become forges, barracks, hunting lodges, etc. Upgrading a building results in something new getting unlocked (in the case of the forge, for instance, it unlocks a gear upgrading mechanic that we’ll use for the duration of the entire adventure). As we upgrade buildings, our settlement’s quality improves and even more people join our cause, with their own things to upgrade and unlock, and questlines to experience. Going through the settlement upgrade chain will also eventually grant us access to the Jomsviking mechanic, which works similarly to Dragon’s Dogma‘s Pawns. Basically, we can create a customizable warrior that will then show up at other players’ settlements, where they can recruit them for their raiding crew, and that brings money to our table even while we are offline. Of course, this also means that we’ll see other people’s Jomsvikings at our settlement, perpetuating the cycle. It’s a small touch, but I enjoyed it. Minigames and other distractions are also dotted through our settlement, contributing to the feeling that this is a living place where we can come back to relax and have fun after a day of hard work.
Assasin’s Creed Valhalla continues the shift towards RPG systems started with Origins and Odyssey, and as a result, we’ll also find a fully featured skill tree here, which has been handled a lot better than in the two previous games. Instead of a mostly linear upgrade path that just takes away core abilities and holds them hostage until the player can scrounge enough XP to get them, Valhalla opts for two things: a non-linear skill tree featuring nodes that can either boost a stat or unlock a new ability or buff, and active skills that can be found through exploration, as Books of Knowledge. The skill tree starts as a tiny anemic thing, but as we put skill points into different nodes and make our way towards the first few interesting skills, it will start growing new branches and showing its true depth. Through this tree, we can unlock modifiers that completely change the combat, for instance, with the ability to dual wield two-handed weaponry, slow down time on perfect dodges, and other niceties. Of course, since this is an Assassin’s Creed game and it has a renewed interest on stealth kills, if we follow stealth-focused nodes we can quickly unlock the ability to one-hit assassinate enemies that are far above our level, provided we succeed at a simple QTE (this is something that was missing in the previous two games, and fans were understandably upset, so I’m glad that it is now part of Valhalla). Speaking of things that were missing in the previous two games, social stealth makes a return, and it’s a very useful feature we’ll exploit as much as possible, especially during the early game. Eivor can cloak herself to get suspicious eyes away from her as long as she doesn’t get too close to enemies or starts running around, and we can also sit in certain spoits, or join cloaked civilians as if we were part of their group.
The Books of Knowledge found through exploration are usually hidden in areas that require an easy (and short) puzzle to access them, and they unlock active abilities that can be used in combat, such as being able to poison our weapon, use a grappling hook to hurt and enemy, and so on. These abilities are powered with Adrenaline, which is generated through light attacks, eating certain mushrooms found in the game world, or executing enemies with finishing moves. The player starts with just 1 Adrenaline slot, but can gain more through the other skill tree we described in the previous paragraph (and from my experience, it’s a good idea to try to focus on getting a few extra slots as quickly as possible, especially if you intend to take on higher level enemies frequently).
Since we’ve just mentioned exploration, I figured it’d be a good time to talk about the map and how it’s been changed compared to previous titles. Ubisoft open world games have been rightly derided for their reliance on tons of recycled activities and points of interest that fill your map with junk, making exploration somewhat meaningless. Thankfully, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla goes down a different path (though there are menu options that let you go back to a more “icon filled” type of map if that’s your thing) and by default it encourages real exploration, only showing loot as golden dots, and “events” as blue dots. You can get more data if you go to synchronization points, but it’s still a lot better than the usual Ubisoft type of junk filled map.
Aside from my thoughts about the cleaned up map, I also feel compelled to congratulate the development team on how varied the different areas we’ll visit are, as there is a noticeable difference between all the playable parts of the map, something that pretty much hit me when I visited Asgard during a dream sequence. The team working on this game didn’t just copy and repurpose other parts, but instead created a whole new area, with its own events, quests, collectibles and style, and that work paid off.
The “events” I’ve mentioned before are also another way of removing useless filler from the game menu, as instead of getting a bunch of forgettable side quests every time we visit a new area, we’ll now get blue dots that we can explore to trigger world events, that are a replacement for these side quests, and don’t take up space on the quest menu. Some can be truly funny and memorable, but the majority will be over in minutes, so it’s a welcome change that we don’t have to keep track of them on our quest tab. The Reda contracts mechanic from Origins and Odyssey (which grants us a special currency that can be used to buy cosmetics and armor) returns, and while it’s pretty much the same boring kill/find/fetch type of deal, it is still tracked on the quest tab, which I guess I understand, since it’s a daily grind thing and not the side events. I’m not completely sure if it has a place in a title like this, but apparently it’s been popular enough to stay for three games already.
Valhalla‘s combat system is an evolution of the one found in both Origins and Odyssey, with a focus on brutal kills and showy finishing moves. It feels less floaty than Odyssey (which at times could feel like your weapons were always coated in oil) and the introduction of skill modifiers such as the ability to wield dual two-handed weapons can boost the player’s enjoyment tremendously. Just as before, we can do light attacks that require no stamina expenditure, heavy attacks (which drain our stamina), block if we have a shield, parry (either with a shield or with a two hander/off-hand/equipped weapon) and evade (which also drains stamina). I do have an issue with the way the game treats multi-opponent combat, since it doesn’t seem to be able to remember which enemy we are targeting unless we specifically lock on to them (and even that can be finnicky at times). With that exception, everything else was fine, and I love the way the Adrenaline-powered abilities can affect the course of a fight. Melee combat isn’t the only way to deal with enemies, of course, and here’s where a feature from Origins that was missing in Odyssey makes its return, which is the distinction between different types of bow. In Valhalla, you can choose between Light bows, Hunter bows and Predator bows, all with their own specific pros and cons. Advancing on the skill tree will also let us unlock different modifiers for each bow type, further differentiating them, something that I personally quite appreciate, as I didn’t enjoy the removal of the bow types in Odyssey.
The one Odyssey feature that I would have liked to see return here is the ship combat, which has been removed, probably because real life Vikings mostly used their Drakkars for transportation or raiding purposes, the same things we can do with our longships in the game. Thankfully, sea shanties make their return, along with stories told with our crew members (there’s an option to ask for either a song or a story when we are sailing). Our vessel can be summoned to help raid Saxon settlements if we come across one that can be accessed through water, and we can also call our crew to help if we get into a fight (here’s also where the Jomsviking feature comes into play, as Eivor’s crew is an integral part of her journey through England). Just like cars do in Watch Dogs: Legion, our ship can sail itself to points of interest or quests, should we choose to, a welcome feature for long distance expeditions.
I have mentioned raiding a few times, so I feel that I should dedicate a short paragraph to this mechanic, as it’s integral to the story and to our quest to make our settlement as good as possible. Basically, there are monasteries, villages and fortresses along the English coastline, and when we initiate a raid, Eivor’s crewmates disembark and rush towards the unlucky target, burning houses and fighting the defenders while we go around the place helping them and looting chests. Sadly, it would seem that those chests don’t respawn with time, so while it is possible to “re-raid” a place we’ve ravaged before, it will only result on experience gains from combat, and not more accumulation of wealth and resources. Raiding is also the biggest source of materials for settlement upgrades, so it’s an activity that we’ll be doing as much as possible.
With story and gameplay out of the way, it’s time to talk about performance and stability, which sadly seems to be the one aspect where Valhalla hasn’t really improved much over its predecessors. On a mid-range system (Ryzen 5 3600, 32GB, RTX 2070 Super) I had to fiddle with the settings in order to reach good enough framerates at 1440p resolution. I understand that the console versions don’t fare a lot better, as they are also far from the Ultra settings that we can try on PC, but having tested Ultra settings on a far more powerful machine (Ryzen 7 3700x, 32GB, RTX 3090), I also struggled to reach consistent framerates at 5120*1440 (though at least the game runs at that resolution natively). Over the course of my 70 hours journey, I also experienced three crashes to the desktop (two of them on my mid range system, one on the Ryzen 7). The other thing that I should mention is that that anyone with a poor stomach for bugs and weird stuff should wait a bit for further patches, as there are plenty of both to be found. Thankfully, I haven’t experienced any game breaking bugs (outside of the three crashes), but for instance, Reda once sent me on a contract… to kill a mannequin inside of my own settlement, something that wasn’t described in the quest log, and I’ve witnessed plenty of animation weirdness, and even characters outright disappearing during certain cutscenes.
Aside from those issues, however, my time with Assassin’s Creed Valhalla was fantastic. It’s not a revolution but an evolution of the franchise, firmly bringing it to RPG territory and telling an engaging story that kept me hooked until the end. As it stands, this is my favorite title in the series so far, and a testament to Ubisoft Montreal’s game development chops.
9.5/10 – Excellent