‘Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla’ review: a bold and bloody departure for the seminal stealth series

For the first time in years, ‘Assassin’s Creed’ feels essential again

Let’s get this out of the way before we start – I wasn’t particularly looking forward to Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla. After years of donning the series’ iconic hood, I felt burnt out. While 2009’s pioneering Assassin’s Creed II wrote the rulebook for virtual playgrounds, it was slowly surpassed by the freedom found in vast, lovingly-crafted open world games like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.

Yet Assassin’s Creed’s increasingly rigid ‘follow an enemy really slowly’ formula stayed the same regardless, until it started getting in the way of actually enjoying the series’ historical playgrounds. By the time 2018’s Odyssey hit shelves, I couldn’t bring myself to play it. I felt like it might be time to hang up my Hidden Blades for good…

Having now poured many hours into Valhalla, what a mistake that would have been. Much to my surprise, this Viking adventure feels like the game that Ubisoft has always threatened to make. Assassin’s Creed’s 2020 instalment finally delivers a game world with the personality to match its size, letting you loose on an intriguing nation that’s simply begging to be explored.

Assassin's Creed: Valhalla
Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla. Credit: Ubisoft

Put in the shoes of fearsome Norseman Eivor during the Viking invasion of Britain, Valhalla breaks free of the franchise’s stealthy shackles with a mighty roar, letting players embrace their inner barbarian. Gone are the sigh-inducing mandatory sneaking missions. Remember those infuriating insta-fail quests where you have to tail a target? Chucked onto the burning pyre. Refreshingly, Valhalla feels like a Viking simulator first and an Assassin’s Creed game second – and it’s all the better for it.

Speaking of Vikings, let’s introduce our surprisingly endearing protagonist. After leaving behind Norway in search of new riches, Eivor (either a man or a woman, depending on what floats your longship) sets sail to plunder 9th century England. When your battle-hardened Raven Clan first set foot on English soil, it’s a war-torn mess from years of never-ending Danish and Norse invasions. Thankfully, you and your mates are here to spread more misery. Quickly claiming an abandoned set of ruins as your new settlement, this tale of war and dominion sees Eivor and their brother Sigurd attempting to forge alliances with Anglo Saxon and Danes-a-like.

There’s a lot of combat in Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla – which should be unsurprising for a game about a Viking invasion. From skill-testing one-on-one boss fights to monastery-burning raid battles, there’s exactly the amount of bearded brutality you’d expect. Thankfully then, the combat isn’t shit. Taking cues from 2019’s Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, Valhalla opts for a Dark Souls-lite approach to its fighting, offering the most satisfying weapon play in the franchise to date.

Armed with both a heavy and light attack, a stamina meter and that all-important dodge button, Valhalla drops the floaty weapon-feel of old in favour of something far meatier. For the first time in an Assassin’s Creed game, I feel powerful. As I swing my axe, there’s a satisfyingly heavy thud as it cleaves into my foe. I’m also able to leverage a combination of well-aimed arrows and perfect parries to slaughter a small army almost entirely single-handedly while charging into a crumbling Anglo-Saxon keep.

Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla. Credit: Ubisoft

Still, there’s an art to combat – and to keep swinging an axe feeling fresh for a hundred hours, there really needs to be. With a wide array of pleasingly different weapon types at your disposal (from the classic axe and shield combo to flails, and even ridiculously-sized greatswords) there’s enough depth and enemy variety here to stop the constant clash of steel from becoming dull. In a nice nod to those who do prefer the stealthier approach though, you’re free to choose whether to raid a fortress without raising the alarm or to simply sound your horn and lop off the heads of anyone foolish enough to get in your way.

That’s not to say the old way of the Assassin Order has been completely neglected here. As the main story unfolds, you will learn more about the ancient Assassin Order along the way, but for the Animus enthusiast, there’s always the option to dive deeper into this murky world with Ancient Order specific missions. Many of these more traditional-feeling Assassin’s Creed missions are entirely optional, but no less substantial, letting you chop and change between Viking mayhem and the Creed of Old.

In fact, there’s an almost intimidating amount of content on offer here. Where many of Ubisoft’s previous open worlds have been vast but disappointingly devoid of meaningful things to do, in Valhalla I found myself constantly compelled to explore. As my band of bearded brigands sang Norse songs while crammed into my painstakingly customised longship, I’d often veer away from my main objective toward an alluring-looking new village to raid. Despite being up against the clock reviewing this gargantuan game (it’ll take around 100 hours to see everything Valhalla has to offer), there were countless times where I simply couldn’t help but abandon my mission and gallop across England’s green fields towards an intriguing looking ruin.

Taking a leaf from The Witcher’s book, Valhalla’s surprisingly diverse-looking England is littered with a series of ‘world events’ too, which could entail anything from saving a fox from a burning building to challenging a stumbling drunk to a drinking contest. And that’s before we even get started on the haunted areas, the mushroom-trip mythical missions and many other of the game’s wonderfully weirder aspects.

Another aspect that keeps things interesting is Valhalla’s upgrade system. Just like in its diverse array of mission types, it’s up to the player to choose what skills your warrior possesses. Borrowing Final Fantasy X’s timeless sphere grid upgrade system, every time you level up Eivor, you assign two skill points to any of the wildly branching upgrades that you desire. From unlocking God Of War-esque ‘Adrenaline’ combat abilities to choosing to upgrade archery, melee or stealth, you can mould Eivor into your very own programmable killing machine.

Assassin's Creed: Valhalla
Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla. Credit: Ubisoft

Without spoiling what awaits you on this journey, there’s a lot more to Valhalla’s story than you might expect, too. While on the surface the game is a saga of squabbling kings warring over foreign land, this is really a tale about destiny. With the strings of fate seemingly pulling our hero Eivor in one direction and harrowing visions tugging them in another, Ubisoft’s latest asks a question as old as time itself: Can man outrun their fate?

The writing does a decent job of keeping you invested, but Valhalla’s storytelling still pales in comparison to say, God Of War or The Witcher 3. Fittingly, in this tale about destiny, the game’s dialogue choices seem fairly inconsequential overall. Still, it’s nice to have some say in Eivor’s choices during the game’s many, many cutscenes.

Ultimately, it’s the exploration that impressed most during this saga of swords and Saxons. Where Origins wore its mishmash of influences on its grubby sleeves, Valhalla feels like a delicately embroidered tapestry woven from threads of other open world games. Climbing its tantalising cliffs and galloping across England’s stunningly rendered landscapes, you’ll find a strand of The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild. As you slowly upgrade your newly established English settlement, you’ll see more than a thread of Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption 2. For the first time in years, it feels like Ubisoft has dared to look outward for inspiration – and it’s a risk that’s paid off handsomely.

‘Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla’ is out now for Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Google Stadia and PC. It will be released for the PlayStation 5 on November 12.

Our Verdict

After years of stubbornly clinging to an aging template, Ubisoft has finally dropped the forced stealth from Assassin’s Creed and fully committed to a grin-inducing power fantasy. Valhalla proves that the real joy doesn’t come from walking very slowly around a city, but from transforming historical tales into free-form virtual playgrounds. Thanks to Valhalla’s lived-in world and surprisingly varied gameplay, for the first time in years, Assassin’s Creed feels essential again.

Pros

  • Valhalla perfectly captures the thrill of Viking invasion and plunder.
  • The lack of forced stealth leaves you free to live out a full-blown power fantasy
  • Combat and upgrade parts are genuinely brilliant
  • Valhalla’s lovingly-rendered world is full of personality, and begs to be explored

Cons

  • The writing is solid, but still not as strong as some of it’s open world peers
  • The usual litany of Assassin’s Creed glitches rear their ugly heads, with misplaced geometry and stuck NPCs
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