Assassin’s Creed Valhalla Freshens Up The Franchise
For better or worse, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is another one of those games. After being set loose in England for 3 hours as badass warmaiden Eivor, I suspect this will be the series’ finest outing in quite some time. I had big, meaty issues with Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, and Valhalla appears to have tweaked or outright corrected just about all those concerns. Board your longship, friend, let’s sail for Helheim!
When I first dove off a church roof into a hay bail as Altair 13 years ago, it was a truly awe inspiring moment. Cinematic, gorgeous, and at least slightly terrifying. That luster has faded substantially, of course, but it’s still the very first thing I did in Valhalla. I wanted to understand – as best I could – if this game is a fresh beast, or just another tired, played out meal. It’s kind of both, in some weird way. As Eivor crouched on the conveniently placed wooden outcrop, underneath an insanely gorgeous skybox, I felt at home. I mashed the synchronize button. The sweeping music and camera, the cries of Odin’s raven, it was a great moment. But it feels very familiar, employing the control scheme and many of the contrivances from Origins and Odyssey – like how absurdly fast your horse runs on major paths.
One of the most welcome changes from the last game is how the hidden blade works. Yes, a towering, ox strong Viking can sneak around with the best of ’em. Where in the past the hidden blade had a damage value attached to it, that doesn’t seem to be the case here. No more sneaking past all the guards to assassinate your target, only to get a measly stealth attack and somehow alert the whole planet to your presence. Now, there’s a timing based button press to get a critical on high level targets and take them out with a single strike. I totally blew it every time, but the jury’s out on whether the window is really that tight, or the streaming service I was playing over just wasn’t responsive enough to nail the timing.
Sneaking around and taking out enemies is still great fun, especially now that the constant floating level indicators from Odyssey are gone. The knock on effect of that is that in direct combat, it feels like you can tackle any situation any which way. Without level numbers to worry about, I felt like Thor himself standing toe to toe with a whole army of hulking brutes. Mechanically, things are again quite similar. RB and RT for attacks, X to dodge, while holding RB or LB pulls up your adrenaline powered attacks. It’s a fun system, full of rewards for skillful play. Charge and guard break a shielded enemy to knock them over, allowing for a vicious stomp attack finisher. Or whip out your bow and hit a soldier’s knee (yep) to open up the option for a devastating stun attack. Weapon types seem to really change combat flow, too, with double axes totally being an option.
In one sequence, we raided a castle. It. Was. Awesome. Previous games have had epic battles, but this one felt particularly engaged and grounded. It was sometimes hard to tell how the battle was going while in the thick of combat, just as it should be. There were flaming arrows, barrels of boiling pitch, battering rams, and heroic confrontations between Eivor and enemy champions. As an embodiment of pure, frantic fun, my raid on Burgh Castle was brilliantly successful.
So Long, Icon Soup. Sort Of.
Ubisoft games are dense. Most of the time, you’re within a few seconds of literally dozens of map markers. Open the map, and you’re even more screwed. Steaming hot icon soup pours into your eyes, and it’s near impossible to make out what actually worth doing. The Valhalla preview covered a substantial region of England, and yes, there was no shortage of things to do. Still, I felt less overwhelmed here than in prior entries. The radar is less intrusive and icon heavy, which probably contributes to stumbling into things more organically. Whether intentional design or blind luck, I seemed to stumble across interesting story beats more often. From an evil witch boss battle, to a couple of Norse kids who’d lost their parents, these interactions were often more meaningful than I’ve come to expect from the series. A lot of the time, it felt more like I was playing The Witcher than an Assassin’s Creed game.
On the character front, Eivor seems at least as awesome as Kassandra and Bayek. She’s principled and traditional, but also wants to do right by the people she meets. The voice acting and writing seemed solid across the board, which hopefully carries across the experience.
Graphically, the game looks nice. I’m hesitant to call it a generational leap, but the foliage is dense, characters and locations are well rendered, and the darn skyboxes are absurdly good looking. I’m guessing we’ll see a 30fps implementation on the current gen console, and 60fps on the PS5 and Xbox Series X.
What are your thoughts on the Assassin’s Creed series? Has it overstayed its welcome? I thought it had, but now I’m eager for another adventure. I want to know what Eivor and company are up to in England. Where else will we visit? We’ll find out this fall when Assassin’s Creed Valhalla launches, and I’m ready to do Odin’s bidding.