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Back in 2018, I was fortunate enough to review Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey for Seasoned Gaming. The review was, for lack of a better word, succinct. I loved the game, but back then we did much more compact reviews and then discussed it on our weekly Bitcast. Well, things change. For example, this review is going to be substantially longer. On the other hand, some things stay the same. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, sometimes familiarity is good. I own five pairs of khaki dad cargo shorts. All the same brand and same size. I know what to expect every day when I get up and get dressed. With Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, Ubisoft has given me another pair of the super comfortable shorts I’ve grown accustomed to, but with a few welcomed changes. Very few.
Assassin’s Creed games, really most games from Ubisoft if I’m being honest, have a tendency to move sideways as opposed to forward. Innovation is left by the wayside in Valhalla in favor of small, incremental changes to the core experience. While certain aspects of the game have been revamped, they feel less like giant leaps and more like change for the sake of change. That’s not always a good thing. Let’s start from the beginning though because there’s a lot to unpack here.
This iteration in the series introduces us to Eivor, a Norse woman/man (which can be switched at anytime) who finds herself/himself (alright, for review purposes I played as the female Evior so from here on out, we’re rolling with that) leaving their homeland of Norway in a quest for greener pastures in jolly old England. She joins her brother Sigmund after his future kingship is forfeited by his father to another king. Anyway, that’s probably all you need to know to get started. I never felt connected to my character, at least not in the way I did to Cassandra in Odyssey or Ezio in Assassin’s Creed 2. There’s something missing. That something is personality. Maybe it’s better with the male lead in this game, I have no idea. The story serves more as a vessel to unlock new areas than it is a meaningful tale. It’s really a bummer too. People generally seem to love Norse mythology and while there is plenty of it here to explore and discover, it’s more about the relationship between these two siblings. Now on paper that sounds great; use the backdrop of a popular mythological setting and superimpose an engaging narrative to create an amazing experience. No problem. What is a problem is the pacing. To be fair, it’s a problem in most open world games. Ubisoft has a tendency to take it to the next level, the Ubi-Level if you will. Very few, if any, games of this magnitude have created an organic flowing experience that can make the mundane feel meaningful. Given the multiple attempts they’ve had, you would think they would have come a little closer to hitting the mark. Unfortunately, it seems they’re getting farther away. The story is just the first misstep in what is the equivalent, at times, to a poorly rehearsed clown show.
Combat has always been a crucial part of Assassin’s Creed games. It has had various successes depending on the specific title. First, the good news: The hidden blade is back baby! The absence of this staple of stab in Odyssey is still one of the most questionable decisions in the series’ history. Regardless, it’s back and it’s just as stabby as before, kind of. Aside from a few missions, stealth isn’t usually the best approach. For a game that is about an organization of assassins, actually assassinating people doesn’t seem to be a focus. They’re moving further away from it in each game. If you’re going to bring back the most iconic weapon in your arsenal, maybe make it a point to utilize it. Or just call the game Creed: Valhalla. Apart from that, the combat is extremely visceral and bloody. It really leans into the “viking” mythos. It also really leans into button mashing. After a few hours it becomes pretty evident that you can spam one specific attack over and over. Skills can augment your experience a bit but, save for a few, they become mostly irrelevant to just putting an axe in a dude’s skull. The addition of some cool new finishing animations makes up for some of the monotony of the rest, but even those eventually get old. Is it fun? Sure, sometimes. Is it repetitive? Oh yeah. On top of that, the traversal still sucks. I don’t know how many times I missed a jump, jumped a completely different direction than I was headed or just stopped climbing a wall for no reason. It’s been this way for a while and it’s super annoying. I try to do a leap of faith into a lake and at the last second my character decides to aim for the only rock in a hundred yards. Splat! Really? REALLY?
To break things up a bit, the devs added a couple of new types of encounters to the mix. Side quests are a thing of the past, kind of. They’re more like random events in this game. I strolled up on some siblings who forgot their torch so they couldn’t properly pillage. So you help them out and get some XP. They aren’t dynamic in the way RDR2 random events are. I think it was Ubisoft’s attempt at making these events more organic, but it doesn’t really work. The biggest issue is they can’t be tracked like a traditional quest. You have to really listen to what’s happening or you’ll be lost. There are several of these on my map because I missed a key bit of information and I have no idea what to do. It’s a terrible design choice. The funny thing is, I actually like what they were trying to do, they just biffed it. Raids meanwhile, can be done pretty much anywhere there are enemies along a river. You casually stroll up on your tricked out longboat, blow your warhorn, and then unleash hell. In specific places you can gather supplies needed to upgrade your settlement. It’s a fun mechanic that’s ultimately underutilized. The same goes for the large scale castle sieges which were probably my favorite addition. They’re narrative driven so you can’t just go find a castle and storm it. You can, but there’s a serious lack of battering rams so it doesn’t feel the same. Appreciate those moments when they happen because they’re few and far between.
Speaking of skills, the skill tree is…something. You gain a couple of skill points every level along with a few events that reward an extra point. It branches off in three different directions. The only one I’m sure about is that the Bear branch is melee focused. There’s also Raven and Wolf branches but their perks and bonuses are ambiguous at best. Why? Glad you asked. Say you want to focus on a pure melee build. First, you need to probably kit yourself in that type of armor. Don’t worry about sets unless you really care about confusing and seemingly arbitrary stats. Just know that red nodes improve your bear armor, blue with wolf, and yellow with raven. According to the in-game codex, those stat boosts only coincide with the specific type of gear. It really pushes you to focus on one type of build as opposed to a jack-of-all-trades build. You could go that route but it seems like a huge waste of skill points. Speaking of wasting points, most of the skill tree is hidden. So in order to find that one skill that would really be useful, I suggest using a guide because you’ll be tossing points into random, useless sections just to see what’s behind door number three. Why are there nodes to improve my bow damage in the melee tree? I don’t even use the bow. In addition, the abilities from Odyssey return as well, but you have to find them. You read that correctly. Skills are acquired through books that are scattered throughout the map. Also, you have no idea what each one is going to be unless you find a guide. Basically what I’m saying is that if you’re looking to build a specific type of combat machine, good luck or get a guide. There’s very little planning here because you’re at the mercy of ignorance. This felt like a big step backwards.
The loot system has changed too. I’m on the fence about this one. First of all, there is far less of it than previous games. The vast majority of loot is found in chests scattered throughout the world, not unlike the aforementioned abilities, but some can also be purchased. Each piece can be upgraded up to three times to a different tier, and several times within those tiers with materials found or bought from vendors. Each piece is assigned to one of the three different branches of the skill tree, and receives bonuses from that tree. You can also grab extra bonuses for wearing the entire set of a specific armor. Listen everyone, I’m going to get real here for a minute. I’m literally starting to confuse myself writing this. The choices that were made in the implementation of this design were just weird. I’m ok with less loot, that’s fine. If you’re going to do that, then at least make each piece carry some weight with some cool bonuses and stat boosts. Don’t give me “Gain a bonus to attack” without at least trying to quantify it in some way. Just use words like “major” or “minor”. Or here’s a novel idea, actually quantify it. “Additional increase to Speed” means nothing. You can, however, add runes to your gear which are stat based. It’s a strange design choice, but at least I don’t have 38 different codpieces sitting in my inventory waiting to be broken down. I’m going sidestep on this one but they’re leaning back.
While we’re on the subject, I’d like to get something off my chest. I don’t know how accurate this game is, but during this time in England, I’m pretty sure anything of value was hidden a minimum of 50 feet underground and the entrances were incredibly well hidden. I’ve spent countless hours, actual hours, looking for hidden entrances to underground caves, fallout shelters, pantries, or whatever. So. Much. Time. If you would indulge me for a moment, here’s a conversation that I imagined happened at some point in the game between two NPCs:
WARNING, SLIGHTLY HYPERBOLIC
“Thomas, may I borrow your longbow. I wish to teach my youngest to hunt.”
“Of course Richard. First you must set my boxes of fish heads aflame. Then, slide my shelf of random jars and bags to the left. This will expose a small crack to shoot an arrow through, destroying the bar on the door so that you may enter from the other side. How did I bar the door from the inside you ask? That’s my little secret. Now, once you enter the door you’ll need to shoot the lock on the ladder so that you may climb it, and find the first key to my locked golden chest. Once you have it, shoot the pulley holding the large box hanging from the ceiling which will crash through the floor, exposing the cavern my ancestors carved out years ago. Jump down, squeeze through the man sized crack in the wall, and the chest will be on your left. Open the first lock with the key you retrieved, and then say a rosary, pray to St. Anthony, spin around three times, and the second lock will magically open. Take what you need.”
“Nah son, I’m good. Thanks though.”
Thank you, moving on.
One of the most welcomed additions is the ability to build up your settlement. Actually having a type of home base is great. While it’s definitely more form than function, at this point I’ll take what I can get. It’s not all just pretty statues and different vendors though there definitely are some of those. Some even provide, get ready for it, quantifiable stat boosts! There are a ton of options as well. Some of them are forced on you by story progression, but most are unlocked by gathering supplies from your raids. The only issue I have with this is that you’re limited in the amount of actual raids the game provides. Many of them are level specific, not that you can’t do them whenever you want, but it’s probably going to hurt. A lot. Now we’re finally getting somewhere, step forward Ubisoft!
Visually, the game is fantastic. I started playing on the One X then moved over to the Series X when it came in. It’s a night and day difference providing you have a capable monitor or television. That’s not to say it doesn’t look good on earlier hardware. It does. However, it does suffer from some pretty noticeable screen tearing on the One X. At 4K resolution and a super, dare I say buttery smooth 60 frames per second, everything really pops. This is coming from a guy with atrocious eyesight who was worried I wouldn’t be able to see the difference. I can and it’s awesome. Ubisoft, as usual, has out done themselves bringing England to life. From the cold, pale vistas of Norway to the beautiful sunsets and scenery in England, it’s a feast for the eyes. Needless to say, there won’t be a shortage of gorgeous views for you to take advantage of with the extensive photo mode. My only minor nitpick is that it’s foggy, like a lot of the time. But maybe that’s England. I have no frame of reference. Regardless, it’s easily the best looking Assassin’s Creed game when played on the new hardware. The sound is fantastic too. Listening to your crew sing while traveling down the river is just as good as it was in Odyssey. Ubisoft usually nails these two aspects in their games. They have again.
Then there are the bugs. There’s a day one patch that squashes a lot of them, but they still pop up from time to time. I’ve had to reload several times because I got stuck jumping on a fence. Yup, that’s right, jumping on a fence. The game would just freeze, more specifically my Evior would. I’ve seen everything from floating canoes to enemies just outright ignoring me as I walk past them. “But Dan, it’s a huge open world game. It’s going to have a few bugs“. Yes, I get it, they’re still there. We’ve just come to accept them at this point. I guess if they aren’t game breaking, we give them a pass? Not on my watch people! Anyway, expect some issues. That’s all I’m saying.
As a huge fan of the series, it hurts to write some of these things. I know a lot of people won’t agree with me, and that’s OK. We have a tendency, as humans, to want our investments to do well. Whether that be our time, money or just our fandom for a team or, in this instance, a game. When games that we love fail to innovate or are filled with bugs, we often turn the other cheek because we love it. We ignore the shortcomings because we’re so enamored with it from years of playing. It took a long time for me to be able to separate my feelings for a game series and the ability to be critical when necessary. We deserve more than a fresh coat of paint and an arbitrary change of systems every three years. Or maybe we don’t and I’m playing the role of entitled gamer. But take a step back and really look at games like this. We’re at a place where many consumers are equating value to the size of the game, that’s not how it should be. I’d rather pay the same amount for a great, more concise game. There’s so much fluff in this game that you could eliminate 20% of it and still have a game that could take 80+ hours to fully complete. That’s insanity! Ubisoft continues to shovel these games at us and we eat it up like Oliver Twist, asking for more. I’m more guilty than most and I’ll probably continue to be. As much as I talked down about the game, I still enjoyed it because it’s familiar. It’s safe. It’s what I’ve come to expect from a Ubisoft game. The problem is, we’re starting to see other studios do Ubisoft-like games better than Ubisoft. It was only a matter of time I guess. Maybe they’ll see it, maybe they won’t. If you love this series, you’ll love this game, I have no doubt. If you love the Norse mythology, you’ll probably love this game. Again, no doubt. If you’re a fan of both, this might be your game of the year. I had pretty high hopes for Valhalla, even though I knew it would be more of the same. For one reason or another, the Ubisoft fatigue caught up with me. It’s disappointing, but it happens. I’m not one to get on my soapbox and demand better, but there’s nothing wrong with wanting it.