Assassin’s Creed Valhalla
The Good: Large, beautifully detailed world. Good voice work. Many enemy types.
The Bad: Nice graphics, but not ‘need a new video card’ nice. Sailing a long ship not as exciting as a galley.
The Ugly: Surprisingly easy to stumble through quest events out of order. Raid AI a little dicey.
So we’re sitting around the home offices of the venerable GO network (which occupy the entire E-ring of the Pentagon – long story) trying to choose who should review the new AC title. We decide to tally up how many games in the series each reviewer has played, and let the most experienced reviewer have it. Not that I’m an AC connoisseur, but I’ve got six under my belt (I, II, II, IV – Black Flag, Rogue, and Syndicate), plus I saw the movie, for whatever that is worth, and that turns out to be enough to win me the key. Surely, I think, with those six I’ve played most of the games in the series. Nope, not even close – Wikipedia tells me there are 23 AC titles (and this is my 23rd anniversary of marriage to my wife, plus Biden won 23 states – there are no coincidences). 23! I also learn that Syndicate was back in 2015, so not only have I only played about ¼ of them, but I haven’t played one in five years.
So how does my first AC in five years feel? At first, I couldn’t run it, so I guess frustrating is how it feels. I’ve been kicking along on a pair of X290s in crossfire configuration (4Gb VRAM) for 5 or 6 years now. I can run Red Dead Redemption 2 at 2560×1440 60Hz without difficulty. Ditto Jedi Fallen Order. Ditto Rage 2. The X290s run hot and burn Watts, but they’ve done the job for me, until AC-V that is. So, dedicated GO employee that I am, I upgrade. I buy a 5600XT (6Gb), which installs easy, runs cooler, and saves me something like 400W off my power load. This isn’t an AMD review, but it’s a good card and cost me around $200, plus came with a free copy of Godfall through Newegg – I recommend it.
So, that small wrinkle aside, once I got it running, I’d have to say I found AC-V shockingly familiar. I’m a Viking this time around. Norway is snowy and craggy, majestic mountains and aurora borealis – it looks beautiful. I think not quite as good as RDR2, but that’s probably largely in the eye of the beholder, plus sour grapes over needing a new video card to run it. Surely no one is going to be complaining about how AC-V looks. But right off the bat, the core gameplay of AC doesn’t seem to have changed appreciably in five years. I’m still very hiding in bushes, sneak-up-and-stabby, climb onto a high thing to sync the Animus. Even working on old memories, easily a hundred games between here and my last AC review, I could tell this is an AC title blindfolded. I spend the first ten or so hours kicking around Norway, collecting wealth, raiding villages of enemy tribes, taking vengeance on the guy who killed my parents. I kill a polar bear. One of the big high points that I recall from Black Flag is ship combat, and that’s not present anymore. Rowing around in a long ship between islands wiping out minor outposts just isn’t as exciting. By hour ten, I’ll confess I’m pretty bored. I could write my review now, I think, and then I set off for England.
England is where the game opens up, and I wish they had put in some mechanism to push me out of Norway more quickly, because (keeping mind that I’ve missed the last 10 or so AC games) there’s lots of new stuff to do in England. I have a settlement where I construct new buildings which give me access to new quests and bonuses like mounts and a blacksmith to upgrade my weapons. I can forge alliances with nearby Viking villages. I can experiment with dual wielding weapons or use a two-handed weapon, or wield a weapon and shield to fit my combat style. I can discover new weapons, magic runes, armor, and trade goods. I am initiated into the brotherhood of assassins and learn of their mission to take out key people in the syndicate power structure. In a system similar to the Shadow of War nemesis gameplay, I need to locate these people and assassinate them. England has small outposts, and grand castles, and monasteries laden with gold and other valuables. There are many different enemy grunts, from simple soldiers and archers to knights and standard bearers. They have different attack patterns, some of them pretty tricky, and combat in groups is exhilarating. Combat is slick and for the most part fluid, but can get tangled up against walls and scenery items which can lead to stupid moves like climbing a wall instead of attacking. Also, group combat sometimes doesn’t work that well because your fellow Vikings are content to stand around while the battle rages nearby. When you raid an outpost, you and the enemy kind of square off in little fight clusters, and if you jump in and kill an enemy, the Vikings you have just freed up stand around instead of jumping into fresh combat. Sometimes you’ll find groups celebrating the victory while there are still enemies to kill. That could use some work. I would furthermore add that in comparison to the other AC games I’ve played, this version seems less into sneaky kills and more into open combat, but that could just be my memory.
I think if I have one big complaint, and I do, it’s that, despite the world being really big, related quest activities seem to be more closely located, so you can stumble into them out of order. For example, in my wanderings, I came across a really big fort. I seemed to have kind of found the back door – most of the defenses were pointed the other way – and I spent easily an hour stealthing my way through, killing every living thing inside the castle. I come out the far side, and find just a little ways down the road a mission to raid this castle. So I turn around with the group, and run back into the castle again (which is magically repopulated) this time with all of the defenses pointed the right way. Another time, I was out on a raid, saw another small outpost just across a river, and rather then hold another raid, just swam across the river and dealt with them myself. Later, rowing by in my boat, I saw this outpost along the river and decided to raid it – turns out it was the same one I had raided solo earlier (I could tell from the buildings and layout of the defenders, which were back where they had been, very much not in the dead state I had left them in my earlier raid). Later still, I ended up with a mission, one piece of which was raiding this particular output, so I get a third run through. Each time I raided the outpost, the enemies were reincarnated, but the gold caches were not. Is it empty now? I don’t know, I don’t intend to go back. Overall this plays to the persistence of your actions, and the feeling that I’m really making a dent in the world. I’m not getting it. Here’s a metaphor: You can set fire to buildings, but eventually they just go out, blackened but otherwise undamaged.
There’s goofiness – it wouldn’t be an AC game without it. You can hold what are called flytes (I think that’s how they spell it), which are kind of like Viking rap battles. There’s a dice game whose name escapes me. When you row around in your long ship, your crew tries to entertain you with songs and stories, many of which are groan-inducing. There are, the game calls them mysteries, but for the most part they’re minor problems that are for some reason falls to you to solve. Two brothers fighting over the barley in a silo, my solution (as near as I can tell the only solution) is to burn the silo down. A field overrun with rats – burn it up. Fire seems to be the go-to solution to a lot of Viking problems.
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla has new stuff, at least to me, but keep in mind that I missed Origins and Odyssey and a slew of other titles. Still, it’s another AC game, at the core a lot like other AC games. If you’ve played the other 22 titles, and somehow (I can’t imagine how) want more, have at it. If, like me, you’ve missed more titles than you thought humanly possible, it’s not a bad place to jump back in. I’ve been enjoying myself. What more could you want out of a game?
Reviewed By: Phil Soletsky
This review is based on a digital copy of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla for the PC provided by Ubisoft.