Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is a return to form for the series, and as a player who was left feeling a little alienated by the heavy RPG aspects of Origins and, even more so, Odyssey, Valhalla feels like a welcoming party – a feast for lapsed players, while still remaining deep enough for RPG fans. It’s something of a rebirth for the series as we head into the next-generation of consoles, but how does it play on the current machines? We’ve only been able to test the game running on PS4 Pro and Xbox One X, as well as Xbox One S, and I’m happy to say that if you won’t be upgrading to the new machines this year, you’ll still get an amazing Assassin’s Creed game. It’s not perfect, though, and the limitations of the current-generation are clear to see, and honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the last Assassin’s Creed game that’s made for both the old and new consoles.
Valhalla sets the tone early on. We open with a great Viking feast that’s interrupted by an invasion from an opposing clan. Dinner is ruined, and Eivor’s path changes forever. Bonds are made, bonds are broken, and this is a theme that the game carries through its core as you leave Norway and head to England in search of a new land to call your own.
Eivor can be played either as male or female, or, in a first for the series, you can let the game decide the gender for key moments during the game. For the sake of continuity, I played exclusively as male Eivor, but I’ll definitely be going through the game again on the new consoles as lady Eivor. It doesn’t have any profound effect on how the game plays, but it’s nice to have the option. I played through Odyssey as Kassandra, but after over 100 hours in her sandals, I never felt the desire to do it all over again. I do with Valhalla.
From the get-go, it’s obvious that Ubisoft has heard the complaints from long-time Assassin’s Creed fans, and while it’s not a step backwards, the RPG elements have been simplified, as has the game’s mission structure and overall progression. You still collect loot and upgrade your character, but levels are gone. You still level up, in a way, but instead of being given a level number, you have a power number. This is dictated by how many skill points you have spent. Every time you “level up” you get two points to spend on the game’s massive skill tree, and those points are your power points. The main thing is that encounters with enemies are not dictated by numbers, and that’s a change for the better.
The skill tree is huge and at first, a little intimidating, but look closely and you’ll see it’s quite straight forward. There are multiple branching paths allowing you to upgrade in line with your playstyle. Most of your points are spent on incidental upgrades that increase your stats before you hit a bigger icon that rewards you with a new ability, whether that’s a passive buff or a fighting move. It’s a nice way of giving the appearance of depth but still keeping it rather straightforward.
Abilities on the other hand – the ones that you map to your face buttons and activate by pulling the corresponding trigger – have been completely revamped. This time around you’ll hunt down Books of Knowledge, and these are your special moves. It means you won’t simply get cool abilities by naturally playing through the game, but instead, you’ll have to actively hunt down the books to earn your special moves. I actually went through the first few hours of the game without collecting any and I didn’t suffer for it, but you will definitely want to build up your library of death moves before you start going through the game’s narrative properly, which really starts when you arrive on the shores of England.
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla’s world is a lot more focused and tighter this time around. There are still side quests but they’re a lot more manageable, with each of the game’s 11 regions having a set amount. The side-content is split into three categories: Wealth, Mysteries, and Artifacts.
Wealth locations are where you’ll find the best loot to upgrade your new home in England, and these are often found in Raiding locations, but they’re also scattered around the game’s huge world, too. You’ll need to accrue as much wealth as you can if you want to expand your camp into a colony, then into a hamlet, a town, and eventually, a bustling place that you can call your kingdom – your new home, finally realised.
Building up your settlement isn’t just for show. Expanding your new digs rewards you with buffs, trade, gear, customisation options, missions, and even adventures to Asgard. Yes, that Asgard.
Mysteries are your world events, a little like the Strangers and Freaks missions in GTA V. They are also places where you’ll solve puzzles and gather information on this new land, as well as collectables, and Artifacts that give you a little history to collect, too.
It’s all very unified and easy to keep a track of. One of the problems I had with the last two games was that I was constantly sitting on the map screen trying to figure out what to do next. In Valhalla, it’s very easy to keep a track of what you’ve done, what you need to do, and where to go next. You can barrel through the game’s story if you want – and I did for the first dozen hours or so – but hitting up some side-content between story missions isn’t a bad way to upgrade your version of Eivor, as some enemies will still be deadly should you come across them underpowered, and each region has a suggested power level. This is an obvious way to keep you reigned in and only exploring the areas the game wants you to at that time, but it feels natural. I never wandered into a region that was outside of my power level because there was plenty enough to do in the regions I was suited to. To be clear – you can go wherever you like, but you will face tougher (but not impossible to beat) enemies.
I wasn’t expecting much from the game’s story, but after I let out a louder than expected “F^&KING HELL!!!” during the game’s opening scenes, I knew that I was going to be in for a treat. There’s a core cast of characters to start with and I was thrilled to see many of them over and over again, especially Ivar who – aside from Eivor – is perhaps the best-written character in the game, and whoever wrote his lines deserves a pat on the back. He’s brutal, disgusting, and hilarious, all the while being a menacing figure that I never really trusted.
In Odyssey, many of the characters were in and out before I could memorise their names, thanks in part to the fractured story and bloated side-quests. The side quests this time are mostly one-and-done events rather than multi-hour endeavours with cross-country treks. Some may find that a letdown, but I found it refreshing. On my way to a story location, I could come across a side-quest, get it done, and carry on with my story.
There are some big changes to the narrative format in Valhalla. The Assassin’s are introduced early on as allies of Eivor and his Raven clan, as well as their sworn enemies – the Templars. Eivor has no knowledge of the Assassin’s or their brotherhood when the game begins, and it’s only after an introduction by his brother in arms, Sigurd, that he starts to learn their ways. But Eivor’s story isn’t about the centuries-old conflict between the Assassin’s and the Templars, it’s about finding a place to call home for his people. Yet, the stories intertwine and the goals of Eivor and the Assassin’s inevitably meet. I don’t want to give anything away because there are some proper “holy shit” moments during the game, especially towards the end, but as I’ve already said – if you felt left behind by the previous games ditching the Assassin vs Templar conflict to play at being an RPG, you’ll enjoy Valhalla a lot more. It’s a really well done and story and I have to give Ubisoft credit for finding ways to tell some special tales while keeping the whole experience grounded, because unlike Origins and Odyssey, Valhalla is rooted firmly in reality, with the occasional – ahem – trip – into the fantastical. Yes, there’s some light drug usage, as well as some drinking challenges, but I won’t spoil the fun here.
This is true with the game’s general gameplay and combat, too. Social stealth is back and you’re encouraged to learn the ways of the Assassins, so make sure you build an Assassin’s Bureau at your settlement. You can once again walk amongst the population and blend into the background, whether that’s performing a menial task, sitting on a bench, or just walking slowly by. It’s a welcome return and it opens the door to more playstyles, though you’re not forced to play in any particular way. You can go full-on Viking and get stuck in with your axes, or you can play cautiously, edging your way around your target, slowly circling in on the objective until you’re close enough to stick a hidden blade where it hurts. Unless you’re doing a raid with your posse, that is, in which case there’s no room to be friendly – it’s warfare in these moments, and it’s brutal with heads flying off, shrieking soldiers running around on fire, and poor civilians who flee as their homes are burnt and their goods robbed. At times, this did seem at odds with Eivor’s softly spoken, well-mannered and generally likeable character, but I suppose that’s just how Vikings were. Hey, if Spider-Man was born in that era, I’m guessing he’d be doing a fair bit of pillaging, too.
Combat hasn’t changed so drastically between releases, and we’re still getting a Dark Souls-style setup. It’s far more mature than previous games, mind you, with heads and limbs flying freely by the will of your weapon. I liked the extra realism it brought to the game and I’m slightly ashamed to say that I found it quite funny at times.
I’m not a fan of having the attack buttons on the triggers, but the game does give you a wide variety of accessibility options, including the ability to map every action however you want it. However, I found this to be difficult, as re-arranging the inputs would cause conflicts with other inputs. Odyssey, to its credit, did at least have a pre-set control scheme with the more traditional set up that mapped the attacks to the face buttons. I wish that Valhalla offered such a pre-set, but I suppose I’ll just have to wait until somebody else figures out a similar control scheme and shares it online.
Eagle vision returns, this time as Odin Sight, to help highlight enemies, goals, and points of interest. The bird-flying mechanic from the last couple of games returns, too, but with a crow taking the place of Ubisoft’s unofficial mascot, the eagle. It’s a small change but I think it signifies that Valhalla is a breakaway, a new start for a new console generation, and that’s also evident in the game’s graphics. Now, this is where I found the most issues with the game, though they aren’t major by any means, and it’s still the best looking Assassin’s Creed game to date.
Graphically, Ubisoft has lifted Valhalla well above Odyssey. You’re still given a massive world to explore, but it’s no longer a flat-feeling expanse of boring terrain. Grassy fields sway in the wind. Forests are littered with sunlight beaming through the leaves onto the ground, the characters, and the wildlife – which can be hunted for loot, by the way. Characters look better than ever before, but there’s certainly a sense that something has been held back for a full showing on PS5 and Xbox Series X|S. This is obvious in the game’s performance. It runs well on Xbox One X and PS4 Pro, though there are frame-drops during larger battles. On the Xbox One S, I was surprised to see it running as well as it did, but the resolution had taken an obvious tumble to get it there. What’s apparent on all versions is the screen-tearing. During the normal run of play, it’s there but it’s not very harsh. During the cutscenes, however, it can be a big distraction, and that’s a shame to the narrative, especially as you hit key plot points within the story. I’m almost certain this won’t be an issue on the new consoles, but for those stuck with the current-gen consoles, it’s an unfortunate feature that serves as a reminder that these ageing machines have maybe hit their limits and don’t have much more to offer.
The game also suffers from a few glitches, too. Animations can be wonky and characters can often clip through the environment or even other characters. I’ve had a couple of crashes on the Xbox One X (Jason has reported one crash on PS4 Pro) that forced me to reboot the game. Thankfully, I didn’t lose much progress, but it was still annoying to have it happen, and it further reminded me that I’ve got a next-gen console on the way, and I can’t wait to boot up Valhalla on that. In the meantime, though, I still recommend the game to current-gen owners. We’ve seen a lot worse over the last seven or so years, but we’ve rarely seen better. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla gives the series the soft-reboot it needed to bring back lapsed players while keeping the audience won with Origins and Odyssey happy, and I can’t fault Ubisoft for playing to both crowds.
Despite this being one of my longer reviews, there’s still so much I’ve not been able to talk about. The game is huge, a massive accomplishment, and worth exploring for yourself, so rather than spoil you any further, I’ll leave you to discover the best of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla for yourself. SKAL!
Assassin's Creed Valhalla PS4 Review
Ubisoft delivers another open-world epic, but this time it’s a focused and streamlined affair. The graphical overhaul works to announce the end of one era and the beginning of another as Assassin’s Creed continues its ongoing evolution as an accessible action-adventure for the long-time fans, while still offering a deep RPG experience for those introduced via Origins and Odyssey.
Review Disclaimer: This review was carried out using a copy of the game provided by the publisher. For more information, please read our Review Policy.
Version tested: PS4. Reviewed using PS4 Pro.