Despite Odyssey’s long shadow, Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla holds its own

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In Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, you have to play as a Viking named Eivor, which is pronounced “AY-vore”.  Eivor is a flaccidly drawn Mary Sue of badassery whose flimsy characterization consists of machismo and shit poetry.  The male voice sounds uninterested.  The female voice is hoarse and forced.  Take your pick.  You can even swap freely as you play.  It matters that little.

Kassandra from Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey is a tough act to follow.  The strength and conviction of actress Melissanthi Mahmut, the snap of her syllables when exclaiming “Malaka!”, the confidence in her voice and how it implied certainty about her place in the world.  Eivor has none of that, and it’s not just the fault of the voice actors.  He’s an invader from across the sea, a guest, a bore who thinks him/herself quite the saga spinner, finding a place among squabbling kings fumbling their way towards an eventual Magna Carta, without even a Bayeux Tapestry yet.  This is England before she’s secured her place in history.  Young, disjointed, not particularly promising.  Hardly worth the conquering.  Even the ruins imply Rome lost interest.  So our Viking protagonist scuds about in his rather silly longboat, plundering monasteries so he can grow his own hamlet, a pagan thief skulking about among the serfs, pagans, nobles, and clergy, occasionally indulging in sessions of slaughter.  When the contrived story beats kick in, Eivor is absurdly chosen to steer the fate of Medieval England, one shire at a time.

Each of England’s shires has a quest arc.  Most of them culminate in battles in which Eivor alternately drives a battering ram, blows up a wooden barricade, shoots the two weak points on a drawbridge, and then fights a boss fight.  On to the next shire, which will probably end the same way.  Each shire’s quest arc has some sort of story choice that you might think will matter.  Expect to be disappointed.

There’s no meaningful thread tying these missions together.  By the time you get to the final mission, when the results of your choices are supposed to pay off, you’ve probably forgotten the dudes you’re suddenly supposed to care about.  “Eivor!” exclaims an elaborately animated character model with bad hair tech. You struggle to remember where you know him from.  There will be about ten of these standing around a campfire before the final mission.  You can talk to them all if you want.  Or not.  Such is the lot of a conqueror calling his vassals to the final battle.  It can be hard to keep track of them all.  Who’s Chill Burt again?  How do I know Half Dan?  Is this the young idealist I chose over the cynical pragmatist?  Is he from Snotshire or Hamshire?  Or was it Evershire?  Have I even met this one older guy yet?  The dialogue seems to think he’s important.  Did I skip a quest arc?  Do I care enough to look it up in the codex?

This is mostly a failure of the writing.  It’s disappointing after Odyssey that we’re so squarely back in the territory of Ubisoft’s overearnest and clunky narrative, with each cutscene worse than the last, turgid with supposed political intrigue and personal drama.  There’s none of the Aegean sparkle of Odyssey’s scintillating adventure and mythology.

To break up these Medieval adventures on a backwater island, there will be excursions to smaller pocket worlds.  But everything outside of England is awful.  Poorly integrated, underdeveloped, and noticeably glitchier than the rest of the game (this is an Assassin’s Creed that needed more time in QA).  Like B-side material Ubisoft couldn’t bear to leave on the cutting floor.  Remember the Caribbean missions in Red Dead Redemption 2?  Me either.  That’s what it’s like every time you leave England, but less picturesque.  

The North American excursion is especially bad.  Conventional wisdom in game design is that you should never take stuff from the player.  I disagree with conventional wisdom, because taking the player’s stuff can be a powerful tool to manipulate emotions.  But it has to be used correctly.  That’s not the case in Valhalla, where you’re sent to North America to play among the Iroquois, but you’re not allowed to take any of your gear.  Instead, you have to start all over, without even a wooden club.  When you get your wooden club, you have to upgrade it all over again.  No worries, you think, I’ve got plenty of resources left over!  Except that you don’t, because all your stuff is back in England.  All of it. Even your crafting mats. You have to start over from square one, scrounging ore and leather and ingots in a wholly separate stockpile.  You don’t even get a bow until you earn enough to buy one.  And, yes, you’re effectively naked in terms of armor.  Get grinding.

This is one of four pocket worlds, and given the cultural significance of the Vikings coming to North America, it’s disappointing that Ubisoft couldn’t do it justice, and that it’s the worst of the four.  Two of the pocket worlds are even more disappointing for how they introduce a cool new idea to Assassin’s Creed, but then fumble the execution.  And of course there is the starting area in Norway, which you know you’ll return to because part of it is marked for level 240.  Valhalla becomes a lesser game when it visits these far flung and half-baked sites.  To get through these detours, just close your eyes and think of England.  You’ll be back soon enough.

You’d think the hyperviolent combat in an Assassin’s Creed would be perfect for a Viking, but it doesn’t feel particularly Viking.  Mainly because it’s just so darn familiar.  I’ve been killing guards and soldiers and other people Ubisoft made clear deserved killing for over a decade now.  It’s always been hyperviolent.  Just another day in the life of an up and coming assassin with his creed.  The new dismemberment is nice in an “it’s about time!” way.  All those years of hyperviolent blade slinging and no one so much as lost a finger unless it was part of a ritual.  The shield is also a welcome addition to the combat.  We can finally hold up a shield, like we all learned to do in our dalliance with Dark Souls games.  It feels really nice to block an attack with a hearty “whump!” sound effect.  For these two reasons — lopped off limbs/heads and shield whumpery — I’m going to have a hard time going back to earlier Assassin’s Creeds.  But neither of these developments changes the combat in any meaningful way, and there’s nothing here that makes me feel like a Viking so much as yet another dude in an Assassin’s Creed game.

(During a cutscene, a hapless peasant is about to be executed.  His head is on the chopping block and an executioner with a giant axe looms over him.  Before Eivor can intervene, the axe is brought down on the peasant’s neck.  But the cutscene cuts away right before the axe strikes.  I’ve already lopped off several dozen heads at this point in the game, and the folks doing the cutscene decided to cut away from the actual beheading?  Why is this decapitation edited out of a game in which hundreds of other decapitations are luridly celebrated?  Because the peasant is innocent and didn’t deserve it, whereas the guards who dare to stand between Eivor and a quest objective marker deserve whatever violent animation they get?  Or is it because Ubisoft’s cutscenes can be awkward in so many ways?  There is hardly a cutscene in Valhalla that isn’t cringeworthy.)

Among the missteps since Odyssey is minimizing the naval stuff.  What a horrible thing to do to a Viking story.  These longboats should have been loaded with Vikings and plunder, but they’re little more than troop transports.  Optional ones, at that.  They deliver your meaningless NPCs to the raids you’ll need to upgrade your settlement, but feel free to ride your horse to the raid.  When you get there, just call the boat with your boat summoning horn.  If you’re using the boat to get somewhere by river — there are no open sea excursions — you might have to clear a blockade by shooting the weak points on a chain.  There’s one scripted mission in which archers along the riverbanks stand next to bright red exploding barrels.  Shoot the exploding barrels to progress.  This one sad mission is the closest you’ll get to Odyssey’s glorious naval battles.  

I’m sure a history nerd can tell me Vikings didn’t really have naval battles. To which I’ll respond that’s not my problem, and I’m also sure the Vikings didn’t use wrist blades, chase down Apples of Eden, or unite England under a single Norwegian of indeterminate sex.  If a game is going to let me play as a sea-faring power, let me fare on the sea.  This modest and irrelevant riverine barge adds nothing to the game.  A huge swath of Odyssey’s design is undercut in Valhalla.

Presumably the settlement concept takes its place.  Instead of a ship, you get a village.  Seems odd for a Viking story, although even I know Vikings settled in places instead of just plundered them.  And for a while, the settlement concept is a solid hook for Valhalla, minus the charm that drove Assassin’s Creed 3, but with more explicit gameplay implications.  Build a fisherman’s hut to unlock fishing, build a tattoo parlor to unlock hairdos and tattoos, build a stable to upgrade your horse, and so on.  Play the raid missions to earn the resources you need to upgrade your settlement.

These raids are one of the main activities in Valhalla, and they’re a refinement of the sloppy battles in Odyssey.  In Odyssey, soldiers just stood around killing each other until enough had died on one side.  Team deathmatch.  But Valhalla’s raids play like battles with objectives.  They always begin with your boat disgorging its crew on the banks of a river as if it were a Normandy Beach landing.  Then you fight through the different areas of the monastery grabbing treasure spots along the way.  You might have to gather your soldiers by blowing your Viking horn.  You might need to rez a few Vikings.  It’s generally a progression from the wooden huts on the riverbank, past whatever industry the monastery specializes in.  A vineyard, a bell forge, stained glass, what have you.  You’ll have to work your way towards the inner sanctum, fighting more difficult defenders as you get closer.  These raids are battles with structure, flowing through the level design, giving your fight architectural context.  They’re one of the best parts of Valhalla.

They’re also one of the dumbest because they’re your only source of something called “raw materials”.  “Raw materials” are only found in Christian monasteries that you can’t plunder alone. Not because they’re too well defended. You can single-handedly depopulate the defenders of any site in England. But you can’t plunder these monasteries alone because the doors and chests are too heavy for one person to open, so your longboat posse must be present to help you open them.  That’s the rationale.  And there are no “raw materials” to be found anywhere else in England.  None whatsoever.  You can’t find them, you can’t buy them, you can’t craft them, you can’t harvest them.  Christianity has cornered the market on “raw materials” and squirrelled them all away in their monasteries! Narratively weak, but I’ll take it.

In fact, that would be my overall review of Valhalla: narratively weak, but I’ll take it.  The main character is unpleasant and forced.  The story is tedious, absurd, and humorless.  The excursions into the wider world are underdeveloped.  But what a lovely England for the usual sneaking, fighting, and exploring, sown with a rich assortment of side activities, memorable encounters, collectibles, and challenges.  I’ve ridiculed maps festooned with Ubistuff as much as the next guy.  But to Ubisoft’s credit, they keep getting better at making the Ubistuff meaningful, at carefully planting it in distinct ways, at making me want to see what’s underneath any given icon, and most importantly, at creating a sense of delight and discovery at what I actually find.

And even without the Aegean sparkle of Odyssey, this is an idyllic tapestry for Ubisoft’s artists.  This sunlight streaming through the clouds, bathing rich greed fields and vine-covered ruins and burgeoning cathedrals in its golden benediction!  Ubisoft’s artists are to open world games what Richard II is to words, and their talent shines throughout Valhalla’s England: this sceptered isle, this earth of majesty, this other Eden, demi-paradise, this little world, this precious stone set in the silver sea, this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.  So what if it’s not as good as Odyssey?  I’ll take it!

  • Assassin's Creed: Valhalla

  • Rating:

  • PC
  • It's no Odyssey, but I'll take it!
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