For better or for worse, this piece is most probably unique in more ways than one. For one, I have only ever written similarly extensive articles for new consoles, for which it’s very, very easy to have a lot to tell. It is definitely a first for me then to have written more than 20 thousand words on a single game, foregoing all review conventions in favour of wide-ranging analysis. Open-world games are —by definition— enormous, complicated beasts and that holds true of the modern form Assassin’s Creed games have taken.
Moreover, though I cannot be certain, I feel pretty confident no one in their right mind has written as comprehensively about Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, certainly not with the goal of laying out all the systems that matter the ones that pretend to matter in order to highlight the state of the franchise, the game itself and then look to the future not so much with wishful thinking but mostly hope. Hope for the series and the genre alike.
This is the first truly long-form piece I have produced specifically for my blog and exactly the kind of article, the first such article I haven’t written in my mother tongue. This is an experiment in more way than one, an experiment that required more than 150 hours playing the game and dozens more gathering notes, ideas, organising everything and writing enough to keep you occupied for roughly two hours.
Whether you have played the game or not, if by the end of this articles you have grasped where Ubisoft stands, what makes the series unique but also backwards and why, against all odds, hope for the future of the franchise just refuses to die, my labour will not have been in vain.
I specifically wanted to make this piece friendly in ways only the web allows, without getting too fancy though. So there is a table of contents so you can easily jump to any sections of my analysis using anchor links. I wanted to keep everything in one page after the jump but make navigating between topics as friendly as possible. I’m sure I could have done better still but this is also my first go at writing so long a piece in markdown, so, please, bear with me as I learn. I’m not in the business of counting page views so there is no reason to break everything in to pages or play with the way such pages may load in order to hit a number. I vastly prefer hitting a nerve than a number.
All in all, the process was a joy and a burden —such is the way of things— yet I loved every minute of it and I can’t wait for some feedback.
Slices of a saga
Heaps of ore are scattered all throughout the map in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. You’re supposed to smash them and collect the ore, ore that’s vital to levelling up equipment. In other cases, you find wells, haphazardly closed with wooden lids you need to break before jumping deeper underground to look for interesting nuggets or even passages. You’d think you could break ore and lids with a swing of your breaded axe. Indeed that’s the idea. But I lost count of the times when I kept swinging to no effect. For ore, I had to play the angles. With lids, I had to condescend to using Eivor’s bow to deal with the inconvenience.
Well, what do you know? In version 1.1.2 this has been mostly fixed. Only 4 months after release.
But at the same time, the level gating imbalances of Origins and Odyssey are gone. Sure, there is level gating, but it takes some doing and —more importantly— some very poor time management skills to hit a wall in progression.
I have no doubt you’ve heard that the game’s ending is anti-climactic, maybe even a text book level case of anti-climax. And it’s kind of true even.
But the open-world iterations of Assassin’s Creed have multiple main quests, each with its own ending and role in the lore of the whole (assuming anyone, even Ubisoft, is actually keeping track of the series’ lore). And, believe it or not, the little time we get on the modern setting is legitimately interesting, possibly a great setup for whatever comes next.
On the ground though, it’s still a pain to buy anything in bulk from merchants. There’s no easy way to choose to buy the totality of a resource a merchant has in reserve (you’ll need to). Which was true in Origins. And also changed and patched in Origins. Somehow, years later, it’s still an issue from the off and months after the game’s release.
But, hey, inventory management has been greatly simplified, there’s no more useless loot for the sake of looting, instead piece of armour is useful, everything can be fully upgraded. No artificial ceiling to deal with.
As always, jumping around can also be considered mild gambling. It’s only a matter of time before you see Eivor jumping towards any direction but the one you thought you’d specified quickly enough.
But scaling buildings is once again more or a puzzle —hence more of a joy I’d say— even though Anglo-Saxon buildings that could capture the imagination were few and far between in the time of the sons of Ragnar. Puzzle platforming definitely has quite the presence this time around.
There are a lot of “buts” to go along with any delight Valhalla offers as you can very well see. Were we somewhat inclined to enumerate everything that would fall in columns A and B, the end result would be hilariously intimidating. Either way, roughly 4 months after the game’s initial release and a couple of patches later, it’s time to draw a line in the sand and talk more thoroughly of Ubisoft’s most successful (commercially) Assassin’s Creed title ever.
The “what” and the “why”
Is this a review though? Maybe. If you’re expecting a score at the end, prepare to be disappointed. This is as much of a review piece as a 40 page long literary critique masquerading as foreword. Which is a weird way of saying that, by today’s standards, no, it’s not. But by the 17th century’s… it might as well be one. What I can promise is that this piece is an attempt at being thoroughly analytical, based on more than 150 hours spent in the game.
But why now? Why not earlier? It’s been months, right? And, surely, it can’t have taken me this long to sink 150 hours in an Assassin’s Creed game when I’m known to squeeze in as much as 110 in 2 weeks’ time. I decided to take my time, wait things out a bit, see what a couple of patches would sort out. If anything, I was really curious as to how post-launch support would play out in the age of the COVID-19 pandemic, even if Ubisoft didn’t really use lockdowns, working from home or other newfound restrictions as an excuse for any issues (not as far as I know anyhow). That is for the best I’ll say, as, months later, such a defence would have probably crumbled under closer scrutiny. As things stand the game’s state is what it is just because that’s what was possible in this timeframe, based on whatever circumstances, pandemic-related or not. All this may sound ominous but it really isn’t. Games of this size and complexity are no joke. Not having issues would have been a miracle based on experience with earlier open-world games in the series and with almost any big open-world productions one can think of. Whether such a trend is acceptable is something I’ll try to address further down this rabbit hole of an article.
Another leap of faith begins
Eivor (male or female, it’s up to you, you can also change whenever you feel like it) is of course a fictional character that acts as an arrow targeting 873AD. The Viking invasion of the British isles has been going on for a while, 3 out 4 Anglo-Saxon kingdoms are practically under Dane1 control already. But Eivor, who starts his story in Norway, is forced to turn his gaze towards Britain after he loses his family back home but is also bound by oath to Sigurd, who can’t wait to meet and taste his destiny far from home. Eivor amasses fame during the game, falling on the typical trope of the player-controlled character ending up the most important person in the game world. But only to an extend. Eivor is ever the subordinate, he’s not trying to control a kingdom, helps others of higher standing, all in the hope of providing stability for his own settlement, at best a very small town, to flourish and avoid danger. That he’s part of something bigger is just a game the gods play with him, which surprises neither him nor anyone else, as such are the vicissitudes of fortune in cultures where a god is just a different kind of human.
In the modern timeline, the planet is still on its way to be destroyed in an apocalyptic event that, as it turns out, Desmond’s prior sacrifice only postponed. Layla is sort of a changed person after going off the deep end during Odyssey’s events. Not as enthusiastic or as optimistic as before, she can only do what she can to deal with the upcoming danger to humanity. I won’t say more as modern story sections are very, very few indeed but quite consequential so it’s almost impossible to talk about them without spoiling things. What I can say, though, is that what happens in the modern time is more closely connected to what happens in the historical setting than in any previous game in the series, not just in terms of causality either. For the first time, I’m actually intrigued, even as I keep reminding myself Ubisoft isn’t in the habit of sticking landings when it comes to stories and their conclusion.
What hasn’t changed is the shift to the Order Of The Ancients/Hidden Ones view of the game’s world. Thankfully, though, we do witness, three games in this new age for the franchise, what leads to the creation of the Templars, the organisation players got most familiar with through the games that preceded Origins. As things stand at the end of the game, we might switch to the classic duo in the future, the difference being that now we know why they came to be. Without going too much into it, I’d say the way this is handled isn’t really complex and is basically taken at face value. But the history buff in me appreciates that going from The Order Of The Ancients to the Templars happens in a way that pushes the player to be more torn over his view of the ongoing conflict and the parties involved, while using as a springboard the fact that a lot of knowledge was destroyed or misinterpreted during the Middle Ages, especially in those parts of Europe that either never felt Roman influence or just failed to preserve the memory and legacy or Rome. In terms of lore the change is nominal at this point but I can feel the touch of the historian and you can too. If you are so inclined of course.
In Odyssey, we saw Ubisoft break the meat of the story into 4 main quests or arcs that are nonetheless intertwined, sometimes practically, others in a more high-concept kind of way. Both in plot but mostly in ideas threaded in the narrative as a whole, this newfound tradition continues, meaning that the only way to really understand exactly what’s going on and why (unless something stays purposefully obfuscated) is to complete all of them, though you’re still afforded some leeway as to the order in which you’ll be completing each arc.
The smaller picture
We can talk the bigger picture all we want but every Assassin’s Creed game is essentially a huge distraction from that bigger picture, a loop that pushes the player from memory to memory with implied agency. Which means that memory has to somehow pull and keep players in. Now, it’s no secret that Ubisoft isn’t a bunch of sticklers for writing. But even if it was, the way Assassin’s Creed games are produced doesn’t afford enough time for good, iterative writing. Game development is a “game” of iteration more often than not after all. It’s no coincidence that some of the best writing in open-world games has been the product of much longer development time than that afforded to any team tackling a new Assassin’s Creed game, despite the panoply of studios Ubisoft throws at the franchise for each and every entry. Remember. Valhalla’s team had 3 years to work on the game, at best. It’s the same team that worked on Origins that came out back in 2017. Red Dead Redemption took longer, Cyberpunk 2077 took longer, even the mechanically simpler Ghost Of Tsushima took longer, let alone Horizon Zero Dawn and, by the looks of it, Horizon: Forbidden West. We can quibble over what kind of tech/tool efficiencies Ubisoft has over the other teams but automation and writing, narrative structure etc. aren’t the best of matches. And that’s putting it mildly.
This is a very long-winded way to say that the way Ubisoft operates makes good writing more of a lucky side effect than it should be. When talking writing and Ubisoft, it’s best to start with a “there is little hope” attitude. Which makes it kind of remarkable that Valhalla presents a clear improvement. “Kind of” as everything’s still shaky but it’s apparent there’s a very welcome shift happening. Let’s hope it’s not a one-off.
Conveniently, Eivor encapsulates the full spectrum the game’s writing moves in. Eivor is designed to be stoic and a pragmatist. He only cares about The Order Of The Ancients for as long as it stands between him and his goals. He only cares about the Hidden Ones for as long as they are convenient. He’s bound by tradition but never forgets everyone deserves their own traditions and, by extension, faith. He doesn’t care about sides, only his sense of duty to friends and people. He will split skulls open but only until he achieves his goal, which isn’t fame. Eivor is defined from the get go as a sort of underling, as a tool that can grow to a force of nature but never above the ones he swore to follow. He didn’t land on Britain to save the world but to find a home.
Of course ludonarrative dissonance is there and surprises no one. But Eivor’s writers are so hellbent on preserving this image of the protagonist that they keep him stoic and overly down to earth in some completely silly circumstances that, naturally, defy all logic. Unsurprisingly when logic fails is mostly dictated by the type of quest you find yourself into. Main arcs tend to riff off of Eivor’s composure way better, not mistaking gravity for the absence of humour. In side activities (more on those later on), writers work with pop culture references quite a lot, come up with some fun scenarios every now and then, but essentially break Eivor’s writing just to make that kind of content work without spending too much time on it.
In any case, this is an open-world game so it’s prudent to expect writing consistency and complexity to deteriorate the further away from Eivor you look. The alternative would have been a major surprise and a memorable accomplishment.
A clearer stance
Ubisoft is notorious for trying to keep politics out of its games, mostly to comical effect and to their detriment. The company has no one to blame but itself for this as, when choosing themes for major games, it has gravitated towards social issues or sci-fi themes that effectively are political commentary and/or satire all by themselves. With Ubisoft picking them to score points and then avoiding to let anyone, friend or foe, player or NPC, take a clear stance about anything, it betrays the mean origins of the overall approach: the idea that by trying to not annoy anyone, there’s a higher chance that more will buy your product. This, of course, is nonsense much like the idea that if software piracy wasn’t a thing, everyone that pirates games would have spend whatever was needed to legally buy what they’ve been pirating. That’s not how the world works though.
But Eivor won’t have it. He never ascends to being a true rebel or anything of the sort but he’s always ready to accept different traditions, couldn’t care less about the staunch beliefs of the Hidden Ones or the Ancients, certainly not if they can’t be reconciled with his brand of pragmatism and, better yet, he will let anyone know.
For Ubisoft, this approach is a step in the right direction. It even becomes the basis for a certain quest line that I’d rather not spoil for anyone. There’s a long way to go but, if Valhalla doesn’t prove some kind of fluke in this regard, the Editorial Team might as well be on some kind of right track after more than 10 years of pretending that, surely, vanilla is the only flavour anyone would ever need.
Music to your… eyes
It’s easy to argue that Assassin’s Creed —as a franchise— must be the only major franchise that has managed to be accompanied by consistently good music across so many entries. I can go one step further and also suggest that almost any Assassin’s Creed soundtrack is more well-constructed than the games themselves, even working demonstrably better at building a narrative. Lucky for Ubisoft then, as it’s the music that many times elevates an awkwardly constructed in-game scene or even the light galloping into a new region while the camera pans to satiate the player’s eyes. But it’s the music that most accurately whispers the main characteristics of a new region, a different circumstance, in his ear.
I can go on and on about the soundtrack if I’m left to my own devices, which is why I have a different series of articles, called “High Notes” as I’ve explained before. Not only that but I’ve already shared my extensive thoughts on Valhalla’s music, along with playlists. Which is another way to say, you just dodged a few thousand extra words from this piece. You’re welcome. Onwards and upwards then.
A saga of structural change
While Assassin’s Creed Origins and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey both share the same basic structure, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla clearly differs, mostly for the best. In a way, Valhalla modernises the open-world flavour that the series has lately committed itself to —mostly playing catch-up to the genre’s norms though— while also trying something a bit different on the outskirts of the typical open-world approach. The end result is a clear improvement for the series, though not much of an advance for the category as a whole. Naturally, I have some explaining to do.
In Assassin’s Creed Valhalla we get 4 main story arcs that are somewhat connected —one informing the other to an extent— but not designed to be completed in any particular order:
- The historical
- The mythical
- The modern
- The factional
Rest assured, I’m very good at avoiding spoilers. If my typical reviewing approach is any indication, I tend to leave out stuff I consider best to be discovered by the player, even when a publisher’s NDA doesn’t oppose sharing more. I’m never around to tell anyone what goes on in the game, more like what the game is like. You can proceed with confidence, dear reader.
Usually the historical setting is used as window dressing in almost any and every Assassin’s Creed title. Or, to put this more accurately, the historical setting holds little influence over how the game works and functions more as an excuse for things to happen a certain way. In Valhalla we happen to witness a happy marriage of history and designer intent. Whether the setting was chosen by the designers out of convenience or the designers went the extra mile to model the game around the chosen historical setting is unclear and most probably not a question an answer by Ubisoft PR can resolve satisfactorily. Either way we end up with a map of Britain broken down into different regions. Each region has its own chieftain, lord or king, power plays are ongoing, alliances are always shifting, some Anglo-Saxons oppose the Danes more than others, peoples are mixing etc. The “Great Viking Army” was always based on clans, leadership never rested on an undisputed sovereign, the Vikings themselves were not coming from just one country, kingdom or nation to begin with. Whoever controled a region forged alliances, placed a premium on retaining that region and actually wanted to establish some kind of peace for trade and crops to flourish. Pretty vanilla stuff.
This also means that each lord has his own headaches to deal with and Eivor has more chances to help each an every one, in order to establish good-faith relations, ones that allow him to rely on distant friends as much as they can rely on him when push comes to shove. In “quest terms” this means that each region holds its own story arc, usually with a cast mostly unique to the region and some excuse for Eivor to build rapport and trust in such confines.
Sure there’s always some kind of bigger, all encompassing story looming on the horizon, even if just implied at times, but the player can really focus on one region at a time, meet new characters, help them out and see where that leads. This way it’s easier to craft some story content with a beginning, middle and an end without always having to convince players that whatever’s happening connects to some grand goal other than the safety and advancement of Eivor’s settlement. Smaller stories, more characters, a more… digestible scope, each region providing its own climax of sorts. So we get a better flow of story content than the convoluted chaos that Origins and Odyssey presented us with, story content that also flows way better progression-wise. But I’ll refrain from touching this part. It’s not yet time to delve into systems.
Then there’s the mythical part of the game that is contained to a special region but only to a certain extent. In fact it threads its way through the historical setting too, either pushing Eivor towards some place or someone —hence giving direction to the player— or, at times, functioning as a nice distraction. Here there’s a story to be told, one that helps the player better understand whatever else is going on, characters to shine a bit more and provide more hooks for everything else happening in the game to gel together and form a somewhat tighter whole. One you’re through it, either before or after finishing up the more historical part, you’ll know more about Eivor, more about his brother and lord Sigurd, more about the modern setting, Norse mythology, customs etc. If you’re looking for the thread that holds everything together with a soft, sometimes invisible touch, this is it. You shouldn’t be surprised though, not if you’ve poured an inordinate amount of time into Assassin’s Creed Odyssey at least.
The amount of times the player absolutely has to do anything in the modern setting is “2”. Just 2. Maybe this changes as new DLC rears its head but this is how things are at the moment. As in the last two titles in the series, the player can hop back to the modern setting at will from some point on but there’s no real reason to other than to read up on documents stored on PCs, look around a cabin, check some decorative items etc. I’m still not a fan of the amount of documents one is expected to read here, even more so as reading them offers very little most of the time. This type of lore content is more like random rumbling masquerading as meaningful insight hiding behind silly jargon than anything else. All in all there’s no truly meaningful interplay between the modern and the other settings.
Although… what happens this time around in the modern setting is quite interesting, even opening up some delicious possibilities if Ubisoft is even bold enough to explore them going forward. There are a couple of things going on that end up changing things in the modern setting so the best part is how more connected to the whole narrative it ends up feeling by the time you’re done with all major story arcs. Again, I won’t go deeper here, as it’s impossible to properly provide commentary while also avoiding massive spoilers that manage to worm themselves in the modern timeline.
Ah, the factions. At this point the Order Of The Ancients and the Hidden Ones are different sides of the same joke. As precursors to the Templars and the Assassins respectively, the reason they transform from one to the other is (very) light food for thought. As for their influence in Valhalla, none of those are clearly villainous or clearly benevolent, something that does not elude Eivor at all. One side is more of an obstacle for him than the other, for sure, and yet he only sees them as tools to be used according to circumstance, schools of thought he can learn a couple of things from. Eivor really doesn’t pick a side. Better yet, he tends to highlight each side’s fallacies as he sees them.
Valhalla’s overall treatment of these factions reflects all of the above. Dealing fully with members of the Order Of The Ancients is essentially one of the main arcs that the players can tackle at their leisure. Some of them are dealt with as we progress through the historical timeline, most have to be sought out when power levels and convenience allow. For most of the game the player really doesn’t have to care about this ongoing conflict. Assassin presence is truly minimal, so the Order is mostly equivalent to a bunch of warlords that stand in the way. It’s difficult to care for any of this as you target dozens of Order members, with a few clues about each masquerading as very compact character development. Really, each one has a few parting words of wisdom, defiance or regret that are supposed to provide insight as to what kind of people can end up in such an organisation, exactly like what we saw in Origins and, especially, Odyssey.
That said, finishing up with this arc is the only way to learn more about the spark that transmutes Ancients into Templars.
Side dishes (aka World Events)
Technically, there are no side quests proper in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. Are there any side activities though? There most certainly are. The open-world genre2 has yet to outgrow the notion that a map must be huge and full of points of interest, just as the night is dark and full of terrors. I can think of a couple of exceptions of a certain Polish disposition but… we’re not there yet. In Valhalla, then, there are loads of POIs, many, many places to visit, nooks and crannies to uncover so we’re getting side activities by the boatload. Each region has its own set of side activities that you can tackle at your leisure.
The difference is they’re all effectively mini-games or quests so short they’re like the equivalent of watching something unfold in the street without ever pausing your nice stroll. It’s a different approach, with highs and lows and a ton of content to boot. Let’s take that stroll then.
In Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, the map is full of treasure chests. For once, hunting for valuables is completely in character as one can’t be called viking if there’s no raiding and looting involved. But not all chests are created equal. Neither are all of them gateways to typical wealth. Sometimes you find rarer resources your settlement needs to grow or your weapons and armour need in order to be upgraded. Sometimes it’s silver. Every now and then it’s armour pieces, new weapons, even books of knowledge. It’s pretty clear which chests are considered “wealth”, as they’re marked more intensely on the map so you’ll always know which golden dot is worth your while and which isn’t. Some chests are only accessible during a raid though. This is Ubisoft’s way of making sure you dabble in burning some monasteries and whatnot while feeling that getting XP from killing Saxons isn’t the only brand of progression on offer when you raid. Most chests in such cases contain settlement advancing supplies so all the more reason to go after them.
World Events are essentially bite-sized side quests. Gone are the multi-stage side quests full of mediocre and occasionally funny filler content that had you dart all over the map, thus spending even more time on the road for no apparent reason or meaningful payoff. What do we get now? Silly byte-sized stories that aren’t even tracked in the quest log. They’re so short, they would only clutter up the UI.
In most cases such events can be completed either at the same place the quest-giving NPC got you into them or really, really close. A retired viking imagines he’s building a boat to go raiding with his ghost friends. A bunch of energetic kids ask Eivor to play hide and seek with them. A merchant is trapped inside his warehouse and needs your help. The precursor of Robin Hood is causing trouble in Sherwood forrest because why not. Elsewhere, a skald needs some inspiration. At some point you’re even challenged, multiple times, by the same person, always under false pretences, till you beat enough sense into him and move on. There are many pop culture references squeezed in World Events for good measure.
It’s easy to zone out as an NPC explains his or her plight, sets up a ruse or expresses an honest request and if you don’t pay enough attention you might have some trouble realising what you’re supposed to do. You can’t reset the events introduction, you can, though, make another pass at the NPC and trigger an extra line of dialogue that serves as a hint. That’s what you get when these mini-quests aren’t tracked through the main log. There are some exceptions in which a longer trip is needed to complete such an event. But as the system trains you to expect all solutions to be nearby, expect to feel stumped at points, just because you’re feeling too sure that the “real” way to conclude this must be nearby, just like so many other times before.
In any case, this is nice and all but, other than earning XP, what’s the allure of such events? Honestly, there isn’t any. Some are fun in their silliness, a few even kind of clever, but they’re not in any way connected to anything else, they’re too short for any character to stand out as exactly that —a character— instead of a concept.
Design-wise, World Events feel like a double-edged sword. They’re too sort to overstay their welcome (or to require proper writing chops) but also meaningless enough to become invisible. Not at first, not right away. But in aggregate? It’s only ever a matter of time.
Mysteries tend to be more focused affairs. They cover a range of activities, with some being immensely enjoyable ways to break the game’s main loop and some are relics of the past, either of the genre or the franchise, that I really do hope they function as the death rattle of stupid gaming conventions.
Flyting challenges, for example, are short and sweet. They are the Norse equivalent of rap battles but, really, the closest thing to flyting in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is insult sword fighting. The best part is that you need to be paying attention not just to what rhymes with what but to flow and intonation. Sometimes a rhyme isn’t even an option.
Treasures Of Britain have you finding secret entrances and passages, trying some puzzle platforming, some manoeuvering in huge caves and whatnot, in ways that tend to wake fond memories of Tomb Raider games. Very, very enjoyable. And if you enjoy puzzle platforming then Animus Anomalies will give you even more of that, glimpses to a tantalising cut-scene, that is being formed scene by scene, and respite from the typical flow of the game.
If you’re into some more visual puzzles you can spend a few minutes at a time with Standing Stones, where you have to align fragmented symbols to form a larger one but the only thing you can do is change position, play with the camera a bit and hope to hit a sweet spot when aligning fragments. It’s nothing fancy but it’s calming.
Cairn challenges are supposed to be physics-based puzzles where the player is expected to stack up a bunch of stones and reach a certain height without everything falling apart. It’s as boring as it sounds. Even more so as this kind of puzzle just isn’t suited for controllers. In VR it would have worked better while a mouse in “pancake” mode would also have sufficed. The problem is that handling stones, rotating them, tilting them etc. is a pain as directions are relevant to camera angles and you eventually have to play with both to get a good sense of what might be the next best move. In terms of content designed to the strengths of a control system, this might be the most unwieldly and unsuitable in the whole game.
Fly Agaric challenges are a mixed bag. You grab a bite off of some hallucinogenic mushrooms and you either end up with a puzzle or another fight. Speaking of fights, Legendary Animals, Lost Drengr and Daughters Of Lerion Mysteries offer some of the nicer battle challenges in the game and a few more rewards. All essentially boss fights in nature, with Legendary Animals being longer and tougher than the other two. Seeing as boss fights aren’t really a thing for the majority of the game’s main arcs, it would have been more interesting for such content to be better integrated than just another thing to look for or to bump into.
But that’s impossible to achieve if you don’t plan it out as such from the off so Ubisoft can only do so much to fix something like this. Case in point: Lost Drengr and patch 1.1.2. Supposedly the drengr you meet and fight are loyal to Ragnar but now older and anxious to find their place in Valhalla by dying a warrior’s death. Once you defeat them all, nothing really happens, you just keep whatever each fight rewards you with. With patch 1.1.2 a new quest is added with the very clear purpose of capping off the Lost Drengr affair. The only thing this quest requires is for the player to have gone through all the available drengr. Then one only has to show up at a place, interact with a cage, watch a cut-scene and pick up another brand-spanking new weapon.
The most mind-numbing kind of Mysteries are the Offering Altars. These are just stones where you have to place a certain amount of some resource or material to get a reward. Not only is the concept boring, not only are these altars strategically placed to basically be as far as possible for the closest fast travel point (with one exception if memory serves) but, at launch, if you didn’t write down yourself what the alter required, for future reference, the only way to be reminded was to revisit the altar. To the surprise of approximately zero intelligent lifeforms this proved infuriating enough for the second major patch to add altar requirements on the map and a clear reading of how much of that resource the player has at hand so that, when enough, he can visit the alter and be done with it once and for all.
One can easily surmise that Artifacts, as a category of activities, refers to collecting stuff. Weirdly enough that’s mostly but not totally true. The point here is to find ways to reach for some item, either to collect or, in the case of Cursed Areas, to destroy it. This usually involves light puzzle platforming, an arrow or two etc, whether you’re looking for Roman artifacts, cursed masks to destroy or saga pages to collect. Rewards aren’t really interesting so being a completetionist by nature is more of a motive than the rewards themselves.
Two kinds of Artifacts activities stand out, none for any particularly good reason. As you’re exploring, you run into Hoard Maps. These include some kind of schematic and hint that help you find a treasure hoard. Hoards aren’t marked like other items you encounter, so you really have to search for them using those maps, stand over the right spot and try to pick up as if you know there’s something to be picked there. This isn’t really new in an Assassin’s Creed game, nor is it a bad idea on paper. Considering the scale of the game though, along with the more pleasant complexity of other side content, looking for hoards feels like a chore. And, really, the rewards aren’t worth it much either. So the one compliment I can make for Treasure Hoards is that —in a viking setting especially— they make complete sense. Vikings would bury valuables, coins and more underground for safekeeping when they had to leave base and raid someplace else or even go back home for a while3.
For last —and most certainly least— I left Flying Paper challenges. Anyone that remembers platforming/parkour races in any Assassin’s Creed game knows what these will be like, only this time you’re chasing a piece of paper. Be too tardy and you lose your chance to grab it. What awaits you when you do? Another tattoo design you can use for character customization. Adding insult to injury, physics, parkour and platforming assist systems etc. just aren’t up to snuff for something like this. In a race you’ll end up jumping in the wrong direction many a time, even when your targeting is correct. This means you have to a) accept you lost your chance to reach the flying paper in time, b) wait for it to run its course, c) run back to the starting point, d) possibly wonder what’s going on when the paper doesn’t respawn because you came back too quickly and had the unfortunate idea of waiting for it just at its spawn point, thus blocking the respawn, and e) then start chasing it again, it’s very, very, very easy to end up frustrated.
Zealots in lieu of mercenaries
Ubisoft decided to have another go at the concept of mercenaries that annoyed me too much in Odyssey for their propensity to pile on other major fights dynamically, quite consistently too, adding frustration out of nowhere. Zealots are Valhalla’s analogue and function both as the meat of one of the main quests as well as a mechanic in and of themselves. The basic idea is the same but greatly streamlined, which is clearly the trend in Valhalla.
Zealots roam the map but each one tends to a more or less concrete territory. They won’t show up wherever, they won’t look for you at the first sign of trouble in their jurisdiction or hunting you in a way that’s reminiscent of The Terminator 2’s T1000. They’re tough to deal with, even when you’re at a higher power level, as they’re very aggressive, can take lots of punishment and generally keep you on your toes no matter what. Of course each has a power level and it’s not advised to pick up a fight with zealots at levels higher than yours.
There is quite a huge difference in your overall experience with Zealots that hinges on a particular player choice. Early on you are told of the Zealots and how they will hunt you down. Unless you intercept the kill order they are about to receive, so they never even set out to kill your Eivor. If intercepted, Zealots remain in the world and roam their own territories. You have to actively look for them and provoke them in order to fight them. Otherwise they just ignore you.
Zealots are effectively part of the Order Of The Ancients main quest, as they hold valuable clues that help you go up the chain in each branch/region. So, in a way, it pays to deal with Zealots at some point.
A big difference this time around is that once all Zealots are dead, that’s it. There are no tiers, no reward system linked to such tiers or anything along those lines. Zealots are a threat and when you deal with it, you’ve dealt with it and that’s that.
Raiding is quite the characteristic part of the viking experience indeed so it couldn’t have been left out of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. From launch to version 1.1.2 raiding hasn’t stood still and sometimes it’s just part of something else, just there to be experienced and, ultimately, a standalone activity in a mode that remains separate from everything.
Of course the basic idea is simple. You take a boat full of vikings, crawl rivers and look for highlighted places where you can raid. With a button press the raid begins, with the boat being beached in one go, fellow vikings spilling out all pumped up and ready to go.
In the normal flow of the game, raids are either another quest objective to be dealt with or something to be taken up a la carte, either to gather local wealth or to stretch your back a little. There are very specific differences between a raid and your typical open combat at any other point in the game. The utilization of a raid party is one of them. Barring specific set-pieces, you’re accustomed to fighting alone but during a raid there’s a bunch of vikings helping you out. They’re not useless but not terribly efficient either. They’ll deal with guards and soldiers for you, but you’ll still have to get hands-on no matter what. If a fellow raider falls, you just get close and revive them, hence keeping your numbers intact.
Tactically, though, there’s no real need for your raiding party. They’re loud, they usually kill stealth as an option and the game doesn’t really throw much in the way of curve balls here, which means, were you alone, you’d still manage. The game itself highlights that when you get to hit military camps and fortresses on your own and easily survive to tell the tale.
What’s the point then? Other than the back stretching mentioned earlier, wealth is usually hidden behind doors that require two people to be shoved open. As long as you keep just another raider alive, you’re set. Some even go the extra mile and get to such a door when they see one and shout for you to get there and help, essentially cutting off some of the time you’d need to notice those doors yourself. Not bad. Not of huge help either though.
All in all, this basic form of raiding really is there just to gate some wealth resources used to upgrade your settlement. But there’s more raiding to be done in Valhalla.
River raids are new —they were added in version 1.1.2— and get their own mode. Once unlocked (don’t worry, it’s not end-game bound, you’ll get on with it early enough) it’s available at any given time through Eivor’s settlement. This mode adds a few more wrinkles to basic raiding.
It all happens in a couple of stand-alone maps with interconnecting rivers. On shore there are only your targets, from small villages to major military compounds, so you only need to zip from target to target. Said targets stay in place from visit to visit but fully raided ones stay inactive for a while and between visits, till it’s time for them to effectively respawn. What’s more, corralling your way from raid target to raid target raises the map’s alert level. Three different levels essentially regulate the amount of resistance you can expect going forward. Alert levels can go down over time, but only after exiting the mode and some time passes. Resistance you face in the compounds you attack isn’t the only sign that people are on alert. There are some nice touches such as river traps and metal chains that block your way and have to be lowered first if you are to proceed to to actual target.
Naturally there’s typical loot to be claimed in this mode but some of it is unique. There’s another armour set —in pieces of course— you can get by focusing on major compounds. There’s also a unique supply resource that can only be found in this mode and used to upgrade your ship’s capacity for said resource and cosmetic upgrades. Which means the most important upgrades you can get here are the ones that help you within the same mode. Everything else is cosmetic and how interesting cosmetics are is up to the individual player, as always.
But what happens when on the ground? There, fellow raiders can be revived when felled but this time around this requires spending one of Eivor’s health rations before a time limit runs out, which creates some tension at times. Soon enough you’ll realise that your first order of business is finding food to build up your stash of rations. The best time is right after having finished a raid, at which point you’re free to look for more treasure and supplies in whichever compound you find yourself in. Different compounds tend to offer different loot. Military compounds hold armour pieces, monasteries hide books of knowledge while civilian targets usually give out valuable, in this mode especially, rations.
In any case, you have to keep at least one other raider alive otherwise you won’t be able to go through doors that are built for two. Seeing as this might hitch on availability of rations, it can be more of a concern than in vanilla raiding.
Which brings me to the greatest issue you’ll come across in this mode. Your fellow raiders are stupid. The moment they step on land they rush into battle. This is not unique to this mode of course, but when you have to handle a big compound with multiple levels, even if you resign yourself to anything but stealth, your crew doesn’t stick together. Individual vikings go as far and deep as they can, which makes them easy targets for enemy AI. You stop to fight a soldier or two yourself and, before you know it, fellow vikings fall, at which point you have to first run to their position in time and then, hopefully, have rations to spend on them. In practice, they seem more determined to die and have you waste rations than live long enough to enjoy what they’re supposedly there for: shiny new loot and treasure. If you upgrade the building that’s added to your settlement for this mode specifically, you will eventually gain access to higher level raiders. They’re not smarter though, mainly hardier. This is one way to deal with this then.
The overarching issue is that River Raids are there to keep you occupied, not so much to entertain or push things forward. After a way they feel like a job and if you can persevere long enough to get all unique items and upgrades that hinge on your performance here, chances are you will leave this mode behind once and for all.
Meanwhile, at the settlement
The new mode brings a couple of new buildings to set up and access to better, more resilient vikings to hire. Vikings for hire is a game-wide mechanism, it’s just expanded with the introduction of this mode, so it’s a good time to comment on it a bit.
Such vikings are actually equipped by other players and are available as crew members, for a fee. That fee reaches their creator’s coffers and you can have them in your crew for as long as you can keep them alive.
Technically, they can be of help. In the grand scheme of things though, they’re somewhere between unnecessary and a waste of money, especially in basic raiding where revival of vanilla raiders is cheap and unlimited. Seeing as the game’s economy is much tighter than before, spending any amount of money on expendable hired swords (axes?) mostly harms your ability to purchase more valuable upgrade-fuelling materials from traders, if not immediately, certainly in the long run.
Because of course there are extras. How do you think huge maps and progression curves feed the illusion that they’re more than fluff?
Hunting and fishing
Of course there’s even more side content that doesn’t even register in the aforementioned three groups. There are fishing and hunting challenges for example. Traders in your settlement require certain animal parts or fish and when you provide the combinations requested, you get rewards, from resources to settlement decorations and more. Nothing the likes of which can’t be doled out by other missions and content, just more of it.
Each of those activities has its own peculiarities. For example, certain fish are native to certain areas of the map so there is some planning to do around this, much more so than with the actual mechanic of fishing that is a simple iteration of the norm in gaming.
As for hunting, there is the implication that some patience is required as it’s quite easy to locate something you can kill as you traverse the lands of Britain, Norway etc. but scare it away before you even get a chance to nock your first arrow. The way you move and ride needs to be a bit more deliberate, then, so as not to scare your prey away. In practice, this means “not running” most of the time. But engagement is the name of the game, dear reader. Which means that, of course, certain animal species can only be found in certain climate/region combinations but this makes sense. What doesn’t necessarily make sense is what I’ll try to illustrate using one of the animal parts you will eventually need to loot: animal hearts. You can expect most animal hearts to drop when you kill mammals. Believe it or not, not every mammal will drop an animal heart. Maybe this is some kind of metaphor about nature being heartless and ruthless but —really— it’s just a measure to keep you hunting for longer whenever you need specific resources for hunting challenges (or Offering Altars). Or you can just call this what it is: a superfluous complication to push “engagement” aka time spent in-game. These tricks are always unfortunate when used in games of this size. The milquetoast nature of the rewards when you decide to go through all of this does not help either.
And then there was orlog
In Assassin’s Creed Valhalla orlog is a game played with special dice, using charms you earn by beating other NPC orlog players and banking special points you accumulate through playing special faces/sides of the dice. This way you get to use a charm’s ability to earn back some lost ground, eradicate your opponent, get back from a near loss and more. But orlog isn’t the name of an actual game. It is essentially a concept in Norse, Germanic and Anglo-Saxon mythology, one that’s very similar to fate or something akin to a godly universal law that defines it. What does that have to do with a dice-based game? Well, I suppose it’s a reference to those charms as each is themed after a Norse god, so using them is essentially calling for divine providence or intervention.
As an in-game… game, orlog is not as complex as it looks at first blush. It is actually well-made, flows nicely even when the player catches on the usual AI tactics, though differing charms on each side can keep things interesting enough regardless. Matches aren’t that long and so cannot overstay their welcome. You find orlog players in towns and there’s a related achievement if you beat all of them. Why mention this achievement at all? Since it’s an achievement, most —but not all— orlog playing NPCs are close to fast travel points. Because, of course, if there’s an achievement involved, there must be some kind of challenge. Just for the sake of it. I guess.
Reda is back so… maybe he’s just another program(me)4 in the Matrix? The jury’s out on that. He trades in opal, the rarest resource of all, so he’s selling fully upgraded weaponry and armour pieces, but also provides daily and weekly refreshed contract work that —wouldn’t you know it?— pay up in opal. This is hardly new for the franchise of course, yet it’s another element that has been streamlined for the best. Instead of looking for statues all over the map for refreshed contracts, Reda is in every major settlement but, more importantly, is also stationed at your own so you never have to waste time looking for him or new contract work.
These quests are as simple and structurally similar as you can imagine, despite the differing dressing that their quest log entries may imply at times. Really, they’re there for the opal hunters or those that have done anything to be done in the game and just can’t or refuse to wean themselves off for one reason or another.
I feel customisation falls under the “extras” banner as it offers zero practical value when it refers to anything beyond weaponry and armour. And the latter will be dealt with later on in this piece as an extension of the game’s economy and combat system.
So that leaves us with settlement, ship and Eivor customisations. Tackling these in order, you can customise your settlement’s appearance by adding artefacts you unlock as you play, but you can only place them in predetermined spots that are bound to buildings you’ve raised. They add nothing but eye candy.
The same goes for ship cosmetics but also Eivor. New hair styles, lots and lots of different tattoo designs etc. are there to make you feel unique in a game that doesn’t really allow you to show off in another player’s world.
Starting with update 1.2.0 armour and weapong transmogrification is possible. Meaning that the player can change the appearance of such items into that of a different set while retaining their attributes intact, effectively decoupling aesthetics from stats.
And that’s about it.
Managing it all
Only main (and Reda) quests are added in the game’s quest log, keeping it uncharacteristically light and very easily managed. After all, there are only so many main quests one can take on at any given time. If you remember a bunch of groups with sub quests and a litany of side quest tiles you had to scroll though, expand and collapse in Origins and Odyssey, you can finally rest knowing there’s nothing so intimidating in Valhalla.
Again, this streamlining has a bite. No side quest/world event you take on appears anywhere in your quest log which means you need to keep tabs on everything manually and/or by checking out the relevant map icons that stay active until an event is properly completed. But if you start one of those and go off somewhere else, leaving unfinished business, you may realise later on that there’s no easy way to remind yourself what you were supposed to do. NPCs give clues through dialogue but, between progression bugs and just badly written lines, clarity is not a given here. Keep that in mind.
By now you have a pretty clear overview of what kind of activities await you in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, how they are grouped, what they are like and so on and so forth. It only took a few thousand words, granted, but —if it is any consolation— at least someone else has written them for you. It’s important to keep the overall sentiment this section leaves you with and you might have to refer to it later on. Content might be king but how it interacts with gameplay systems, how it feeds them or, maybe more importantly, how they feed it in return is very important, both in general and for understanding where Assassin’s Creed now stands. Along with Ubisoft of course.
All systems go
In terms of gameplay flow, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla doesn’t exactly break genre tradition —not too much anyhow— but it does break with the series’ late foray into the open-world “RPG”5 hybrid era. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey was just a slightly nicer version of Assassin’s Creed Origins. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, on the other hand, seems to have been born out of a conscious decision to take the previous template, iterate on it, streamline it and [insert gasp] incorporate changes dictated by feedback on those two earlier games.
Either way, the overall goals remain the same. Gameplay loops are to keep you engaged, feed one another, leave you free enough to explore just as they remain designed to pique your interest every now and then, eventually blending platforming with platforming puzzles, battles and story beats in ways that make the whole hold. So, you guessed correctly, it’s time to dive into the gameplay mechanics.
Skill tree and abilities
If certain mechanisms are the what, the game’s skill tree and the way abilities are accumulated are the why, what attains and retains any kind of balance. Both are departures from the previous two games.
In Valhalla, the skill tree is an illusion. It works, sure, it’s just not what you expect it to be or what its form even implies. It looks like a shrouded constellation, with more “stars” being unveiled as you pour skill points into nodes. There are three centralised starting points, one focusing on stealth, one on action, another one on defence. Only… they kind of don’t. As you keep investing on each side you realise that almost all nodes give stat buffs on specific groups of armour and weaponry. All of that is grouped based on an animal reference, so there are bear/wolf/raven etc. weapons and armour and each node grants a boost to a specific category, when it’s not boosting your health or some other basic attribute like ranged/melee attack and defence.
Each constellation is a series of nodes but always includes a passive skill as well and those are the most vital as you push on in the game. At least in my experience. Now, in case anyone’s wondering, yes, you can fill the whole skill tree by playing the game normally and spending some time in side activities. You don’t have to absolutely do everything to achieve that. I understand this isn’t important to everyone but I usually get annoyed when a skill tree is designed to be filled if one puts the time in but also designed to not be filled unless the player does absolutely everything, no matter how menial. But if you fill the tree, what is there to go after next?
As has been the case in Odyssey and Origins, once every node is activated you get the chance to pour skill points in a few more —3 in Valhalla— so that you boost health, defence and attack in 1% increments at a time. Nothing to write home about. But —to illustrate my previous point— by actively trying to deal with all content, main or side, I ended up with every normal node active and then levelled up almost 50 more times beyond that. Patch 1.1.2 added 6 new nodes to deal (patch 1.2 brought even more) with but this only translates into levelling up a few more times. In Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, this is quite easy.
Levelling works a bit differently this time around. There’s no character level, but there’s a power level, which is nothing more than the total number of skill points you have accumulated and used on the skill tree. There’s still a diamond-shaped “bar” to fill with XP but the only thing that happens when it does is that you get 2 more skill points to spend. All nodes cost the same (1 skill point) so there are no weighted nodes to break the speed of your progress. When you fill everything up though, each level up nets you 1 skill points. That’s Ubisoft’s way of keeping you relatively “human” in the endgame, even if you’ve invested as much of your time as possible to any content you could come across. For the record, specific types of world events also award the player with single skill points. In aggregate, not enough to really go after them, so think of those as just a gentle push.
There’s nothing ground-breaking about any of this but the end result is better balanced than what we got the first two times Assassin’s Creed pretended to be an RPG. Plus, levelling happens fast enough to always feel your next achievement (not “Achievement”) isn’t too far off and slowly enough to not turn into situational comedy.
Abilities are a different beast. They’re all active skills that are used a la carte and consume adrenaline aka Assassin’s Creed equivalent of a “special bar”. As is now the norm for Assassin’s Creed games, you can mix and match abilities as you see fit, always in two diamond shaped groups that correspond to the face buttons you choose to assign to each one. All very expected.
Now, there are quite a few abilities to chose from which is usually cause to crow about the battle system’s flexibility, how Assassin’s Creed Valhalla gives you room to breathe, room to “RP” 6 through battle and whatnot. And, truly, there’s enough variety for you to go about things the way you like.
But does it even matter? The development team isn’t really going out of its way to argue it does. Here’s the thing. The default way of gaining access to new abilities is to look for Books Of Knowledge, hidden tomes that are considered Wealth. Each gives you access to a new ability or upgrades a pre-existing one to level 2, making it more powerful etc. But Wealth collecting is a non-mandatory side activity. It goes hand in hand with some puzzle platforming, so I’d say it’s a an enjoyable side activity, but Ubisoft knows everything must remain functional enough for anyone that chooses to effectively ignore side activities.
Of course, I had to test my theory. It turns out, while one or another ability can be genuinely helpful, they can also be freely ignored without breaking the game or the player feeling handicapped in any way.
There’s only one exception. There’s a certain ability that lets Eivor shoot explosive arrows. One may thing this is an amazing way to dispose of enemies, but that’s not why this ability ends up being an exception. Not at all in fact.
In the search for Wealth, quest items etc. the player will often come across makeshift walls that can be destroyed with an explosion. Every time you see a wall like that it’s also a sign that there’s a little red amphora lying around, “crowned” with a tiny flame to let you know this is the game’s equivalent of a Molotov cocktail. You pick it up, you place it near the breakable wall, step back, fire an arrow and boom, down goes that wall, opening a passage to whatever you’re after.
Finding such a vessel can be quite straight-forward as it might as well be right next to you or so. Sometimes though it’s hidden, which is another way for the game to push you to look around, explore a bit, look carefully and so on. It’s cute the first few times but it grows wearisome at scale. You know where the wall is, you know you have to go through it to find what you want and then the game has you looking for your lost keys. We all know that lost keys can be found in very weird places and looking for them is hardly ever enjoyable.
Enter explosive arrow ability. For the relatively low cost of a bar of adrenaline, you aim at the wall, shoot your arrow and you’re done. You can keep going.
Without a strategy guide you can only hope to run into the Book Of Knowledge that grants you this ability as early as possible but once you do, I assure you, you’ll never look at those breakable walls the same way ever again.
Crouching axe, hidden blade
Both battle and stealth systems have been tweaked enough to produce a different feel. But how? And is this different feel worth it? Most changes are quite straight-forward and easily conveyed but it’s the overall balance that matters in the end, right? So let’s dive in.
Lots can be said about the minutiae of the tweaked battle system in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla but it wouldn’t add too much to the overall picture. Sure, shields are back and you can dual wield them as well, which translates into a few fascinating moves etc. But the meat of the dish is on two very specific bones: dodging and stamina.
Dodging is nothing new, of course, for the series or otherwise. This time around it’s more important though as shielded enemies aren’t as friendly to brute force as before. It’s easy to break some shields, impossible to damage others, so you have to be nimble, keep moving, choose the right angle. It’s nothing too taxing but it does force a slightly different approach compared to the previous two games. One thing to keep in mind though. Dodge at the right moment and your stamina bar is refilled.
Which, of course, is a not so subtle segue to the addition of a stamina bar. Please check any parallels to Souls games that spring to mind at the door. It’s a bar. For stamina. Blocking, dodging and attacking burns through your stamina. Run around a bit, abstain from contact and it quickly fills up again so that you can keep going. There’s some nuance though. Successful light attacks actually refill the bar, heavy ones don’t and all attacks moves that don’t connect, light or heavy, drain your stamina. An empty bar means you can’t dodge, you can’t attack, you can’t block. You either stay away from any enemies for the bar to refill or you’re in for some pain. Dealing with this will feel strange at first, especially for those that have poured too much time in Origins or Odyssey that they need to break some long-standing habits first.7
The way stamina works in the game forces a different kind of flow that doesn’t depend on brute force. For that alone, I believe, the tweaked battle system deserves to be cast under mostly positive light. Valhalla’s approach feels good, isn’t really challenging in practice but, more importantly, isn’t as mindless or one-note as before.
Grabbing a bite
This is as good a time as any to focus on the use of plants, meat and berries for health restoration and eating mushrooms to refill segments of your adrenaline bar (which is either way being refilled by attacking successfully). The latter is pretty self-explanatory, but health boosting snacks require some explanation as they directly impact on one’s preparation for a telegraphed battle and require some tactical consideration when already in one.
When health is full, gathered food is banked. Bank enough and you form a ration that is also banked, can be used at any time, with the push of a button, to restore health. Upgrade your capacity for rations and you can hold up to six in total. When your health isn’t full and you pick up such food sources, you heal first. Only when your bar is full do such items add up to form rations.
But why delve into such a mechanism? Well, when I first tried Valhalla in July 2020, consuming a ration took 2–3 seconds. That’s an eternity when in a tough fight and, as luck would have it, that build made sure we’d encounter some of the toughest ones in the game, while not having spend enough time in Valhalla to have acquainted ourselves well enough with the tweaked battle system. All that meant that mistiming ration consumption could turn you into a sitting duck and/or a corpse. That was noted by Ubisoft back then and, indeed, ration consumption is really fast in the final game so much so that timing it well is rarely something warranting attention.
The franchise’s pivot to an open-world RPG didn’t take long to leave a bad taste to those that appreciated the more stealthy disposition of earlier entries. So, yes, the hidden blade is back, Eivor even quips that he finds the symbolism of a cut-off finger where the blade is supposed to spring from ridiculous and just ends up using it without mutilating himself. But is stealth really back?
Believe it or not, Ubisoft managed to fuel a debate about whether it makes sense for high level and armoured enemies to not die when a blade severs their carotid artery in one hit. Maybe developers not allowing for one hit kills with the hidden blade is some kind of creative license allowance that would just help them out with stat handling as the series pivoted into open world RPG mechanics. That didn’t go down very well so it all changes in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, largely for the better.
One hit assassinations are back then. But there’s a wrinkle. High level enemies still take more than a push of a button, while well armoured ones can only be damaged so much from a hidden blade attack. What’s the difference then?
For starters, there’s a setting to change that you can toggle. It’s noted in the game’s options that it’s up to you but the team feels it’s better not to use this option if you can avoid it. But why is that? There are two answers to this. For one, hidden blade attacks to really powerful enemies employ different animations so that the hit doesn’t connect in the neck but elsewhere with more armour to go through. How the blade won’t dull is a simpler logical failing for gamers to handle so I get the reasoning.
Elite enemies though can still be killed with the hidden blade, in one hit no less, but not with a single button press. Those kills become just a touch more skill-based in practice. First press initiates the assassination animation but another well-timed press is required mid-animation to really kill your target in one go instead of just inflicting damage. The way this is presented reminded me a bit of the ring UI used in Lost Odyssey8, where you have to time button presses to stop a smaller ring at the proper range of a bigger one. This mechanism is so simple and forgiving here —certainly not as complex as in Lost Odyssey— that I’ve only failed at this QTE due to fatigue. This realisation manages to make this attempt at making assassinations more skill-based feel both sensible and superfluous at the same time. Logic prevails this time around, just not with a flawless victory.
But also no
The series’ fanbase rejoiced the moment Ubisoft uttered the words “social stealth is back”. And it is. Technically. You can sit on benches, walk with monks, sit at tables with commoners and more. This is a way to deal with security guards, especially in regions that Eivor has yet to forge an alliance with and there’s still much room for suspicion. Get too close to them and, as long as you’re in their line of sight, it won’t take long for them to zero in on you and start a fight. Use social stealth though and you can move about safely, even if slower than usual.
The thing is, there’s no actual logic behind this, just like there wasn’t any in the original Assassin’s Creed when you’d avoid raising suspicion by getting past guards really slowly when on horse, only to have this approach randomly fail. Here guards only need to see you to go nuts, even if they see you just standing around doing nothing sinister or weird. This kind of aggression hopes to work as smoke and mirrors for what really makes stealth of any sort tick.
In Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, regular and elite enemies are bona fide idiots. At best, once the fighting breaks out, they’ll keep their distance in order to pepper you with arrows. Otherwise they just charge at you. Sure, they’re not too bad in close combat but none of them will ever be accused of thinking too much before rushing into it.
Which is another way to say that AI fails spectacularly and routinely throughout the game. This isn’t new to anyone that has been following the series of course but I feel it’s only fair to say that patience has run out. Cones of vision, that define an enemy’s line of sight and so directly influence your chances of being caught when in stealth, are so narrow that anything resembling peripheral vision goes out the window. From afar it kind of works out, but climb too close and from the side of an enemy and it’s like you’re invisible. I remember climbing a ladder that was directly in front and to the right of a standing guard and he had no idea I was ever there. I was kind of startled as my brain told me “surely, you’ve been spotted” and I was ready for a fight. But he just stood there till he got acquainted with the business end of my hidden blade. And this kind of thing isn’t a bug. Sure, patches have tweaked stuff here and there but there’s no quality logic at work here.
At the same time, someone else can spot you from an angle and so far away that it’s tough to plan around something like this. There’s no real risk even as battles are generally manageable, so why take your time when you can let all hell break loose, have everyone throng to you and cleave them to pieces? Funnily enough, you can butcher a whole base, then start looking around for items etc. and realise there are a couple of enemies guarding a gate of the same compound, guards that apparently didn’t get the memo through their comrades’ screams.
I’m reminded then of the role sound plays in stealth. If not mistaken, I think that enemies react to specific sounds only, like pottery breaking, some fighting etc. though sound doesn’t travel as far as one expects it to. I guess that explains those lonely guards standing at the gate after everyone else ends up dead.
And this is how stealth essentially dies in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, possibly with the exception of major military encampments that are stand-ins for the more complex forts we had to deal with in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey.
Yes. Battle is fine, stealth is not and when combined they make no sense but at least they don’t cause major problems to the overall experience. This is faint praise of course but gamers have been through much worse if we’re being honest. More importantly, cracking skulls and severing arteries for 150 hours ought to, first and foremost, not turn away the player, even if boring in the end. In this sense, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla’s stealth and battle succeed at being inoffensive, in spite of their mindlessness. The fact that brutal finishers haven’t gotten old for me yet must also be some kind of success.
Sunin’s Eye and Odin’s Sight
There’s no eagle to speak of this time around, jut a raven, but it all makes sense as ravens are also a symbol of Odin, making them appropriate substitutes in Valhalla’s Norse context. In any case, Sunin, your trusted raven, is here to provide support, mainly by helping you look around and highlight destinations, resources, even enemy paths. From some point on you get your hands on Sunin-based battle abilities that you can use according to taste.
Raven’s Eye, as Sunin’s ability to sense and highlight items and places from afar isn’t as flexible or powerful as before, especially in highlighting enemies and keeping them highlighted for the duration of a battle or anything of that sort. At scale, the Raven’s Eye ability is only indispensable when it’s the only way to highlight a quest-linked area of interest, after you get close enough to it for the ability to trigger. Other than that, Sunin is basically a voyeur’s photographic tool and not much else.
Odin’s Sight, on the other hand, is indispensable. It’s the direct equivalent of Eagle Vision and Animus Pulse from other games in the series. You’re going to be compulsively using it for no reason after some point. It highlights enemies etc. but, more importantly, it can help you realise how treasures and other items of interest are deep underground, high up etc. effectively letting you know there’s some puzzle platforming in your immediate future so that you plan accordingly.
I feel the balance is off though. Odin’s Sight is too useful for highlighting to last just as shortly as it lasts, as if a godly power can only do so much for so long and whatnot. Keeping highlighted elements that way for longer or even indefinitely wouldn’t really cause many problems (other than some aesthetic or visibility related ones) and it’s no wonder that highlight duration but also the range of Odin’s Sight both got a bit expanded through a later game update. And, really, what’s the point of keeping things this tight when you can just press a button again and keep it going?
As for Raven’s Eye, it feels like it underdelivers on strategic value in the long run, which makes it more of a play on Assassin’s Creed tradition than a study on this mechanic’s future.
Again, none of the two causes issues. Also, none of the two proffers any evolutionary path for itself. Unless their being pared down a bit is to be considered as such. I hope not.
Exploration and map
It still amazes me how so many quests are deliberately placed so far from fast travel points that you know you have to end up between two different points and you keep eyeing them on the map trying to make out which one might be just a bit closer and thus just a bit more convenient. And that’s before taking into account the terrain you’ll have to traverse to get where you need to be, which is always a surprise of course as no one can really remember such detail even after having visited a region multiple times.
This approach to quest placement has been the norm in Assassin’s Creed games for what feels like ages. It’s not just bad, it’s also illogical most of the time and —even more than that— user-hostile. It’s no wonder that while Ubisoft dominates —surely in volume— the AAA open-world space, Ghost Of Tsushima shows up and is universally praised for letting players fast travel directly to quests and activities. This isn’t anachronistic UX design. It’s outright bad UX design, specifically there to make you waste time. Maybe there’s someone out there willing to posit that by retaining this approach Ubisoft makes sure the player goes through more of the map and has better chance of discovering World Events, stocking up on respawning resources and even enjoy the view.
Let me just say it: such arguments are nonsense.
If you hold doubt about whether this is just bad UX design, you only need to take a look at the game’s map. The zoom factor is more constrained than before, so it’s not easy to have a good look at the totality of the map. The zoom level at which certain known points of interest appear on the map is problematic, as it forces you to zoom further down a region just to make sure whether icons aren’t shown because they’re simply not there or you just haven’t zoomed in enough yet.
But let’s leave this aside and talk photos taken using the photo mode instead of your platform’s screen grabbing system. Back in Odyssey (ditto for Origins, if memory serves) you could filter out photos entirely from the map and certainly those you didn’t take yourself. How such filtering just isn’t there in Valhalla, neither at launch nor months after it is mind-boggling. If these are systems Ubisoft make every time from scratch, there’s even more wrong with their approach here. They’ve built automated systems for terrain design, audio handling and more, in ways that keep them useful from game to game, but, somehow, teams can’t set basic UI and UX guidelines and stick to them between productions.
These systems are so universal in Ubisoft productions, the company should have central planning over how they function and move forward. It makes sense that Human Interface Design may be fluid but there are standards out there. It feels like there aren’t enough standards in Assassin’s Creed Games while, clearly, we need more of them.
In Valhalla, in-game economy demonstrates the biggest improvement in game systems I can think of when comparing the game with its predecessors. Dealing with inventory was a pain the last couple of times, weapons and armour sets were just too numerous and itemisation used to work in a way that rendered swaths of those useless the moment the game gave you access to a higher tier of items. I remember selling innumerable items, one by one, in mind-numbing succession, just to get rid of them. It wasn’t pretty. There are still fights to pick with Valhalla here but, really, a huge burden has been lifted.
Weapons and armour sets
In Origins and Odyssey you couldn’t sneeze without looting more useless weapons and other gear. Everything was classified in the usual groups (Common, Rare, Epic, Legendary) and each group had a different upper limit. Meaning, once a player got their hands on higher level gear, there was no reason whatsoever in further levelling up anything inferior. And items were essentially stuck in the group they started out in.
Things are different this time around. You don’t come across weapons and armour pieces like there’s no tomorrow. Armour sets and weapons appear to be a lot fewer, pre-determined and can all be upgraded all the way to the top, essentially jumping tiers. They’re still grouped but they can be upgraded to a higher tier, as well as get multiple levels of better stats along the way. Every major upgrade at the smithy brings shinier, more complex looks but what makes armour sets stand out is the perk they provide when Eivor equips the complete set.
Essentially, armour sets and weapons are treated just like any legendary weapon and armour set in earlier games. So no set is useless, no weapon is meaningless, as long you zero in on a few because it’s highly improbably that you’ll get to upgrade everything to the gills like one could do in the previous games.
Not even rune slots, where you can place stat boosting runes you come across, are fixed as upgrading everything adds more rune slots too. I won’t go much into the runes themselves. They’re nice and shiny but low impact in nature. So much so, they can be completely ignored or just forgotten without having a care in the world. I can say pretty much the same thing for the animal-based grouping of armour and weapons. Each belongs to a group (bear, wolf, raven) and —beyond starting attributes— you can upgrade everything in equal measure through the skill tree.
What’s important is that by investing in the items you zero in eventually9 you’re sure to end up with fully competent items. Gone are the days of inventories full of useless items you needed to dismantle or sell. Better yet, as per the paradigm of previously legendary items, each item tends to be connected with progression, exploration and quests, sides or otherwise. If anything, one motive to deal with much of the side content is getting your hands on some nice sets.
Such matters go hand in hand with resource management though. Simply put, no one ends up a gazillionaire in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, so it’s best to focus. Rare metals and other resources are abundant enough to not fill you with desperation but also scarce enough to force to you to think things through. If you ended Origins and Odyssey with every legendary set maxed out and have similar aspirations here, Valhalla’s economy will make sure you’re down to earth this time around.
“But can’t I buy resources like before?”, you may ask. Why yes, of course you can. But the game makes it impossible to end up so flush with silver that systematically buying the needed resources is good in a bind but not a great long-term solution. And that’s after a few patches. Some resources weren’t available to buy through in-game traders when the game launched, so earlier on one had to be thriftier still.
The same stands for every facet of in-game economy. Upgrading your settlement requires certain resources most of which can be obtained through raiding, though some main quests can help push the settlement’s level a bit as well. The 1.1.2 patch added River Raids, essentially a cordoned-off mode, that adds more upgrades into the mix (ship-focused as a rule) that require a different kind of resource that’s only obtainable through the River Raids themselves. That’s a bit frustrating though, sadly, not unexpected. The new resource is really similar to the one used for settlement upgrades, just not identical. And having finished pretty much everything the game has to offer in terms of content, I can tell you that it’s impossible to end up with so much of that kind of supplies that you’d throw the new mode off balance had it not been based on a different kind. Ubisoft’s overdoing it here.
Of course the settlement is part of the story but also of the economy. Everything flows through the settlement as it’s your base of operations, where all main quests begin. With enough supplies you can build various shops, homes and buildings. Some give you access to equipment upgrades, a trader will take what you can sell and buy all trinkets you come across. There’s even a one button shortcut for that and you can feel sure nothing you’d otherwise need, then and there or at some other point and elsewhere will be sold off along with any trinkets.
Building upgrades give more options, some open their own side-quest lines even. Don’t get your hopes up though, as this essentially translates into giving away items you’ve gathered through completing world events, usually for paltry rewards like… more tattoo designs, hair styles or settlement and ship decorations. Other building-bound NPCs are more useful, as through them you get to more easily upgrade your horse’s stamina etc.
A subset of the buildings you can build really are superfluous as the only thing they have to offer is better buffs when feasting. A feast offers temporary stat buffs. Maybe this sounds useful at first blush but, I assure you, it’s not. I never had to resort to feasting to deal with a challenging part of the game. Consider this a bonus or just a helping hand. This is no way to avoid upgrading your power level, regions are power level-gated but progression is such that it’s very unlikely that this ends up being an obstacle. And even if if does, a temporary stat boost won’t save you.
Either way, the settlement itself feels like an impediment at times. Lots of systems and processes may have been streamlined throughout the game but the settlement really is a hub where you go from shop to shop, building to building, trader to trader, just to deal with customisation, resources etc. Not having the option to do much of that through a menu means you have to zip around all the time. And if you’re like me and you don’t have the best grasp of a place’s (any place’s) layout, you’ll end up using your trusty raven to check from above where that damn antiquities merchant is based again so that you don’t end up wandering aimlessly. Either that or fall back on Odin’s Sight which, as of update 1.2.0 also highlights said buildings with helpful icons. Even if you’re the world’s most intuitive geographer though, going all over the place just to buy, sell, give out stuff and check your progression on some challenges (such as fishing and hunting) just takes time that you could spend differently and more productively.
Traders based on your settlement usually have one personal quest to deal with but, other than that, they’re effectively robots that keep the economy going. Sure, the smithy’s romantic quest line is fun (but also not side-content, not really) but everyone else’s is just more of the same and no proper bonds are developed, let alone earned, between Eivor and those NPCs.
As you go through the game I expect you to feel like inventory management has been improved tremendously since your last time in the Animus. But this is the kind of mind games design plays on it. It’s the streamlining of equipment etc. that takes a load off actual inventory management, while the inventory itself —as a system that is— doesn’t really go anywhere. If all equipment can be fully upgraded and there are no bad apples to find, even item stat comparison loses it’s meaning, hence you’ll find yourself not yearning for it at all once you acclimate yourself.
It can be argued, though, that it represents a bit of a regression, especially if you take into account the in-game shopping experience which really is just another facet of your inventory. Let me explain.
In the “olden” days of Origins, you could buy and sell items in bulk. This was very handy when buying resources that could be used for equipment upgrades. When Origins first came out, if you needed 100 of a specific item, you had to highlight it at a trader, keep a direction on the D-pad pressed and see how the units of the resources you’re going to buy went up. There came a time for a patch that let you press the opposite direction just once and immediately choose the totality of a trader’s supply of the highlighted item. Somehow, years later, Valhalla gets back to how Origins started out.
I honestly do not understand how such an obvious UI affordance can fall through the cracks years after teams realised it was important enough to be added post-launch. I understand open-world games are hugely complex and lots can happen, but this tells me there are still no concrete basics in human interface design Ubisoft sticks too. This I fail to understand at all.
Somehow the concept of “select all” and “mark all” is so foreign that’s left out in more mundane parts of the inventory. As alluded to earlier on, there are non-critical items you amass as you loot anything and everything, items that the game collectively refers to as “trinkets”. Those you can actually sell in one go, with just a single button (long)press. Before reaching a trader to unload all of them though, each new trinket, just like whatever new item you come across, causes a “new” icon badge to hover over your inventory tab as well as every item grouping there’s anything new in. The amount of scrolling you need to do to highlight every single newly acquired item (unless it’s at least the second of its kind that ends up in there) separately to make the indicator icon go away. Get bored enough to do it and the the inventory tab icon badge becomes useless as you can’t know if it refers to something important you might have picked up or just another trinket. Not until you decide to visit that tab, look around and maybe even dive in. A “mark all as seen” per category would have made a big difference. It would have been a breeze to just get rid of new trinket indicators and focus on the more important stuff.
Truth be told, my personal capacity for adding UI pet peeves to my naughty list might as well be expanding along with the universe, but, really, I’m not asking for miracles. I only hope that someone remembers and codifies lessons of the past.
To be fair, as I noted earlier, the end result is better than usual. What I’m trying to clarify is that improvements aren’t necessarily down to a fundamentally better approach to inventory management. There’s no better proof of this than the fact that filtering just isn’t there. You will definitely feel its absence the first time you have to count individual saga pages scattered in your inventory, just to ascertain if you’re missing some and which they might be.
Cloudy with a chance of consequence
In the “RPG”10 era of Assassin’s Creed Ubisoft has said, time and again, that player choices shape the experience and change the course of the story. This is supposed to be the case with Assassin’s Creed Valhalla too. But what does this even mean? Is branching any better than before? Does it even matter at all?
Let’s get the worst out of the way. Romance is still a joke in Valhalla, it means nothing, even when the game tries to prop up a couple of love interests as something more than some quick fun. As ever, you pick the right line when you wish to get it on with an NPC, he or she immediately submits, there’s a fade-out, then a fade-in, some cringe-worthy line of dialogue that hasn’t been cool for dorm room crowds since the 1980s and off you go.
The pretentiousness of this mechanism makes one wonder why bother at all? Not just why should the player bother but also why should the developers even try when the prescribed end-result makes late Leisure Suit Larry games’ courting sessions feel like literary masterpieces?
The only thing more amazing than the utter failure of romance mechanics in Assassin's Creed games is how the fellow members of the Press keep pretending such impotent "freedom" is anything other than idiotic, a box to tick, with some daring to spill digital ink to highlight that one can be as straight or as gay as one wants etc. Romancing in the RPG era of the series has been consistently horrible, hence I posit that any celebration over how fluid one can be when engaging with horrible content is no reason to celebrate horrible content.
Elsewhere, things are better, if only on paper. Some interactions will force you to make choices that usually define whether someone gets to live or not, join your raid group or your settlement even. There’s also a certain grouping of choices that are made along the way that can have a lasting effect on Eivor’s relationship to a major character. But here’s the rub: there’s rarely a material effect, actual consequence. And if the narrative impact is the only impact one can expect, than it’d better be expertly crafted. That’s rarely the case.
Alliances fare a bit better though, even as smoke and mirrors. Each regional main quest cements an alliance with its local lord or king. It’s effectively impossible to fail at securing an alliance which, once secured, deleting your save file might be the only way to break it. As I said, smoke and mirrors. But as these quests are multi-layered and let you spend far more time with characters of import, some rapport is allowed to be built and maybe you get to care a bit more about a few of them, even beyond the ones the game obviously wants to care about.
But there’s a little something extra here. There comes a time, late in the game, in one of the main quest lines at least, when you do have to call upon your allies for help and they show up of course. You get to feel like you’ve earned their help, that they wouldn’t be showing up if it hadn’t be for you. But this is no Mass Effect 2 and not much more is determined on by your personal bonds and relationships. My bringing up the likes of Mass Effect 2 is no mistake. A 2010 game, itself trying to incorporate more action into an RPG base, is better at this sort of thing —even today— compared to a 2020 open-world action game that’s trying to turn into more of an RPG.
Comparing Assassin’s Creed Valhalla with Mass Effect 2 must sound like a suicide mission (this pun was intended) but think of it this way. Each franchise started from different ends of the spectrum and kept trying to go the other way. If quality of execution wasn’t an issue, one could imagine them meeting halfway on that spectrum.
Is the space between them a matter of available time in the oven? Hardly. 7 years passed between Mass Effect’s pre-production phase and Mass Effect 2’s release. 7 years elapsed between Assassin’s Creed Origins’ pre-production and Assassin’s Creed Valhalla’s launch and both of those had the same studio leading the development effort. Only Ubisoft managed to produce Odyssey in between too. II believe Ubisoft is quite efficient in producing games, much more so than BioWare must have ever been. Humour me for a bit and let’s say I’m not wrong on this one. What might be keeping Ubisoft from a Mass Effect 2 moment in Assassin’s Creed if not intent? And there’s the rub, I bet. Hold that thought. It will come in handy.
Tech in the age of mead
For all the things Ubisoft has been slow at, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla caught flack early for looking too much like previous games, not representing technical progress etc. with people seemingly expecting an amazing leap based on the notion that the game has been marketed as optimised for Xbox Series consoles and the PS5 from the off. The thing is, it’s still a cross-gen production and effectively a launch title for the newest Xbox and PlayStation systems and the vocal part of game fandom just can’t remember how things start out at the onset of each hardware generation.
And, let’s be honest, other than the usual marketing nonsense about a game “taking full advantage of the new consoles” which is very rarely true but absolutely never true this early in a console generation, Ubisoft didn’t overpromise or underdeliver. But managing expectations in the age of the web is a tough business indeed. Even more so when you’re launching a game so close to Cyberpunk’s 2077 launch, while people were still so beholden to hype they couldn’t fathom what CD Projekt’s game launch would end up being like.
PR-wise, Ubisoft has been lucky here as Assassin’s Creed Valhalla ended up being the only open-world game that functions well enough on multiple different platforms while providing improvements on the series’ formula, as the most hyped competing game launched into a vortex of PR disasters.
You see, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is a step forward tech-wise, but fumbles enough to also be anything from annoying to hilarious, even months after launch. That would have gotten worse press if Cyberpunk 2077 hadn’t been around. But going into a PR-tirade isn’t why I’m here, so it is time to move on.
Graphics and performance
I played the game both on the Xbox One X and the Xbox Series X but I’m not here to provide you with numbers. The game launched one way in terms of performance and changed a bit with subsequent patches and it might still change a bit more (though I wouldn’t count on it much to be honest). So even numbers haven’t been set in stone. They do tell a story though. A story about Ubisoft’s choices while juggling newer hardware.
At launch, the PS5 and Xbox Series X had just one set of settings, going for 4K resolution11 at as many frames per second as each could go for, with a 60fps cap of course. It was clear though that this goal just wasn’t feasible on any system, which is why we ended up with screen tearing that only VRR could save us from. VRR is an option on the Xbox Series X when paired with a compatible TV, not so much on the PS5 though, which has still to be updated to add support for it. On the Xbox Series X then, with a proper TV for the job, one could get seemingly nice and smooth performance despite deltas in actual and target frame rates.
Maybe that was the thinking here. Assuming one can take advantage of VRR, the game seemed to run better on the Xbox Series X than on the PS5, which may have made it even more important to optimise better for the latter than the former. PS5 owners just don’t have access to a VRR workaround after all. If that was the reasoning on Ubisoft’s part, I must say it was a half-formed thought at best. TVs with HDMI 2.1 VRR in people’s homes represent such a small percentage of the active market that it cannot be taken for granted. Certainly not yet. Even if we take FreeSync into account, FreeSync monitor and TV use is a subset of the market and it can have different issues (we lose Dolby Vision when turning to FreeSync for example)12.
In any case, this is the only theory I have to make sense of Xbox Series X performance being less stable than PS5 performance. There might have been other optimisation issues I’m unaware off but, in any case, it can’t be an issue of horsepower as the Xbox Series X simply has more of it. However, this is just how things started out. They kept getting weirder all the while performance stabilised with a subsequent update. What did that do though?
For one, it didn’t really deal with performance issues, it added a new mode and tweaked some settings, without providing an actual solution to the aforementioned problems.
Players now have two settings options to choose from:
- One that defaults to native 4K resolution (just like before) but adds a 30fps cap to avoid tearing and resolution drops.
- A new one that goes for 60fps but introduces dynamic resolution in order to hit that target.
In Quality Mode the earlier problems are avoided by not allowing systems to even try to go beyond 30fps and in Performance Mode image quality is sacrificed as much and as often as needed to get those 60fps and stick to them.
In Quality Mode new consoles are the same in terms of quality and performance, with the exception of PC and Xbox where there is still some camera stutter to be dealt with despite the 30fps target lock.
In Performance Mode, the latest consoles hit the same performance levels (stutter issues on PC and Xbox not-withstanding) but the Xbox Series X goes lower in resolution than the PS5 in some spots. Again, in terms for horsepower, this doesn’t make any sense and it implies better optimisation work on the PS5 by Ubisoft.
I can’t imagine Microsoft being too happy about this as Xbox even has an ongoing marketing deal with Ubisoft for Assassin’s Creed Valhalla.
Months after launch, I don’t know what to expect from Ubisoft on this front going forward. Especially as there are a lot of bugs to deal with yet, which are (or should) be a greater priority than eking out more pixels and/or frames here and there. What I do know from my time in Origins and Odyssey is that these games do have a long tail in terms of patching. Maybe there’s still hope.
I don’t normally bring up audio systems issues or advances but I feel I have to do just that in the case of Valhalla. Back in 2018 I had a long chat with Assassin’s Creed Odyssey’s Audio Director where she made clear that Ubisoft had to rethink audio management systems in games of such scale, which only makes sense of course. In big productions automation is crucial, lest we want developers to either go insane trying to ship or just never ship anything while trying to manually make everything “just so”.
In Valhalla though, there are atmosphere and mood destroying audio snafus that are identical in practice with what I noticed in 2018 while playing Odyssey. Let’s say you’re about to enter a cave. A line is triggered for Eivor to say something remarking that. And then let’s say you reach the cave’s exit but Eivor again uses a line about entering it. The game can tell you are close to an entry/exit point but seems to always assume you’re about to go in, not go out, meaning it doesn’t really take into account where you are in relation to an entrance, just if you’re close enough to it. I had the exact same issue with Odyssey. This sounds like I’m nitpicking here. After all, it’s just a stray line of dialogue, right?
But then you show up in a town, you take up a quest, you’re following a character around while having a conversation and random NPCs shout things at you as you’re trying to listen to the conversation you’re part of. For some reason, random lines aren’t conditional enough.
At times, it gets worse as the same character you’re conversing with will start spewing nonsense, reacting to another random NPC’s programmatically determined routine and actions. In cases you get lines that are in conflict with the feel of the moment, like a stupid joke in an otherwise somber interaction.
I understand none of this is a simple matter, as using more conditionals might as well ruin other moments, cause different problems and whatnot. What gets me is the perceived lack of progress in Valhalla. These systems aren’t tools created in isolation to be used in one game and then discarded for a different team to create their own new ones. At least not anymore. Building and updating such tools is an ongoing endeavour and one can’t help but hope that with years between releases some low hanging fruit would have been picked already. The further we get from the franchise’s pivot to an open-world “RPG” the more difficult it is to excuse the mere existence of low hanging fruit in tech (or design).
To be fair, we can’t ignore the simple fact that this is a big game, a complicated production that had to function well enough on the most systems any Assassin’s Creed game had ever had to target in one go. I’m willing to bet it’s best to build new tools without having to care about systems that debuted back in 2013. If that really is the case though, it’s tougher to justify the design of new ones when you know it’s impossible to just ignore such systems at this point in time.
I’m not a developer, of course. I can be wrong here in all kinds of ways. Which is why I’m still willing to give Ubisoft the benefit of the doubt. But it’s high time this went with as many caveats as I can muster. If anything, succeeding at scale is undoubtedly not a simple feat but that’s exactly what one expects from a big company.
Bug comedy, a genre
It feels natural to deal with the buggy nature of Valhalla in the tech section, even if it’s something that is usually best dealt with by throwing actual bodies at the problem aka more testers.
I started out this mammoth piece with some of my experiences with game bugs but a list of them doesn’t really tell their story. And there is somewhat of a story to tell. Every single patch has dealt with a list of bugs so long it veers into comedy. I am glad to report that Ubisoft gets that too as anyone can tell by reading the release notes that accompany each new patch, notes that include funny commentary, especially on bugs so preposterous that end up being hilarious even for those that have to suffer through them.
It’s telling that one amazing bug I sadly didn’t experience had to do with the Order. Normally the player has to kill each member separately, one at a time. But under certain circumstances killing one would result in all of the rest dying along with them. This bug is exactly as hilarious as it is beneficial to the lucky ones that experienced it, I believe. But it is no more.
Real comedy lies elsewhere though. When Yule content was added to celebrate the new year, new activities brought new bugs along with them, despite the simplicity of the activities involved. At some point things got so bad that in a hand to hand combat challenge I could not go beyond the 5th or 6th fight as the new challenger would show up dead leaving me staring at the screen with no way to progress or a way to back out of the tournament without loading back to a previous checkpoint. That content’s issues were never really addressed as those activities were time-limited. And who would push out a patch during the actual holidays? Well, maybe this is why the same events made a comeback for the Ostara festival, Season 2 of free content that was added with update 1.2.0.
There’s a theme here though. Early on, the game could freeze and boot me back to the Xbox dashboard. A patch pretty much solved that for me. Until update 1.1.2, adding River Raids etc. came out. Freezes came back, still happened at random and, what’s more, tended to result in some progress loss too. But restarting a short side quest isn’t much of a hustle, right? That’s why game freezes went the extra mile here, ending up worse than at launch. To demonstrate, let me tell you a story. Update 1.2.0 is obviously trying to dial this back and it does. To an extend. Freezes still happen more often then pre-1.1.2 but less often than post-1.1.2. This war has not be won yet.
The rarest resource in the game is opal. After 150 hours I’d gathered 200 opals. I could have gathered more through Contracts, but I didn’t bother, not until later. There was no actual need to. Anyhow, I decided it was time, but first, I should spend what I had gathered. So I gave Reda 100 opals for a piece of fully upgraded armour, picked up a few contracts and went on my way. While fast travelling as close to my destination as the game would allow me, the game froze. I quit the game, relaunched it and ended up in front of Reda, after having gotten my shiny new armour piece and having picked up contract work. I spoke to Reda once more to check that and upon doing so I noticed that my previously 100 remaining opals were now… zero. For a resource this rare this was infuriating, even if inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. Update 1.2.0 seems to have ameliorated the issue but I’ve had a couple of freezes since applying it, certainly not as often as before though.
Elsewhere, after going through all of Rangar’s Drengr, you get to visit the legendary pit of snakes he was thrown in and left to die. The only thing you have to do is drop in the pit, kill a few snakes and interact with Ragnar’s empty cage in order to complete the quest line and get another weapon as your reward. Now, get this. At any other point in the game, you interact with a press of a face button. What’s more, when you are expected to use Odin’s Sight to highlight initially hidden points of interaction and clues, you just have to long click a stick and that’s that. But in this case and this case only, you are expected to short click the stick, contrary to all in-game precedent. One can’t help but think that someone over at Ubisoft just fell asleep at the wheel while working on this. And, lest we forget, this simple epilogue to a pre-existing quest was added through a bug-fixing patch.
Unsurprisingly, there’s much debugging and patching work left to be done by Ubisoft, even as the game enters its fifth month in the market. Mercifully, I’ll say, Ubisoft hasn’t come out to blame everything on the pandemic and the difficulties it brought to all sorts of collaborative workflows. It wouldn’t have been a lie but it wouldn’t have been the whole truth either, as we’ve all learnt from our experience with Assassin’s Creed Origins and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. As things stand, Ubisoft’s internal processes, design approaches and more might as well be primed for some kind of reckoning.
As of version 1.2.0, many bugs have been squashed, some minor side content is still impossible to complete, the net result being a stabler game that still has some way to go towards being truly solid.
No matter ho understanding one can be, this isn’t where things need to be months after release for a $60/€70 game, let alone a $70/€80 game, if case Ubisoft changes tune in 2021 and follows the example of Take Two and Activision when pricing major titles.
(Some) Quality of life and accessibility
For as much as Ubisoft disappoints in simple things, like map icon management, the drive for quality of life improvements is there. It is just scattershot. There are things to appreciate here, sometimes where you least expect them. For example, Ubisoft makes sure patch notes are always accessible through the game’s main menu. Not only for the latest but for every patch that has come out since the game’s release. I understand this is kind of hard to get excited about, but fourth-wall-breaking commentary on bug fixes aside, many big titles don’t keep such information within the player’s reach, meaning whoever wants to know more has to specifically look for release notes through the web. That’s not very user-friendly. This isn’t work Ubisoft should have to do either, it should be dealt by platform holders. In most cases, if you care enough to check game file information hoping to learn more about the latest update leads you to details that are useless to the player, such the the game executable’s file name and other technical information that mean more to developers than users. It’s fun to learn that Valhalla’s initial name really was Kingdoms —just as it had been leaked— but it does not help me, you or anyone else playing the game. I wish platforms did more on this front and not rely on developers and publishers.
But accessibility is where Ubisoft has obviously poured more energy in and it shows. Don’t think accessibility options as just a set of settings to help users with disabilities. When a developer goes wide enough on this front, there are many options that can benefit more players than one might imagine, from the image nerd to the controller snob, from someone with motor issues to others with vision challenges and more.
You can change peak brightness values for HDR for example but also turn on a colourblind mode. You can use a keyboard and mouse combo, all with sensitivity settings according to taste but also change how long it takes for hold actions to trigger. You can change difficulty for combat, exploration and stealth separately if you like but also simplify or completely turn-off any Quick Time Events. You can remove pretty much any HUD elements you don’t need (or like), but also change icon and text size. Finally, you can turn on collision sounds or menu narration and then change narration voice, pace and volume. This is but a subset of the available options and one of the best and deepest accessibility system implementations I have come across.
Ubisoft has done amazing work here and it is evident whoever is in charge of accessibility systems implementation is not standing still between releases.
With the Assassin’s Creed franchise nearing 15 years in the market, there are multiple ways to look at any new entry, depending on where one stands and what one is after. Assassin’s Creed itself is the single biggest and most popular game franchise that latches itself onto history. As of late, Assassin’s Creed games are also some of the biggest open-world productions out there, certainly the ones that get new entries more consistently and more often than any other series where open-world design is considered part of their identity, if not their raison d’être. Of course the series does not exist in a vacuum, and thankfully so, as things would have been exceedingly boring in the open-world game space. All the more reason to look at Assassin’s Creed Valhalla through different perspectives, keeping in mind that one cannot and so will not negate the other.
As the next step in the linear evolution of Assassin’s Creed as open world game —starting with Origins of course— Valhalla is clearly the best so far. Not only that but it is also the biggest evolutionary step within this new paradigm for the series since Origins. It makes sense. Valhalla and Origins’ development was led by the same studio (Ubisoft Montreal) and the same director (Ashraf Ismail). Based on that alone it is safe to assume that the “real” main entries come out of Montreal and anything in between might keep coming from Quebec. This is an oversimplification, mind you, as no big Ubisoft production is ever a single studio affair and Ubisoft is known for such synergies at scale.
In any case, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is clearly the best of the open-world bunch. Progression barriers come up less by design and more by player mismanagement. In earlier games having to deal with side quests in order to grow strong enough for the next region of the map was essentially expected. In Valhalla you can focus on the main quest, only occasionally dealing with side quests, according to taste. Side content is mostly there for flavour this time around. And for completitionists of course. This is a bit of a structural change that affects the nature of the main quests as well. There are game-spanning ones as before, but with each region having its own main quest line the end-result is a mix that harkens back to The Elder Scrolls’ tradition of using guild quest lines to lure you deeper into the world. The key difference is that in Valhalla regional main quests aren’t optional and are clearly connected to all game-wide arcs, one way or another.
Fans of Origins and Odyssey will have no choice but to love Valhalla —tastes in mythology and historical periods aside— and learn to see it as another step towards the paradigm that The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt set years ago and so many open-world games have tried to emulate since then, all with differing degrees of success.
That said, hopefully it has been established by now that there are still low-hanging fruit to pick here, be it on overall design, quality of life, UX and HIG consistency and, most definitely, quality assurance testing.
Ubisoft’s managerial success is its own downfall in some respects. Ubisoft is the only company that can push out expansive open-world games at the frequency it does. Assassin’s Creed games may have stopped showing up every year but no one else serves up a game like the latest open-world Assassin’s Creed titles in as quick a succession as we’ve come to expect from Ubisoft.
Furthermore, Assassin’s Creed season passes have been very well-received, adding loads of story content, sometimes advancing the modern storyline too, all at a price point that manages to feel appropriate if not unexpectedly friendly. Valhalla itself is expected to gain more story content in spring and summer 2021 —taking us to Ireland and Paris respectively— and if Origins and Odyssey precedent is anything to go by, they won’t be half-baked, irrelevant or aesthetically uninteresting.
No other game, with the exception of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, has delivered such strong post-release content. And though you will not catch me saying whatever has been added to Assassin’s Creed games in the last few years can really hold a candle to The Witcher 3’s expansions, certainly not in writing etc., Ubisoft still delivers on the artistic side, overdelivers in terms of typical season pass expectations and offers more in less time than anyone else.
All this implies a certain managerial efficiency, even if we adjust for the industry’s proclivity for crunch, at least compared to other similar productions. But it also implies a more factory-like mentality that does not leave much room for further experimentation and larger leaps. This is unfortunate in multiple ways. Shorter pre-production cycles allow more for implementation of newer genre conventions than clearly new ideas for the genre itself or even just the series. And it shows. The best an open-world Assassin’s Creed title do most of the time is emulate others’ past breakthroughs, hoping that the historical and the parkour aspects of the series, along with the platforming action the latter brings about, are differentiating enough. Maybe that could have been the case, but parkour systems feel sluggish with a controller at hand as does their very slow evolution over time. In a way, Assassin’s Creed does a disservice to itself at the same time it spends learning new tricks. But here we circle back to that efficiency and timing constraints that make it all the more difficult for all systems to adjust to any new direction. One does not have to think too hard to realise it took three games after the series’ pivot to a different genre for Valhalla to get us to a point where other big open-world productions have been for years.
Earlier on, I highlighted the time it took BioWare to jump from the original Mass Effect to Mass Effect 2, bolstering it with more action-oriented mechanisms and providing some of the more memorable main and character quest lines of the last two decades. You can more easily go for it if you have to push out at least one less game than Ubisoft chose to. But how can we expect Ubisoft to change approach when other studios dealing with open-world games can’t handle multiple productions advancing in parallel, unlike the French company, and have to face different financial realities and shareholder expectations? We can argue over the degree to which such predicaments are of Ubisoft’s own making but the situation one has to grapple with is what it is, so the company has to navigate these waters accordingly.
What is Ubisoft to do then? First, deal with all those low-hanging fruit. There is an amazing amount of cruft here. Half of the world event types are just noise, offer nothing meaningful, just take up the player’s time and storage space. Making these non-essential is a nice first step but the next logical one is to not waste so many resources and developer time on them. I understand that they can function as convenient proving grounds for the more inexperienced in Ubisoft’s ranks, thus providing valuable experience to the next generation of designers. At the same time, the other half of world event types are actually good which, I must say, is more than I expected prior to the game’s launch. Either way, there’s clearly content here that no one would ever miss. New modes are nice and all but the Yule Festival was comically buggy in my experience, the Ostara Festival isn’t as buggy but is almost a carbon copy of the Yule content and River Raids are there just to keep players occupied, not necessarily interested. So why even work on those? Why not spend development time elsewhere?
There really is no need to give anyone something to do for 150 hours. No revenue will be lost if your game lasts for 100 hours or even less. No one really needs to cater to the likes of me that just can’t help themselves but clear everything on a map. Even in my case, this doesn’t change my overall impression of the game and when it does it’s usually for the worse.
Time and intent must be invested before skill even comes into play. Ubisoft has to say “no” more often. Cut proposed content more often. Don’t cut corners in story and writing so easily and nonchalantly. Be more deliberate about the evolutionary path of the franchise. For the love of all that is holy, have someone at the helm to steer the game’s lore instead of just agreeing to the general idea of an endgame and just zipping around for as long as possible until there’s no space left to zip around into. The fact that patching major bugs out 6 months after release is possible shouldn’t be so easily accepted. Do not release a new title every two years. Take longer. Pretty much everything in Assassin’s Creed can benefit from the company taking its time with it. But how could Ubisoft ever afford to do this? And how can the series grow in ways that keep it distinct while also giving it a chance to move the genre —not just itself— forward?
Stay a while and listen
For Assassin’s Creed to flourish in a way compatible with its natural leanings, with Ubisoft’s aspirations and financial schedule in tandem, while also differentiating itself in unique ways that help it stand out from the competition, Ubisoft should look more closely to its own successful experiments instead of betting on what people will like next, based on someone else’s advances. To push oneself to play according to one’s strengths is hardly shocking advice. But what does it mean in this case?
It means Ubisoft has to do a favour to itself (and us!) and turn Assassin’s Creed into a platform.
- Stick to one Assassin’s Creed game (two at most) per hardware and/or engine generation
From Assassin’s Creed Origins to Assassin’s Creed Valhalla player-facing tech advance hasn’t been all that pronounced and whatever went on under the hood from launch to launch could have been applied to one game over time. We’ve seen games change engines. Tweaking the same engine and your tools can’t possibly be as harrowing an experience. This way you get more time with your tools, more time for fine-tuning them, a presumably more stable environment for team members to cut their teeth on and more.
- Cut starting game length in half
I can almost feel the sweat on management’s brow here, fearing at least some players will see going shorter as some type of regression. Ignore those players. They’re the same that couldn’t wait to get their hands on Red Dead Redemption 2, Grand Theft Auto V, Ghost Of Tsushima, Horizon Zero Dawn, The Witcher 3 and more. Every single one of these games is shorter than the last couple of Assassin’s Creed titles, sometimes by a mile. It’s less work for the same starting price. Or a different kind of work for the same starting price. Spend more time in polishing everything. There’s no way around it as, as things stand, you’re still taking time to patch out a myriad of issues after launch.
Time can also be invested in modernising aspects of the series that have turned into chronic pain points. Parkour is one of that, especially when paired with activities it’s just not good enough for as it is. AI is another. Don’t just add social stealth back and have it impact close to nothing in the course of the game. Work on it and bring it back with good reason.
- Ignore online multiplayer
We’re kind of there already as every attempt made so far to turn Assassin’s Creed into a true GaaS game has failed and Ubisoft has backed away from such aspirations. But someone at Ubisoft must be keeping an eye on Take Two Interactive and how Read Dead Online and Grand Theft Auto Online have turned narrative-based open-world games into money printing machines, for multiple generations of hardware no less, and may be getting ideas. The wrong ideas.
Staying away from those hasn’t hurt Ubisoft this far. Maybe more money could have been made this way but that would mean twisting the game’s design further into not favouring skill and soulless storylines.
- Double down on history and, where available and convenient, mythology
Every civilisation and historical period, no matter how mainstream or obscure, is rife with interesting stories to latch onto, recreate and play off of. In a way, half the work is already done by history itself. Seeing as story expansions have worked quite well so far with the open-world iterations in the series, do more of them. Go further in the chronology. Introduce other characters. Tell more stories. Tap onto all these perfect excuses to reuse assets in ways that only make sense and no one can fault you for it. Don’t move from historical setting to historical setting this fast, squeeze all you can out of it. And if you can set up the stage for the next game in the series, do that too.
Grasp the opportunity to tap into mythology. It’s the perfect excuse to try a few more daring experiments. At worst, you’ll fail but still manage to make the game not feel stale over the years.
- Do anything with the modern setting
Use the modern setting to experiment further. Have the player turn into a detective for a while, inject some dialogue-based quests just like in Alpha Protocol, mix things up, try different genres and ideas but make sure there’s clear impact between narratives.
- Take narrative and characters more seriously
There’s no mechanic promoting brand loyalty that’s better and causes less resent over time than characters and stories. It’s no wonder that people have been obsessed with Joel and Ellie for years and years. Ignore for a bit how high that bar really is and let’s remind ourselves that The Last Of Us Part II isn’t exceptional for mechanics that push action adventure games that much further. Find balance with the time new business and design models can bring, a unique balance that can’t be found elsewhere and doesn’t hinge on parkour and an always underutilized historical setting.
- Expand, expand, expand
Do you want to keep the community alive and pumped? Produce expansions taking into account all of the above. It’s been working fine for years. Don’t make it episodic. Just have a 10-hour well-crafted story land once a year. The scale to achieve that is there already but it’s always pre-occupied by all kinds of chaos. Leave “festivals” and “seasons” out. They’ve been underwhelming so far.
- Ride the hardware out
With a stable game as a platform, updates can keep it performing as well as possible whenever mid-cycle hardware refreshes happen but take your time to build your next game/platform so that it becomes a de facto showcase for new hardware. Don’t be there at a generation’s launch. But make sure players have reasons to be pumped by the very idea that when it’s time, it really will be time and it’s going to be worth the wait. When a new generation arrives, just update the previous game to run well on the new hardware and take your time to prepare for a fashionably late entrance.
Go out like a viking
In a sense, I call on Ubisoft to think more like a viking and consciously try to have their games go out with a bang worthy of (the “real”) Valhalla. Being the best Assassin’s Creed game of the new age might be a given for Assassin’s Creed Valhalla; the French company’s Norse expedition is certainly a step or more in the right direction. But the hints are in the company’s own games. Egyptians were obsessed with the afterlife. Greeks put posterity and legacy at a premium. The Norse dreamt of a never-ending feast to go along with no-stress battle as a reward for their hard way of life.
Ironically it’s Ubisoft that —even at its best— needs a history lesson.
Anglo-Saxons tended to call the lot “Danes” regardless of whether they were actual Danes, Norwegians, Swedes etc. ↩︎
I was so close to typing “the open-world world”. ↩︎
Funnily enough, various hoards have been uncovered in Britain, showing that not everyone got back to their treasure, others couldn’t relocate them at all etc. I guess vikings were too early to the party and missed the Medici Bank by a few centuries. ↩︎
I studied British English and I’m also Greek, so take this for the linguistic sarcasm that it is please. Even if you find my command of the language lacking. I know I do. ↩︎
In the age of “let’s add at least one thing that reminds people of RPGs and call it an RPG” I’m not a fan of using the term where it doesn’t belong. Hybrids are fine, of course, but let’s try and make more prudent use of nomenclature please. Thank you. ↩︎
I died a little inside. ↩︎
I remember feeling like a total idiot the first time I picked a fight in Valhalla after spending 160 hours in Odyssey. Ditto for when I got into my first fight in Odyssey after spending 130 hours in Origins. Habits die hard. ↩︎
It’d be best to go for the default Raven Clan armour and really, really wait till you pick your next set, after you’ve amassed a few, as fully upgrading a complete third set or more won’t be a trivial matter. ↩︎
I just can’t use “RPG” in a non-ironic way these days. Sorry. ↩︎
Well, technically, it’s Ultra HD resolution but no one really cares anymore. ↩︎
I know FreeSync 2 supports HDR but a) it’s not Dolby Vision and b) FreeSync support takes EDID space that forces the exclusion of Dolby Vision, meaning your Dolby Vision-enabled TV will never know your system can handle Dolby Vision once you switch to FreeSync. Complicated? It is. But it is also true. ↩︎