America - Front
America - Back
By Stephen LaGioia 06th Dec 2020 | 2,313 views
Dark Age themes and Norse mythology have seemingly become “en vogue” of late, with the rise of shows like Game of Thrones and Vikings, along with games like God of War. With Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, Ubisoft successfully draws from these fun themes while making them its own. Valhalla managed to hook me with its cinematic qualities and its unique blend of action, stealth, and exploration. With such scale, depth, and versatility, this feels as much like an Assassin’s Creed game as it does a Viking simulator. And that’s (mostly) a great thing!
That said, there are a couple of areas that ring a tad shallow or spotty. With a convoluted Skill Tree, occasional bugs, and combat that feels a bit clunky and underwhelming in the early goings, this Viking romp certainly isn’t blemish-free. Regardless, Valhalla stands out from its predecessors in many areas, from its streamlined progression and open-ended gameplay to its gripping campaign and lush environments.
The gritty, grandiose Viking themes make for a cool backdrop and really prove a great fit for the AC formula. The Medieval England and Norway locales are wondrous and atmospheric, brought to life by some stunning visuals. Despite playing on the Xbox One, I was dazzled by the truly gorgeous landscapes, along with highly impressive lighting effects and draw distances. It was a sight to behold gazing upon the towering, distant mountains of Norway, or watching the sunlight softly reflect on the water as I sailed the rivers of Mercia.
Complementing this is the atmospheric soundtrack; the melodic choirs and instrumentals further set the mood and immersed me in my journey. Dynamic day-night and weather effects, as well as the random, shifting behaviors of NPC inhabitants also add to this organic feel. Nice touches here and there, like the ruined ancient Roman structures scattered about the wilderness, serve to add some historical depth and authenticity too.
The game largely draws from the sandbox RPG style of Odyssey and uses it to its advantage. At the same time, Ubisoft has dialled back some of the scale and complexity a tad, especially with the progression, questing, and weapons/armor. For my money, though, this more streamlined, focused structure nicely strikes that sweet spot between depth and accessibility.
At least in part, Valhalla still feels familiarly AC, with trademark mechanics like stealth kills, roof-diving, and "blending in" amongst the townsfolk. At the same time, the prominent Norse themes, vast open-worlds, and some neat gameplay additions and twists grant it a distinct feel. There's more of an action-RPG vibe this time, and head-to-head combat plays a larger role. In most cases, though, satisfying stealth kills are still an option for the more traditional assassins out there.
The game’s narrative partly draws from its roots of conspiracy and historical discoveries, albeit on a subtler level. But really, Valhalla shines more when it deviates from the more typical AC threads. The story captivates with its tale of Viking adventure and vengeance, intermixed with Middle Age political strife and war. You play as the (male or female) Norse Eivor, whose dark past and harsh living conditions in Norway coaxes Eivor and his brother Sigurd to seek greener pastures. Being a Viking, this means sailing for occupied regions - England in this case - and partaking in raids, scuffles, and plundering.
The plot is pretty straightforward and simple early on, and rings rather similar to Michael Hirst’s Vikings series at times. It’s a bit of a slow burn, to be sure. Much of its intrigue tends to stem from its cast of colorful, morally grey characters, solid writing, and great voiceover performances. Still, the plot does get more interesting several hours in, when the stakes get higher, secrets are revealed, and Eivor’s influence in the fractured English kingdoms increases.
The game’s campaign - which clocks in at a robust 50 hours - comes with a variety of fun activities that largely lets you play your own way. Tasks typically involve taking out enemies, conquering lands, and/or snagging loot in some fashion. Yet, there are usually multiple avenues offered in how you get these done. Some missions get more creative too, including one where you must seek out an exiled king hiding in a crypt and literally carry him back to your settlement for deposition.
You may find yourself getting lost in the bustling township life of dice romps, amusing drinking games, and even Viking-era rap battles called “Flyting.” You can spend much of your time just traveling the wilderness and hunting (particularly fun when traversing the area on horseback - or wolfback). You can even do some light puzzle-solving by way of small crypts and buildings that hold loot.
This impressive versatility in the gameplay extends to fighting moves and techniques, as well as conflicts in general. You can stress pure strength with close-range combat, pull off stylish skills/abilities, or play a more stealthy, classic AC game of climbing buildings, hiding in hay, and blending in. You can play a more long-range game and go in bows blazing or rely on power in numbers by calling for raids.
This unrestricted style is further driven home by a handy Power Level, which is a sort of universal xp system that builds by doing various tasks. These range from getting kills and finishing main quests to just climbing atop fast-travel vantage points and diving off them. This tool is also a handy indicator of your overall strength, which will give you an idea of how tough a clash with a particular opponent will be.
You’re also granted subtle choices during the campaign itself, along with full-blown splits in story paths. These include plot beats like joining up with a particular clan, picking an area to travel to, and choosing to let an adversary live or die. Many of these decisions have at least a small ripple effect that crops up later in some form. For instance, a fighter you've spared may pop up later and play a role in the story. This unique campaign takes on a somewhat sporadic structure of segmented chapters, which tends to give it a more fluid, open-ended feel, and keeps the predictability at bay.
For as strong as the campaign is, there is much incentive to venture off the beaten path and explore, which is fitting given your Viking pedigree. Side quests mostly take a back seat in Valhalla; they're prompted via “World Event" icons and dialogue queues, and often consist of small tasks requested by NPCs. Examples of these mostly marginal events are delivering grain and aiding a couple of guys in burning down a shack.
There are plenty of other distractions to be had, especially when it comes to the abundant loot and collectibles. Mini-boss “Zealots” can be hunted down and killed for rewards, setting the stage for some heart-pounding duels. Items like Artifacts, abilities, and treasure maps can be obtained, along with materials that can be put towards settlement building. There are also platforming-esque “Flying Paper” challenges, which have you chasing drifting tattoo designs for Eivor. These enticing goodies beckon you to explore the vast, diverse landscapes of Valhalla.
Another amusing pastime is the ability to build and play around in your own settlement. This feature adds a rewarding twist to the gameplay, and further incentivizes raiding and plundering for resources. Gathering certain materials will allow you to construct buildings and upgrade your settlement incrementally. These buildings will open up new side activities, as well as increase Eivor’s strength and usefulness. Huts can be built to unlock hunting and fishing tasks, for instance.
Various items can be bought via Trading Posts, while the Blacksmith allows you to customize and enhance your gear. There’s also the Barracks, where you can manage and tweak your raiding crew. You can even recruit Viking fighters for raids that others have made online - marking the one semblance of multiplayer functionality in the game. Like the Power Level, settlement building makes for a nice throughline and centralized hub of progression.
Speaking of raids - these side activities are one area where Valhalla truly shines, along with larger-scale assaults. Much like the sailing and sea battles in Black Flag, this is a major highlight and one of the primary sources of fun. Certain towns and settlements are marked on your map as raiding spots, which can be ransacked by sea or by blowing your horn on land to call forth troops.
Heck, even the somewhat-lengthy sea voyages to get to these spots are often enjoyable. You can liven up your exhilarating river travels with some jaunty Viking tunes or even tales recited by your crew. It's a subtle touch, but a nice one. Of course, the fun really begins when you and your fighters belt your war cries and rush the enemy gates. These areas are usually met with several hostile foes with varying strengths and weapons, along with distraught peasants running around frantically.
Like solo missions, these assaults and raids can be tackled in multiple ways. You might charge a battering ram through the gates and start slicing and dicing (a super fun endeavor). Or you may prefer to scope out the area Far Cry-style with your scouting raven and pick off foes one by one. Once the enemy troops have started to thin, you can get to work on breaking down doors, setting buildings ablaze, and pillaging wealth and goods. These events are both thrilling and rewarding, and I often found myself putting off the main quest to embark on yet another raid to get more coveted wealth. Just like real Vikings, these earnings will bolster your settlement and equipment.
While the emphasis on fighting makes for some exciting moments, the actual close-range combat mechanics leave a bit to be desired early on. Their somewhat clunky nature tends to lack a feeling of fluidity and verges on repetitive at times. With skills, abilities, and bows out of the equation, fighting can devolve into basic hacking and slashing. It often becomes little more than an awkward dance with enemies whose erratic behavior can be tough to read. It’s a bit of a free-for-all that’s somewhat “hit and miss,” if you’ll excuse the pun.
That said, combat does get far more enjoyable and nuanced when Eivor learns more moves beyond basic strikes and dodges/parries - and there’s no shortage of them. You'll gain skills, which are various moves, perks, and buffs earned through a large - and quite messy - skill tree. Most are fun to pull off, and open up more useful avenues for attacks and counters. An example is the devastating "Stomp" move that can be performed on a fallen foe. The impactful abilities are particularly neat though, as eight of these collectible moves can be affixed to hotkeys and accessed simply and swiftly when fighting.
These include moves such as axe tosses and fire strikes, and ranged moves like poison shots and raven-aided diversions. Having this array of offensive tools at your disposal breathes much-needed fun into the combat - though it takes some time to get there. In more typical AC fashion, you can of course still get crafty with stealth kills from behind, above, or below. While these assassinations take more of a back seat in this game, they're still delightful to pull off.
One remaining strength that warrants a mention is the system of weapon and armor upgrades. Unlike recent entries, Ubisoft keeps things somewhat simple with a more limited palette of weaponry and gear. Depth and versatility has instead been added to the system of enhancements and “perks” for existing gear. Upgrading and customizing equipment is done by gathering materials, as well as obtainable Runes that can be swapped out. Weapons and armor fall under a three-tiered system consisting of: Bear, Raven, and Wolf. These come with unique traits and coincide with skills and abilities, as many skills will grant buffs to gear falling under that category. It’s an organized, intuitive system that allows for flexibility without being too convoluted.
Playing through my expansive journey with Eivor has been quite memorable - and a pretty smooth one technically, despite playing on the Xbox One. Regardless of your console, Valhalla is a rich experience cinematically and in terms of gameplay. As a side note, though, next-gen hold-outs should be warned that the load times on these older consoles can be rather lengthy. Added to this was the occasional bug, like getting stuck in some rocky terrain, falling through a surface, and a couple of disheartening game freezes.
These occurrences were very minor, though, and largely forgivable given how much I enjoyed Valhalla as a whole. Beyond these slight blemishes and the somewhat “slow burn” of both the combat and story, there’s much to love about this gripping Norse epic. I look forward to setting sail again and embarking on more Viking escapades.