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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Return of the Obra Dinn - title

Well, with a Madden review in my rear view mirror, and while waiting for the indie football games to hit the market, I decided to try out one of last year's darling indie games. I very much enjoyed Lucas Pope's previous game, Papers, Please, so Return of the Obra Dinn was high up on my wish list of indie games. It was just a matter of finding time to sit down and play it and give it my full attention.

This isn't a game that you can just kind of casually play. Much like with Papers, Please, Return of the Obra Dinn requires your close attention. You have to pay very close attention to details, which can come from one of several different places. It might be a single word or a name in a snippet of dialogue. It might be inferring a person's naval rank based on the uniform they're wearing. It might be making a mental note of what room a person is running into or out of. You then have to use those details to make genuine deductions or judgement calls.

Elementary, my dear time-lord

The basic premise is that you are an insurance claims adjuster (I guess) working for the English East India Company. A missing merchant ship suddenly returns with all hands missing. You must search the ship to piece together the events of its voyage, and try to determine what happened to as many of the crew as possible.

Search a derelict ship for clues to the fates or whereabouts of its crew and passengers.

Your only tools are a notebook and a mysterious stopwatch (or is it a compass?). The notebook contains a crew manifest, a drawing of all the crew and passengers, a map of the ship, and a few notes on where to look for initial clues. It is also used to log all of the pertinent information that you find. The other tool is the mysterious stopwatch that has the ability to manifest a recreation of the scene of a corpse's death. Where such a fantastical tool came from and why you have it is not really explained (at least not at first). When you find a body, you can activate the stopwatch to see how that person died. The stopwatch manifests a 3-D freeze frame of the moment of the person's death and replays the last things the person heard before he (or she) died.

The whole game consists of exploring these scenes to try to figure out who the deceased person is, how they died, and to cross-reference the scenes to figure out who everyone else is and what happened to them. It's actually a lot more challenging that it seems.

Try to figure out the names and fates of as many people as you can, using the clues provided to you.

...

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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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Sails of Glory

I haven't reviewed many board games. I like to play board games, and there's quite a few that I'd like to review. Sadly, it's been difficult to organize regular board game meetings over the past few years due to the ever-changing work schedules of my social circle and other adult responsibilities. Stupid jobs and chores, always getting in the way of the stuff I want to do! Most of the board games that I play only get played once or twice (and sessions are often months or years apart), which is certainly not enough play-time to justify writing a review, since it's barely enough time to get a really good feel for how the mechanics and strategies of the game work.

But one game that really piqued my interest was Sails of Glory: Napoleonic Wars, a game about naval combat in the age of sail. It is made by Ares Games, the same company that created the WWI and WWII dogfighting game Wings of Glory. If you've ever played the more popular Fantasy Flight games Star Wars: X-Wing or its sister game Star Wars: Armada (both being games that I'd like to review), then you should feel pretty comfortable with Sails of Glory. X-Wing was based off of Ares' Wings of Glory game, and both Armada and Sails of Glory use similar mechanics and rules. Sails of Glory certainly shares more in common with Armada though, since both games involve slow-paced battles between large capital ships, rather than the faster dogfighting mechanics of their predecessors. And both Sails of Glory and Armada simulate the lumbering nature of their respective ships with mechanics that require players to pre-plan their movements ahead of time, which adds a whole new element of strategy and challenge.

Sails of Glory : box
Sails of Glory includes 4 pre-assembled French and British ship miniatures.

Sails of Glory isn't a traditional board game, in that it doesn't include an actual board to play on. Instead, the game requires the players to move their ship miniatures across a playing surface (the size of which is determined by the specific scenario being played) by using a deck of maneuver cards. Movement isn't restrained to a grid of squares or hexes, so lots of careful measurement and manipulation of the models is necessary. Players must maneuver their ships in order to get the enemy ships into the firing arc of their cannons in order to attack, and the winner of the game is usually the one who destroys all the enemy ships; though, some scenarios have other winning conditions.

Another key difference between X-Wing / Armada versus Sails of Glory is that all of Sails of Glory's actions are treated as simultaneous. This helps to keep the game flowing a bit more quickly by allowing the player to move their ships and determine combat damage at the same time, rather than having to take turns moving one ship at a time. It also alters the strategy a little bit by permitting "mutual destruction". Since all ships are considered to fire at the same time, there is the possibility that ships may destroy each other in the same turn. It is only in the case of collisions (or possible collisions) that the game requires ships to be moved in a specific order.

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It occurs to me that there is a sad dearth of pirate and sailing games in the market. The original Sid Meier's Pirates! is almost 30 years old! And the PC remake was released all the way back in 2004. Other than that, the only pirate or sailing-themed video games that I'm aware of are mobile games.

We saw a proliferation of cowboy and western-themed games after Rockstar's Red Dead Redemption (which, in hindsight, probably isn't as good as I gave it credit for). Perhaps Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag could trigger a similar renaissance for pirate video games. And if those games are as good as Black Flag (or better), then that would be a real treat!

Hrm, this mission seems familiar...
[LEFT] A plantation raid in Assassin's Creed III; [RIGHT] another plantation raid in Black Flag.

The first hour or two after Black Flag's introductory pirate ship battle is a bit dull because it's mostly just the same old stuff that you've played in Assassin's Creed III: exploring the little town and playing a few "go here, do this" missions with an assassination or two.

Being stuck on land is usually pretty dull. In fact, some missions even seem copy-pasted from previous games. When I got to the mission in which I had to raid a sugar plantation, I couldn't help but think "Hey, didn't I already do this in III?" The only notable difference was that that the plantation raid was wrapped in a segment in which I had to pursue the plantation-owner's ship from a trade island to his plantation island.

Over the course of the game, you'll frequently be forced to step back onto land for story missions. some of the environments are a bit original, since there's some trekking through jungles and along beaches and scaling cliffs to break up the monotony of the usual parkour that the series is known for. Most of these jungle paths are closed and linear, so you won't be exploring open jungle with a machete.

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag - jungle mission
The jungle and beach settings provide some visual variety beyond the city parkour, but are functionally similar.

There aren't any dramatic new gameplay functionalities associated with the more rural and wild settings beyond the tree-hopping that was featured in Assassin's Creed III. So while these missions provide some visual variety, they don't add much to the actual gameplay. The biggest change is that it takes a lot of your freedom of movement away, since you have to follow more of the pre-designed trails through the levels, rather than having the freedom to create your own route.

...

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag - sailing into the sunset
Black Flag sails triumphantly into the sunset as a stand-out game in an oversaturated franchise.
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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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