Title: Assassin’s Creed Valhalla Released On: November 10, 2020 Genre: Action Adventure Reviewed On: Xbox One Also Available On: Xbox Series S/X, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC Developer: Ubisoft Montreal Publisher: Ubisoft MSRP: $59.99 USD / $79.99 CAD
The Assassin’s Creed series is one that has continuously re-invented itself over its thirteen year lifespan. Apart from taking us through major eras in history, the games have found new ways to captivate players through the continued evolution of core systems, the introduction of new mechanics, and a constant effort to push the boundaries that were set by previous titles. While there have been missteps along the way, Ubisoft has continuously learned from them and pushed forward to bring us some of the some of the best experiences of the franchise in recent years.
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla marks yet another new direction for the series, once again learning from everything that made Origins and Odyssey such enticing adventures, and embarking on its own path to give us an overhauled combat system and another environment that begs to be explored. Viking your way through Norway and England is as captivating as it is comprehensive, and while there are some audio issues that persist throughout the game, the overall experience is a brutally enthralling one.
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla tells the story of Eivor Wolf-Kissed, a member of the Raven Clan of Norway, who decides alongside their adoptive brother Sigurd and clan members, to embark to England after repeated power shifts in the Viking rule of the Norse lands. Knowing little of the land they are journeying to, but aided by mysterious new friends called the Hidden Ones, Eivor and her clan-brother aim to stake their own claim to the fertile lands of England, following in the footsteps of Vikings who came before.
Ninth century England is a very different environment than what we’ve experienced before in the series, and one that is full of interesting characters, many of whom you will need as allies if you wish to conquer the Isle. A large portion of the major questlines involve pledging yourself to the leaders, or usurpers, of certain Shires and convincing them that the Raven Clan are valuable allies. Quests are not always black and white, and some of the choices you make have substantial ramifications that resonate through both the narrative and gameplay.
Playing on the Xbox One X, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla looks absolutely beautiful and for the most part runs extremely well. While Valhalla uses the same engine as the previous two titles, AnvilNext 2.0, it genuinely looks and feels like a different game. Going a-Viking through the hills of England is a fun and captivating experience, but one that at times can feel a little rough around the edges. Though I didn’t experience any serious bugs, some persistent audio glitches as well as the occasional parkour or movement issues slightly detracted from the overall experience.
In 4K resolution, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is nothing short of stunning. After the grandeur of Ancient Greece, I was a little skeptical as to whether the more wooded and rustic ninth-century England would manage the same awe factor that we experienced when gazing over the Acropolis in Athens, but there is a serene beauty to the rolling countryside, foggy swamps, and winding rivers. That is, at least, when they’re not bathed in the blood of Saxons. I am excitedly looking forward to playing Valhalla on the Xbox Series X, and will provide an update to this review once I have had ample time to compare and contrast how Valhalla plays across the generational divide.
Combat has once again been overhauled, and while reminiscent of the changes that were made in the previous two games, Valhalla has a new combat system that sets it apart from its predecessors. Players can single or dual-wield axes and blades, use a shield in either (or both) hands, and wield massive two-handed weapons. Alternating between light and heavy attacks, you can unleash a barrage of blows upon enemies, creating an exceptionally frenetic and fast-paced combat that often involves dozens of people and limbs flying in every direction.
As expected for a Viking game, battles are especially savage, and made even more so by the advent of a new ability system in Valhalla. As you unlock melee and ranged combat abilities through finding them hidden in the world, as well as occasionally as quest rewards, Eivor can decimate Saxons with new and ferocious attacks. Enemies additionally have a stamina meter which – when emptied by parrying or chaining systematic attacks – allows Eivor to land a brutal stun attack and kill the foe with their own weapon.
Once you’ve made the journey from Norway to England, constructing and improving your settlement becomes a critical aspect of your adventure. You can find the necessary supplies and raw materials throughout the world, but they are mainly found in Abbeys and monasteries that can be seen dotting the riverbanks throughout the regions. Adding new structures to your settlement, Ravensthorpe, unlocks access to a host of new gameplay features, as well as additional questlines. While some buildings like the tattoo shop and shipyard provide cosmetic changes, facilities like the fishing hut and barracks provide useful services or allow you to customize your crew.
Any settlement, large or small, that you come across while sailing your longboat can be raided with a simple command, bringing the full force of your Viking raiding party down on the unsuspecting Saxons. As with any good raid, you can set fire to the thatched roofs and buildings to both expedite your process, and send the villagers fleeing. Rowing down the rivers of England to raid settlements and cathedrals is one of the best parts of the game and helps to create a more organic-feeling Viking adventure.
Each Shire in England has a veritable bounty to uncover, and Valhalla has done an absolutely outstanding job putting exploration and discovery firmly into the players hands. In a game that is about forging new paths in ‘untamed’ lands, it suits perfectly that the game would encourage the player to do the same to discover everything from side-quests and new abilities, to weapons and armour. Exploration has its own difficulty setting — as does Combat and Stealth — and playing on the hardest difficult — Pathfinder — removes many of the indicators and requires the player to use their raven and Odin’s sense to find new opportunities and hidden treasures.
My absolute favorite aspect of the Assassin’s Creed series has always been their verisimilitude; that is to say their ability to create an experience that so closely approximates our own reality, or in this case history, through a fictional narrative. Ubisoft has once again proven that they are absolute masters of this craft, and it is so easy to lose yourself galloping through the countryside or sailing down the rivers, taking in the crumbling Roman ruins and burgeoning Saxon and Norse settlements. If you take the time to play through the side quests that dot the map, it’s almost impossible not to sink into the rich history and even learn a thing or two about life in ninth century England.
Perhaps the furthest divide from Odyssey is Valhalla‘s move away from many of the RPG features of the previous game. Though Eivor still gains experience, levels up, and invests points into a skill tree, the systems are now much more reminiscent of an action-adventure game over the previous games’ gear-score and level-based systems. Enemies no longer drop weapons, and so you won’t be sifting through hundreds of gear pieces to pick out the right equipment to level up.
Weapons and armour in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla have much more permanence than they did previously, and you’ll be holding onto and using some of the same gear that you’ve had since the beginning of the game for dozens of hours or more. The Blacksmith at your settlement can enhance gear’s quality to unlock Rune slots, and Eivor can then further upgrade weapons and armour statistics using materials scavenged from the world. Your gear’s power is still important in combat, but it does not contribute to Eivor’s overall power level and lets the player focus on what they enjoy using, rather than what’s necessarily the ‘best’ gear to use.
Eivor has a massive skill tree that takes the form of Norse constellations, and which largely provides passive bonuses to damage (melee, ranged, and stealth), defense, and health. As you progress through the constellation tree you’ll unlock new branches, which give Eivor new active and passive combat abilities that augment combat by allowing instant-takedowns or additional Adrenaline segments. Most importantly, these skills contribute to Eivor’s overall power level, which gives the player a general idea of the Regions and enemies that they can tackle and allows them to progress to more substantial challenges.
In addition to investing points into the skill constellation, Eivor can also unlock special ranged and melee abilities that can be equipped for combat. These abilities are not gained through levelling up however, but must be found throughout the world in Books of Knowledge. Each tomb provides Eivor with a new ability, or upgrades one that your character already has. Abilities require Adrenaline segments to use, which are gained through unleashing light and strong attacks or parrying your enemies, but can be lost just as easily by taking hits. Abilities don’t simply provide a boost to damage, but allow Eivor to unleash devastatingly vicious cinematic attacks on her enemies, and they are delightfully savage. As much fun as the core combat system is in Valhalla, nothing beats tackling your opponent to the ground and pummeling them with your fists, or lobbing axes across the battlefield at multiple foes.
None of this would be possible in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla without a healthy dose of exploration though, and this is as true for a number of the quests as it is for tracking down collectibles. Quests don’t always give you the exact location that you need to visit, or even concrete directions to find the location on the map. Instead, Eivor must speak to villagers, assess surroundings and the information given, and explore wider areas of the map to uncover additional information that can help to determine the proper action in a specific situation.
It’s another step forward for the series, as it pushes the player to think intuitively about their mission isntead of just blindly following markers. Most of these types of investigations are optional, but they serve to both bolster the story, and often Eivor’s case with whoever has tasked her.
There are a wealth of new gameplay elements that make a first for the series in Valhalla, but just as exciting are the return of some classic features that marked some of the earliest titles. Instead of simply having restricted areas where enemies will attack Eivor on sight, England is full of ‘Distrust Areas’ which require a more subtle approach. In these areas, you can walk freely through the streets, but you must remain cloaked and use crowds, benches, and distractions to avoid the attention of guards. This hearkens back to the very first Assassin’s Creed game, but hasn’t been a major feature of the recent titles.
The Hidden Blade has also made a return, and though at first it felt odd to have wielded by someone so brutish, they very much use it like a Viking. Stealth in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla marries classic and new features, but admittedly this was the first game in the series where I wanted to focus more heavily on open combat because of how fleshed-out and fun it’s become. Assassinations still require Eivor to have a substantial power level to be able to take an opponent down in one hit, but aside from some elite enemies I was often able to move my way through areas picking off enemies like in the classic games.
The narrative threads of Odyssey continue to twist into Valhalla, and in the present day the game features new series protagonist Layla and her team unearthing a rather shocking archeological discovery, which has led them to Eivor and ninth century England. The events at the end of Odyssey have left Layla shaken, but knowing that the Order of the Ancients are pressing after them pushes her to use the Animus and Eivor’s DNA to try and discern the secrets of the Staff of Hermes Trismegistus.
Hunting down the Order of the Ancients in England is an integral aspect of Eivor’s journey, and they are seated in some of the most powerful positions in the land. Clues can be discovered through exploration and completing quests, which in turn reveals the identity of the hidden members. This is augmented by the Zealots, who much like the Mercenaries, can be found roaming the wilds of England. Unlike in Odyssey however, there is no bounty system so the Zealots will attack Eivor on sight, and often pose a substantial challenge.
On the Xbox One, Valhalla suffers from a handful of bugs, and while thankfully most are minor in scale, some permeate through much of the game. with audio issues being the most pervasive. Sometimes characters’ dialogue will cut off in the middle of them speaking, while at other points different characters’ dialogue will overlap each other, turning it into a bit of a jumble without lining up with the actual scene. These hiccups typically righted themselves after a line or two, but were enough to disrupt a number of conversations. As well, when characters are having in-game conversations which are either important or just interesting, the game will occasionally cut them off and send the player into a cutscene if they’ve hit a contextual location.
These issues weren’t game-breaking, but they were an annoyance which popped up occasionally throughout my playthrough. Far more irksome were the actual gameplay issues that I ran into, including minor gameplay stutters and issues surrounding the now-finicky parkour system. While the combat functioned without any real problems, the movement system left something to be desired. There was only one time that I actually got stuck and had to re-load a save, but overall the parkour and movement felt clunky at points, almost like a regression from previous games in the series. Instead of being able to easily free-climb like in previous games, I often had to re-orient myself because the system felt far less intuitive.
When you’re not befriending Kings and Jarls or otherwise working to solidify your hold over England, there are a plethora of activities to keep you occupied across the vast map. There are mysteries to uncover, treasure hoards to discover, special enemies to fight and legendary animals to hunt. I found it almost impossible not to get sidetracked every time I would journey into an undiscovered areas, because there was always something to grab my attention. Not least of all raiding every single monastery that I came across so that I could continue to build up Ravensthorpe.
There are also a number of side activities that you can occupy your time with as you’re travelling through the Shires, such as engaging in drinking contests, playing dice or flyting (competitive poetry reciting). You can bet and earn some silver by undertaking these competitions; winning flyting competitions also increases Eivor’s charisma and can unlock additional dialogue options in special circumstances.
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is a vast and fantastic game, and shows how expertly the series can move from completely different eras and gameplay styles to create a cohesive and captivating experience. Whereas before we used to say that titles felt like Assassin’s Creed games, now they very much tell their own stories. Vahalla very much feels like a Viking game first and an Assassin’s Creed game second, and that’s a very impressive feat. It’s also exactly what fans wanted from the series after the final games of the classic archetype, Unity and Syndicate. The threads of the series continue to tie the games together such that each title related but still feels like its own standalone and stand-apart game.
With a revitalized combat system that brings some of the most savage and frenetic battles to the series, conquering England in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is a spectacular direction for the series. While there are some persistent audio bugs and the occasionally clunky parkouring segment, it was overall an enthralling experience that is sure to impress. Helping Eivor to grow from a single-minded Viking into a far more nuanced and well-rounded character through their experiences in the story was an unexpected and welcome growth, and I came to really respect and admire the honour code that she held. I’m looking forward to playing Valhalla on the Xbox Series X, and will bring you my impressions of the next-generation of Assassin’s Creed in the coming days.
Final Score: 8.5/10
While some minor issues prevent Assassin’s Creed Valhalla from reaching its true Viking potential, conquering England marks the next great chapter for the series.
The review copy of this game was a digital code provided by the publisher.