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Assassin’s Creed Valhalla moves the series forward while also holding it back

Ubisoft Montreal's take on medieval England is one of the franchise's best settings yet

Assassin's Creed Valhalla screenshot

I’ve always had an interesting relationship with the Assassin’s Creed series.

When a new game in the franchise is announced, I often get very excited, especially when the historical setting is particularly compelling to my taste. More often than not, this results in me being caught up in the pre-release hype, only to be ultimately disappointed when I get my hands on the game. For example, remember the large-scale battles from the pre-release trailers for Assassin’s Creed III? Those technically didn’t actually appear in the franchise until Assassin’s Creed Odyssey.

While I was surprised at how much fun I had during my time with Odyssey, its depiction of ancient Greece never really truly connected with me.

This was, in part, because I’ve never really been that interested in ancient Greece. On the other hand, Valhalla is right up my alley because I’ve always been fascinated with medieval England and Norse mythology. This is why, despite the game featuring several glaring issues, I’m able to look past most of Valhalla’s flaws.

To my surprise — and this might be because I tempered my anticipation this time around — Valhalla has actually managed to surpass my expectations in some respects.

In several ways, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla builds on the foundation established by 2018’s Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. Like its predecessor, the game is very loosely connected to the present day, complicated Animus plot Ubisoft continues to shoehorn into the series. In fact, Valhalla probably could have benefited from releasing as a third-person action-RPG with no relation to the Assassin’s Creed series. That said, given the brand recognition the long-running franchise has at this point, it’s understandable that Ubisoft continues to cling to the name.

Without giving too much away, Valhalla follows the journey of either a male or female Eivor and their adopted older brother Sigurd as they lead their Viking clan to settle Anglo-Saxon England. As far as Assassin’s Creed plotlines go, Valhalla’s story is relatively straightforward so far (I’m roughly 35 hours into the game).

Eivor’s clan engages in conflicts with Medieval England’s various Kingdoms, including Mercia, Wessex, Northumbria and East Anglia. The supporting cast of characters, including Sigurd, the twisted Ivar, and even more minor characters like Ceolbert, King Ceowulf’s son, are surprisingly memorable, too. Overall, Valhalla‘s plot is by far my favourite in the series. There are still twists and turns, but it remains refreshingly uncomplicated when compared to past entries in the series.

Valhalla is also a technical marvel when glitches don’t cause whales to float through the sky. It runs at a dynamic resolution, topping out at 1789p and going all the way down to 1188p on the Xbox Series X following a recent update, according to Digital Foundry (the PlayStation 5 version only drops to 1440p). Like other PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X games, there’s also the option to prioritize visuals over performance, locking the game at 30fps and a native 4K. Previously, it was possible to play the game in a dynamic 4K resolution with the frame rate occasionally dipping way below 60fps in some areas of the game, but that’s no longer the case.

Assassin's Creed Valhalla screenshot

Unsurprisingly, Valhalla is filled with the typical issues expected from a Ubisoft open-world title. Enemies aren’t very smart and sometimes stop pursuing you for no reason, there’s an abundance of strange graphical issues like players getting stuck in the geometry, and even the occasional random crash occurs. Strangely, character’s mouths are also rarely in sync with their actual voices, resulting in some cutscenes pulling me entirely out of the experience.  Hopefully, Ubisoft Montreal is able to continue polishing the game in subsequent updates.

That said, it’s important to note that when everything is running smoothly, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is one of the best looking games currently available on the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X. The game’s intricate Gothic castles, winding rivers, rolling hills and swampy bogs manage to surpass even Odyssey in terms of sheer detail.

Regarding gameplay, not much has changed since Assassin’s Creed Odyssey besides a few key exceptions. For example, while you can still use a bird — this time a raven — to scout nearby areas, you can no longer mark foes. Instead, you use an ability called ‘Odin Sight’ that allows you to see through walls and view your enemies. While some people likely won’t be fond of this change, I found that it adds another layer of tension if you’re trying to sneak through a restricted area full of enemies.

Assassin's Creed Valhalla screenshot

The social stealth features from earlier Assassin’s Creed games have returned as well. This allows Eivor to pull a hood over their head to blend in with their surroundings. Overall, it feels like Valhalla places a much greater emphasis on stealth than recent entries in the series, especially through its confusing but highly customizable skill tree. Experience points are spent on a sprawling mindmap like grid, and it’s impossible to know what you’re actually unlocking until you’ve made it appear. This means that you’ll likely be using and removing points frequently to get the perfect character build.

Odyssey’s abilities are back as well and unlockable through books strewn around the game’s relatively compact map. These books are sometimes easy to miss, but they make combat far more interesting, especially during Valhalla‘s repetitive Raids. I’m still hoping to come across the available ‘Ranged Fire Strike,’ for example, but have yet to encounter it.

That said, abilities like ‘Dive of the Valkyries,’ which launches Eivor into the air before crashing down onto enemies, or ‘Piercing Shot,’ which shoots high-powered arrows, are really useful and add a dose of variety to the game’s sometimes repetitive battles.

Assassin's Creed Valhalla screenshot

Combat is also generally compelling, especially in Valhalla‘s varied boss battles. I found myself weakening enemies with ranged shots — sometimes covered with fire if I was near a torch — before moving in close and slashing my foes to pieces with a mix of heavy and light attacks. The game’s blocking and parry system generally works well and ensures fights always feel winnable as long as you’re not trying to accomplish a mission far above your power level.

The first few times I went Raiding with my clan was thrilling. While we sailed down a winding river to reach our destination, I was regaled by stories of Viking lore. Then, my squad of Vikings and I stormed an unsuspecting Anglo-Saxon village, beaching our longboat on the shore and pillaging it to our heart’s content.

Unfortunately, since all of these Raids are nearly identical but are required to continue upgrading your settlement and in some cases, come across new abilities, they quickly grow tiresome. Also, make sure you don’t accidentally start a high-level Raid when your power level isn’t high enough yet because you’ll get absolutely destroyed.

Assassin's Creed Valhalla screenshot

However, improving your settlement is more compelling than I expected — you can even have pet cats and dogs, a killer feature in any video game. Similar to Red Dead Redemption 2, building my little village quickly became one of my favourite parts of Valhalla. I got to know different characters in my clan’s village and even started experimenting with different side activities like hunting and fishing.

While there aren’t a staggering number of side quests in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, they can still become overwhelming, just like earlier entries in the series. There are also instances where you’ll need to either spend time levelling up Eivor or completing side quests before you’re able to push the main quest line story. Thankfully, this doesn’t happen nearly as often as it does in Odyssey.

While I’m looking forward to experiencing a true “next-generation” Assassin’s Creed designed from the ground up for the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5, Valhalla offers a compelling, yet still occasionally glitchy experience. If this is a glimpse at what’s set to come from the Assassin’s Creed franchise in terms of graphics and gameplay over the next few years, there’s a lot to look forward to.

Assassin's Creed Valhalla screenshot

Asssassin’s Creed Valhalla is now available on the Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, PC and Stadia.

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