The key question every Assassin’s Creed fan asks when a new game is released is where does it rank in the very long list of games in the series. So is this the best Assassin’s Creed ever? Well, let’s dive in (from a suitably high synchronise point) and find out.
You should know before starting this game; it is a huge undertaking. There’s no quick way to blast through it all. It took me 70 hours to finish the quest, and I’ve seen it suggested that it could take double that to platinum it. If that wasn’t enough, there are several large expansions along with other free content updates planned to keep us playing throughout 2021. Put it this way; you’ll want to find a comfy chair to play in.
The most notable thing that sets Valhalla apart from its predecessors are its structural changes; there are very few actual side quests. Most of the game’s side content is in the form of Mysteries – short mini quests which don’t appear in your quest log. There are also tonnes of Artifacts to collect, and Wealth to find with each point of interest shown on your map as a coloured dot. Wealth items are things like new gear, knowledge books that give new abilities or resources for upgrades. They are definitely worth seeking out, and the game smartly puts important Wealth items temptingly close to main quest objectives. Artifacts are less essential, unless you’re a gaming magpie addicted to collecting endless shiny things.
The Mysteries themselves are short, usually humourous, interludes that are a fun way to gain XP. I really liked this approach, and I’d go so far to say that I hope this becomes a standard approach adopted by other open world games in future as i find being lumbered with a massive quest log one of the most tedious things with the genre. There’s only so many people I want to help with petty tasks when I’m in the middle of my kingmaking escapades.
Valhalla follows the same vast open world style of Origins and Odyssey. This time round however I found there was a much clearer core objective to drive you around the map. There are also several city sections that are just like the older style of games. You get to learn about mysterious figures at work, undercover their identity, track them down and take them out. As someone that’s always preferred the older games but now accepts they are dead to Ubisoft, I really appreciated these sections. They root you in one dense place for several hours and give you a chance to settle in.
The main gameplay loop sees you committing to a new region, meeting a cast of local rulers who you want to become allies with, and helping them with whatever predicament they find themselves in. Winning their loyalty will allow you to call them to your aid in your hour of need. Each area’s story arc takes around three hours to play out so you get to move on before things get boring. Some might find the many story arcs repetitive, but I found each region’s quest and geography was different enough to keep things interesting, and the revolving door of new characters keeps it fresh. It’s like watching a TV box set, where each episode has its own standalone story but it all plays into a wider overarching narrative.
I really liked the game’s characters, especially the main crew of allies you build. It brought back memories of Mass Effect 2’s crew and loyalty missions. Male and Female Eivor are both well acted and it’s hard to choose a favourite version. Your adoptive brother Sigurd is fascinating and it’s frustrating as I wish we could have spent longer with him. I have to give a special mention to Ivorr Lothbrok, a character that steals every scene he’s in with his unpredictable chaotic energy.
Story wise, I thought the game opened really strongly. You start in the barren and frozen Norway and go on an entire mini adventure that sets up the game’s premise and new mechanics in the first few hours. But even in its rugged bleakness, there are still plenty of moments where you round a bend and have your breath taken away by a stunning view. When you get to England the colour palate explodes and a lush landscape of rolling hills filled with farmland stretches out before you. It helps you to understand the driving force that motivated Norse to colonise Britain.
Everywhere you go there are monasteries to raid and the long note of your horn to initiate a battle is always a thrilling moment. These raids contribute to the expanding of your settlement, another key objective in the main story that focuses on your settlement of England.
Fans of Assassin’s Creed lore are well served, with the series fixtures Order of the Ancients and mysterious First Civilisation prominently featured with some important story developments. There are a lot of call backs to previous games in the series. A lot of mysteries are resolved, with many new ones set up in turn. I’m definitely excited to see where the series goes next, though I do wonder what a newcomer would make of all this. Once again there is a Black Flag like tension of are you a pirate or an assassin? Here it’s “am i a Viking settler or an assassin?” Narratively the two roles don’t always sit together in a way that makes sense.
There are a lot of endings to the game and some feel too important for them to be optional. To see them all required a lot of extra leg-work after the main campaign is complete. But if you’re unwilling to jump through all the hoops to see them all then there’s always YouTube.
It is a very generous game, with several additional areas in addition to the main map that could honestly have been paid DLC. Some might say too generous and it could do with a few more fast travel points. Chasing down the down Order members requires a lot of zipping around the map and you find yourself running down the same hill one too many times. Please open world games; just give us Ghost of Tsushima’s system of every place you’ve visited being a fast travel point.
There was never a point I needed to grind. By just sticking to the main quest and ignoring most of the mysteries will always see you strong enough to move on to the next area. There is a paid XP boost, but I can’t see why anyone would ever need it unless you are a fool that likes throwing money away.
From a combat point of view, things do start a bit dull, especially after I recently played Ghost of Tsushima with a fully skilled up Jin Sakai. But then again, you’re not meant to be a graceful samurai; you’re an axe wielding Viking! And as your abilities grow the combat becomes much more satisfying as entire encounters can be handled just by chaining together seriously cool looking special moves. I would have liked a bit more of a reason to experiment with different weapon combinations as I found myself sticking with the standard axe.
If you’ve seen any screenshots or videos you’ll know that the game is gorgeous. Ubisoft have captured England in its most colourful autumnal beauty and the lighting effects are sublime. You’ll be hitting the share button a lot to grab screenshots. I didn’t have much of an issue with bugs – there were no freakish NPCs without a face here thankfully. I clocked up around 10 hours on PS4 before switching to PS5 and the difference 60fps made was remarkable. There were however still a few noticeable drops in the cities (listen to me, i’ve already become such a frame rate snob thanks to the PS5, i hate myself already).
Quest related bugs did occur a few times late on in the game, but fast travelling refreshed things and moved things on each time so it wasn’t a problem. I also experienced two hard crashes. To be fair though I was playing it at launch and the few months that followed, so Ubisoft will inevitably keep patching any remaining issues. There are obviously still the usual Assassin’s Creed janky traversal issues. You know what I mean; you gracefully scale a cathedral, leap majestically from its spire but then get stuck on a fence.
So is it the best Assassin’s Creed ever? Well… yes, I’d say so. Personally I found Origins and Odyssey boring; they created huge worlds but failed to come up with compelling reasons to travel around them. Valhalla presents a simple, clear and compelling adventure, with deeper mysteries at its heart. I enjoyed spending time with all of the characters and I can’t wait to see where the Season Pass takes them next. There’s some really cool payoffs for long time fans. The blending of open world and several smaller cities combine the older style of game with the new format. The structural quest changes keep the main quest front and centre. So if you’re prepared to invest the time required to see things through, an epic saga awaits.