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Assassin's Creed: Valhalla - title

In a Nutshell

WHAT I LIKE

  • Building a colony and crew
  • Pillaging and plundering monasteries
  • Using travel time to exposit lore
  • Recruiting other players' vikings onto my crew

WHAT I DON'T LIKE

  • Obnoxiously long and repetitive
  • Combat lacks physicality
  • Stealth is frequently non-functional
  • Cringy side quests
  • River raiding is a completely separate, resource-sink of a grind
  • No naval combat?
  • No Hnefatafl mini-game?
  • All of Layla's gameplay
  • Load screens before and during cutscenes?
  • Long load times
  • Buggy and unfinished

Overall Impression : D
Not even remotely the Assassin's Creed: Vikings
that I was hoping for

Assassin's Creed: Valhalla - cover

Developer:
Ubisoft Montreal and Ubisoft Milan

Publisher:
Ubisoft

Platforms:
PC (via Ubisoft Store, Epic Game Store, or Google Stadia),
PlayStation 4 < & PlayStation 5
(via retail disc or PSN digital download),
XBox One & XBox Series S/X
(via retail disc or XBox Live digital download).
(< indicates platform I played for review)

MSRP: $60 USD

Original release date:
10 November, 2020

Genre:
open world action adventure

Player(s):
single player

Play time:
80+ hours

ESRB Rating: M (for Mature 17+) for:
Blood and Gore, Intense Violence,
Partial Nudity, Sexual Themes,
Strong Language, Use of Drugs and Alcohol

Official site:
www.ubisoft.com/en-us/game/assassins-creed/valhalla

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. Players can get around the English countryside just as effectively on horseback.

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.

The Norway map requires navigating across water, but the England map is mostly land-locked.

The sailing in Black Flag worked so well, and was so beloved by audiences, because the entirety of Black Flag was designed to make the open seas serve as the game's primary play space. Many plot missions took place on the open seas. The missions that did take place on dry land required crossing large stretches of water to reach. The naval combat was fun, challenging, and a novel respite from the stale swordplay of the series, and it all took place on the open waters. All the piracy-inspired grind was based around following trade routes on the open sea so that you can find, attack, and board trade vessels hauling valuable cargo. Even the base-building mini-game required that you board and capture (on the open seas) new privateers to add to your pirate fleet and send on missions to steal yet more booty. Everything of worth in Black Flag happened on the water, and it all fed into each other. None of that is translated into Valhalla.

Longboat loses all relevance once you arrive in England.

Seriously, all this game had to do was copy its big brother, Black Flag's homework, and add more weight and physicality to Origins' Dark Souls-inspired combat to give everything that visceral, viking feel, and we might have been talking about another instant classic. But Ubisoft shat the bed.

I honestly believe that setting Valhalla almost entirely in England is its core mistake. If Ubisoft was going to do a Viking-themed game, it should have stayed in Scandinavia; sailing the North and Baltic seas between Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and maybe Finland; plundering merchant boats on the open water; fortifying your settlement to protect it from rival Viking raids; battling those other Vikings' longboat in the open sea; and raiding other Viking villages. Instead, you leave Norway as soon as the tutorial is over, and never go back. If Ubisoft really wanted to include England to make the river raiding a bigger part of the game (or because they just wanted to ride the coat-tails of the History Channel's successful Vikings series), then they should have split time and maps more evenly between Scandinavia and England, or maybe made England be a DLC campaign.

The longship is pretty much only used to move between village raids.

Purposeless grind and resource-sink

Instead, the river raiding that takes the place of Black Flag's pirate activities feels like it is its own stand-alone mini-game that has little-to-nothing to do with the rest of Valhalla. River raids take place on separate maps, with a dedicated ship and crew. Most of the rewards that you earn for river raids are only good towards more river raiding. The supplies that you earn can only be spent to upgrade your river raiding longship or to upgrade the Jomsviking Hall (which recruits new vikings for river raids). The supplies and resources that you earn cannot be used to upgrade your home base, nor can your main longship be upgraded, or its crew leveled-up. The whole feels feels like an afterthought and a waste of time.

Even though you don't earn resources that are usable in the main game, river raiding sure as hell costs you resources!. You have to spend your own silver to recruit new Jomsvikings, but in order to recruit new Jomsvikings, you need to spend the resources from river raids to upgrade your hall. So you have to grind your way through the same farms, encampments, and monasteries on the same rivers multiple times before you earn enough resources and strong enough Jomsvikings to be able to attack the larger fortresses.

River raids take place on separate maps and feel like a totally different game.

Its not even a very good stand-alone mini-game either. You have a little crew that levels up over time, and if they get knocked out in battle, there is a cool-down period before they can be used again. But right from the beginning, I had more than 2 full boat-loads of vikings, which meant that I could just alternate between crews. Maybe at higher levels this makes more of a difference?

There's also a total lack of coordination between you and your vikings. You can blow a horn to call off a raid if things turn south, but that is the absolute extent of the command that you wield over your crew. As soon as the raid starts, they all run off and do their own thing. I can't order them to stay with me or to stick together or to attack a specific target or to go after a particular piece of loot. Nope. They all just run off and get themselves killed. Then I have to tuck tail between my legs and wait for the long ass loading screen to get back to the main game.

The whole thing is designed to be a time-wasting grind. It takes multiple raids up the same river before you earn enough resources to recruit crew strong enough to take on the larger forts. Otherwise, the whole crew just walks through the front gate and instantly dies. It's just awful.

You can recruit vikings from your friends to join your Jomsviking crew.

What really annoys me about this is that the river raiding isn't even artificially grindy in order to prop up an anti-consumer micro-transaction economy. This isn't like Shadow of War's original design, the purpose of which was to trick players into buying high-level orcs to bypass the grind. I didn't see any option to buy new Jomsvikings through a micro-transaction store in Valhalla. This grind of a mini-game isn't intended to enrich Ubisoft; it's a grindy waste of the player's time with absolutely no purpose at all.

A poor viking's Shadow of War and Ghost of Tsushima

Cycling back to the comparisons to Shadow of War, Assassin's Creed: Valhalla is yet another prime candidate for a variation of Shadow of Mordor's Nemesis system. Procedural viking warlords raiding each other and requiring the player to take control of strategic villages and forts to prevent raids (and loss of troops and resources) would have gone a long way towards fixing many of the problems that Valhalla suffers.

But alas, I can't really blame Ubisoft for this failing of the game. This disappointment lies solely on the shoulders of the jackass corporate suits at Warner Brothers Interactive, who patented the Nemesis System so that other game companies cannot implement similar features. This is despite the fact that Shadow of Mordor blatantly ripped off mechanics wholesale from other popular games. The combat mechanics were copied almost verbatim from Batman: Arkham Asylum, the parkour mechanics are stolen verbatim from Assassin's Creed, and the respawning concept could arguably be claimed to be stolen from Dark Souls. Shadow of Mordor was an excellent example of a game that relied on iterations of other games' mechanics for its secondary features, so that the primary feature (the Nemesis System) could be more fully-developed. It is the poster child for why video game mechanics should not be patented (or patentable). It's such bitter irony that other studios are now prohibited from iterating on Mordor's best and most innovative idea.

Valhalla would have been another excellent candidate for a variation of a Nemesis System.

Much like Ghost of Tsushima, Valhalla wants the player to feel empowered to go into situations with blades drawn (usually via a raid). It just doesn't work nearly as well as Ghost of Tsushima. The quality of the action in Tsushima is good enough to carry the entire game. The action of Valhalla, however, is some of the worst that I've played of any recent action or adventure game. It's really hard to put into words what exactly is wrong, but the whole game just feels ... off.

The biggest problem that I can articulate is that the combat lacks a tactile sense of physicality, despite the brutal, Dark Souls-inspired axe-and-shield gameplay. Eivor feels floaty and lose. She takes this annoying step into every swing of her axe that moves her forward at an angle such that it's hard to line her up to do something as simple as smash a wooden crate or light a brazier. There is a stamina system this time around (which was lacking in Origins), but the combat still feels repetitive and thoughtless and weightless. I wasn't super keen on Origins' combat either -- largely because it lacked stamina to prevent repetitive dodging and other cheap tactics -- but Valhalla somehow manages to feel worse. I got used to it eventually, but those early hours were rough.

Poor A.I. and floaty combat makes raids and sieges grow stale quickly.

The raids and sieges don't feel nearly as engaging or epic as the similar sieges in Shadow of War or Ghost of Tsushima because the A.I. is so passive and stupid that I often feel like I can just stand in the middle of the village with impunity. Enemy soldiers frequently just stand around without engaging the player or your fellow vikings. Even archers on walls and towers will just stand around watching you butcher their clansmen without shooting a single arrow at you. When you start chasing them down, they'll be dead by the time they've even ditched their bows and drawn their own axes. Even when your allies engage the enemies, their brawls feel limp and weak, like superficial set dressing.

There's also really poor feedback for the user. The floaty combat and busy screen means that it's kind of hard to really feel whether Eivor actually hits an enemy, deflects an attack, parries an attack, or gets hit. If not for the health bars above enemy heads, I would have no clue whether or not I'm hitting or damaging an enemy in some fights. Attacks feel more like an MMO like World of Warcraft than an action-RPG like Dark Souls.

Certain attacks from brute enemies and bosses can only be dodged or only be parried, and the game flashes a color-coded rune over the enemy to indicate this (think Sekiro). It's hard to tell whether I successfully parry because these brute enemies and bosses just shrug it off. The parry doesn't trigger a stagger or anything; it just gradually fills up a stagger meter (again, similar to Sekiro, but less intuitive). So I find myself looking at their stagger meter wondering if the parry worked, or if it was only counted as a successful block, or if it whiffed completely. There's also different colors of runes, and depending on the colors of the arena and the ambient light, it can be hard to tell the orange and red flashes apart from each other (and I don't even have color-blindness).

Feedback isn't great, especially where bosses are concerned.

Because I have such a hard time reading what's going on, I often end up relying on cheap tactics such as kiting the boss around in circles, dodging every attack he attempts, and chipping away at him during the recovery of a whiffed attack. I don't really engage with the game's mechanics as they're designed because a single screwup or misread of the confusing cues can send me back to a checkpoint.

Scavenger hunt across the fields of England

While we're comparing Valhalla to Origins, Valhalla also disappoints with its lackluster rendition of Norway. Origins' map of Egypt was fantastic and well-realized, but Valhalla's map of Norway just looks and feels like a knock-off Skyrim. The England map is better than the Norway map, but it's just too bad that the whole thing feels like a lazy, never-ending scavenger hunt instead of an actual video game.

Even though Ubisoft's idea of "content" is little more than forcing the player through dozens of hours of scavenger hunting, Valhalla's scavenger hunts at least aren't as bad as previous Assassin's Creed games. The location of collectibles and loot is marked on the map, but the map is a bit more fuzzy then in earlier games. The exact item that you'll find is left a bit ambiguous. There are only 3 broad categories of collectibles on the map: treasure (which includes weapons, armor, skill books that grant new abilities, and resources that you use to build your settlement), artifacts (which are purely functionless collectibles), and mysteries (which are short side quests).

Much of the game is following glowing spots on the map to hidden treasure.

The map also can't be zoomed in very close, so it's harder to tell from the map exactly where an object is hidden. You can put a waypoint on it, which will mark it exactly in the game world, and you can use your hunter sense to detect nearby loot, even through walls. But many collectibles are hidden vertically, or behind some kind of small environmental puzzle. You can walk to the exact location of a treasure on the map, but it might be hidden in a catacomb below you, which has its entrance hidden away somewhere else in the vicinity. Or you'll have to climb to find a somewhat-hidden entrance in a tower or ruin. Or the obvious entry points may be locked or barred, forcing you to find an alternative way in.

Not knowing exactly what you're going to find, and having to do a little bit of thinking in order to actually get the reward does help keep the scavenging feeling more player-driven. It's still mostly mindless busy-work that makes up the vast, overwhelming majority of the game's optional content, but it isn't as mindless as the same activities in, say Assassin's Creed III.

Side quests are rarely more than half-baked context
for how to get into a locked house.

It would help if the side quests were at least interesting or told entertaining little stories. They don't. Having played The Witcher 3, and coming off of playing Outer Worlds and re-playing Fallout: New Vegas, the side quests of Assassin's Creed: Valhalla are just abysmally disappointing. The quests are short and simple, rarely taking more than 5 or 10 minutes to complete. A lot of the side quests come off as little more than bad punchlines to a cringy joke. Most of them just act as half-baked context for how the player gets into a locked home in order to loot it. I can kick down the locked doors to a monastery to rob the tomb during a raid, but in order to get into some serf farmer's padlocked shed, I have to find all of his cats and kill some rats? It's eye-rolling dumb.

Ubisoft is trying to steal the "time sink" crown from Skyrim

I felt that Valhalla is largely a vapid waste of time. The narrative is long and over-drawn. The side content is boring and un-rewarding, and I mostly only do it out of a begrudging sense of obligation and the idea that "I'm here anyway, I might as well collect all the garbage so I won't have to come back later." The river-raiding and settlement-building mechanics are arguably the highlight of the game, but I still feel they pale in comparison to Black Flag. And every time I have to take control of Layla, the whole game turns into an unbearable chore.

It's also very buggy. I had issues with button prompts not showing up, even during tutorials. Controls sometimes become unresponsive, especially when trying to push the longship away from a shore. My character was regularly getting stuck in the geometry, forcing me to spend 30 seconds to a minute trying to wiggle her out. Some quests broke completely if we reloaded a checkpoint or did some basic sequence-breaking (sequence-breaking being a very easy thing to do in an open world game like this). And all of this was still true over 6 months after the game's initial launch, so I can only imaging how unstable it must have been back in November. Even cutscenes are loaded with robotic animation, and camera cuts in the cutscenes are sometimes bogged down by brief loading screens.

Layla's platform puzzles are an unbearable chore.

Valhalla would have been much improved without being saddled by the baggage of its "Assassin's Creed" namesake. If you're just looking for a way to kill time while you're ill, or stuck at home during a pandemic with nothing else to do, and you don't mind giving money to a company that allegedly shields and protects executives who sexually harass and abuse female staff, then Assassin's Creed: Valhalla is fine. Personally, I'd much rather skip the 90-hour, open world slog and have a shorter, tighter, more streamlined game.

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