About seven hours into Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, open-world dread started to set in.
The scale of the game’s gargantuan map became clear, and I could already feel the fatigue that would come with exploring every glowing marker on it. Then I discovered the Order of the Ancients.
Like Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, Valhalla has its own shady secret society whose members can be tracked down using a hierarchy flowchart. Each time someone in the chain of command is assassinated, a new clue about the member who ranks above them is revealed. The player’s job is to figure out each member’s identity and hunt them down to reach the head of the table. My desire to do anything else faded away.
I was going to put a face to all 45 question marks on the chart and drive my hidden blade through each Order of the Ancients member.
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is built around finding your unique obsession and satiating it just enough. Rather than sharpening a handful of good systems, it casts every single hook it can in hopes that each player will find something irresistible to chomp down on. The final product is a towering colossus of an open-world game that values quantity over quality, resulting in a perfectly competent Viking epic that rarely misses the mark or knocks it out of the park.
The Age of Vikings
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla tells the story of a Viking clan that sails to England in search of a new life. Led by Eivor, the game’s wolf-hating protagonist with a predilection for beheadings, the crew forms a modest settlement and starts seeking out alliances across the country. From there, the story unfolds through episodic quests in each region. It’s a sprawling narrative that plays out like seven seasons of serialized television; quests are even referred to as “arcs.”
It’s all impressive in scope, but less engrossing as a beat-by-beat narrative. Individual quests vaguely touch on predictable themes like fate, honor, and brotherhood. But they don’t have much to say about any of them. After almost every exciting plot development occurs, there’s the equivalent of a four-hour bottle episode that slows down the pacing.
The Viking gimmick doesn't always make for effective storytelling, but it works gangbusters as a source of meaningful game mechanics. Valhalla offers some clear strengths on that front, translating Viking staples into standout mechanics. There’s a morbid pleasure in creeping up on an unsuspecting village, blowing your horn to call in a longship full of Vikings for a surprise attack, and tossing torches to light up every straw-roofed house in sight.
More impressive is the way the game explores the Vikings’ relationship to religion and mythology. Both are ever-present in the game’s design, leading to some of the most memorable and surprising moments.
Narrative Director Darby McDevitt introduces the beliefs and cultural values of the varied denizens of 'Assassin’s Creed Valhalla.'
Each major assassination is followed up by an abstract conversation with the victim as they die and seemingly pass on to the other side (to the titular Valhalla, perhaps?). For all its barbarism, Valhalla is often a sensitive game that makes an admirable effort to visualize something as abstract as faith. Even if it sometimes falls short, the effort is admirable.
Other times, Valhalla borders on historical parody. Activities like an over-the-top drinking mini-game and flyting, a “rap battle” contest where opponents trade Dr. Suessian barbs, reinforcing the idea that Vikings were one big frat house. (This is not a great look for a studio that has spent the past months reckoning with its own toxic company culture.)
Assassin’s Creed games often thrive on their ability to blend grounded history with video game silliness, and there’s no reason Valhalla can’t do both. But there are moments when the tone of the game feels at odds with itself, unable to decide between crafting a nuanced historical portrait of Vikings or letting players live out ye olde pillaging fantasies.
Hack and slash
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla leans heavily into action, which makes sense considering the Vikings’ reputation for raiding. Instead of longswords and daggers, Eivor’s arsenal primarily consists of axes, flails, and spears. Despite the variety of weapons, combat still involves familiar heavy and light attacks from past games in the series, with the addition of some fresh wrinkles to toy with.
Players can equip a weapon in each hand, which is especially enticing as it opens the door for unique combos. While the combat system doesn’t break any new ground, battles feel ferocious whenever Eivor cleanly lops enemies' limbs off. What the game lacks in innovation, it makes up for in visceral brutality.
The game’s stealth component — once again built around the series’ iconic hidden blade — is still as satisfying as ever. But since Valhalla is built to support both sneaky and all-out playstyles, there’s never really any consequence to messing up a stealthy approach. Any time Eivor is spotted, it’s always easy to hack your way out of a bad situation.
Fighting gets more complex over time at a very incremental rate. That’s due to the game’s revamped skill tree, which can only be described as an affront to God. Rather than giving players a straightforward list of skills to work towards, Valhalla opts for a sprawling web of upgrades. The tree is split up into various sections, which are only revealed as players allocate more skill points to indiscernible buffs like “+5.2 health.”
The system goes back to the idea of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla as a game for obsessive personalities. Those who want to build an ultimate war machine can spend well over 100 hours specing out their character in a Destiny 2-like grind. For anyone who’s not enamored with that idea, skill point allocation quickly turns into a chore that must be completed to unlock the fun parts of fighting.
Either way, it’s still pretty confusing.
It’s all too much
There’s no shortage of activities to do in the game’s enormous open world, though sometimes I wished there were fewer. Every corner of the map is packed with things to do, with some clear standouts among the mosh pit of ideas. There’s a settlement-building component that’s a quaint but limited management game, making exploration feel rewarding. Raids take the spotlight as well, turning resource-pillaging into an addictive hook in spite of A.I. companions who act like they’ve never seen a door before.
For every enjoyable system, there are two more that feel like the extra air in a bag of potato chips. I can’t remember what the rewards were for stacking a pile of stones, solving a rune puzzle, or winning a game of Viking Yahtzee. I still completed each of these mini-games every chance I got, but more out of habit than enjoyment.
That gluttony of content feels especially excessive given that the game always feels like it's about to collapse under its own weight. Typical of the franchise, Valhalla will launch with a slew of bugs that vary in severity. Sometimes they’re harmless fun, like when an NPC sweeps the floor with no broom in hand. Others are far less cute. On several occasions, I had to manually revert to previous save points to get out of soft locks. The game’s day one patch should hopefully tackle some of these issues, but it’s hard to imagine it’ll cure the game’s underlying instability wholesale.
Somewhere deep within Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, there’s a dazzling open-world spectacle with a handful of compelling hooks. That strong core is watered by an obsessively curated bounty of content that stretches the game — and likely players’ patience — to its limits. Still, few games offer the scope and consistency on display here, making it a perfect fixation to cap off a year that makes 873 A.D. look like a picaresque vacation.
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