Like Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and Origins before it, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla continues the series trajectory into a full-fledged open-world RPG. Though Ubisoft has dug up some of its stealth-action roots to make that style more appealing, Valhalla’s focus is on the absolutely massive recreation of Dark Ages England, brought to life with stunning beauty and a level of detail I’ve rarely seen. It’s been an impressive showcase for the Xbox Series X (and presumably the PlayStation 5, but Ubisoft only gave us access to the Xbox version ahead of launch), playing in 4K and a near-constant 60 frames per second. You have to put up with some new progression system ideas that don’t quite deliver, and an abundance of bugs, but there’s a staggering number of things to do, explore, and discover in and around Valhalla’s more atmospheric storytelling.

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla’s story follows Eivor, a male or female Norse Viking who grows up with a chip on their shoulder and vengeance in their heart after some particularly dastardly events in the opening cinematic. From those starting moments, the table is set and soon you and your brother Sigurd are off on a grand adventure to England, a land ripe with wealth and glory, and already well-integrated with Danes and Norse from years of Viking invasion and conquest. That sets the stage for your arrival in England as you settle the land and forge alliances to protect and expand your fledgling homestead against the chaos and political dust storm of warring factions across England’s four kingdoms: Mercia, East Anglia, Northumbria, and Wessex.

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The last time Assassin’s Creed tried letting us choose to play as a male or female protagonist the results were hit or miss, especially on the male side. Here, however, the performances of both the male and female versions of Eivor are admirable, though some accents drift a bit. (At one point I could’ve sworn female Eivor made a stop in Boston from the way she crushed the word “harbor,” but quickly enough it was back to Norse normal.) These brief moments are absolutely the exception to the otherwise steady and earnest delivery throughout, which is also true of most of the main characters. Outside the main cast, though some random NPCs can be a little… much. But special mention goes out to Sigurd, who channels fiery intensity and flirts with crazy in his performances, and that performance is accentuated by fascinating facial expressions that often lean uncomfortably close to the latter.

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One particular instance found me helping the leader of a nearby shire – regions within the four kingdoms (no hobbits) – who had discovered a traitor in her inner circle and charged me with rooting them out because she loved each one of them as family and couldn’t trust herself to see past their lies. The resulting few hours of investigation brought me to the end of the road, and I made the best decision based on the available information I had. To be honest, I’m not sure I was right; I still don’t know. If the person I accused was guilty, Valhalla never gave me more clarity, and the uncertainty seems very intentional. My judgment was accepted and the consequences were swiftly doled out, and that was that. I’ve found myself thinking about that decision ever since. But that’s the business of eighth-century England, I suppose.

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A World Separated by an Ocean

Valhalla’s vast interpretation of The Dark Ages of Britain is massive, and when coupled with a significant portion of Norway, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla presents a staggeringly large playground through which you ply your trade. And no matter where you are, it’s absolutely stunning.

As I played it on the Xbox Series X, running 4K resolution and 60 frames per second, it may be the most beautiful Assassin’s Creed world yet; certainly the most satisfying to sit back and watch. The snow-blanketed tundras and mountainous ranges of Norway are breathtaking, especially at night as the aurora illuminates the sky above. The rolling green hills of England, cut up by iconic stone walls, are a ready canvas for the rays of light that pierce through the muggy cloud cover, casting shadows that slowly roll across the landscape. It’s hard to overstate how gorgeous a scene can be when the various lighting and weather effects systems are all working in unison. When I stormed the banks of a small riverside church, ready to pillage and plunder, the streaks of light bombarding the dense fog lit up the screen and enveloped the Christian cross in a scene that could’ve been pulled from a Dennis Villeneuve film, only with more heavy-handedness.

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Beyond the beauty and thick atmosphere of the locales themselves, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla’s England is in turmoil. It’s home to clashes between Danes, Norse, Saxons, Britons, Picts, and more, all of whom have stuck a claim in one hunk of rock or another and will kill you to defend it – or to take it, depending on which side of the fence you happen to land on. It’s a confusing mess of integration that creates an excellent social and political knot into which to tie this story, compounded by cultural and religious elements that really drive a sense of otherness in the many different regions, even if they’re just down the river.

But as all Assassin’s Creed games do, the undercurrent of Assassins versus the Order of the Ancients runs everywhere. It’s well represented in the various factions, and even in the decaying bones of the Roman Empire whose structures and architecture not only litter every region, but serve as excellent places to delve into the necessary long-forgotten tombs, crypts, and subterranean structures the series needs to hide its ancient order secrets. Again, that’s similar to Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, but much of the legwork of hunting down The Order is optional outside the main antagonists that inject themselves into your tale and force that storyline.

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In fact, the Assassin’s Brotherhood elements that rope Eivor in start softly, slowly weaving in and out of their story with admirable restraint before the usual Dan-Brown-ification picks up and reveals everything is touched by these organizations in one form or another. But the focus rarely shifts completely from the Eivor’s more-engaging efforts to build a network of alliances throughout England’s four kingdoms and its many, many shires.

One final note before we move on, without spoiling anything: as a huge fan of mythology, I’m stupidly excited for everyone to see Ubisoft’s interpretation of the Norse pantheon and Asgard. Tackling something so mystical and otherworldly had to be tough, but the end result is a more “realistic” and granular take on it than you’d be used to if your familiarity revolves around the Marvel Cinematic Universe or comic books. That’s not a slight on either, just an acknowledgement that this is a refreshing change of pace, especially considering how insane Norse mythology is when you get into the weeds.

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To Go A Viking

Many of Valhalla’s consistent high points come as you live the life of a stereotypical Viking. Aboard your customizable longship, you’ll sail along snaking rivers and lead your clan in raids against the gold-swollen churches and monasteries of England, bloated with supplies and materials needed to build your new settlement that then acts as your homebase and quest hub. The pageantry of raiding is powerful: as you charge in, thatch-roof huts erupt in flames while priests and villagers wail and scurry throughout the fray. Even after so many hours, I’ve yet to grow tired of blowing the horn as we approach the shore, and running up the hill as imposing stone steeples adorned in crosses and decoration tower over. It’s a welcome distraction from longer and more involved quest chains, and provides a quick hit of combat serotonin when you just need to bury your axe in something.

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Like many wars of that time, eventually you’re going to have to siege a castle or fortress, and that’s where Valhalla really cranks up the medievalness. These mass assaults often serve as the payoffs for longer quest chains, pitting your armies against whatever upstart king, jarl, or noble calls themselves lord of the lands you aim to conquer. These battles are fever-pitched and chaotic, and while they’re often impressive to look at they usually require a small checklist of orderly tasks to complete: ram the gates to smithereens, breach the inner keep, and kill the despot at the center. After a few of these you can start to pick up the patterns, but often they involve scouting defenses and softening up the opposition before going in, so that adds an element of strategy to it even if it eventually boils down to you taking on the big bad guy at the end. Still, breaking through fortifications with siege weaponry and working toward the inner keep is a very cool spectacle and captures the grandeur of all-out warfare that’s befitting a story of conquering kingdoms.

But when you’re done pillaging on your raid or shoring up an alliance with the new ruler you’ve installed, it’s time to spend those supplies and raw materials. For that we return to the Settlement, a place to invest your resources that serves not only as your quest hub, but as a separate layer of progression with tangible benefits.

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As you begin to build out your settlement you’ll construct vital locations like a merchant to quickly buy and sell goods, a barracks to recruit and hand-pick your raiding party, a stable to buy mounts and upgrade riding abilities, a blacksmith to upgrade weapons and armor, and much, much more. On the surface, these are welcome additions and giving you stake of land to handle your business definitely beats tracking down merchants in the big wide world. It’s a little bastion of productivity that you’ll revisit again and again, and serves as the welcome “come home” location where you’ll plan your campaign across England, and dive into side character backstories and storylines.

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Trying Things Out

While Valhalla faithfully sticks to the open-world script of Origins and Odyssey, there are some new systems in play, for better and worse. This time around, skill progression and abilities have been decoupled, meaning you no longer gain cool new abilities automatically simply through leveling up. In fact, the entire level system is effectively gone. Though you still earn experience, and it’s still cached at steady intervals to reward you with skill points, you don’t gain levels in the traditional format.

Those skills points you earn are spent on the Skill Tree, which is more of a web, linking various clusters of unlockable upgrades into constellations that you work your way through along the three main regions: combat, stealth, and ranged. On paper it’s a good system, and slightly reminiscent of Skyrim in style, but for me it’s ultimately a step backward, for two reasons.

First, while you’ll know which direction to invest in from the start depending on what pillar you want to go toward first, once you’ve unlocked the skill at the center of the cluster you’ve got to decide which direction to move from there. Do you work toward the left, to the right? Normally you’d likely take a look at the skills further down the tree and figure out where you want to end up, but that’s the rub: every neighboring cluster is hidden by fog until you spend the necessary points to unlock the node that connects one cluster to another. What this means is you don’t know what the skill in the next group is going to be until you spend a few points to head that direction. That’s really frustrating early on, when you sink your valuable early points only to reveal a skill you don’t care about.

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“But there’s still value in the smaller nodes between the main skills in each constellation,” you might say, being technically correct. And that’s true. But these nodes are only minor statistical upgrades, offering “+2 to melee” or “+1 to heavy melee attacks,” for example. Those are useful, but they’re numbers. Numbers aren’t fun. Wielding a two-handed greatsword in each hand so you’re a tornado of sharp edges? That’s fun! But do you know where that skill is? Not until you stumble upon it, or just look it up online. That’s not a great experience.

Secondly, these unlockable skills at the center of the clusters are more passive, or augmentation to things you can already do, rather than the cool new abilities you’d normally find in a skill tree. Granted, a lot of them are incredibly useful – vital even – but while being able to stomp on a downed enemy or control an arrow you fire from a predator bow are very useful, they’re not as impactful as being able to light your weapons on fire or kick someone off a bridge to their doom.

Those game-changing new abilities are hidden throughout the world in books of knowledge, so unless you’re exploring and hunting them from the get-go, the big-ticket abilities may not end up in your arsenal for dozens of hours. Because of this, for the first 10 or 15 hours I felt like Valhalla’s combat was underwhelming next to Odyssey’s bombastic style and flair. I was eventually proven wrong, of course, and it became as flexible, fluid, and brutal as ever after I unlocked enough skills and found enough abilities. But the whole system is skewed toward the mid-to-late game, which left me feeling fangless for over a dozen hours. It just takes way too long to start adding complexity to combat. So if this isn’t your first Assassin’s Creed game, know that the initial scuffles can seem very bland hack-and-slash affairs until you’ve started discovering some tools in the open world.

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This Is My Axe; There Aren’t Many Like It, and This One Is Mine

On the other hand, I adore the new direction Ubisoft has taken inventory and quests in here. For instance, there’s far less loot in Valhalla than in Origins and Odyssey; instead of finding 400 junk-level bearded axes that you’ll inevitably sell to a merchant, Valhalla gives you different kinds of the archetypal axe, or shield, or greatsword, etc. Each weapon has a unique look, and even though two greatswords might be only slightly different statistically, they carry different passive bonuses for flavor preference. For example, one sword might do more heavy damage the more light attacks you land, while another might poison enemies you’ve not to the ground. Both are interesting, and useful, and offer you different ways to approach the same weapon style.

If you find one you like, you can invest collectible currencies to not only upgrade its level, which improves its stats, but upgrade the quality, and that often comes with a new visual appearance and always allows you to upgrade its level even further. It’s much less of a hassle and more rewarding in the long run than having to sift through two pages of greatswords, and weirdly allows me to grow more attached to them.

[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=As%20a%20pro%20tip%2C%20don%E2%80%99t%20sleep%20on%20the%20spear.”]And as you further augment these weapons and shields with runes, you’ll find unique combinations of attack animations depending on which hand you’re holding it in, for a nuanced system that’s so much deeper than I’d initially thought. As a pro tip, don’t sleep on the spear. I know it’s not as sexy as the big two-handed axe, but its two-handed/left-handed heavy attack lets you stick an enemy and fling them in a direction of your choosing for massive damage.

The other great change is in the greater flexibility and organic discovery of side quests and activities. Ubisoft has done away with the cascading list of side quests to track in favor of revealing colored-coded points of interest on the map for mysteries, wealth, and artifacts. Often you’ll find one of the many insane and light-hearted side stories – like one involving a crazy cat lady who happens to live next to a farmer whose field is overrun with rats (convenient!) – but it could also be a place of mystical power, a psychedelic hallucination challenge, or an ambush by bandits.

These mysteries are, more often than not, much sillier than the main storyline, even farcical at times, but there are many that hide deeply unsettling secrets and deadly encounters. The beauty of the system is you don’t know what you’re getting into, but you’re free to walk away at any time knowing that pale dot will still be there waiting for you when and if you decide to come back. Ultimately, they’re excellent quick reprieves from the darker, heavier tones of the long, multi-part main story quests, and the freedom to pick what you want to pursue without obligation keeps the elements of surprise refreshing and engaging.

 

Glitch in the Animus

No matter where you go in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, though, you’re sure to encounter some… let’s call them quirks. Everyone and everything here is fighting a common foe: a large number of bugs and technical hiccups that span the spectrum of hilarious, annoying, frustrating, and downright broken.

I’ve run into half a dozen hard crashes that returned me to the Xbox dashboard. I’ve cursed out loud at ore deposits and door barricades that just refused to break thanks to the attack animation of whatever weapon I was holding not connecting perfectly, I guess? I’ve avoided a number of staircases that snag you halfway up and refuse to let you do the one thing they were made to do. I’ve stood perfectly still as enemies ran tight, fast circles around me, or brazenly ignored the arrows I’ve buried in their heads. I’ve ridden nitro-powered rowboats that take flight whenever you dash onto the shore, and restarted Valhalla because quest progression came to a grinding halt when a vital NPC got stuck in a river or decided to just never move to begin with. I’ve looked past lingering HUD elements that overlap or stay on screen. I’ve raged against enemy Zealots – Valhalla’s version of mercenaries – that inexplicably regained health even when I was drowning them in a river or beating them to death with my bare hands, becoming effectively immortal. And friends, I swear to you, I’ve seen a flying whale.

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Lastly, I don’t know if this is a bug or just a result of the developers wanting you to be able to do cool aerial attacks, but the fact you can survive a 100-foot fall by performing an attack in mid-air seems like the former. I’m not complaining, it helps speed up getting from point A to point B when I don’t want to look for a safe landing space, but it’s just so odd.

Anyway, you get it. Valhalla is buggy – really buggy. That said, it wasn’t overpowering; looking back after over 60 hours played, all those nagging issues feel like small footnotes in what’s otherwise been many great hours of exploration and discovery. And, in the moment, I think it’s easy to miss out on the forest for the trees. So while I may never forget that flying whale, it’s not the first, or second, or even tenth thing I think about when I think of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla.

 
Source: IGN Games Reviews
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