Assassin's Creed Valhalla review – Ragnarök ‘n’ roll

Ubisoft’s open world Viking adventure is one of the biggest multiformat releases this Christmas but how does it compare to previous entries?

Assassin’s Creed is a franchise that’s been around long enough that it’s starting to run out of historical eras in which to set its almost annual instalments. Valhalla returns to the series’ temporal roots with a trip back to the Dark Ages, this time in ninth century Norway and England rather than the original’s Jerusalem, although this outing also brings along a number of the game’s more recent innovations to help keep you busy.

Starting in a snow-covered but jolly Viking village, the bonhomie is short-lived, as the settlement gets raided, your character’s parents and their friends slaughtered, and your protagonist taken in by a friendly neighbouring king. Not shying away from the fact that Vikings made slaves of their captured enemies, it still tries to portray them as an honourable people despite their love of a good pillage.

Your first choice is whether the game’s protagonist Eivor is male, female, or if you want to leave it up to the Animus (the device that lets modern humans play through large stretches of historical people’s lives) to switch Eivor’s sex at critical moments in the story. We played as a female Eivor, but that’s entirely optional and seems to make only cosmetic differences to the game itself.

Apart from that complication, Valhalla is in almost all ways Assassin’s Creed business as usual. On a sprawling map you’ll once again need to climb high points to ‘synchronise’ new chunks of the landscape, revealing monasteries and villages to raid, treasures to discover, and what the game calls ‘world events’.

Those aren’t quite side quests so much as minor incidents built around often pretty offbeat characters and their problems. The franchise as a whole tends towards relentless poker face, and world events are really the only place it manages to display a sense of humour, as you chat to the various weirdos who either need help with something or weakly try to rob you, letting you lay waste to their unfortunate bandit buddies.

In recent Assassin’s Creed games you had access to an eagle that was effectively the drone in Ghost Recon, letting you scout the landscape, highlight bad guys, and spot loot pick-ups. This time around you have a raven, and it no longer auto-targets enemies. For that you’ll need to get in close and use your Odin Sight, the refreshed name for Eagle Vision from the earlier games.

The net effect is that you can no longer conveniently scope everything out from a distance, before sneaking forwards and mopping up enemies with your bow. You now need to plunge into the thick of things to find and eliminate guards and spot treasures, some of which can be extremely well hidden. This often demands some environmental problem solving, smashing crates to slither through gaps or dropping heavy boxes on weakened boards to open underground tunnels.

Fighting has now changed significantly. Battles have a weightier feel, and no longer are you encouraged to be stealth-only. Raids, a major facet of being a Viking, favour all-out attacks where you charge in bellowing, rather than creeping in using your bow and hidden blade. That means mixing parries, dodges, and shield-based defence with light and heavy attacks to overcome often quite large groups of enemies. It’s not quite the Souls-Bjorn it would like to be, but it’s a more interesting system than recent games.

That’s not to say stealth doesn’t also play a part though. Taking down outposts solo is still a mainly quiet affair, ducking into shrubbery to avoid detection, picking off foes when nobody else is looking, and whistling quietly to attract single guards so you take them down without causing an alert. Valhalla also sees the return of social blending from the early Assassin’s Creeds, where instead of out-and-out hiding, you can pull up your hood and sit on a bench or shuffle along with the locals.

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This being a very long time ago, the Templars are still prototypical, calling themselves The Order of the Ancients. Their chiefs and the zealots that make up their rank and file become your targets, in a campaign to rid England of their vile influence. Initially they’re impossibly tough, with armour and attacks that so massively outclass anything you’re capable of that there’s no point even trying, but soon enough you’ll unlock sufficient upgrades to be able to turn the tables.

Skill points arrive in pairs, letting you open up nodes on a Final Fantasy X-style skill tree, that remains invisible until you unlock neighbouring branches. Although initially that feels unnecessarily confusing you soon realise that the order in which you unlock stuff doesn’t really matter that much. Yes, you can favour attacks over stealth if that’s the way your Eivor likes to do business, but eventually you’ll end up with similar bonuses anyway as you gain access to more and more of the tree.

Separate from that are abilities, which you acquire through reading special books. Each has a single upgrade level unlocked by finding a duplicate book, and you’ll often have to do a good bit of puzzling and exploration to locate them in their underground cellars, the entrances to which are barred, forcing you to find alternative routes underground. It’s an interesting way of adding challenge without simply throwing in legions of extra enemies.

Along with crowd blending, Valhalla also sees the welcome return of the assassin’s hidden wrist blade, although this time it’s upgradeable and often isn’t enough to kill tougher enemies in a single strike. For basic cannon fodder it’s more than enough however and remains a satisfying and silent way of dispatching guards without anyone being any the wiser.

Beyond the moment-to-moment jobs of raids, assassinations, and treasure hunting, there’s an extensive meta game in which you use pilfered supplies to build and upgrade your English settlement. That gives you access to better weapons, a more pimped-out longboat, and Jomsvikings, the Assassin’s Creed equivalent of Dragon’s Dogma pawns – computer-controlled allies that you hire out to other players online.

You’ll also need to build influence with local clans, helping them out by razing their enemies, returning recently captured strongholds to them, and generally being a good neighbour. It helps add a little shape to what might otherwise feel like a somewhat formless enterprise, which despite its variety, still amounts to little more than a bunch of disparate tasks.

Whether all this makes you salivate with anticipation or feel tired inside is largely a question of where you stand on the question of Ubisoft open world games. Ghost Recon, Far Cry, Watch Dogs, and Assassin’s Creed now share such obviously similar DNA that if you like one, the chances are you’ll enjoy the others – but the opposite is also true. Anyone sick and tired of mildly repetitive, sprawling open worlds will find every single thing they hate in Valhalla.

Still, if you’ve got a hundred hours to kill, and enjoy spending time wheedling your way through a recalcitrant underground entrance, or toying with distractions like tactical dice game, Orlog; competitive drinking from animal horns; or Flyting, the historically accurate insult-based viking rap battles, then Assassin’s Creed is a game of rare size and scope.

The game offers an ultra-stylised take on its historical settings, the blood red sunsets and god rays of Norway, and the gold-infused greenery of an England that really never was, but as in feature films, where everything’s turned up to 11 for extra visual impact, it really works, with almost every scene looking like a Turner painting. As a backdrop to its larger-than-life characters it feels like the right decision.

This wouldn’t be a Ubisoft game without its share of glitches though and unfortunately the PlayStation 4 version has plenty. Speech that pauses or stutters, controller vibration that keep going on uncontrollably during cut scenes, or a civilian walking on the spot atop a guard tower. Even the load screens aren’t safe, with Eivor occasionally appearing with slanting grey bars connecting her with the ground. None completely ruins the game, but they do undermine the atmosphere.

So for better and for worse, Valhalla is every inch an Assassin’s Creed game. It’s huge, varied and mildly disjointed, but also rich, satisfying, and frequently great fun. The FromSoftware inspired battles are a distinct improvement and Valhalla has got some decent mini-games, if that’s your cup of tea, but it also suffers from manifold glitches at launch. With a bit of luck they’ll be patched up in due course, but as it stands this is a game that falls a few metres short of true brilliance.

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla review summary

In Short: A vast and multi-faceted trip through a stylised Viking life, with a new fighting system, manifold mini-games and diversions, and untold glitches. It’s Assassin’s Creed to its core.

Pros: The mix of stealth and battle charge raids makes a nice change of pace, with combat more exciting than usual. It looks beautiful throughout and it’ll keep you out of trouble for weeks.

Cons: Many bugs. The open world is large and relatively empty, a problem exacerbated if you turn down the HUD settings. Conversational choices rarely seem important and side missions feel flyweight and inconsequential.

Score: 7/10

Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PlayStation 5, PC, and Stadia
Price: £59.99
Publisher: Ubisoft
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Release Date: 10th November 2020 (19/11 on PS5)
Age Rating: 18

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