As fans of Assassin's Creed Origins, we were a little disappointed with Odyssey. Don't get us wrong, it's a good game, but it also had some excessive repetition and 'grinding', without ever presenting a world as rich or as balanced as the one we found in Egypt. This actually has a logical explanation, as Origins was developed by Ubisoft Montreal, the main Assassin's Creed studio, while Odyssey was mostly done by Ubisoft Quebec. Why does this matter to Valhalla? Well, this new game was developed by Ubisoft Montreal, and it shows in it's quality.
Assassin's Creed Valhalla is a true epic saga through the Viking era, presenting one of the most diverse worlds in Assassin's Creed, filled with small stories, secrets, collectibles, and memorable moments. Most importantly, it is both an excellent RPG and an open world action game, only hampered by some technical flaws and mediocre artificial intelligence. But all things considered, we're talking about one of the best - possibly the best - games Ubisoft has produced in recent years.
As you may already know, Valhalla follows the Viking Eivor, which can be male, female, or interchangeable (we're going with a male version for the review), but before that, it also follows the story of Layla in present time. If you didn't play Odyssey and the expansions up until the end, you may have a hard time making sense of what's going on - it's hard enough having played. Without revealing too much, we can say that the present day plot is quite important, recovering some old faces known to the fans. Fortunately, it is also spaced out, only occasionally interrupting Eivor's saga, although you can leave the Animus at any time. If you have been following the saga since the beginning, and really dedicated effort to the present day timeline, you will find many interesting references and events, but if you happen to decide to start your journey through Assassin's Creed with Valhalla, well, you might be better off just ignoring everything dealing with the present day timeline.
Eivor's story begins in Norway, as a child, when he watches his parents die. Years later, Eivor continues to seek revenge, but that's only the first act of the game. After some events we're not detailing here, Eivor, his best friend Sigurd, and a few dozen other inhabitants of his city, decide to leave for England looking for a better place to start a new life. When arriving in England, the group establishes a settlement, leaving Eivor in charge of obtaining resources to evolve and expand the area.
In this camp you can create dozens of structures, such as shops, a blacksmith, stables, a bakery, farms, a shipyard, and much more. Each structure gives you access to a different type of bonus or function, including improving weapons and armour, customising the boat, evolving horses, changing hairstyles and tattoos, participating in strange visions, and many other activities. Even if there's not really that much freedom in how the camp evolves (you mostly only decide what to evolve first, and what ornaments to place in certain areas), we did not expect to see so much life and so many features linked to the settlement. Each inhabitant is a unique character, who sometimes share stories with Eivor, or even invites him to activities, such as hunting or fishing. Eivor even has access to a room with a bed to rest on and an old-fashioned mailbox where he will receive letters from characters he meets throughout the game.
To evolve the settlement you'll have to find chests scattered through the world, where the best way to unlock them is to attack and pillage enemy villages and cities. In other words, you'll have to be a true Viking, and that includes invading and burning the homes of innocents. The game will punish you if you kill innocents, but you will still have to see them panic, scream, and cry. Valhalla presents a softer version of the Vikings, but only to a certain extent. There's no escaping the fact that these Nordic barbarians raided and killed whoever they wanted, and while that didn't bother us, we know that some players might find it disturbing, so be warned.
There's a structure in the settlement we haven't mentioned yet - the Assassins' Bureau. After two games that took place before the Assassin's actually existed, it's good to interact once again with the Creed and its fight against the Templars (or in this case, the Ancient Order). Eivor will meet two Assassins very early on, similar to what you would see in AC 1, including the missing hidden blade finger. We won't go into much detail about the Assassins, but we can say that you will eventually unlock a side mission to eliminate the most important members of the Ancient Order. It's very similar to Odyssey's Cult of Kosmos. There are several secret targets, whose identity are only revealed as you find clues or eliminate already known targets. All of this only concerns the Assassins, not the Vikings, meaning you'll be on your own. This invites a playstyle more in line with traditional Assassin's Creed gameplay, including the return of some old tricks like using monks and crowds to go unnoticed. You can even provoke some drunken people, which will attract enemy guards.
Virtually all elements of the gameplay have been improved, from exploration to stealth, but it is in combat that we noticed the biggest improvements. Eivor can use any combination of two weapons - including shields - or engage with heavy weapons that occupy both hands, in addition to always having access to a bow, arrows, and the hidden blade. Valhalla is also the AC with the greatest number of different types of enemies, forcing different approaches from the player. The combat is considerably more visceral than in other games, allowing for beheadings and dismemberments, and Eivor's own special abilities all have a certain brutal element to them.
Following this line of thought, it is also worth noting that Assassin's Creed Valhalla is the most violent, dark, and even macabre game in the series. There are scenes of great violence with eviscerated animals, weird structures made of human organs, and even cursed areas, where you'll have to find and destroy possessed masks. Something we really appreciated about Valhalla was the world composition, with many different secondary and optional tasks. There are Roman artefacts, pages, treasures, curses, and a host of other artefacts or items of interest to find, but our favourite activity was World Events.
These events are not even missions, but rather short stories in which the player can participate. We found a guy with an "itch" in his head (it was actually an axe), a priest who claimed nothing could get him mad (he was wrong), a fighter capable of defeating opponents with one punch (reminded us of a certain anime character), a lady who offered one night in her company to anyone that would find her brush, and even some of Ragnar Lodbrok's best warriors, who are waiting for a worthy opponent to send them to Valhalla.
The world is much richer and more diverse than that of Odyssey, with many unique characters, documents that enrich the world context, secrets, and activities. You can even participate in complex die games, drinking competitions, duels of insults, and mystical puzzles (with the help of psychedelic mushrooms). Assassin's Creed has never been closer to The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt in terms of content and quality, and we love it. This also extends to the story, which can be shaped (to some extent) by the player's decisions, and which includes a series of memorable characters - in addition to some interesting twists. And believe us, we're still leaving quite a bit for you to discover in the game.
There's also the "RPG side", in the form of loot and skills. Although it includes gear for the player to find, Valhalla is far more contained regarding loot. Instead of bombarding the player with new gear, like Odyssey, Valhalla rather motivates the player to evolve his favourite pieces of armour and weapons. The skill tree is also considerably more extensive, divided into combat, stealth, and ranged. Eivor's level is also now determined by a mix of his skill points and his gear. Each area has a recommended level, so keep an eye on the enemies levels before engaging.
What about the technical side? Well, first we need to clarify that we played the Xbox Series X version, and that we haven't really tested any other version. In other words, we have no idea of how differently the game runs, looks, or plays, in the PS4 and Xbox One versions (PS5 and PC should be similar to Xbox Series X). As for this specific version, Assassin's Creed Valhalla presents a graphic quality far superior to Odyssey's, in terms of details, models, textures, and even design. On the Xbox Series X, Valhalla runs with a 4K resolution (it seems dynamic, as at times there was some notorious reduction in definition) and at 60 frames per second, something that has never been possible before on consoles. And what a difference it makes. Playing Assassin's Creed at 60 frames per second is fantastic, as it smooths cinematics and gameplay, but there's a price to pay.
Even on Xbox Series X, Valhalla has obvious pop-ups in the game world, and even worse, there's some notorious screen tearing, particularly evident during more intense cinematic sequences. It's a graphical flaw that we haven't seen in a video game for a while, and it's something that breaks the immersion, even if it's far from being the worst case of screen tearing we ever saw. Worse though is the AI's behaviour. During big battles, some enemies were just standing around waiting for us to attack, and sometimes they just act weird, like going repeatedly up and down the same platform. This is really the weakest point of Assassin's Creed Valhalla, and it is something that Ubisoft really needs to fix in future games.
These flaws only slightly scorch what is a superb game at almost every level. Plot, characters, graphics, gameplay, world, activities, combat... Valhalla is the ultimate Assassin's Creed experience, and we were delighted to see Ubisoft embrace some of the roots of the saga, gone for far too long. If you're a fan of the series, the Viking era, and Norse mythology, we highly recommend Valhalla - one of 2020's finest games.