Assassin’s Creed Valhalla Review
We want a lot out of our games these days. It’s not enough to just run around, stabbing people in the neck with a tiny wrist blade. Now we need base building, fishing minigames, rap battles, coastal raids, skill trees, and the ever-present crafting mechanics. I’m unclear if we asked for this or what, but Ubisoft has graciously provided this gameplay buffet all the same. This has become the new standard for Assassin’s Creed games. Let the player want for nothing. Yet, none of these endless systems feel properly explored on their own. Instead, we are left to fill up on tiny bites of a dozen different ideas. You can still make a meal out of that, however. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, to extend the metaphor, makes for a sumptuous buffet.
A most important disclaimer beforehand: I haven’t properly played an Assassin’s Creed game since the first one. This will be my second foray into the world of sneakin’ and stabbin’ since 2007. So a lot of the juicy historical context is absent from my experience. That said, the history of the series is baked into the bones of this beast. Every newly-introduced gameplay mechanic is layered atop the others, so that your core loop is festooned with systems. You can assassinate foes, go on raids, go fishing, build your village, engage in flyting/rap battles, fill out a massive skill tree, slowly uncover a vast conspiracy, complete random side missions, do some fight clubbing, hunt for treasure, or complete the main narrative. This isn’t an exhaustive list, either. This is just what I could remember off the top of my head. And that’s kind of a problem.
This has been, as I understand it, the new burden of the AC series. Fans were looking for something new, so Ubisoft started adding features. Every successive release scoops up and retains more of these features, leading to a map UI choking on clutter. None of it feels especially shallow, or flawed, but it does feel like a lot. On a mechanical level, these endless options are fine. They run well, they’re neatly implemented into the larger gameplay loop, and they’re terribly compelling. But there’s enough of them to be distracting, too. I had to make an executive decision early on, that I wouldn’t get sucked up in side dishes unless they were critical to my continued progression. And while they’re mechanically compelling, it feels antithetical to your immersion to have this fiery warrior take several hours to save up for a new fishing hut. If nothing else, Valhalla demonstrates how difficult it is to engage with all these activities without slamming the brakes on your forward progress.
A Pizza With A Hundred Toppings
My Assassin’s Creed history lessons have taught me that these games never launch without a meaty fistful of bugs. This was no exception, though said bugs were pretty tame. Sure, some dialogue stuttered, a few textures fought to catch up, some frames were skipped, and a crash or two occurred, but it mostly ran just… fine? This is prior to a day one patch, by the way. You, the reader, might see none of what I’m describing here. We’ve come a long ways from the days of faces not showing up in cutscenes. The flaws are so minimal that I forgot about them until the game crashed. Even then, I was quickly lost in the rhythms of play once more. No, the bugs ain’t bad at all, this time around at least.
Viking raids and stealth combat make for weird bedfellows. While Ubisoft is no stranger to grafting discordant ideas on one another, this particular combination feels especially uneven. Certain missions will let you choose between the two paths, and they’re not equally weighted. At least for me, blowing on the raider’s horn held infinitely more appeal than sneaking in the back door. Which is not to say that I never used stealth! It’s just a lot of fun calling all your viking buddies to come burn down buildings and split necks like birch trees. More than ever, the stealth mechanics feel stapled on. They’re still rock-solid from a technical perspective. It’s just that the old Norse setting and the plentiful RPG trappings make stealth activity feel extraneous. What good is the back door when you’re so good at breaking down the front one?
As for that front-door approach, Valhalla excels at its execution. Your comrades are pretty self-reliant, content to charge up and start cracking skulls with next to no prompting on your part. You just tell them to raid and off they go! They’ll even set fire to the buildings and help you open enormous treasure chests. If you’re lost in the middle of an assault, you can follow one of the protagonists to the next objective. Only when you’re fighting bosses are you on your own. Beyond that, your squad is a reliable and useful tool during raids and big battles. You can also fiddle with the difficulty to an impressive degree. Fights, stealth, and exploration are all set to separate difficulty settings. For someone like myself, who often gets tripped up by stealth sections, this is a real boon. Apparently, you can even make high-level assassinations a sure thing, though I haven’t tested this for myself.
Curate Your Murderous Outing
The flexibility in difficulty extends to other areas, as well. The skill tree is big enough to be imposing, which could lead to some tough choices. Thankfully, you can reset your skill points at any time. Who wants to agonize over which branch to choose? Try them all, why don’t you? Maybe prioritize health over attack this time around, see where that leads you. It’s a valuable freedom, especially for a game of this size. You can even swap your character’s gender whenever you want, if the female or male version of the story is getting dull. It’s nice to know I can go from a burly assault type, to a still-pretty-burly stealth build, whenever I so desire.
This same freedom of choice and flexibility is what ultimately pins Assassin’s Creed Valhalla to the wall. This is an experience composed of morsels, dozens of fun things pressed into one. The core gameplay loop is just a series of smaller loops, none of which really come out on top. Every element is pretty good, but not quite great, on its own. But those bits still add up to a lot of fun had over a lot of hours. Without the first-hand historical context provided by the bulk of the series, I can’t be certain about this game’s intended audience. Perhaps the fanbase wants exactly this kind of game. Perhaps Ubisoft has given hardcore fans the best entry in over a decade. All I know is that I had more fun than I was expecting, while still being cognizant of the game’s weird, cluttered assembly on full display. I’m padding through the dark, a tourist reading placards to seasoned scholars. In spite of this, I feel confident that fans and newcomers alike will have a pretty good time here.
***A PS4 code was provided by Ubisoft***
- Setting implemented in excellent fashion
- Going a-vikingr is pretty fun
- Difficulty scaling feels smooth
- Buffet-style mechanics missing some depth
- Predictable for anyone familiar with the franchise
- Stealth somehow feels incongruous