If you only buy one next-gen launch title, make it this one
- Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
- Publisher: Ubisoft
- Release date: 10th November 2020
- Genre: Action RPG
- Platforms: PS5, Xbox Series X|S, PS4, Xbox One, Google Stadia, Microsoft Windows
- Reviewed on: Xbox Series X
- Game Supplied by: Publisher
Assassin’s Creed has gone through multiple identity changes over the years. As the series has progressed, we’ve seen them transition from stealth focussed adventure games to sprawling, content-rich, narrative-driven RPGs.
This latest entry to the series has fully embraced its RPG underpinnings and shares more in common with games like The Witcher than earlier Creed games. You still get the excellent stealth assassination mechanics and freeform parkour traversal that sees you able to scale massive buildings and imposing mountains with ease, but there is so much more depth to the gameplay now.
The epic landscape is littered with side quests, world events, distractions and loot to discover. While it is just on the right side of daunting, it’s made to be approachable, with intuitive controls and a perfectly balanced introduction to all of the new systems. Where some RPGs are very slow-burning in the beginning, Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla succeeds in making the content engrossing right from the start.
Character interactions are well-scripted and delivered with an authentic flair, with the main protagonist, Eivor, being a major highlight. You have the choice between a male or female Eivor, or you can allow the Animus to choose depending on how the story progresses. I chose to allow the Animus to decide, and without dipping into spoiler territory, most of the time Eivor is female, and it is all the better for it.
The actress voicing Eivor captures the purest essence of a gruff, tough as nails warrior. Her delivery is assertive, and although the script is the same whether your Eivor is male or female, much of the lines sound much better coming from her. Whether it be her witty comebacks in the battle rap-esque Flyting, or her back and forth banter with her fellow Vikingr, female Eivor speaks with a gravitas not often gifted to female leads. She eschews the typical vulnerable but strong, overtly feminine stereotype, instead, she gives us a deep performance of a troubled individual, hardened by loss and honed by years of leading and fighting alongside a rough and tumble crew of mead swilling, feast devouring Norsemen.
Our story begins amongst the picturesque vistas of Norway. Frosty snow-capped mountains serve as the backdrop to the opening tale of betrayal, murder and revenge. Under threat of war, which they are ill-prepared to win, her clan’s leader, King Styrbjorn, pleads fealty to King Harald, in the hopes of uniting Norway. Sigurd, Eivor’s adoptive brother and son of Styrbjorn, is dismayed that his father would surrender his birthright. At an impasse, and under threat of death if they do not surrender to King Harald, Eivor, along with Sigurd and her remaining allies, set sail for the greener pastures of England.
Explaining the story in any detail past this point will result in spoilers, however, in summary, the Hidden Ones (Assassins) soon take an interest in Eivor, and recruit her in the battle against the Ancient Order (Templars). It’s an engrossing and immersive storyline, and despite its theological nature, is presented confidently enough to allow you the necessary suspension of disbelief to enjoy it.
When playing Assassin’s Creed games, it’s easy to forget about the expansive overarching story set in the modern era that ties them all together. While each game can be viewed as a standalone experience, the modern-day sections outside of the Animus tend to continue the story and assume you have background knowledge of prior events. To properly recap the storyline and events would be a lengthy article in itself, but thankfully the good folks over at Windows Central have written a concise synopsis that is worth reading if you aren’t up to date with all of the lore. As with the other games, it’s possible to play Valhalla and just enjoy it as is, but it makes far more sense with the back story filled in.
I’m not convinced that the modern-day scenes are entirely necessary. The game is strong enough to stand in its own right, and while I applaud the way they have woven the story around it, it feels like an unnecessary distraction from your adventures with Eivor. At this point, over twenty games in, Ubisoft are unfortunately forced to take this premise and run with it, for better or worse.
Getting settled in
Once in England, building your settlement is a core foundation of the RPG elements of the gameplay. Serving as your hub area, you will return here frequently. Adding and upgrading buildings unlocks new quests, abilities and vendors. This allows you to give Eivor some new ink at the tattooist, customise and train your horse at the stables, trade any trinkets you’ve found for silver, upgrade your equipment, unlock legendary animal hunting quests and much more. Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla has a truly impressive amount of content to get through.
You will earn some of the resources needed to upgrade your settlement during quests, but far more can be earned by seeking out villages, monasteries and other settlements to raid. Upon approaching these locations, you can trigger the raids, and Eivor will give a mighty blast of her horn, summoning your Vikingr raiding party. Kill all of the enemies and you will have free rein to help yourself to their sizeable hoard of treasure and resources.
That’s fighting talk!
The combat is instantly familiar if you have played any of the previous Assassin’s Creed games, utilising counters, dodging and well-timed attacks. It’s still possible to stealth around many areas, sneaking through tall grass, assassinating enemies from rooftops, or springing out of the ubiquitous haystack to drag an unwary soldier to their death, but you will far more often find yourself drawn into a full-scale battle, involving dozens of enemies and allies fighting in unison.
It takes some adjustment in comparison with the slow, drawn-out fighting of previous games, but once you get it down, it makes for much more entertaining and fast-paced encounters. Aggression is key in Valhalla. Unlike the deft, carefully aimed strikes you may be used to, this is Viking style combat. Wide lunging arcs, powerful strikes and vicious finishers are the order of the day. Enemy blocking you with a shield? Just smash through it with heavy strikes.
Enemies will attack both you and your comrades equally, rather than singling you out. This makes it possible to accidentally stray into an attack aimed at someone else, making it harder to defend against, but conversely, you may find yourself outnumbering the enemy, and can land a few blows unhindered. Choosing whether to join the fray or thinning their numbers with a few well-placed arrows adds to the organic feel of combat. No two fights play out the same. Even your allies genuinely pull their weight, taking on enemies and assisting with objectives.
A much wider variety of enemy archetypes have been added to Valhalla in comparison to previous games. Some will utilise different attack methods, working in teams to take you down, while others take a more defensive attitude to combat and can adapt to your attacking style to defend themselves more thoroughly. This is countered by enemies that take a more aggressive approach to combat, actively stalking you and using environmental objects against you. I discovered this early on, as enemies took advantage of urns near to where I was standing, shooting them with their arrows and setting me on fire.
There are actually fewer weapon and armour choices than in previous games. The focus in Valhalla is instead on finding the set that best suits your playstyle. Every piece of armour and weaponry can be upgraded all the way up to mythic level, and further specialisation of your loadout can be done based on your skill tree upgrade path. If you’re more inclined to charge in stabbing people, Way of the Bear is your best bet, whilst if you prefer stealth or ranged attacks, then Way of the Raven or Wolf will provide you with the best buffs.
Dual wielding is new to Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, and you can use a multitude of weapon combos. Shields can be carried in either hand to bolster your defence, or if you just want to dish out wanton destruction, you can charge into battle wielding a pair of slow-swinging but brutally devastating flails.
This variety of weapons mixes up the finishing moves as well. In addition to the finishers triggered by the weapon you are carrying, stunning your opponent lets you take their weapon off them and deal a killing blow. I knocked a pikeman down, and to finish him, Eivor grabbed his pike and piled it through his chest, leaving him impaled into the ground.
For all the beauty of the environments, this is starkly contrasted by the gratuitously violent combat. Striking an opponent can see limbs flung from their body in a shower of blood, or your blade wedged into their flesh before you mercilessly fling them aside. It’s possible to tone down the graphical visualisation of the violence in the settings, but if you don’t mind a bit of blood it’s gruesomely satisfying.
The road less travelled
No open-world adventure is complete without a smorgasbord of eclectic and entertaining activities to distract you from the main questline. Valhalla delivers this in spades, with interesting side quests, pillaging raids, fun activities and challenging exploration, all laced with a healthy dose of humour.
To list everything you can do would take ages, so I’ll leave you with some of my highlights:
Flyting is like a Viking version of a rap battle. Your opponent gives you their lines in the form of a poetic brag, and you have to select an answer that follows the cadence and rhyming structure, while also paying attention to the content of their lyrics to deliver a scathing retort. Winning is achieved by choosing the best answer, and it’s great fun, showcasing some excellent wit from the writing team.
Orlog is a dice game, where the goal is to roll attacking or defending symbols (axes and arrows, shields and helmets) to eliminate your opponent’s pieces. Axes are defended by helmets, while shields defend against arrows. It’s a very well-balanced game that relies as much on tactics as it does lucky rolls. Beating an opponent grants you their “God’s Favour”, that you can use to sway the game in your favour by restoring lost pieces, or removing your opponent’s pieces, amongst other things. It’s relatively easy to pick up, but mastering it is challenging and incredibly satisfying. There are a few other gameplay nuances, but I won’t go in-depth into the rules. As a testament to how good it is, I actively sought out Orlog opponents and even played additional rounds after winning their God’s Favour.
Some loot is easy to come across, and locations are conveniently displayed on your map, and indicated by distance in your HUD, but you may find you need to explore a bit to gain access to some of them. Aided by your ever-helpful feathered Raven friend, which gives an aerial view of the area, you can seek out hidden entrances.
One particularly memorable instance early on involving finding an underground passage, hinted at by a note found in the house directly above the location about noisy neighbours scrabbling around like rats underground. I checked out the neighbours’ houses, and after pulling a rack of shelves aside in one, found a secret passage and a gigantic counterweight blocking my path. A quick arrow to the joist sent it plummeting down, clearing the route to my well-earned plunder.
In one of the more light-hearted side-missions, I had to help a pair of lovers rekindle their flame. They had fallen for each other during pillaging, pounding each other (their words, not mine) amidst the burning flames of buildings during a raid. To rekindle this fire, they had me smash up their house and set fire to it, which succeeded in getting her wetness going (again, their words!)
This is just a tiny fraction of what Assassin’s Creed Valhalla has to offer, and you could realistically spend dozens if not hundreds of hours taking in the sights and experiencing everything it has to offer.
The graphics on the Series X are astonishingly good. There’s no ray-tracing, but as we have seen, developers are still getting to grips with it. As impressive as it may be, it’s not worth taking a performance hit like the one that resulted in the 30 fps frame rate found in Watch Dogs: Legion. Even without Ray Tracing, though, Valhalla looks breathtakingly beautiful, running at a mostly steady 60 fps and maintaining the targeted 2160p resolution. There are a few instances of framerate stutters, but this is due to be addressed in a patch soon. I didn’t, however, encounter any of the screen tearing that has been reported, but this is likely because I use a Freesync display.
Depth of field is used to great effect throughout, giving cinematics a movie-quality feel. There are loads of visual flourishes like this that were previously only seen in the Ultra preset on PC, usually reserved for high-end hardware. Thanks to the power of the Series X, we’re getting an experience that is almost indistinguishable from the best the PC world has to offer.
Even in normal gameplay, the level of detail is astounding, with the tiniest of textures and thinnest of hairs rendered with crispness and clarity. There’s a minor amount of clipping visible during cutscenes, with character’s weapons and clothing occasionally passing through each other, but that’s a minor blemish on an otherwise flawless presentation.
The audio quality is of an equally high standard, too. Character vocalisation, as we covered, is brilliant, but the ambient sound effects are what brings the world to life. A beautiful score picks up when you are exploring the world, accompanied by the sound of vegetation rustling in the breeze, the gentle cadence of a distant waterfall or the sounds of wildlife you have disturbed. Within villages or towns, the hustle and bustle of daily life fill the air, the lilting conversations of passersby breathing an authentic feel into the environment. Whether you are splashing through a river, galloping on horseback, squelching through a bog or crunching through snow, the incidental sound effects immerse you, accompanied by the period-authentic music.
Admittedly, there’s nothing here that we haven’t seen before in open-world games, and it could be argued that it simply follows the formula of other Ubisoft open-world games. But, everything comes together perfectly in Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, making the sum of its parts far greater than the whole. Each element works flawlessly, and the levelling system, improved combat, massive amounts of side content, beautiful graphics and compelling storyline all combine to make Valhalla one of the finest games released this year
With any new console, you always want something that can showcase what it’s capable of, and Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla turns in a performance worthy of the next-gen moniker. It’s an enormous game, with loads to do, but it manages to avoid becoming boring or repetitive. There are loads of things that I have barely touched on and even more surprises to uncover. If you’ve bought a new console and want something to play that you aren’t going to blast through in a few days, this is it.