‘Valheim’ is a Steam survival smash hit with serious depth

Understanding Iron Gate’s Norse phenomenon

I’ll admit, I didn’t look into Valheim too much before I bought it. A few days after its February 2 launch, one of my friends brought it to my attention and I promptly noticed that the server-based Viking survival game had hundreds of thousands of players and was the top seller on Steam. For a game with relatively little fanfare prior to launch, this was immediately enticing to me. How could it fly so far under my radar?

As of writing, the game has peaked at 225,392 players, and is sitting in the fourth spot on Steam’s top games statistics page. The game has already beaten out multiplayer stalwarts like Apex Legends, Destiny 2 and Rocket League. The only three games above it are Valve’s esports behemoths Dota 2 and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and the popular Battle Royale, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds all of which benefit from years of play to assert their dominance. Valheim, on the other hand, is still in early access.

Valheim
Valheim. Credit: Iron Gate

I decided to give it a punt, and in a twist of pleasing fate, a few of my friends had also been snared in the phenomenal hype. We set up a server with ease and the rest is history. We’re now regularly putting in a handful of hours each night to upgrade our humble homely settlement.

I pointed out to my Viking colleagues that we had spent 300 minutes hunting, crafting and building in one big bender-like session earlier this week, on a school night. The words entered all of our ears but clearly didn’t register in our brains, as we kept on going long after that, willfully ignoring what would have been a reasonable resolution – to call it then and there. I think this speaks to the game’s addicting potential. I don’t wish to delve into pure conjecture, but I can’t deny that I did have flashes of the early days of Minecraft when I was out pilfering Skeleton-guarded caves with my pals.

If you’re still on the fence, you may be wondering whether Valheim’s popularity is just a fad. The numbers don’t lie, but I have to say, I’m convinced this one is here to stay. The core of the game is already sound, and this is step one of a long journey. The development roadmap for the game mentions four major content updates coming in 2021, with plenty of other features planned for the future.

Once you’ve dealt with the ‘Blondness’ meter in the Viking character creator, Valheim starts by dropping you from the claws of a gigantic bird into a bloody stone circle. The stones are engraved with the markings of the game’s boss creatures, which are spread across a gigantic landmass and must be hunted and killed to unlock special abilities for your Viking character. This is your purpose, established instantaneously, but it’s nothing compared to the sheer breadth of activities you’re able to get up to in between the alpha and the omega.

But like any good survival game you need to start small. Surviving the night is your immediate task, but once you’ve got your makeshift hut and a set of tools, you can’t let up. You need to defend it. Every so often, a horde of creatures will be summoned from the nearby forests to test your defences, impeding your grand plans.

This is where we get into seriously stellar game design territory, because it’s very easy to sink into the cosy gameplay loop after a defense and enjoy building out your home, scouring the vicinity for animal parts and resources. The basic survival gameplay is so good that you actively forget about the grand scheme of things and just enjoy the moment, which consequently makes the inevitable exploration so surprising and sweet. Valheim toes an almost perfect line between pushing players out into the great unknown and making them want to value and develop their homestead.

I’m calling myself out here – I’m tens of hours in and nowhere near done with what’s in the base game. I should really get a move on, but I’m still more than happy with my purchase due to some tremendous moments of multiplayer mayhem. Digital poets will encode the tale of our loud first encounter with the imposing, nightmare-inducing troll in the Black Forest. And who could forget the time we felled trees that nearly doffed our heads in permanently, or how we chased and tamed our first wild boars in a mean makeshift pen, laughing through the mania.

Even silly little things summoned laughter, like the politics of personal and communal chests, and discovering we could choke to death if we didn’t leave a smoke hole in the roof of our settlement. The dream logic of the mythical deer bashing its way through our home but leaving my bed and chest intact. Accidentally testing the deadly Staghammer on the floor of our house and nearly destroying the foundations. All of these choice tidbits of imaginative fun were propelled by the game’s dynamic physics engine and gameplay capabilities. It’s been some of the most fun I’ve had in multiplayer in a long time, and I expect there’ll be much more to come.

Valheim
Valheim. Credit: Iron Gate

The only thing I’m really dreading is the endgame, because of how brilliant the journey has been so far. I really hope the progression doesn’t dry up as the recipes run out, and that the Soulslike combat stays fresh once you’re suited and booted with the best gear. We’re all searching for the never-ending survival game, but the buck has to stop somewhere, even in a game so successful as Minecraft. Yet there’s a reason why we all keep creating worlds and running the gauntlet once more in Mojang’s survival monarch, so many years after its release. Sometimes the journey alone is worth it even if the destination isn’t as fulfilling as we’d hoped. Even if that’s the case with Valheim, I think you should all check it out as soon as possible.

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