I wouldn’t describe any of the Assassin’s Creed games as my favourite of all time (or even in the top ten), but the franchise does own some of my most memorable gaming moments. Recently: the exhilaration of crossing the nighttime Mediterranean illuminated by the glow of ancient Greek towns clinging to the shore in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, and back to the true open-world enjoyment of the first island-hopping adventure Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. The pure mechanical fun of the simple air assassination speaks for itself. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla seeks to bring these elements together into a single, definitive entry.
Valhalla sees you take the reins as Eivor, an upstart viking seeking glory, honour and, well, Valhalla on the distant shores of England. AC: Valhalla feels at once familiar and different, being a game entirely recognisable to series veterans (you will be climbing towers, sailing and assassinating) while introducing new mechanics which add more than superficial value.
The game’s exciting opening sequence flows into a lacklustre prologue act which fails to take advantage of the open-world features that, in the end, make Valhalla shine. You pootle around Norway while mechanics are introduced and you can take your baby steps in a mini open-world, but it is only when Eivor reaches England that the game really hits its harmony.
The gameplay itself contains much mechanical fan service. The hidden blade is back after clamour from the community, allowing any enemy to be killed instantly from stealth – although meatier enemies require the completion of an additional quicktime event, which is not entirely unwelcome. I was delighted to see the return of the “chase disembodied object through the world to unlock cosmetic item” minigame, fondly remembered from AC: Black Flag (I played through the excellent Switch remaster earlier this year). This time you’ll be pursuing “paper” in order to unlock tattoo designs. Of course sailing is represented, albeit now primarily as a mode of travel and exploration rather than combat. In many ways Valhalla feels like a greatest hits of Assassin’s Creed mechanics, while also bringing freshness of its own.
Eivor feels slower and meatier than Odyssey’s Kassandra, and lands with a heaviness emphasised by the fall damage she takes. That is, except in combat, which feels light and weirdly contactless. Playing on the default difficulty is easy and disappointingly doesn’t encourage you to use the exciting range of varied abilities at your disposal. You can one-button, light-attack your way through a horde of English savages who will attack one at a time in a manner familiar to the franchise.
The stealth in Valhalla is so clunky it is almost discouraged (frustrating to me as a fan of stealth in games). It is more difficult than ever to track enemy positions, so stealth takedowns are regularly spotted by other NPCs. Eivor’s heftier movement doesn’t lend itself to dodging quickly out of sight and the general jankiness of open-world games works against the stealth mechanics. I was left laughing when I stealthily took down a guard, which caused a nearby flammable jar to inexplicably explode, which caused the platform I was on to collapse and drop me into the middle of the enemy encampment. So much for going unnoticed.
The whole affair feels less gamified than Odyssey and at the same time more organic. The plethora of items on the map, which were already reduced in AC:O have now diminished further to ethereal glowing points-of-interest. Side quests are interestingly not logged in any menus which encourages you to do them there and then, lest you forget about them later. These “World Quests” are reminiscent of the spontaneous encounters in Red Dead Redemption 2. They are fun, short and zany (quite the tonal shift from the rest of the self-serious narrative) so I have found them to be overall worthwhile. I can totally see what they are going for with this more organic approach and the result is definitely less intimidating, although I can’t help but feel it takes the edge off the addictive “one-more-thing-before-bed” gameplay the other recent instalments cultivated.
Visually, the game is stunning and certainly a series highpoint. England is represented in vibrant realism, making it a joy to explore. Descending a Scandanavian mountain in the dark to arrive at a warmly lit Viking settlement reaches the same heights that Odyssey found. The wilderness teems with life, both human and animal. While the landscapes are lovingly composed, I have to say they don’t feel quite as English as I felt the masterful Witcher 3 achieved (but those were the best landscapes I’ve ever seen in a game). The addition of Roman ruins to England’s countryside is a wonderful touch. It makes the world feel lived in but more than that reminds us of the series’ millenia-spanning arc. The game runs smoothly on PC which is impressive for the number of characters that can be rendered on screen at one time. Some criticism should be levelled at the facial animation which, while still an improvement on Odyssey, can be clunky and awkward. I also have to call out the weirdly low frame rate on some of the small birds which, while by no means a deal-breaker, is oddly incongruous with the rest of the lavish graphics.
Sadly, in the end I found myself failing to connect with Valhalla. The game lacks a single stand-out feature to keep me hooked. The narrative is one of the best in the series, but I found ploughing through line after line of just-passable dialogue a drag. I wanted to get back into the open-world. But when I did, I was reminded that the mechanics were not quite crisp enough to keep me interested. With stealth ruled out, the default approach to each encounter is to summon your viking hoard and button mash your way through it. Valhalla should be commended because all side-activities feed into character progression however when every combat encounter can be solved with the couple of moves available at the beginning of the game, there’s not much incentive to do it. In summary, none of this is enough to set the world (or monastery) on fire.