There is something about Viking-themed stories, especially tales set during the Viking Era England that draw me like a moth to flame. It could simply be I enjoy the epic stories of the Norse pantheon, and the tales of Ragnar Lothbrok and his sons, as well as the sagas of the Scandinavian peoples hold my attention longer than most. It could also be my family's roots in both Viking Scotland and Anglo-Saxon England and a desire to know more about the history and tales of that era.
So when it was revealed that the Assassin's Creed series was chasing Valhalla, I'd have to check it out. But how does Viking England fare with the AC treatment? So far, after about more than 30 hours, I find Assassin's Creed: Valhalla is one of the most interesting entries in the series to date. While we aren't quite finished with our full review - that will come this week - here is our Review in Progress of Assassin's Creed Valhalla.
Weaving Your Saga
Valhalla has you take the role of the Norse Drengr (warrior), Eivor. Like Odyssey before it, Valhalla allows you the choice of playing as either a male or female protagonist, but Valhalla adds a twist. While the previous entry in the Assassin's Creed franchise had you choose between two distinct characters, Kassandra and Alexios, Eivor is the same person regardless of gender. This is reinforced even more when you consider Valhalla presents you with a third option: let the Animus choose your gender based on the moment.
Personally, I played the first few hours or so as the female Eivor, but because Valhalla allowed for this flexibility, I swapped back and forth with her male counterpart. I found myself prefering the performance of Eivor's male actor, Magnus Bruun, and have stayed with it ever since. It's not that Cecile Stenspil's performance is bad - far from it. But the differences between the two performances - such as the more gruff, harsh tone of the female Eivor versus the softer, yet stern male performance - had me preferring the latter over the long haul.
Eivor Varinsdottir and Synin
Eivor himself has a rather routine backstory: his family was killed during a raid by a rival clan and Eivor was taken in by King Styrbjorn in Norway. With his adopted brother, Sigurd Styrbjornsson, who is just back from sailing around Constantinople and coming in contact with the Levantine branch of Hidden Ones, Eivor finds himself seeking to avenge his family's death while also making a name for himself.
Due to endless wars and dwindling supplies in Norway, Eivor and his clan of Norse travelers make their way to England to start a new life and find land to settle. While Norway is more realized than I initially thought it would be, England is the cornerstone upon which Valhalla is built. You'll spend the vast majority of your time in the rolling hills of England, establishing your foothold and seeking to secure your clan's place among both Saxon and Dane.
Synin, What Do You See?
Visually, Assassin's Creed Vallhalla is absolutely stunning. The cold, desolate fjords of Norway set the mood early, and the team has done a fantastic job getting the lighting just right in the hard winter of the North. The northern lights pop at night, painting the night sky with colors that must have had our ancestors constantly looking up at the heavens. England, however, is breathtaking. The rolling hills of green seem to go on forever, giving me visions of the Riddermark from The Lord of the Rings. It honestly feels that the green goes on forever when sitting at a high point. Settlements dot the landscape, complete with their old Saxon or Danish names, such as East Anglia's Norwic, or the mighty Roman outpost of Lunden (formerly Londinium). England's landscapes have a painterly feel to them, adding to their beauty.
Towns and cities feel incredibly lived in, with towns such as Grantebridgescire dotted with wooden and tatch buildings that give a distinct Dark Ages feel to the world, while cities such as Ledecesterscire and Lunden are dominated by the crumbling ruins of the Roman settlements that once stood in those spots centuries before. The Londinium Amphitheatre, for example, is particularly impressive - its high walls and spectator stands looming over wooden marketplaces as the Saxons have made the city their own. Flanked on all sides are crumbling Triumphs from victorious Roman generals in ages long past, and ruined Aqueducts, reminding those that giants once built towering buildings on this Earth.
Yet Valhalla's visual presentation isn't without its faults, however. While the world itself is beautifully detailed, from the tessellated snow in the colder regions to the crowded and cluttered streets of Lunden, there are moments where you're brought back to reality that this is a video game. Some of the textures do look muddled and flat, especially some rock faces while climbing, or even building features such as wrought-iron in a window nearby during a cutscene. It's jarring, especially up close when compared with Valhalla's excellently detailed character models and armor texturework. Seeing something such as a blocky and low-resolution jacket hanging on the wall behind Layla during one of the few real-world moments brought me out of the moment for instance.
Performance-wise, I've been playing without Day One drivers so performance has been a bit hit and miss. We'll have a better idea of launch day performance once we have drivers from both Nvidia and AMD. Currently, I've been playing Valhalla on my PC with an i7-10700K, and an RTX 2070 Super at 1440p, and while I've mostly enjoyed a complete locked 60fps at mostly maxed settings, there have been hiccups and issues with performance degrading the more I play Valhalla for any extended period of time. We'll have a more thorough performance analysis coming soon breaking down the technical aspects of Valhalla in the coming days, as well as my personal performance experience once we have official drivers.
Making Your Presence Known
Your settlement in England is the core of Valhalla. Establishing your foothold on the Island is crucial, as with it will bring you benefits, such as your own trader to sell trinkets and more to, or establishing your very own Hidden Ones branch will open up the Order of the Ancients menu option, allowing you to start hunting members of the order for the Hidden Ones.
The settlement is built by gathering both supplies and raw materials. These can be given to you as quest rewards, but more often than not you'll be going a-viking to obtain the materials you need. You'll raid settlements, more often the various monasteries in England, stealing their riches to build your settlement up from a simple camp to a borough and more.
These raids are conducted with your own longship crew, with you assaulting the monastary with your small army. Or, if you really want to make it easy, you can simply slip in and take out the enemies one by one stealthily, giving your crew a break when you do launch your raid.
Raids themselves are actually quite fun. I found myself more often than not feeling the battle-joy come on me as I hacked and slashed my way through Mercian troops, all to get enough supplies to build a fishing hut in my settlement. Raids aren't nearly as violent as they were in real life, as you're bound a bit by the code of the Hidden Ones, which forbids killing innocents, but there are still plenty of enemies to meet your war-axe that it still feels devastating for the monastery or military fort once you've finished your raid.
Combat in Assassin's Creed Valhalla is actually one of its greatest improvements over the mostly excellent Odyssey. Combat feels both fluid and reactive, rewarding your for being both patient and aggressive, depending on your style. Coming straight from hours playing Ghost of Tsushima, I found myself waiting for my enemies to attack me first, slipping aside with a well timed dodge and then devastating them with a war-axe and blacksmith hammer combo.
Valhalla's combat is so satisfying that being aggressive and just charging headlong into the battle doesn't feel like a bad move either. Crashing down on the alder wood shields of your Anglo Saxon foe, sending splinters flying as your axe chunks into it, breaking it apart and exposing the warrior behind it never gets old. The fact you can dual wield weapons helps as well, giving way to some very interesting combat variations. Want to use two shields? No problem, Valhalla will let you. Fancy a spear? Be my guest. Personally, I've found the Viking Axe and Shield combo to be to my liking, especially as I tend to parry and then strike, or dodge and strike. But at times. I've run into a shield wall of foes with two axes, two hammers or a giant two-handed Danish waraxe to bear and never once felt as though I wasn't going to be successful at taking on the foes in front of me.
Prefer stealth? You can definitely go that route as well, as one of the Levantine Hidden Ones member who traveled with Sigurd, Basim, has gifted Eivor with a hidden blade. Slinking your way silently through the world is still a viable tactic, one I typically start doing until I make a mistake and everything turns into an all out brawl.
Eivor can also find Books of Knowledge throughout the world while give you access to multiple skills you'll spend adrenaline on to use, such as a move that has Eivor leap as high as the Valkyries, raining his weapon down on your foes head, or a skill that applies a poison to your weapons to leave a nasty wound on the next few enemies you hit. The skills add some depth to the combat, and give you a way to overpower some of the stronger foes, such as the Zealots of the Order of the Ancients you might meet along your travels in England.
But at the heart of Valhalla is your settlement, which offers you a place to rest, answer letters sent to you by allies (which could lead to quests in far flung Shires in Britain), as well as choose the next place you'll pledge your services to in order to build alliances with the Thegns and Ealdormen of England.
Assassin's Creed: Valhalla is all about alliances, and you'll build plenty of them over the course of your journey in England. Each region has a Saga to tell, and you'll pledge your services to the people of that region in order to get support and allies for your Settlement, Ravensthorpe. As you venture throughout England, you'll encounter familiar faces if you've read the Sagas (or watched even any Viking-era television shows lately), proving that your clan can be trusted in this new England.
Power to the Drengr
As you progress through the story, you'll unlock skill points you can spend on a rather exhaustive skill tree. Frustratingly, Valhalla brings back one of my least favorite things about the series in recent years, and that is the fact that some parts of the world are just gated off by your power level. You'll increase your power by spending skill points on the tree, giving you access to stat increases or skills, such as the ability to pick up a weapon and throw it at the nearest enemy, or an extra Adrenaline bar.
Because of the way the world is segmented off, however, Valhalla loses the open-world feel that I loved about earlier installments. Being able to just choose an area and go explore was always one of my favorite things about open world games like Assassin's Creed. While you technically can still do that - there isn't a wall per se stopping you from sailing directly to Winchester should you choose to do so - the enemy power levels quickly become known if you find yourself in a fight.
To be honest, it feels stifling as I find myself actually interested in venturing into far-flung lands, such as the frozen north of Northumbria or sailing the coast of Cent to see the White Cliffs of Dover, but afraid that if I run into hostiles, both Saxon or wildlife, I won't stand a chance thanks to being underpowered for the region.
I do understand why the world is segmented this way as building up your skills and "unlocking" future regions does give a feeling of progression that might otherwise be lost, but I do wish it was a bit more open to explore without fear of an NPC's power level, not my lack of skill, that dooms me in a fight.
The skill tree itself focuses on your Melee and Ranged combat, as well as your prowess as an Hidden One. Don't like the way your character is being built? No problem. Valhalla allows you to reset a skill tree at any time, giving you plenty of ways to test skill combinations to find the ones that work best for your playstyle. It's a refreshing level of freedom that I'm glad Valhalla brings, especially as it also doesn't cost your character anything to do so. Your gear also helps to influence your playstyle as well, as different combinations might give you bonuses to stealth gameplay, melee or ranged. Gear also has different traits: Wolf, Bear and Raven, and those different types can yield rewards based on your skill point selection.
The Saga Continues
There is a lot to unpack with Assassin's Creed Valhalla. After about 30 hours in the game this last week, I still feel as though I'm just scratching the surface of what the experience holds for me. So far, I've enjoyed my romp through dark ages England, and I'm looking forward to see how some of the story threads woven by the Three Spinners resolve as I continue. We're hoping to have our final verdict this week once we've completed Valhalla's storyline.