To be clear, I'm only a few arcs into the game (about 15-20 hours), so this isn't a definitive take but I wanted to share my impressions because I am VERY SURPRISED BY THIS GAME and I have a lot to say.
So far, Valhalla appears to be a significant step above the rest of the series and, potentially, a truly epic open-world game.
Some context so you know where I stand: I've always had a love/hate relationship with this series. Despite its now-dated elements, Assassin's Creed II blew me away all those years ago. The world, mechanics, story, and that fucking awesome score by Jesper Kyd, felt so original, engaging, and shockingly cohesive, despite the sci-fi/historical fiction crossover elements.
While I've played and enjoyed (to an extent) every entry since, none have felt as focused or intelligent as that game had. Not only that but the series's trademark bloat and uneven quality set in. I see the franchise as, overall, fairly janky, prone to boring levels, and prone to copying mechanics from other series and smashing them together with their own without fully understanding the consequences of doing so.
That said… I don't think there's a single truly BAD Assassin's Creed. In my opinion, they range from "not a bad way to spend $15" to "not a bad way to spend $40." Above all else, they offer huge potential- potential that is often missed due to the pursuit of quantity over quality and tight release deadlines. This culminated in Odyssey, the only game in the series I could not stomach completing, due to the feeling that everything I did was copied and pasted over and over.
The coverage of Valhalla seemed to indicate a continuation of that trend but with worse graphics, more bugs, and a setting we'd already seen explored in better games like The Witcher 3. I was more pumped for the unique mechanics in Watch Dogs Legion, which turned out to be one of the most boring new games I've ever played. I got both games for "free" through Ubisoft+ which my girlfriend has on our PC. So to say my expectations going into this were middling would be an understatement.
But damn. This snuck up on me. I ended up playing all day and night yesterday. As of now, I would pay $60 for this game.
So, what's changed? In short, Valhalla has an overabundance of features, mechanics, systems, and unlockables- much like previous entries. But, for the first time, it feels like they all fit together into a cohesive whole. The game's improvements are often subtle and small bit they add up to something that feels, thus far, rather special; it feels like it values my time, it feels cohesive and intelligent.
First of all, there's the story. I now understand why the narrative director, Darby McDevitt, showed up so frequently in pre-release coverage. There are two reasons the story works so far: one is, uh, good writing and the other is structure.
The dialogue is fairly natural and many of the characters, especially Eivor himself, are understated. They don't feel like they're trying to outdo each other for your attention like in Odyssey. For a frame of reference, I don't think AC has had a single great story outside of ACII and the last few were stuffed with cringe. Your mileage may very. The writing won't blow you away but it slowly coaxed me into caring about the main cast- no small feat. I would compare it to the Witcher 3- so far- but there hasn't been a Bloody Baron level arc yet or anything. Overall, I'm a bit of a snob about this stuff (wannabe writer over here) so I think most players will probably dig the writing.
Oh yeah, and the actual Assassins are back and they are woven into the story in a wonderful way.
As far as structure goes, this is where the design nerd in me gets excited. Rather than telling a single continuous, messy story like before, we have large story arcs that focus on a smaller cast in a single location. This gives the characters focus and allows them to be gasp developed! You actually get to know them and they all have fully fleshed-out arcs with a beginning, middle and end. Certain characters will stick around after but the focus moves on. This keeps the massive, typically long AC story cohesive and focused- adjectives I keep coming back to for this game. Underpinning these arcs is an interesting Norse prophecy, a solid modern-day mystery that actually feels important like in the old days (don't worry, if you don't dig modern stuff, it's still just a single sequence so far), and the strong relationship between Eivor and his brother- the surprising heart of the narrative.
All of this works because A, the acting ranges from good to great, B the facial animation conveys their emotions fairly well and C, the cutscenes/talking heads are actually fairly good. I would call the dialogue presentation a solid iterative improvement over The Witcher 3… and a fucking leap over AC Odyssey. This is funny because I thought these elements looked terrible in previews, particularly YongYea's coverage. I guess they actually DID manage to fix everything at the last second… so far at least.
(Side note: I'm playing as male Eivor and really enjoying his performance. He's very quickly become may favorite AC hero since Ezio. Female Eivor may also be good but from what I've seen and heard, her performance leaves a lot to be desired. You can always try them both since gender swapping is in the pause menu.)
The other major benefit of this narrative structure is it lets the player get intimately acquainted with specific regions of the world before moving to the next. I'd say the world-design isn't anything too special compared to other AC titles but there's less copied and pasted stuff and some clever environmental puzzles that go a long way to making everything feel good- I'll come back to this later. I like the simple, clean codex database which actually had me reading each entry and learning a little about the world but it isn't super in-depth for history nerds. Again, your mileage may very, but expect one of the better examples of Ubsioft environmental design.
Now a quick aside to acknowledge the first thing I noticed when I booted the game up: Jesper Kyd is back. Music plays a huge role in delivering mood and tone, and great music can absolutely elevate everything else. Guess what? The music is amazing. This is already the best score I've heard in a game since… well, it's been a while. It's weird and unconventional, filled with instruments I never heard of, and tons of synth, electronica, and vocals. Yet it feels just right. Oh Jesper, you mad lad. So glad you're back.
On to quest structure: due to the story being engaging and intelligent, rife with politics and familial drama, the actual quests are much better than usual. The gameplay is pretty typical stuff but its paced out exquisitely. Seriously, for a game of this scale, it's shocking how good the pacing is. To be clear, it took me five hours before I left Norway for England. But I recommend that anyone playing this take their time and enjoy the ride. That extra time to simmer is what gives the characters room to develop.
As a result of all this, I haven't felt any repetition set in, despite this being a Ubisoft game. A stark contrast to WD: Legion, which bored me within the first hour.
Before I share my thoughts on gameplay I want to stress why this all works so well: everything feeds into a single gameplay loop. The central narrative amounts to "spread your influence and grow your settlement" which the player will probably want to do, putting player and protagonist in the same shoes, strengthening the bond and avoiding ludo-narrative dissonance (that old girl). Then, to grow the settlement, you go on raids (or stealth infiltrations depending on personal preference). You hunt and mine for resources that go towards upgrading Eivor. New abilities, weapons, and armor are found while exploring (with no repeats). You sell goods to pay for blacksmith upgrades. You collect paper for new tattoo designs. You create your own lieutenant and send them to your friends' games to earn loot for the settlement. You build shops that unlock new features. You work with the Assassins to make England easier to conquer. So on and so forth.
Everything you do feels RELEVANT. This is a rare charm- and, I believe, one of the things that elevated Breath of the Wild and Ghost of Tsushima into players' hearts so quickly- it keeps me engaged in a way I wasn't with the last few games. The rewards are always worth it. It's a classic example of strong game design: the incentive to do anything in this game is both internal and external.
Pivoting now: the combat is generally improved from Odyssey, though if you didn't like that, you may not dig this. There's a much wider variety of enemy types and the new stamina system is great. It injects a touch of Soulsborne into the equation, preventing you from spamming block or dodge like in previous games. These elements, when combined with dual-wielding, solid unlockable abilities, and snappy kill animations, make for a pretty fun time. It's more arcadey than, say, Ghost of Tsushima's swordplay but cracking a guy's skull and sending him back two-dozen feet is pretty fun nonetheless. More fun than it looked on YouTube, anyway.
Then there's the stealth. Thanks to the new cloak system, you can do social stealth like in the old games! And it feels improved as well, thanks to the levels of suspicion enemies now have. Walking through enemy territory in a cloak and hood makes you feel pretty powerful and calls to mind one of the unique sensations that made the old games so fun. And yet it still carries the innovations of new titles as well: namely, the fact that you don't auto-fail when spotted by an enemy. And, no, there are no pesky tailing missions. All in all, I think it actually achieves a nice balance of old and new- something that's true for the narrative as well. If fans of the old games don't mind also having combat sections, I think they'll love the direction of the new game. That takes me to my biggest criticism so far, a purely quality of life complaint: when wearing the cloak, the standard movement speed should be reduced to a walk! This probably doesn't make much sense out of context but… yeah. It's annoying, though hardly a dealbreaker.
(I also wish you could disable the way Eivor glows to indicate that he's in hiding… I get it game! I know I'm hidden! You've told me in three different ways!)
The final and most important gameplay system I want to discuss (damn, how long is this, if you read this far, thank you) is the exploration. Note that I played on Pathfinder mode, which limits player feedback to keep immersion high. I recommend everyone play on this mode. Any more waypoints or specific world tips would only harm the experience.
But yeah, I'm really into this. A few months back I praised the navigation in Tsushima and while this isn't as beautiful or seamless, it makes up for it by limiting quest objectives to open areas you have to search for yourself. The raven you use to get a scope of the land is actually more useful because the game gives you less information. At the same time, the raven does not automatically give you enemy locations or item locations. You have to use your eyes. I love this. Finding stuff is still fairly easy but you're actually engaged with the environment, which is, in my opinion, the perfect balance.
There's also the emphasis on environmental puzzle-solving, of which there is a lot. Nothing too complicated but, again, you have to actually pay attention and use your brain for a second. This really does go a long way to elevating the whole experience. Stealth is also trickier because the enemies you see through walls are limited to the scope of your "Odin's Sight" which is like a small pulse of Eagle Vision you send out.
Finally, for those that don't know, this game has no traditional side quests. Instead, there are simply world events and characters you meet on the road.
I cannot overstate how much I love this.
Not only does it help you avoid an overstuffed quest log and let the devs further flesh out the main quests but it absolutely makes this the most believably real world yet in an Assassin's Creed. It's like those random NPC encounters from Red Dead II except not copied and pasted like those were. Not only that but these encounters are super memorable.
You can tell the writers had a field day getting to do basically whatever they wanted without worrying about quest structure. While the encounters are short, they are very sweet and I can already remember, like, four of them off the top of my head. It's as if someone took all the best parts of Odyssey's side quests and dumped out all the bad.
By delivering collectibles, activities, and world events to the player without giving away the details until you see them for yourself, the game avoids feeling like a checklist of busy work as nearly every previous entry has. On some level, this may be my single favorite change to the formula.
That said, there is still a box in the map showing how much of the region you've completed. It isn't too intrusive but I wish there was an option to disable it. Still, this is a major step up from 90% of open-world games, rivaling Ghost of Tsushima but not quite reaching Breath of the Wild.
So, to sum up everything I've said so far: Assassin's Creed Valhalla really makes you FEEL like a viking. All jokes aside, it does. I'm invested in my settlement. I'm invested in my crew. I'm invested in the politics and scheming. I'm invested in Eivor's internal conflict and his relationship with his brother. I'm invested in England, circa 870CE. This is absolutely the most invested I've been in an Assassin's Creed game in a decade and a shockingly enjoyable open-world experience in its own right. This game is proof that if Ubisoft were to take a year or two off between entries going forward, they could do incredible things with their near-limitless resources and experienced developers.
Above all, I'm actually excited to play out a viking fantasy where it feels as if nothing was compromised.
(btw I've had zero bugs so far but others have so be wary of early release)
Thanks for reading my ramblings!
Edit: to be clear, you should definitely wait to buy unless money is no object so that you can filter through the effuse praise and hate.
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