Assassin’s Creed Valhalla Review: An axe to the face is not very stealthy

Assassin's Creed Valhalla

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is a game that feels like it’s a little at war with itself. The intersection of its warring Viking heroes and its lineage as a stealth-centric action title are at odds with each other. While it works hard to bridge that philosophical divide, this dissonance suffuses the entire game and ultimately weakens it.

O, Brittania

The story of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is fairly straightforward. You are Eivor (pronounced Ay-vor), a Viking warrior of great renown. Dubbed “Wolf-kissed” after a traumatic childhood incident left them with a scar on their neck, Eivor is a hard person. The world has been cruel to Eivor, and that cruelty had a calcifying effect. As an adult and a warrior, they are a wily adversary, flinging themselves into conflict without fear or mercy.

When Eivor’s brother Sigurd returns from abroad after many years away, there is a sense of change in the wind. The territories of Norway have grown restless and meddle in each other’s affairs. The Jarls topple one another, squabbling over the same old territories, airing the same old grievances. Eivor and her kin have had enough. They look to Britain, across the ditch, and its comparatively more temperate lands.

Britain has been carved up under small dukedoms all battling for control. Viking raids are common with the hated Danes loose among the moors. In these swampy, dreary lands, Eivor and her clan will build a new home from scratch. Somewhere they can live unbothered by the petty grudges of the Jarls at home.

Travelling with Eivor’s brother is a pair of strangers from a distant land. Part of a mysterious order called The Hidden Ones, they offer to train Eivor in their favoured art of stealth combat. Eivor accepts, though grudgingly. By accepting their innocuous offer, Eivor is drawn into an age-old web of intrigue, whether they like it or not.

Get out of my swamp

While the early part of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla takes place in a stunning rendition of ancient Norway, the main game is set in Medieval Britain. Medieval Britain was, by and large, indistinguishable from a pigsty the Romans had abandoned a statue in. Britain is a vast, muddy pond, all rolling countryside with a handful of Roman and Gaelic ruins strewn between its little hamlets. It’s as about as far from the sprawling, vertical cities of the series’ youth as it’s possible to get. This seriously limits the amount of parkour that can be conducted — in fact, there’s barely any at all. Eivor can climb around and mantle over low objects, but free-running is not a specialty.

There’s been a lot in AC’s Ancient History Trilogy that has reminded me of The Witcher 3 but its vision of Britain is the clearest of all. It feels like slogging through Velen for the entire game. This isn’t to say that Britain doesn’t have its moments. When the weather clears and the light hits just right, there’s a real beauty to it all. The fog rolling in over the moors as I rode through the night was legitimately breathtaking. The artistry and eye for detail in its world design is astounding. But it made me realise how much I’m starting to miss the cities, the parkour, and how dynamic they felt together.

If the landscape around you feels dreary, the local inhabitants more than make up for it. As Bill Bailey once said, the favoured British customs are mild eccentricity, binge drinking, and casual violence. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla continues the series tradition of meeting interesting new people and then killing them horribly. Britain is packed with odd characters, some of whom are paranoid and openly hostile to Viking invaders and others who are willing to make a deal. Those who want a deal are often looking to not only secure their safety but also benefit in a material way — help me raid a nearby castle, install me as its ruler, and I will pledge my loyalty to your clan. That kind of thing.

“Have you met our lord and saviour, my axe in your face?”

Eivor is only too happy to assist. One of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla‘s core mechanics is raiding. In order to build their new home, Eivor and her clan must regularly raid British towns for silver and supplies. This involves blowing a warhorn and charging into town surrounded by angry Vikings. Flinging torches onto thatched roofs sets them alight, sending the townspeople fleeing. Local guards will put up a fight but they won’t be able to stop the wave of angry Norman steel crashing against them. When it is over, the town burns and everything they had is now in your pockets.

This loop stands in stark contrast to what Assassin’s Creed has traditionally been about. Eivor solves their problems by taking the direct approach, marching in and announcing their intentions in full. It’s absolutely possible to sneak around, take down the guards, and loot the town without anyone knowing. The thing is, there’s no real penalty for raiding, and it’s way more fun, so I don’t know why you wouldn’t do it. The combat system has been retooled since AC Odyssey, and is a much more visceral, full-contact sport. Being able to dual-weild axes, or stick to a shield in your off-hand if you’re a coward, is genuinely thrilling.

This, coupled with the game’s rebuild of the combat system, means a frontal assault is a more viable strategy than it’s ever been. This is, of course, thematically appropriate. Vikings preferred open combat. Indeed, whenever I tried to take the silent approach and had a Viking helper with me, they would bemoan the need for subtlety at length. This is the game’s great disparity, one it spends a lot of time trying to bridge through the narrative.

Vikings do not sneak about

Eivor is prepared to work with the Assassins, they are willing to learn from them, but they are not terribly interested in their crusade. Their focus is on their people. To Eivor, though the hidden blade they gifted is certainly cool, the Hidden Ones and their shadow war are a background nuisance. And so, consequently, stealth feels as though it becomes a bit of a background nuisance too.

Stealth is so detached from the Assassin’s Creed Valhalla experience that it actually offers a difficulty slider for stealth that is separate from the game difficulty. I can’t remember any AC game that has done this before. It’s certainly a way to tailor the experience to your taste — a high overall game difficulty with easy stealth for those who can’t be bothered, or a low game difficulty with hard stealth for people that only want to sneak around.

I think it’s an interesting experiment, and after so many entries in this series, one worth running. I think it ultimately leaves the stealth aspect feeling like a holdover from a different game entirely, but I think that’s entirely the point. Depending on what you want from Assassin’s Creed, I think this will be the thing that makes or breaks the experience for most players.

For honour

After Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, players had a number of complaints they felt needed to be addressed. The first was the dizzying scale of the game. The game was very much odyssey by name, and odyssey by nature. The world of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is quite a bit smaller and more constrained, and I think that’s a good thing. A smaller world allows for a greater variety of world design and curation. Fans will surely breathe a sigh of relief to know that we’re not operating at quite the same scale.

The other complaint was that, at a certain point, the game started placing missions behind a hard level requirement. To hit that level requirement, players had to grind side quests and other activities to accure the necessary XP. It felt like the game was witholding content, forcing you to eat your vegetables. There is still an element of that in Valhalla. The new skill tree (built to look like the branches of Yggdrasil intersecting with numerous constellations) adds a point to Eivor’s total Power score every time you unlock a new node.

Quests now have a Recommended Power icon telling you how strong you should be to take any given quest on. They don’t outpace the amount XP gathered from completing mainline quests as early as Odyssey, but it did happen eventually. Thankfully, gaining upgrade points is a fairly fast and simple exercise. The skill tree is massive and so the game constantly drops upgrade points in your lap to ensure you’re always pushing further down one branch or another.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery

One of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla‘s biggest influences is Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption 2. This is best reflected in the new settlement feature. Part of Eivor’s quest to start a new life in Britain involves establishing a forward base, a bustling little town of their own. As Eivor meets new people on their adventures, the town begins to grow. Each new community member brings a skill to the table — blacksmiths, stablemasters, boatswains, etc — and they all need somewhere to live. Eivor must use supplies gathered during raids to fund new construction.

The settlement system is not as involved as in RDR2, but it doesn’t feel like a full time job either. I actually like the streamlined approach. It feels like I can make big strides without having to sink a giant amount of time into the project. Your town really does begin to feel like a home too, and your residents become friends and confidants. Ubi hasn’t really included anything like this in an AC game since Assassin’s Creed 2, so it’s nice to see it back.

Final thoughts

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla feels like it might be the end of the series’ trip to the ancient past, and I think that’s for the best. It throws caution to the wind in many respects and tries to do something very different. I don’t know that it’s entirely successful but, after years of the series playing it safe, I appreciate the willingness to try. It’s probaby my least favourite game in this current “trilogy” but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to keep playing it. I actually quite like Eivor and their motley band of heathens and I’m excited to see where their adventure goes from here.

THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Highlights: Beautiful visuals; Vikings are cool
Lowlights: Stealth and parkour de-emphasised to a surprising degree
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Publisher: Ubisoft
Platforms: PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X|S, Windows PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Available: November 10, 2020 (Xbox Series X|S), November 12 (PlayStation 5)

Review conducted on Xbox Series X with a pre-release code provided by the publisher.

David Smith

David Smith is the games and technology editor at The AU Review. He has previously written for PC World Australia. You can find him on Twitter at @RhunWords.

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