I’ve Been Through England Like A Norse With No Name

HIGH It scratches the exploration itch like few open-world games can.

LOW My base PS4 can’t handle it at times.

WTF I really need to stop romancing almost every character I talk to.

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla launched with the odds stacked against it.

For starters, it’s yet another massive open-worlder coming on the heels of Odyssey, one of the most critically-acclaimed titles in the franchise — a tough act to follow. There was also stiff competition from Sony with its own historically-themed open-worlder in Ghost of Tsushima, prompting debate as to whether another AC game could deliver.

Valhalla is also releasing in a year of highly-publicized controversy surrounding management at Ubisoft. After months of damning headlines and intense focus on industry crunch, sexual harassment, abuse and the poor treatment of minorities, there were questions about how it would be received.

With all that said, my assessment of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is that it’s not only a solid third-person action-adventure, but arguably a high point for a series (and a publisher) struggling to redefine itself.

Taking place in the year 873 AD, players assume the role (and select the gender) of Eivor, a viking warrior who decides to settle in England when war and overcrowding ravages Norway. After a few hours of prologue and finally settling in an upgradable encampment called Ravensthorpe, players are free to explore the world and its different regions.

This exploration is Valhalla’s biggest strength. Unlike past Creeds, I never felt like I was forced to walk through guided corridors or to follow markers on a map. Instead, I was able to take the world in at my own pace. Every inch of the map has something to see or do, from the ruins of Roman structures to secret treasures hidden in underground tunnels. Everything I found was something I managed to stumble upon between story quests, and was never pointed out to me by an arbitrary marker.

Because Valhalla nails exploration better than most, I was more than happy to venture off the critical path and mess around in the world. Each region is varied and full of distractions like war-torn castles, wide-open wilderness teeming with wildlife,even the occasional cursed area inhabited by ancient spirits warding off visitors.

It’s good that the sense of exploration is so strong in Valhalla because the central storyline is weak. The plot surrounding Eivor follows the same basic structure of Odyssey, detailing themes of obtaining power and the dangers of hubris. Eivor (regardless of the gender players pick) is nowhere near as interesting or as charming as Odyssey’s Kassandra.

Fortunately, while the central arc was uninteresting, the side stories are what really hooked me. As Eivor rides around trying to form allegiances throughout England, each region has a different issue — bandits overrunning farms, a king that won’t play nice with his people, personal ambition is causing havoc, and more. It’s almost like a historically-based TV drama, with every new situation being its own episode.

Supporting these sidestories are the same sort of dialogue options seen in Odyssey. As in some other RPGs featuring emergent narrative, events can affect progress in ways that surprised me. For example, I accidentally killed a character I could not charm into giving me information. Instead of punishing me, Valhalla adapted to this circumstance and let me to collect the information from the corpse. Later dialogue even referenced this situation, and such responsiveness made it seem like every action I took mattered.

Valhalla isn’t just talking and exploring, though. Similar to the last two games in the series, combat feels closer to something more akin to Dark Souls than older Creeds due to an emphasis on heavy and light attacks, and a new stamina meter that requires players to think strategically about how to approach harder fights.

Shields also return (noticeably absent in Odyssey) and players now have a lot of choice in what they carry. Each of Eivor’s hands can hold a different one-handed weapon like axes, shields, and daggers, and there are some interesting combinations to be had here.

Once in the thick of it, combat is meaty and brutal, with decapitations common after some combos. While not as deep as other combat systems, I loved the simplicity and responsiveness. Taking on a group of enemies and then unleashing a flurry of throwing axes never got old, and the ability to call a wolf companion to take care of lower-level grunts was great.

Instead of offering enemies that scale higher as the player progresses, each region has a set level that never changes. There isn’t a bunch of loot to worry about either, so Eivor’s early weapons can simply be upgraded throughout the course of the game. This, coupled with a skill tree that can be respec’d anytime makes Valhalla one of the most accessible action-RPGs on the market. Ubisoft has successfully streamlined these aspects into an experience where micromanagement is not required and advancing the character never feels like a chore.

While the new changes and directions in Valhalla are good ones, the only thing holding the experience back is the hardware I played it on — my PlayStation 4 was clearly being pushed to its limits. The load times are excruciatingly long, many animations were either delayed or simplified, and the framerate was a bit unstable throughout. None of these were huge issues, but annoyances nonetheless. In fact, this specific review is a big reason why I’m actively seeking a PS5 now, and I decided to pause my playthrough of Valhalla after more than 50 hours — I need to see this in its full glory.

Despite the PS4-specific issues and a main story that isn’t on par with the best of the series, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla remains a solid adventure that I can’t wait to keep playing on better hardware. The focus on exploration coupled with a wealth of secrets to uncover made this adventure a thoroughly-enjoyable timesink, and I can’t wait to continue my domination of England on PS5.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is published and developed by Ubisoft. It is available on PS4, PS5, PC, XBO, XBX/S and Stadia. This copy was obtained via publisher and was reviewed on PS4. Approximately 55 hours were spent in single-player and was not completed (still playing). There is no multiplayer.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated M for Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Partial Nudity, Sexual Themes, Strong Language, Use of Drugs and Alcohol. This is an action-adventure game in which players assume the role of a Viking mercenary (Eivor) who travels through England to forge alliances, lead raids, and defeat rival clans/rulers. Players explore open-world environments, perform missions (e.g., hunting for items, battling enemies), and use stealth to discreetly kill human targets. Players also use swords, axes, arrows, and siege weapons to kill multiple enemies (e.g., soldiers, mythic boss characters) in frenetic melee-style combat. Combat is highlighted by screams of pain and frequent blood-splatter effects. Some weapons allow players to decapitate enemies; zoomed-in sequences depict victims’ bones, organs, and muscles getting damaged by players’ blade. The game contains some sexual material: a mission taking place in a brothel; topless women straddling men; a character agreeing to “lay with” a man (kissing is depicted before the scene fades to black). A handful of sequences depict screen distortion/discoloration and impaired movements after players’ character consumes mushrooms or inhales mushroom-based fumes (dialogue states, “I may still be buzzing from these mushrooms.”). Players’ character can also engage in a drinking contests; later sequences depict the character stumbling as the screen tilts and blurs. The words “f**k” and “c*nt” appear in the dialogue.

Colorblind Modes: Colorblind modes are present in the options menu.

Deaf and Hard of Hearing Gamers: I spent most of my time playing the game on mute and found no issues. Everything has some visual cue and the subtitles could be resized. There is also the option to include closed captioning to clearly label every noise in the game world. This game is fully accessible.

Remappable Controls: Yes, the controls are remappable and there is a control diagram. The Y-axis can be changed.

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Cj Salcedo
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2 years ago

As someone who loves this series, this game was a poorly paced slog. This has more cut-and-paste content than any of the previous games, and those were all incredibly repetitive – which I didn’t mind, until this one. Stealth is practically impossible/pointless, and the division of regions makes main missions incredibly dull with nearly no progression of the overarching plots until the very end.