Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Release Date: 11/10/2020
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Oh boy, right when you think Assassin’s Creed can’t get any bigger or better. Valhalla is by far the best game in the series, but it does still have many problems that have plagued the series in the last few entries. Over the 70 hours I spent in the game, I felt satisfied and had a lot of fun in the game, and never was it boring, but there are parts that still feel like a chore and the game is still very bloated despite the fat trimming from Odyssey.
If you couldn’t guess already, Valhalla is set around when the Vikings invaded England and tried to take down the Anglo-Saxons and their Christian faith. The game thankfully has unique characters again, interesting dialog, and a plot to actually care about, well minus the real-world stuff with Layla. You play as either a male or female Eivor who is your hero in this game and is set to build up the village of Ravensthorpe, stop The Order of the Ancients, as well as a plot revolving around your brother Sigurd being sucked into the Christian craziness as he thinks he’s a God.
The main gameplay loop in Valhalla is an alliance map that allows you to pledge yourself to territories throughout England to gain their trust to eventually take down the evil King Alfred. There are about a dozen territories to conquer, but each has a mini-sub plot in which you have to deal with that kingdom’s troubles. The characters are rather interesting and I grew to care about them thanks to the sharper writing over Odyssey’s dull cookie-cutter banter and annoying accents. Getting to pledge to these kingdoms usually ends in storming a keep or castle and putting that king back in power or helping him hold it. One plot involved a murder mystery, and another involved a king’s son who didn’t want to step up to the throne, and some of the kings are dying and you must secure the throne. It may sound repetitive, but actually, with each area being different with a unique plot I always looked forward to the next one.
Of course, while that’s the larger scope of the objective of this game, and it’s a welcome new breath of fresh air for the series, you also have the smaller gameplay loops within such as of course the RPG elements that have been scaled back and also seem pointless. Now instead of actual levels, you have a power level that increases and gives you two skills points every time you level up. There is a new skill tree/web that gives you stat increases and unlocks some new abilities, but the auto-assign works just fine here as the level cap is 340 and by the time you get there you will have unlocked pretty much every important skill. On top of this, the loot system is now gone in favor of unique armors, weapons, and abilities that must be found in the world and are hidden. While this does feel more Assassin’s Creed-like it’s still a chore to go around finding these dozens of armors and weapons throughout the world. They usually aren’t too hard to find, and some of them can be fun, like the Assassins Bureus that are back.
The only way to do other things like customize your ship, upgrade your armor and weapons, etc, is to find chests throughout the world called Wealth and these give you supplies to upgrade your own village. You use this to unlock new facilities. This can also feel like a grind, but over the first twenty hours, you will eventually unlock all the important buildings. Traveling around England is done by horseback mostly and sailing on rivers, more on that later. Just like any AC game exploring the world is a lot of fun. The world is about one-third the size of Odyssey so it’s less overwhelming, but still too big honestly. AC worlds have become too large and bloated for their own good and it just ends up being mostly padding and filler, however, completing the main story and finding all of the Order members isn’t as much of a chore as in Odyssey. Sure, there are power levels set in each area, but I was able to complete these underpowered if I kept my armor and weapons upgraded. Thankfully that’s what is great about the armor and weapons being unique. You can technically stick with the default stuff and just upgrade it over time and ignore everything in the game. Even upgrading your village is mostly optional.
When it comes to combat the game shines and feels great. The combat system is the same as Odyssey, but tweaked and feels better this time around with some brutal combat. Beheadings, slicing off arms, exploding bodies, etc. While the death animations get old fast, each weapon has a few unique one of its own. At least you get the hidden blade in this game and can one-hit assassinate guards regardless of power level. This is a huge positive change as stealth in Odyseey took a back seat. Any guard that is more powerful you get a quick-time event that determines whether you can one-hit kill them or not. This can also be turned off in the options so every enemy is a one-hit kill just like good ‘ol Assassin’s Creed game should be. This allows the satisfying leapfrogging and double assassinations of enemies around camps and makes clearing some out faster.
Finally, sailing has taken a backseat and ship battles are now gone. Instead, you get river raids which allow you to sail around the rivers and basically raid villages for wealth that is used to upgrade your village, again these are completely optional. They are fun for a while and are fairly easy to get some resources. There are various other activities in the world like aligning runes, stacking stones, and Mysteries which are mini-side events that happen in the world that can be completed in seconds or minutes and they can be pretty entertaining. They also give you XP so it’s a great way to level up if you want to complete the Order story tree. Over time you will naturally level up by completing territory pledges in the game to around level 280 which is recommended for the ending. After this and up to 340 is optional to complete the Order tree as there is one Zealot that is level 340 and I was able to beat him at 315 with ease by the end of the game.
The game itself looks fantastic despite the Anvil engine being poorly optimized and requiring too high of system requirements for what is seen. There’s no ray-tracing or DLSS and yet the game requires a 3000 series Nvidia GPU? It looks slightly better than Odyssey so I don’t understand this. On my overclocked 2080 I still had FPS drops on the Very High settings. On my 1660ti I had to keep everything around High and still dropped below 30 FPS in some areas. It’s just an engine that needs an overhaul and needs to run better. I also ran into crashes and glitches even almost a year after release. Despite all of this, the game’s art style captures medieval England and each area looks beautiful with sweeping vistas and mountains. The soundtrack is also one of the best in the series to date and I regularly listen to it outside of the game. It’s just amazing and well put together.
This game won’t change your mind if you hate Assassin’s Creed, but if you’ve been on the fence for a while I suggest jumping in here. It strips down the RPG elements a lot and feels more like a traditional AC game just bigger and with most things being optional. I had a lot of fun hunting down the Order members and finding gear and weapons. However, the real-world stuff with Layla just needs to go. Outside of the beginning scene you only go back towards the end of the game and it’s just so uninteresting and there’s so little of this that you forget what happened in the previous game. The endings that involve “ancient high-tech” and the Animus should just go away as we only care about the historical parts of the game. I even noticed that the scenes with Layla look extremely dated like they were made a decade ago with the last low-resolution textures that should be on an Xbox 360 with lower poly models and worse lighting effects. It seemed tacked on or just planned years ahead of time and they clipped it into this game to make it fit the story.
Overall, Valhalla is a fun game and a well-made AC game. It does feel bloated with too much optional stuff to find around the world, but it’s just optional and you aren’t forced to find it like in Odyssey. I was able to complete both main storylines easily and the RPG elements scale nicely with the story and can even be turned off. The game looks and sounds amazing despite the poorly optimized engine, and the story was actually good with well-written dialog and characters I cared about. There were unique assassinations even! However, the series still needs to scale back and just go back to the way AC was in the past. One single story had a beginning and end with some optional content thrown in. It takes 50 hours just to complete the main story after completing all pledges, and then another 20 hours to level up enough to finish the Order storyline. Over 100 hours in to actually get 100% completion, possibly even 120, and that doesn’t include the DLC that can take 15-20 hours to easily 100% those! It’s stupidly bloated and feels insane, but thankfully it’s just optional. AC in general just doesn’t have the interesting gameplay loop for grinding and it was never supposed to be an RPG. These elements feel shoehorned in as an excuse to make the world bigger and extend gameplay time. The series has never needed any of these.