You’ve got to give Ubisoft credit for what they’ve done with the Assassin’s Creed series over the years. From its impressive yet flawed Syrian beginnings; it roared into Italy and Istanbul to meet Ezio; got a little lost in the American Civil War era with Connor, yet redeemed itself with some swashbuckling around the Caribbean; became a bit bloated and contented when it landed in Paris and London; and then reinvented itself in ancient Egypt and Greece. Aiming to continue grounding itself in historical context whilst metering out the present day meta-story, we’re now heading to the lands of the Viking warriors and an abundance of Norse mythology. It’s not just an exploration of the snowy mountains of Norway though, it’s more about settling and conquering the ancient kingdoms of Britain, and that’s offering up something a bit different than we’ve seen recently. Can Assassin’s Creed Valhalla still deliver something fresh and compelling without compromising where the series has been heading? Will the Norse and Saxon worlds compliment each other? Only the vast amounts of time needed to see everything it has to offer will tell.
For this epic journey we’re in the shoes of Eivor Wolf’s Kiss who unfortunately was orphaned as a child and was taken in and raised by the Raven clan. With Norway going through upheaval and having the fractured clans consolidating under the banner of King Harald, Eivor’s adopted brother Sigurd offers a different future by heading across the North Sea to Mercia to a new land ripe with opportunity, the promise of a fresh start, and a sniff of more riches than they can count. Sigurd wants to build a new kingdom for the Norse men and women and that’s ultimately the aim of the game. Of course, this is Assassin’s Creed Valhalla so it’ll involve visiting exotic places, meeting loads of characters, and stabbing them in the neck… but heck, that’s what we expect. What might not be expected is the depth and variety that’s been built in since the last outing – this is a truly massive game with choice, consequence and a whole load of axe swinging and mead swigging to get to grips with. Eivor will visit multiple different lands, command a crew of sailors and warriors, create a community and help it grow, and even find a bit of spirituality on the way. It’s also more focussed in its story and that’s arguably the biggest improvement here.
In Assassin’s Creed Valhalla you’re able to pick whether Eivor is male or female, or let the Animus do it for you depending on the situation. There’s some form of vague reason for this to do with glitches and unreadable data, but it works in your favour for those that like to see how different scenes play out depending on the looks of the protagonist. It can be changed on a whim too with a couple of button presses, so not only can you put on some smart rags and tribal tattoos, you can switch the character out at will. The basics are the same regardless of choice though – grow the Ravensthorpe settlement through raiding, pillaging and doing favours for other clans so that you can add them to the allies list. This is where the story direction feels tighter even though there are options to pick from. Getting Ravensthorpe up to scratch is priority number one and for the most part that’s unguided, it just needs resources. Following the plotting and scheming of the lords of the land and helping the Hidden Ones unpick the actions of what will become the Templars is where the true meat of the gameplay is. It feels like there’s choice to head off into any direction and pick an objective, but things are cleverly guided so that it’s not overwhelming, or too obvious that you’re being funnelled. Even though the total map size is bigger it manages to be less daunting than some of the ones that have come before, and less focussed on busy work.
Introduced in Odyssey, the options for guided navigation return where there’s one that has everything to handhold you through the events, a simplified version to keep you on course, or a minimalist HUD that only gives the basics. Any of the them can be picked during the game depending on how you’re feeling, though even the least cluttered one still provides some guidance unlike Odyssey’s mode. In fact, accessibility is at the forefront here which is great to see, even if there feels like a minigame’s worth of options to wade through before the action kicks in. It’s not quite up to The Last Of Us Part II’s standard, though given the huge difference in game types that’s not a surprise. Eivor’s terrain traversal on foot is pretty much the same – perfect until it does something stupid – and horse riding is back alongside the eagle eye view (or raven in this case). The star of the show though is heading up rivers in a fully crewed longboat. It’s not the same naval combat we’ve seen before as its priority is more of a water taxi with the ability to stop off to raid the odd monastery on the way, and that’s fine with us. It’s an A to B mechanism that doubles as transport for loot and kidnapped foes, and goes a bit God Of War with the story telling as you’re being rowed gently down a stream. There’s a great balance between being on water or on land, and with fast travel points for the longboat as well as Eivor, and being able to summon it with a horn blast, it soon becomes a favourite way of getting around. Having eight burly Vikings aboard really helps if things are going badly in a fight too.
Combat isn’t vastly different in the button setup in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla (light attack, heavy attack, block, dodge), though the special moves have been expanded quite a bit. Collecting books of knowledge gives access to powerful moves that can be performed using adrenaline with up to eight being assigned to shoulder/face button combinations at any one time. These are separate to the frankly massive skill tree. That is a sight to behold, and as you keep ploughing skill points in it just seems to get bigger. More skills = higher power level = ability to take on harder enemies. Two skill points come with each filling of the XP bar, and definitely in the early stages there’s a level up with most missions. The pace it throws upgrade points is very generous, but even after hours of playing it feels like there’s more to uncover. Putting emphasis on damage buffs, health increases and stealth efficiency might seem to have limited the moveset somewhat, though there are enough context sensitive decapitations and impalings to make it appear less repetitive. To shake up the combat if it begins to feel stale involves switching out weapons rather than complex strings of inputs, and brings a new style of fighting to master with it.
Eivor’s loadout is important to success so keeping on top of armour, offensive and defensive weapons is a must, as is upgrading them at blacksmiths and with collected materials if you want to hold your own. It’s all relatively simple to do and Ubisoft have designed the inventory screen to make it clear when there’s an action to take without it being obtrusive. Given the amount of time spent in the menus it’s nice that they’re streamlined and logical. Really though you’ll want to be out and about with your horde, fighting the Pagan’s side by side in assaults on encampments, and covering each other with ale at the celebrations afterwards. There’s a lot of comradery on show in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla and it boosts the story because of it, including an option to create a Jomsviking that’s like an elite soldier that you loan out to other players to crew their longboat. Send them off into the digital world and they’ll earn silver on their travels. It’s another in a long list of nice touches that embeds a sense of friendship and belonging that’s at the core of the tale. There’s a strange bond that’s developed with some of the AI characters with the way they show up to help in battle or bash down locked doors. The feeling of agency extends to relationships too with frequent decision making points in the dialogue that craft how some of the antagonists behave towards you, and adjusts your perceptions of them.
With a name like Wolf’s Kiss though, and assassin’s being a fairly solitary bunch, Eivor is going to be having a reasonable amount of alone time. Once the fighting and feasting is done there are plenty of chances to wander off and see what’s dotted around. Rather than the traditional styles of side quests there are “mysteries” that you’ll encounter as “world events”. These are small self-contained missions that break out of the seriousness of dethroning a king or sacking a town, and have a little fun with the setting and local characters. Then there are distractions like flyting (a medieval rap battle), drinking competitions, hunting, fishing, and RPG-lite dice games that can vacuum up hours of game time. Explorers are in for a treat with the amount of dots that appear when viewpoints are synchronised, and it’ll be hell for compulsive finishers too. The main quests are lengthy enough before everything else is layered on, including heading out of Norway and Mercia, and this has all the trappings of being a game that will absorb players fully for months. Maybe it’s a good thing we’re back to two year gaps between entries.
All the activities in the world are no good without something to tie everything together and present them, and the Anvil engine does admirably on the PS4 Pro and we’ll assume the Xbox One X (the base consoles aren’t covered here). It’s clear like the recent Watch Dogs: Legion that they’re hitting the limits of ambition and it’s another title that I’m looking forward to playing on next gen, if only for the loading time improvements. Framerates are smooth though; detailing in the environments is superb and appropriate whether it’s Sherwood Forest, Lundun or Jorvik; and the amount of activity in each square meter visited is stunning. More so in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla do you notice the amount of wildlife populating the world, from lone contemplative polar bears to packs of scurrying rats, all conveying the sense of wild and barely tamed lands. Then there’s the noise and audio mix that brings a vibrancy to the atmosphere, no matter what you’re doing. Topping it off is the voice acting that nails the vast majority of the English regional dialects too, something so inconsequential for most audiences and yet another example of striving for authenticity.
The latest instalment in the series has the usual big budget, bombastic action that fans want, coupled with mystery and intrigue in how the Hidden Ones are going to connect to this time period and link back to everything we’ve learnt in the lore so far. For some there’s the overarching modern day setting to understand as well, and whilst it’s not the selling point there’s still a decent amount of effort put into creating the reason for being in the Animus in the first place. What’s most surprising about Assassin’s Creed Valhalla though is the shift of gameplay and character development. It’s still a huge game to get through, and keeps giving up new and interesting things with each visit, but the core is about community. There’s always a reason to check in with the citizens, always a reason to do something that benefits everyone, and there’s always a home to come back to. It’s probably part of the reason that Ravensthorpe is in the middle of the map, because it’s central physically and metaphorically. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla might look similar on the surface to the last couple of entries, but that hides a subtlety and nuance that makes this the best entry yet.
A PS4 review copy of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla was provided by Ubisoft’s PR team, and the game is available now on PS4, PS5, Xbox and PC for around £50 for the standard edition. A season pass and free content drops will be available over the coming 12 months, and free next gen upgrades are available if you buy on current gen.