When Ubisoft announced that the Assassin’s Creed franchise was going Viking, I was very skeptical. I couldn’t wait to play as raging Norsemen wreaking havoc across England, but how was this going to work for an AC game? Vikings have never been known for their subtlety. In fact, they’re known for their incredible lack of subtlety. But most of the AC games haven’t let me down yet (we don’t talk about Assassin’s Creed III – Broken Age), so I was willing to go into Assassin’s Creed Valhalla with an open mind. As long as the game isn’t broken, doesn’t focus too heavily on the present-day stuff, and allows for hidden blade murderings, it should be a good old time.
To this day, I have not figured out why Ubisoft wants you to care about the present-day drama. After 12 games, I still don’t care, even though it made sense with the Atlantis arc in Odyssey. They want you to care about it once more in Valhalla, but I still don’t. It doesn’t matter that the world is coming to an end or that they’ve brought back the only fun present-day character. None of it matters when there are villages to raid. While the present-day melodrama isn’t as thick as it has been in the past, it was still quite the unwelcome visitor. It’s kind of like acne. Just when everything is going great and you’re having fun, suddenly a whitehead pops up out of nowhere. Forcing Layla out of the Animus to interact with people is as fun as that sudden zit.
Now that that unpleasantness is out of the way, let’s dive into 8th century Norway and England, shall we?
Unfortunately, Valhalla starts off incredibly similarly to every other AC title. Young Eivor sees her family brutally cut down by a rival clan, which consumes her with revenge for the next 17 years. Now, hold on to your hat, because I know this part will be a huge twist. It turns out that the chieftain of the rival clan was a member of the Order of the Ancients, aka the original Templars. I have no idea how anyone could have seen that coming.
It’s after his death that Eivor travels to England with her adoptive brother and a band of their Raven Clan to start fresh. They settle in what is now Leicester and attempt to make this new land their home. Since they are a relatively small group, they know the first order of business is to make friends and allies with the neighbors. Some of these neighbors are other Danes (Vikings that invaded/settled England) and others are Anglo-Saxons. While, at first, it appears that Valhalla is harping on the Anglo-Saxon Christians for being bigots, members of the Ancient Order, and overly cruel, it’s not long before the game shows the player that many Saxons are fine with Danes and just want to live in peace. You learn that Danes and Saxons alike are quick to attack and persecute their own as much as they will one another.
As a Christian, I greatly appreciated that balance, and it wasn’t the only time Ubisoft demonstrated a historical balance with the Danes, either. While the Vikings may be notorious for raiding and pillaging, they were also a very educated people. One of the minigames that Eivor can participate in at settlements is the art of flyting, where Eivor must battle with her wits instead of her ax. The flyting duels were my absolute favorite of the mini-games, and that’s not just because Eivor could raise her charisma by winning such a duel. (Charisma opens up persuasive dialogue options.) I loved the creativity required with it, as well as being forced to pay attention to the cadence of the verses to score a successful barb.
One of the minigames was a drinking game, which you’d expect from Vikings at the outset. Whoever chugs three horns of mead the fastest wins, but upon finishing, Eivor will be rather drunk. The other minigame was Orlog, a common dice game of the Norse. I played it once and never played it again, because I wanted to make sure I had time to actually review the game. I could play Orlog for hours, easily, and I won’t be surprised if Ubisoft makes it a standalone game, similarly to what CD Project Red did with Gwent.
But there’s more to do than play minigames in the various settlements. Oh dear Lord, is there more to do. Eivor’s primary focus is settling into England, making allies, building up the Clan’s settlement, and promoting general peace. Although, storming monasteries for supplies doesn’t break the peace in their eyes; I’m guessing for reasons.
While forging alliances is usually a give-and-take affair, at least each one has its own theme to it. For one alliance, you’ll have to help an ousted jarlskona reclaim the city she built. For another, Eivor will have to help a weak, but diplomatic, Saxon become tough enough for his betrothed’s brothers to bless the marriage. Ultimately, it boils down to Eivor attacking someone and razing something to the ground, but the journey to get there is never the same.
For one alliance, I had to investigate and identify a potential traitor. Once your investigation is complete, you announce the traitor and watch as justice is meted out (aka throat slit, but po-tay-to po-tah-to). I did get curious here, however, as to how much my choice mattered overall. I reloaded my save to pick the wrong choice on purpose, just to see if the cutscene changed at all. Other than Soma’s dialogue changing to fit why this person would betray her, it was exactly the same. I at least expected Odin to comment as Eivor watches Soma walk sadly away, but no, he kept the same tune. Perhaps choosing incorrectly affects the story down the line, but I didn’t continue that route to find out. Thankfully, some ramifications of choices are more immediate. For instance, by making one particular choice, the zealots never targeted me. They were still present in the world, but they weren’t actively hunting me down like the mercenaries would in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey or the Phylakes from Assassin’s Creed Origins.
You’ve probably noticed how I haven’t mentioned assassinations or the Order of the Ancients, haven’t you? Eivor’s brother, Sigurd, picks up two from the Order of the Hidden Ones during his years of raiding, and they travel with him to England. They gifted Eivor a hidden blade and told her a bit about their mission, and then that’s almost it. Like Origins and Odyssey, the player has a tree of members of the Order to take out. Also like before, Eivor will have to find clues to unmask the members. Sometimes, those who are causing trouble in England are members of the Order. Sometimes, you’ll find the random Order member minding his or her business in the market. Most of the time, I completely forgot they were a thing. I was too focused on collecting Roman Empire artifacts or stealing ingots to upgrade my armor or helping a king get crowned. The idea of hunting down members of the Order quickly becomes lost in the wayside, although you do have to eventually unmask all of them.
This is the first time I’ve ever seen the Order be practically forgotten. Black Flag came close, but not like this. Even though Odyssey wasn’t about an Order of the Ancients or the Hidden Ones, you were conscious of the fact that the only way to progress any of the game was to hunt down the Masked Ones. The whole thing ended up feeling like Ubisoft wanted to make a Vikings game and haphazardly fit the main purpose of the AC games around its plans. It was bizarre, to say the least.
Albeit not as bizarre as some of the visual elements of the game. In one cutscene, a woman literally walked through Eivor. A cutscene. I have gotten Eivor stuck in a tree before, and the only solution was to restart the game. That was on top of the many times the game crashed, even after two patches released.
Then there’s jankiness of character movement. I nearly had Mass Effect Andromeda flashbacks, but this wasn’t that bad by far. However, nearly all movement outside of combat was, for the lack of a better word, janky. Early on in the game, Eivor had a conversation with Randvi, Sigurd’s wife, and the whole time Randvi spoke, she kept rolling her shoulders forward and back. Eivor’s breathing would almost over-exaggerate, as if Ubisoft remembered that oh yeah, people don’t stand perfectly still. Even worse, they move this way while walking and talking. It’s occasionally cringe-worthy and occasionally mesmerizing in a train wreck sort of way.
But none of that tops my first boss fight, where the boss suddenly curled up into a ball in mid-air and stayed there, allowing me to hack away at him with ease.
The sidequests, or World Events, are a little on the weird almost-an-afterthought side as well. When you start one, there is no direction what to do next. If you weren’t paying attention to what some little girl is crying about, don’t expect the objectives to be in the Quest menu. None of them will be there. Even if you were paying attention, what you’re supposed to do is rarely clear. On the one hand, that’s kind of fun, making these World Events be puzzles of a sort, but on the other hand, it’s annoying when there’s not a payoff. Often, your only payoff is the removal of that blue dot on your overworld map. So many of these Events are flat out weird, to the point that if some of these hadn’t given me treasure or pets, I wouldn’t have bothered with them at all. I can’t even tell if they affect the World at large, either.
Overall, Ubisoft has created a very entertaining Vikings game, one that will only get better with patches for the visual weirdness. As long as you don’t expect Assassin’s Creed Valhalla to be like past AC games where the Order is tantamount to everything the main character does, AC fans will find plenty to enjoy. If this is your first time to the world of Assassin’s Creed, then perhaps this is the best way to start (just ignore all the present-day mumbo jumbo).
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla will come to the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Xbox Series X, PC, and Google Stadia on November 10, 2020 and on the PlayStation 5 on November 12, 2020.