*NOTE: This review is based on a PS4 play-through*
In COVID-19 world, gaming has been a saving grace for my sanity. In my time waiting for job boards to refresh, and to avoid watching the same reruns over & over, I’ve taken to replaying some of the larger open-world games that I own. That’s one of the reasons I’m so glad that we now have Assassins Creed Valhalla.
I played this game for a week solid (several hours a day), and I’ve got a few thoughts that I want to share with you all. So let’s break down the good, the bad, and the WTF here, shall we?
I want to start off with graphics, because this is where my biggest issues with this game lie. First off, let me say that the scenery & landscaping is absolutely gorgeous. With the beginning of the game taking place in Norway during the winter, the devs gave that area a whitish-blue hue, really evoking a sense of how cold it is. The snow mechanics are also quite impressive, as every step Eivor takes leaves tracks in snowdrifts and on paths (it’s the little things sometimes), and the aurora borealis made the sky beautiful to look at.
However… Looking at the character models in this game made me wonder exactly what the hell happened in the development process. The character faces look very sub-par, and the conversation scenes seem to lack the emoting finesse of both Origins and Odyssey. There were times that I even came across waxy & dead-eyed NPCs, that evoked the graphical issues from the remaster of the Ezio trilogy. Sufficed to say, the characters just look rough. It almost feels like the graphical quality of these titles is actually declining; and to me, that’s quite the disappointment.
While the overall control scheme of the Assassins Creed games has remained largely the same, there have been several control tweaks between Odyssey and Valhalla. Between the changes from Origins to Odyssey to Valhalla, I’m wondering if the teams over at Ubisoft are just having trouble deciding on a set-up, rather than taking what fans say into account.
So, let’s focus on some of the bigger ones. First off, Valhalla has added a tool wheel to the ever-expanding list of controls for this series. This tool wheel allows for the accessing of things like torches, the hood on Eivor’s cloak, calling for your raiders, fishing (really), and calling for your mount. Seems good, right? Well, in my opinion, it actually detracts from the game. All action stops when accessing the tool wheel, and it takes up the entire screen. This makes the flow of movement & combat feel choppy, and slightly breaks the immersion into what’s going on. It took me a good long while of playing before the control scheme sunk in, and I was able to effectively move, attack, block/parry, and assassinate.
All of that being said, I was highly impressed by the level of accessibility controls that Ubisoft has added to this chapter in the AC saga. It’s great to see them embracing the notion that gaming is for everyone, and there are gamers out there who may not have the “typical” levels of movement or sensory normativity that others do. Features like colorblind controls, QTE input adjustment, text size & subtitle adjustment, and button re-mapping go a LONG way to making titles like this more accessible to a wide array of gamers.
As we all know, the Assassins Creed story is a long-running and (seemingly) ever-evolving story, with different settings & characters at almost every turn. This time around, the story takes on a Norse flavor, and the writing does seem to support that Ubisoft did more homework. The story starts with another familial loss (par for the course with AC), pushing Eivor to pursue revenge. It’s not long, however, before Eivor’s adopted brother brings newcomers to their home and the real meat of the story begins.
Now, I wouldn’t be a decent reviewer if I couldn’t remain as objective as possible. So…either I’ve grown THAT accustomed to the intrigue & character depth of this saga, or this script is just a bit phoned-in. I feel like I already know what’s going to happen as this story unfolds. I’m having some difficulty getting invested in the characters, and the pacing feels too slow for a new addition to the Assassins Creed story. Sure, building alliances and starting over in a new land can be trying and take a lot of patience. However, I feel like Ubisoft may have taken too much of a cue from The Witcher 3, and tried too hard to make this title an epic in and of itself rather than a chapter in a larger story.
Now, let’s talk about the Isu. Those of us who have played at least Origins and Odyssey will no doubt notice that the story has been delving further & further into the mythos of Those Who Came Before. While this element of the story is all well & good, and adds a neat angle to the origin of the human species, I personally feel like the writing has moved too far from what it was originally – a story focused in history and around actual figures from our past. Focusing more on the mythology and less on how the Assassin/Templar feud has developed (and who took which side) feels almost like an abandonment of why I originally began playing this series.
Now I’m going to voice what may be a very controversial opinion: The World Events (i.e. side missions) in this chapter just get SILLY. Between rookie raiders completely screwing up a practice raid, to a couple who pull Eivor into their…rather unique roleplay, to an actual fart joke that adds nothing to the narrative but a fart joke, these events feel like they were kind of just thrown in there to artificially pad out the game’s run time. Don’t get me wrong, and occasional laugh is great. But to have almost ALL of these be gags? It gets to be a bit much.
Gameplay… This is another area where some of my biggest issues with this chapter lie. As I alluded to earlier, the pacing of this title is a bit slow at times. This was my first gripe about the gameplay, as it doesn’t make me want to bury myself in the game to see what happens next. Also, the addition of events like Raids and Assaults make for A LOT of open combat – which of course doesn’t make for the good stealth-driven gameplay that we’ve come to love in the Assassins Creed series. I mean, the open combat is pretty engaging & has a level of visceral fun to it, but I feel like it just doesn’t jive with this series. Yes, I know that Vikings were all about a glorious death in battle, but that feels counterintuitive to what this saga is about.
Secondly, the addition of depletable stamina makes evasion & attacking in the aforementioned open combat that much more annoying. Again, it feels like Ubisoft tried to borrow too much from The Witcher 3, and didn’t take into account what fans of the Assassins Creed series keep coming back to experience. If Ubisoft wanted to add a stamina mechanic to a game like this, I feel like they (and the fans) would have been better served if they’d incorporated it into assassinations. Maybe have each assassination use up a bit of stamina, and use up more for high-level targets. Cutting down the open combat and adding a stamina cooldown after each assassination would have allowed the game to remain focused on stealth, while posing a challenge to players to plan their movements and attacks more carefully.
My final issue with the gameplay was the fact that Ubisoft changed the ability to brightly mark targets with our bird friend, in exchange for just putting a numbered marker on them. This makes the player have to stop moving every now & again to use Odin’s sight in order to survey their surroundings in an effort to prevent enemies from sneaking up – which of course interrupts the flow of the game, and slightly breaks immersion again.
All in all, I’ve got to say that I’m a bit disappointed in Assassins Creed Valhalla. There are a few bugs that were not addressed, the gameplay suffers from slow-down due to the new controls, and I’ve even found that a collectible or two are flat-out missing (preventing completionists like me from getting our just rewards). Remember how this game was originally supposed to release on November 17th? Well, I feel like Ubisoft Montreal could’ve used that extra week to clean this stuff up.
I know that Ubisoft wants to keep this series fresh for those of us who’ve been here since the beginning, but I feel like there are certain aspects of the story and gameplay that should be written in stone. I mean, I dig the setting for this one, and I’m still very interested to see where things go from here, but I just wish that we could stick with some core elements.
As a fan of the Assassins Creed series, I’ve gotta say: DO BETTER, UBISOFT.
3 out of 5 Order of the Ancients Medallions