Assassin's Creed: Valhalla - title

One of the thoughts that dominated my playtime with Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag was "Oh I hope the next game is a viking-themed game!". I felt that the open-ended sailing and naval combat would work well in a viking setting, complete with raiding coastal villages as an extra way of obtaining wealth and loot (in addition to plundering trade ships in the open sea). Black Flag was so good, it seemed like a sure-fire, slam-dunk idea! What could possibly go wrong?

Well, it turns out: almost everything could go wrong.

I've been hoping for a viking-themed game ever since Black Flag.

For starters, I refused to buy Assassin's Creed: Valhalla at its release because I did not want to give any money to Ubisoft, which has had ongoing legal issues regarding multiple sexual harassment and sexual assault allegations against high-level managers and executives. Like the Catholic Church, Ubisoft may have systematically hid these alleged transgressions and protected the executives who were committing them. Even the company's HR department has been accused of being complicit.

So fuck Ubisoft and its executives, who (if these allegations are true) should all be in prison, and the company's ownership should be given to the employees who were wronged. I wasn't going to give that company a dime of my money, so I waited and watched eBay for cheaper, used copies to show up. I specifically filtered for "used" copies -- none of that "new, sealed" wholesale scalping nonsense that is all over eBay. Buying a sealed copy from an eBay scalper is the same as buying a new, retail copy, as far as I'm concerned. Several months after release, I finally bought a cheap, used copy for about $30 from someone who claimed to have played the game and got bored of it, so that my partner could kill time while stuck at home during the ongoing pandemic in 2021.

She played through the entire game, and liked it just fine. I played a little bit, hated the early hours, and stopped playing it so that I could work on other projects. I only came back to it later (after she had finished) to see if the game had any redeeming qualities. And even then, I did not even come close to completing the game because it's just too damn long, and I have much better things to do with my time.

You had one job, Valhalla! And you couldn't even get that right!

Assassin's Creed: Valhalla is a tedious, repetitive, drawn-out, copy-pasted, glitch-laden, slog of a game and story. It tries to copy the one thing that Black Flag did so well, and which inspired all future sailing mechanics for every Assassin's Creed game that followed, but it actually somehow manages to remove that thing! That's right, there is no naval combat in the game at all. Worse yet, there is absolutely nothing to do with the longship except use it as a vehicle for moving about the empty, sterile seas and rivers. There isn't even much in the way of islands to discover out in the open seas, so even the exploration incentive is gone. The Norway map has a few islands, but the England map has virtually none. In fact, you don't even use the longship to sail the seas around England; you only use it to sail up and down rivers looking for villages to raid. The key selling point of Valhalla, the longship, is nothing more than a glorified truck, and the rivers that run across England are basically just roads.

The longship is little more than a truck, and the rivers are little more than roads between raids.

Things are spaced out a bit more than I usually expect from an Assassin's Creed game. The map isn't quite as littered with mindless collectibles, even though it is still littered with mindless collectibles. But the map still isn't quite big enough, the distances still not quite far enough, and fast travel is still accessible enough, that I never felt it necessary to use the boat as the most efficient method of traversal. If you're stopping at every village to raid, to search for every collectible, and to play every side quest, then you're better off just using your horse, because any time you would save from using the boat will be offset by the extra time it takes to board and unboard the thing everytime you stop for a side quest.

It's like Ubisoft took the castle sieges from Middle-Earth: Shadow of War, stripped out the Nemesis system that gave those sieges context that made them worth playing, and then just put rivers between all the castle gates so you'd have an excuse to attack from the boat. But the longship feels completely unnecessary to the game. Early in the game, the longship feels like it might be a more integral part of the game, when you're sailing around the seas, fjords, and snaky coastlines of Norway, and crossing large bodies of water is necessary. But then you get to England, and the map is almost completely land-locked, save for those traversable rivers.

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Stonehenge board game
Souvenir board game!!!

During a holiday in Europe, I procured a few souvenir board games to add to my collection.

I didn't have room in my luggage for the larger Stonehenge Anthology Game or the Ring of Stones game. So instead of buying them in the Stonehenge gift shop, I ordered them online and had them shipped to my house. They were both waiting for me when I returned home from the trip! The Ring of Stones game was purchased directly from the English Heritage online shop's Stonehenge gifts section. The Anthology game had to come from Amazon because it isn't available from the English Heritage online shop, but I got a really good deal on it!

There was also some Stonehenge Monopoly and playing cards, but I'm not into those sorts of novelty variations that I can get anywhere. It was the unique games that caught my eye.

The third game that I brought back from Europe is a medieval Viking game called "Hnefatafl". I had seen it in the Viking Ship Museum gift shop when I was there last November, but I didn't buy it at the time because I wasn't sure if its rules were written in English or Danish. I didn't want to buy a game that I'd never be able to play because I couldn't read the rules. So when I saw the same game in the British Museum's gift shop this summer, I decided to go ahead and get it.

Board games from Europe
My European souvenir board games include 2 Stonehenge-themed games and a traditional Viking game.

Yesterday, I talked about the Ring of Stones game that I purchased from the English Heritage Trust. Today, I'm going to talk about the next game that I purchased on this trip to Europe: the Stonehenge anthology game. Next up, I'll review the Viking Game Hnefatafl.

Stonehenge Anthology Game: five games in one

Stonehenge Anthology - storage
The box doesn't have very efficient compartments.

This Stonehenge game is an "anthology game" released by Paizo games (the same company that publishes the popular Pathfinder RPG). It is effectively five small games in one, with each game sharing the same components and having been designed by a different designer, with credits ranging from Magic: the Gathering to Memoir '44 to Axis and Allies. The primary concept (according to the instruction book) is that the game components were designed first, and then given to each of the game designers, who then had to create rules for a game to play with those components and the given theme. Each designer took a different explanation for the origin or purpose of Stonehenge (even far-fetched ones) as the basis for his rule set...

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Stonehenge board game
Souvenir board game!!!

During a holiday in Europe, I procured a few souvenir board games to add to my collection.

I didn't have room in my luggage for the larger Stonehenge Anthology Game or the Ring of Stones game. So instead of buying them in the Stonehenge gift shop, I ordered them online and had them shipped to my house. They were both waiting for me when I returned home from the trip! The Ring of Stones game was purchased directly from the English Heritage online shop's Stonehenge gifts section. The Anthology game had to come from Amazon because it isn't available from the English Heritage online shop, but I got a really good deal on it!

There was also some Stonehenge Monopoly and playing cards, but I'm not into those sorts of novelty variations that I can get anywhere. It was the unique games that caught my eye.

The third game that I brought back from Europe is a medieval Viking game called "Hnefatafl". I had seen it in the Viking Ship Museum gift shop when I was there last November, but I didn't buy it at the time because I wasn't sure if its rules were written in English or Danish. I didn't want to buy a game that I'd never be able to play because I couldn't read the rules. So when I saw the same game in the British Museum's gift shop this summer, I decided to go ahead and get it.

Board games from Europe
My European souvenir board games include 2 Stonehenge-themed games and a traditional Viking game.

I'm going to talk specifically about the Ring of Stones game right now. I'll also be reviewing the Stonehenge anthology game and the Viking Game Hnefatafl in the following posts in the coming days.

Stonehenge "Ring of Stones"

I'll go ahead and start with the simplest game of the bunch: the Stonehenge Ring of Stones game. This is a 2-player dice-rolling game in which the first player attempts to build a stone circle by placing standing stones and covering them with cap stones, while the second player attempts to tear the circle down. The number rolled by the die tells the given player what kind of move he or she is allowed to make. If the first player successfully places all the stones on the board, he or she wins. The second player wins by removing all the pieces from the board.

Sounds pretty simple. And it is.

The box advertises the game as a "quick-thinking game of strategy". That label is being a bit generous. Most of the game really comes down to the luck of the die roll.

Strategy consists entirely of taking advantage of lucky rolls to prevent your opponent from making a legal move.
[LEFT] Rolled 3, but no legal position to place capstone; [RIGHT] Rolled 5, but can't legally remove standing stone.

If the first player rolls a three, but there are no legal positions to place a capstone, then that player must forfeit that turn. Conversely, if the second player rolls a five, but can't legally remove any standing stones because they're all covered by capstones, then that player loses the turn. So the strategy for player one is simply to try to cover every stone with at least one capstone, so that in the 1-in-6 likelihood that player two rolls a five, he or she must miss the turn. Player two's strategy, therefore is to try to remove standing stones so that in the 1-in-6 likelihood that player one rolls a three, he or she has no two adjacent standing stones on which to place a capstone and must miss his or her turn...

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Last November, my girlfriend and I took a trip to Denmark and visited the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde. That was a great trip, and the ship museum was pretty great, but there were a couple things that we wanted to do, but which we couldn't because the ship museum doesn't operate them in the winter. For one thing, the museum has a collection of reconstructed Viking ships, including a full-size longship. These ships are usually docked in the harbor, along with some living exhibits of the construction and maintenance of these ships and the ropes and sails used to sail them. During winter, the exhibits are closed and the ships themselves are brought onto land and covered in order to prevent ice from forming and damaging the ships.

More importantly, the museum offers tourists the opportunity to go out sailing the reconstructed ships with a couple of museum guides. This service is also only offered in the summer due to weather restrictions, and we decided that we wanted to go back to Denmark so that we could sail a Viking ship!

Big Ben
Big Ben was the first of several Civilization
world wonders that I'd get to see.

She found affordable tickets to London, and we allocated two weeks to spend in Europe this summer. My dad also expressed an interest, and we offered to take him with us and pay for part of his airfare and lodging expenses as a combined Father's Day and birthday gift (his birthday is in May). We ended up deciding to take him to London, England, to Coppenhagen, Denmark, and to Munich, Germany.

London, Stonehenge, and Shakespeare

Our first stop was London, England on June 26th. We did some of the usual tourist things, like visit the Tower of London and walk by Parliament and Big Ben (one of several Civilization wonders that I would be visiting during this trip!) and Westminster Abbey. We also had fish, chips, and beer in a pub and started two week's worth of gluttonous eating! Despite walking 15 to 20 miles per day, I still gained 3 1/2 pounds during the trip.

The British Parlaiment building was covered with scaffolding, apparently being repaired or remodeled. This would actually become a recurring theme during this trip, as many of the places that we visited would be covered with scaffolding.

We visited the Imperial War Museum, including the Churchill Warroom.
I tried on some World War I-era clothing, which was very uncomfortable and itchy.

The second day (Tuesday), we visited the Churchill Warroom and the Imperial War Museum. I had previously visited the Imperial War Museum in Manchester during my trip to the U.K., so this time we got to see the larger museum in London. I was a little bit disappointed that the museum didn't cover British Imperial history prior to World War I. There were no exhibits about colonial British sailing ships. The museum starts with World War I, and then goes through World War II, the Cold War, and the War on Terrorism. It also included an exhibit on the Holocaust, which was interesting because the exhibit started on the top floor, and then descended to the lower floor as the exhibits shifted from persecution of the Jews in Germany to the full-blown "final solution" period. It was a clever bit of symbolism to descend into the fullest horrors of the Holocaust.

On Wednesday, we did a day-trip with a tour company to Windsor Castle, the Roman bathhouse in Bath, and to Stonehenge (another Civ wonder!)...

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Battlefield 1 - title

Nobody can make a game about World War I. Trench warfare is too boring. Nothing really happens. There isn't a strong, identifiable villain or good versus evil struggle.

Those are among the many excuses that people made for why all the video games are about World War II, and never about World War I. And then the gaming public and journalists got a glimpse of this:

The teaser trailer for Battlefield 1 was a smash hit.

That teaser trailer was damn good. People were excited. I haven't played a first-person shooter since Call of Duty: World at War, I generally hate online shooters, but even I was excited to try out this game! And other people were hyped about it too.

Now, I never really bought into the idea that World War I was "not video game material". I've long advocated for games to look at all periods of history for inspiration, and World War I is a monumental moment in world history that certainly deserves to be examined by games. The indie market certainly realized this, with games like Valiant Hearts and Verdun. But the big publishers have completely shied away from "The War to End All Wars".

This is a shame. The rapid technological advancements and radically new military tactics that evolved leading up to (and during) the war could be great material to examine in the form of a game. The widescale industrialization of warfare, the complicated politics, and the general fuzziness of the morality of the war are also ripe source material for dramatic storytelling. So it's about time to see this war thrust into the mass market spotlight.

I'd prefer to have seen a strategy game along the lines of Total War; but whatever, I'll give DICE and Battlefield 1 a chance.

UPDATE: 12 MARCH 2018, Better than I gave it credit for:
After having played Activision's Call of Duty: WWII and (especially) EA's Star Wars: Battlefront II, and having talked about it with friends, I have gained a bit of respect for the successes that Battlefield 1 has been able to accomplish. I've started to like it more in retrospect. Not enough to go back and re-play it or try out any of the expansions (yet), but I do feel that I may have been a bit too harsh on the game in retrospect, especially with regard to its campaign vignettes.

I'm not going to change my original review score, but compared to CoD:WWII and Battlefront II, this game probably deserves a slightly higher grade. So keep that in mind as you read the following review. Of all the big-budget first person shooters that I've played in the past couple years, Battlefield 1 is probably the one that I most enjoyed, and it's the one that I would recommend.

The futile indifference of war

First impressions were actually pretty damned good. I was actually really impressed with Battlefield 1's campaign tutorial. It's basically a guided tour of the game's various core mechanics: shooting at enemy soldiers, capturing victory points, piloting vehicles, and so forth. It does a good job of introducing each of these mechanics and systems by jumping the player around between multiple characters in a large-scale battle.

But what really stuck out to me was how the tutorial transitioned between these different set pieces, and how it handled player death. This tutorial is actually surprisingly merciless and difficult. As you complete one set piece, the game gradually (and subtly) increases the threat until it becomes overwhelming and your character dies (or they just kill you after a timer expires), which allows the game to teleport you to the point of view of another character for the next set piece. The dying character's name and birth / death years are shown on screen during the transition, granting that character with a certain degree of humanization.

Battlefield 1: tutorial death
The excellent tutorial emphasizes the indifference and futility of "The War to End All Wars".

Depending on how good you are at the game, you'll go through between half a dozen to a dozen different characters, each with a name and an age. And they all die. The tutorial makes this war look brutal and futile. It even has an almost Dark Souls-like indifference to the player character, killing you without a second thought and forcing you to respawn as another poor, dumb bastard who's about to die for his country, rather than restarting you at a checkpoint until you get it right.

I even wish DICE had gone a bit further by also displaying the character's birth place and maybe even a snippet or two of other biographical trivia. Maybe listing some hobbies, or saying that he was on his high school's varsity football team, or some other little detail like that. DICE settled for just the name and birth / death year, but it's still effective and establishes a very strong running theme throughout the tutorial. The point is a bit undercut by the rapid pacing and by how conventional the actual running and shooting feels. But I still walked out of this tutorial excited by what the rest of the campaign had to offer.

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Grid Clock provided by trowaSoft.

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Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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