Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed Valhalla takes the historic action adventure series back to the Dark Ages, to the time of the Vikings.
With over a decade of lore spanning over a dozen games, the Assassin’s Creed mythos are deep and rather esoteric. The story tells of an ancient rivalry between the Assassins and the Templars. This is itself has been retconned to an even older conflict between their forerunners: The Hidden Ones and The Order.
The game starts with a lengthy prologue that sets the scene and introduces our lead, Eivor and the reason behind their journey to England. The action then switches to the present.
Long term fans of the series will be aware that the games are based on the concept of genetic memory. The idea being that we have, locked in our DNA the memories of our forefathers- in a similar way that birds know how to build a nest without being taught.
Using a device called the Animus, a company called Asbergo, which is a front for the Templars, has been searching through history to find the locations of Pieces of Eden, technologically advanced relics from a precursor race that lived on Earth known as the Isu. These beings left devices and structures that form the underlying sci-fi story arc of the games.
Since Assassin’s Creed Origins, the modern-day protagonist is Layla Hassan, former Absergo researcher, now working for the Assassins. This brief present-day interlude takes us to New England were the team has unearthed the burial of the Viking, Eivor.
The global catastrophe hinted at in previous games has started. Satellites are falling from the sky and the aurora borealis is now a permanent fixture in the sky, due to a fluctuation of the Earth’s magnetic field. Only Layla, with Eivor’s help from across the centuries, can stop this catastrophe.
Via in-game dialog and recordings we discover that it was a strange broadcasted message, that had co-ordinates encoded within, that lead Layan to Eivor’s grave. Just as they did with Bayek, the modern-day assassins use the DNA of the deceased Viking to tap into Eivor’s memories.This sci-fi premise, as it has in previous games in the series really only serves as an excuse to take us back to game’s historic setting where the body of the action is set.
As Eivor, players get the opportunity to decide if the protagonist is male, female or just let the Animus decide. I handed the choice over to the Animus, starting the game as a shield-maiden of the Raven Clan building a settlement around the Lincolnshire/Cambridgeshire border. It’s a place in the UK that I’m very familiar with.
Ubisoft have clearly done their homework. Ely, juts out proud from the marshes of the fens, just as it does now. I recall reference to a clan with a name that is a derivative of Spalding, the Lincolnshire town. One of the mysteries in the game requires players to descend into Grimes Graves, a stone age flint mine in Norfolk that I’ve actually visited and been down into.
The developers have succeeded in capturing the land of my birth during a turbulent moment in its history, and in such a fine way. The amazing vistas reminded me of the feeling that you get surveying the ancient and storied landscape of England. It’s not lost on me, either, that my blond hair and blue eyes are likely attributed to DNA that arrived in south-east England, from Denmark via longboat.
Ubisoft further their M.O. of portraying the British, in this case the Saxons, as the bad guys whilst positioning the element of chaos as the good guys. Historically though, the Viking raiders had little in the way of redeeming qualities.
But it is, just a game. And a good one at that.
On the surface, the game is very similar to its predecessors, Odyssey and Origins. The controls have been shifted about a bit, which will take some getting used to if you’ve come straight from one the previous games.
The game draws upon the recorded history of the Dark Ages, and the Viking Invasion of England. But it doesn’t start with the sacking of Lindisfarne that heralded the beginning of the Viking Age. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is set 80 years later, in 873 AD. This gives us an England already familiar with the pagan “Danes” and allows the sons of the legendary Ragnar Lodbrok to feature in the game.
As well as Viking history, both romanticised and documented, the game also takes inspiration from the tales and folklore of the Northlanders. This includes a trip to the home of the Norse gods, the Aesir, Asgard.
The game’s narrative is a little more controlled this time with available missions being strung together as individual stories. Rather than spamming the map to a multitude of missions, only a few are available at any time. This stops the game from becoming a bit too overwhelming, but without limiting choice.There’s always something to do, and plenty of distractions if you are looking for a break from missions.
Players can partake in a game of Orlog (which means “fate” in Old Norse), a dice game that is loosely based on the concept of rock-paper-scissors. There are also drinking games to partake in and the Nordic version of a rap battle, Flyting, with players trading rhyming insults with one another.
The ancient land is dotted with resources, treasure and mysteries, all of which can be spotted from the eyes of your pet raven, Synin. There are camps to infiltrate and even the odd Animus glitch that rewards players with a tantalising glimpse of an event in the past.
One of the main tasks in the game is to grow Eivor’s settlement. In order to do so, Evior needs to procure materials. And the best way to do this is by raids. There are monasteries all over the map ready for plundering by Eivor and his/her warriors. Simply approach the site, by boat of on foot and either press the button for a raid when prompted or call upon your warrior using your horn. Then it’s a case of killing all the enemy (but, interestingly, not civilians- rather contrary to established historical thought), and looting the place. The end result is usually a lot of dead bodies, buildings alight and Eivor’s pocket full.
Combat is a lot more brutal that in the previous games. Eivor has light and heavy attacks, as well as defensive blocking and attacking with her less dominant hand. Eivor can use a two-handed weapon dual-wield with a combination of two one- handed weapons or one one-handed and a shield. Eivor also has a bow, as well as an assassin’s hidden blade.
As this game predates the original Assassin’s Creed game, we are still in the retconned era of The Order and the Hidden Ones. Valhalla ties into this story by Eivor’s brother, Sigurd, bringing two of The Hidden Ones back with him from his voyage to the east. These assassins are tracking down members of The Order living in Britain.
The game uses the same game engine as Odyssey, Ubisoft’s Anvil Next engine. This means that there are only some very minor tweaks to the visual prowess of the last game. Seeing as Assassin’s Creed Odyssey still looks astounding, there’s not much to complain about. On PC, Valhalla is the first in the series to use Direct X 12, which should mean a performance boost for most. The game looks absolutely stunning on PC.
The biggest shock, however, was in playing the game on Xbox Series X. Not only did my PC game save port over to the new Xbox system, via the Ubisoft Connect feature, but the game also ran at 60 frame-per-second in 4K HDR. There was really no discernible difference in fidelity over that of a high-end gaming PC.
Even on the Xbox One, the visuals look impressive. The only real downside was the longer loading times.
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla does seem to lack a bit of the finesses of its predecessor, the two-year-old Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. But even Odyssey had countless updates and patches to get it to the polished state it is now. Valhalla runs surprisingly well considering the trials put on the development team in losing their game director at the 11th hour, on top of the COVID situation.
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is an amazingly impressive feat. As a game, it captures an interesting time in history and immerses the player in the world. As a story, the game delivers an interesting tale interwoven nicely with the modern-day arc. As a PC title it looks amazing, but as a truly next-generation console game Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is a breathtaking experience.
Released: November 2020
Platforms: Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, PC (Windows 10)