Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla – Beauty and Violence in Equal Measure
Xbox One, Xbox Series X, PS4, PS5, PC
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is Ubisoft’s latest epic adventure, this time set against the backdrop of the Nordic invasion and migration to England. It is a sprawling game that has more to do than one person can reasonably cover, which is why we got two people to do the job. Jess Zammit and Matt Hewson have both been living their best Viking life and have come together to form some final thoughts on this grand title.
Matt: Great Odin’s Beard! This is a big game. Big not just in the sheer size of the map, but big in ideas and different elements that make up the gameplay. Ubisoft has thrown everything but the kitchen sink at this one and much to my surprise it almost all sticks. This is a world to get lost in and as much as I hate to make the comparison the only other game that I have played that features a world that is so easy to immerse yourself in is The Witcher 3. What is odd though, when compared to traditional Assassin’s Creed settings, the world of Valhalla is easily the most sparsely populated, which funnily enough actually adds to the immersion. Jess, how did you feel about the sheer scope of the game?
Jess: By the hammer of Thor, it is absolutely massive. The Witcher 3 actually feels like a great comparison to make, because it definitely gives me that same sense of being in a world that is very much alive, whether or not I was in it. I don’t think I’ve managed to complete a single main quest without being sidetracked by at least ten ‘World Events’ along the way. When there’s a little blue or gold dot on the map telling me there’s something to explore or collect, I can’t help but go out of my way to check it out. The way they’ve essentially replaced side quests with these events makes the world more immersive, but considering they don’t usually come with map markers or directives beyond characters yelling at you, I’ve found it pretty easy to get a little confused about what the game is asking me to do during these little moments. I love that there’s so much to do, but I wish sometimes that I wasn’t having to do so much guesswork to find and complete things. That said, I haven’t found myself too frustrated by any one thing that I haven’t wanted to keep trying – the upside of there being so much to do is that there’s always something else nearby to distract you again.
Matt: It is also important to note that you can play with a few settings that make tracking everything easier. In fact, I think this is just about the best example of accessibility options in gaming. Even better than The Last of Us Part 2 and Gears 5. There are so many options to set the game to how you want to play it. From disability-related settings like colourblind mode and screen-readers for the menus to a whole swathe of difficulty and experience customisations that ensure that your trip to Valhalla is tailored perfectly to both your ability and your desire. But onto the most important thing, which is if you aren’t playing as the female avatar of Eivor you are doing it wrong. She is wonderful and sounds like a Viking version of Marriane Faithful (I’m old, I get it). I haven’t fallen in love with her in the same way as I did Kassandra in Odyssey, but she is a captivating and commanding lead character that handles the burden of the story with ease.
Jess: It was definitely exciting to see all those accessibility options pop up on the screen, especially before the game asks you to do anything else. They aren’t hidden behind anything – clearly, Ubisoft wants you to tailor the experience to your needs or tastes. I’d be absolutely lost without having all those map markers visible, for example, but I can absolutely imagine someone finding hours of joy in exploring the vast world for themselves. Obviously, you’re right, and they should be doing that as female Eivor, who is once again the superior choice. I have seen some other reviewers suggesting otherwise though, so maybe that’s a controversial opinion. At least this game gives you the option to change at will, which is something a lot of people asked for after getting halfway through Odyssey and realising they’d made a grave mistake by going with Alexios over sassy dreamboat Kassandra. There’s an option that lets the game choose for you depending on the context, but I couldn’t bring myself to spend too long with it. I’m way more interested in customising my Eivor with tattoos and ever-changing hairstyles and really making her my own. Kassandra, of course, still has my heart, but as time goes on I find myself liking Eivor more and more. She somehow balances her calm, rational diplomacy with a healthy amount of bloodlust and rage, and she feels like the perfect Viking heroine. It doesn’t feel like she’s quite the heartbreaker that Kassandra was, though. I feel like they’ve cut down the number of possible romances from Odyssey, in favour of fleshing out the ones that are there – which I find to be a welcome change. I also think it’s interesting that they’ve decided to focus on a sibling link again with this one. A slightly different kind of siblings though, which is nice to see.
Matt: Graphically, on the Series X at least, this is a dead set stunner. Moving along at 4K 60fps with all the looks you would expect from a next-gen game. There is simply so much detail in all of the characters, locations and world in general that I can’t help but marvel at what Ubisoft has done here. For some reason though, the perfect horse seems to allude developers with my faithful nag finding himself stuck in odd situations on a regular basis. He isn’t quite as bad at it as Roach, but not far off. There are a few of these little issues that pop up, something that if not exactly welcome, is understandable in a game of this scope, but in my time with the game, it has been pretty smooth sailing. I have spent much of my Viking life lost in awe at the detail that Ubisoft has brought to the world. How did you find it on the last-gen system Jess?
Jess: It is a gorgeous game, and I can only imagine it’s even better on next-gen, but those little glitches are pretty frequent on the last-gen system. I was lucky enough to get a code that gave me a wolf mount (Hati) instead of a horse, which is pretty damn cool, but she has the same penchant for appearing in weird places. She loves walking vertically up walls, so not quite Roach roof levels yet – but she’s getting there. The whole game otherwise looks great, but the real killer for the last-gen version is the load times. We’re talking PS2 levels of bad here. When it eventually loads, it’s great, but you might want to have a sudoku or something to pass the time while you wait. Thank god riding a wolf across the countryside feels hella cool, because the load times definitely have me second-guessing my urges to fast travel.
Matt: What I really appreciate is the return of instant kills with the wrist blade, which was something missing from the last few titles. Just about every regular enemy can be killed by stealth except for the odd overpowered baddie, but even then you can get an upgrade that allows for a quick mini-game to ensure the kill. Because of this, I get to go back to my favourite style of Assassin’s Creed play and that is to take out as many enemies as I can until I get spotted and then start swinging my axe in murderous glee. The combat system here has a real weight to it, really giving the feeling of Eivor’s size and the amount of armour she is wearing. At first, it can seem a little simple, but once some different enemies come into the picture and some more abilities open up it can become a real game of chess, only instead of a handshake the loser gets an axe to the face.
Jess: This is also a rare case of AI that actually feels helpful. Eivor has a crew of scoundrels that will help her carry out raids on settlements, and during these full-on assaults, I’ve actually found myself relying on my crewmates to thin out the hordes. Stealth is my preference too, and I’m glad they’ve brought that back as a viable approach, but they’ve also improved on the larger scale brawls. Plus, the use of a huge branching skill tree allows you to really decide where to assign your points to suit your style, while also forcing you to build everything up a little bit as you go. I particularly liked the weapon upgrade system too – you can upgrade all your weapons and armour, and the blacksmith will improve your equipment to allow you to upgrade them even further. It really allows for you to find a weapon you like early on in the game (for me it’s an Iron Flail) and hone your technique, rather than having to adapt to new weapons to gain power.
Matt: Now comes the part of every Assassin’s Creed game that no one seems to care about, the modern-day components. For me, the story of Layla has actually been a highlight in the past games and it is no different here. Layla and her implementation in the story of Assassin’s Creed has been much easier to invest in than the original hero Desmond. That trend continues here, with Layla a visibly shaken soul after the events of Odyssey. I want to know what happens with her side of the story and how Eivor’s tale leads to saving the planet. It is all grand B grade sci-fi nonsense, but it is my type of B grade sci-fi nonsense. Oh and just for a change, Layla actually has some meaningful gameplay elements in the form of some platforming puzzles that can be found throughout the map which I found to be a nice distraction from living the Viking life. Do you like the modern-day mumbo jumbo Jess or can you live without it?
Jess: I really like the modern-day stuff, I’m just constantly confused by it. I missed a couple of Assassin’s Creed games in the middle there, and playing catch-up on everyone’s role can be a little tough. While of course, we all love a little Nolan North, Layla is definitely a more intriguing character than Desmond though, and I’m actively invested in her life. Plus she has the A-Team to support her now in Shaun and Rebecca, so it’s nice to see that coming together. Those mini-challenges that involved her in the Viking world were absolutely welcome – and they’ve managed to make controlling her feel different to Eivor. She’s lighter, not burdened by heavy armour, and it brings a flowy, parkour element along with some light puzzling. It’s still not my favourite type of world event though – that honour still goes to flyting. Swinging an axe is fun, but I’m really enthusiastic about battles of wits.
Matt: Words cut just as deep as swords in the world of Vikings it would seem. Speaking of words we have written a lot of them so I guess it is time to wrap up our thoughts. For me, Valhalla isn’t a drastic reinvention of Origins or Odyssey but a welcome evolution. Whereas the worlds in the previous two games were certainly massive, they didn’t feel quite as real, quite as lived in as the world does in Valhalla which makes the whole game even more memorable. The new skill trees, seamless integration of side-quests and overall narrative are all highly enjoyable and apart from a few graphical hiccups and a wonky horse, there really isn’t too much to fault here. This is probably the pick of the crop for all the next-gen release games (for those that aren’t Yakuza fans anyways.) What say you, Jess?
Jess: Yep, I totally agree. I’ll be putting many, many more hours into this game (even when you don’t count the long loading times), and I’d easily recommend this to anyone who likes a good, meaty open-world action RPG. The main character is layered and fierce, the world feels alive, and there’s enough variation in each new challenge that I’m never looking to give up on my attempts to conquer these new lands. If you liked Odyssey, this is a no-brainer, and if you haven’t tuned in to the Assassin’s Creed series in a while, this is definitely the time to jump back in. It combines all the best elements of the past games together to make one hell of a rich and engaging adventure. Two thumbs up from me.
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla was reviewed on both the Xbox One and the Xbox Series X with code kindly supplied by Ubisoft Australia