Assassin’s Creed Valhalla Review: A conversation

We like to try and mix it up a bit around here from time to time so for our Assassin’s Creed Valhalla review, guest writer Dylan Burns and myself decided to chew the fat about it. Via Google Docs, of course, not in front of a roaring fire, with a glass or port or whisky, given there’s no Trans-Tasman bubble between Australia and New Zealand … yet. So grab a glass of ale, yell “skol” at the top of your lungs, and let’s go …

Dylan: I believe that Assassin’s Creed games have passed the point where they are designed to be completed in a week or a month or even a year. As a reviewer, the prospect of grinding out 70+ hours needed to get through Valhalla’s main story and to see almost everything – all in the space of a week or two – to then present to readers a comprehensive appraisal of all that falls within, feels, to me, disingenuous to the way these titles are designed. Instead, they are crafted as something to come back to between games, to get addicted for 10 or 20 hours all over again, before getting distracted for a month or two and then coming back – repeating across the stretch of years until the next AC title comes along and you slip right into that like a transferred child that has been lulled to sleep during a night drive home.

Gerard: Oh, I agree 100% that they’re huge games now, where you need to be prepared to put in the hours to get the pay off. A cursory dozen or so hours isn’t enough in a modern AC game these days: 12 hours is barely scratching the surface. It’s the type of game that will stretch a reviewer  but – and I’m playing devil’s advocate here – I’m wondering whether the daunting task of multiple hours of exploration and game play might put the more casual player off, scared off by an open-world that seemingly stretches on forever with multiple branching storylines. I’m only a handful of hours into Valhalla and I’m quite liking what I’ve played so far: The Norse setting is definitely a highlight but, again playing devil’s advocate, I can potentially see open-world fatigue setting in for me at some point.  It seems more structured than Odyssey, which I struggled with majorly, but I’m just concerned that the game is padded out with too much to do and that fatigue will come eventually.

Visually, the mountainous vistas are just stunning, especially if you’ve trekked to a high peak and there’s no denying the landscapes are stunning and I like how you can autopilot routine things like travelling to destinations by longboat, letting me just sit back and let the game handle all the busy work.

Dylan: I think that fatigue is lessened a bit by the design of things, with blue and white and gold dots all over the map. Each dot might be a little 5-minute side quest or a soldier carrying some loot or a treasure chest with armour or some new skill you can discover – so the random aspect of these is quite compelling and really helps to keep you addicted and flowing on to each point naturally. I felt that Odyssey was AC becoming a full-fledged RPG, with the levelling system and lots of loot. However, here, things seem to have taken a side-step, with levels eschewed for a Destiny-style Power system that relates to the number of skills you have unlocked (on the woefully designed skill tree, by the way) and how powerful your weapons and armour are. It’s a system that sees you less concerned with a specific number, although it still forces you to play in the kiddy pool for many hours, with some areas remaining in the red zone of over 100 or even 200 power recommended. How do you feel about the reduction in RPG systems, and in particular the lessened loot?

Gerard: I’m not sure I completely agree that the fatigue will be lessened due to the coloured dots all about the map: I felt the map could get quite busy at times with all the different icons (synchronization points, monasteries to raid, ports to visit). I liked the idea of the skill tree (designed like a star constellation) but I did find it quite hard to navigate and it wasn’t the most user friendly, was it? I can’t imagine how many hours you’d have to sink into the game to raid a level 200 location. I definitely agree that Odyssey was moving towards the series becoming more RPG-like and I feel Valhalla is still embracing that, especially given that obtaining resources from nearby monasteries is crucial in building up your settlement. I’m not sure I’m 100% sold on Valhalla’s story yet, though, and whether it will capture me for multiple hours but I definitely think it is the sort of game that you can pick up, complete a few quests, level up a bit, then move onto something else. I don’t think it’s really designed as a play from start to finish without interruption type game. Perhaps one of the biggest criticisms I have so far is the combat: It works most of the time but then other times seem quite janky. What are your thoughts?

Dylan: The combat is flat out strange. Like, I was told there is a stamina meter, but to be honest I’ve never looked at it since learning about it, and it doesn’t seem to impact my ability to completely kick arse wherever I go. In fact, the combat is so overpowered that stealth is almost completely broken/unnecessary in this game. There is absolutely no reason to stealth any section when you can run in and completely slaughter 30 enemies without fearing for your health bar or any other consequence. The only time difficulty enters into the equation is if you try and attack enemies in an area above your recommended level – but if you stick around the zones the game leads you through, you’ll cruise. 

I can see that they tried to make the combat a bit more involved, though. Parrying is essential if you want to beat bosses, and there are impossible-to-block moves (indicated by red flashes from enemies) where you need to roll away. You can also wear down enemy stamina by using heavy attacks, which then opens them up to a devastating blow by pressing in R. But again, I am getting by just fine spamming the crap out of light attack and dodging around. This is combined with enemy AI that is absolutely woeful. You can take out half a camp and still have the other half completely oblivious to the ten-minute battle that just took place next to them. 

I’ve had guards see me and not react while I mosey up to them and kill them with one blow. I’ve had them chase me for all of a few metres, before giving up and returning to patrol. They are perhaps the stupidest they’ve ever been in this series. Even the zealots are bereft of brains. I had one zealot attack me during a mission (this was a random encounter, he wasn’t scripted to be aggressive to me) and then when I lost him by hiding behind a rock, his aggressive state disappeared and he proceeded to converse with me as if he was just passing by – “Oh, isn’t it a nice day, Dane – see you later!” (I am paraphrasing here). The game is also really buggy. I’ve had lots of quests bug out on me, including a couple of freezes and crashes. It’s not at all stable and I can’t help but feel that perhaps that long tail of playing that we’ve talked about can only benefit the devs as they support and refine the experience with patches.

Gerard: I’ve assassinated a few enemies in enemy camps but just because that’s what I feel I should do from time to time: I am supposed to be an assassin, after all, although I’m not not sure the whole “stealth” game was really favoured with the vikings. You’re right about the enemy AI, too: I managed to clear one camp out without anyone being aware of what was going on around them. Oh, I think one of them got slightly intrigued but that was about it. 

Something you haven’t touched upon is the “real world”/Animus segments and I completely forgot they were part of the series janked back into the real world environment and had to endure some really cringe dialogue. These segments just don’t feel like they belong anymore and, maybe it’s because I’m not a fan of the Animus sections at all, they just felt shoehorned in there and are perhaps indicative of the AC series becoming more bloated with content with each iteration.

I’ve had the odd “player stuck on the environment” bug and one bug that forced me to restart my Xbox Series X as the longboat I was in refused to dock, despite being near shore. Valhalla is fun at times but there’s no way I can actually see myself sinking anything like 70 hours into it. I just don’t have the time or the inclination to do that. 

Dylan: Yeah, it’s easy to forget the future storyline completely, and being forced to play it out does feel like a chore. At least there are many hours in between these snippets, and they rarely last for too long before you can lose yourself once more into the animus. 

Overall, though, I love how Valhalla looks, how it plays and how it feels historically accurate, at least in terms of design and the words they use when talking to each other. I’ve always enjoyed the way AC games increase my curiosity about the eras they are set in (I borrowed and read a huge book about the history of Egypt when I started playing Origins). I don’t know a lot about viking history, but it’s enough for this to feel comfortably realistic, nestled against an absolutely gorgeous rendition of the English countryside, not to mention a breathtaking section of Norway in the opening. 

It’s perhaps not as compelling as Odyssey, with a less defined story that takes a long time to circle around to its eventual direction. In simplifying the systems, particularly the loot, it seems that Valhalla may have undercut a bit too much. However, I think this map is the most enticing and hauntingly beautiful of all the AC games so far, and I just can’t get enough of moving through it, finding beautiful moments and clicking in both sticks to take a photo. I can see myself coming back to this time and again until the next AC game.

All the images but one were captured by Dylan using the game’s photo mode. Thanks to Ubisoft for the code.