The RPG Greetings, traveller, and welcome back to The Register Plays Games, our monthly gaming column. We've continued to put the Xbox Series S through its paces [read: played it a lot] with one of the titles available on the console from launch on 10 November, Assassin's Creed Valhalla.
Where are we now with Assassin's Creed? VIII? IX? X?* I've lost count and – full disclosure – haven't touched the series since the original, which I dropped midway because it bored me to tears. That was back in 2007, the days of PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Regardless, the franchise has turned out to be a major cash cow for Ubisoft, a French developer revered and reviled for churning out the same sorts of games over and over again.
You only have to look at the Far Cry and Watch Dogs series, as well as Assassin's Creed, to see why: all are open world, all are based around scouting or liberating the environment to reveal more of the map, and all are filled with seemingly endless side quests and other distractions to the point that the main story feels like the last thing you ought to do.
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Many love it, just as many hate it. Though I can't speak for Watch Dogs, having only a few hours under my belt with the London-based latest entry, Legions, Far Cry remains an enjoyable franchise even after the fifth mainline title and a couple of spinoffs. However, rather than truly developing the formula, Ubisoft only seems to make the games more expansive, exhausting, and repetitive, which doesn't always wash with its audience considering the buggy state in which they often arrive. As such, the company has become a poster child for the trappings of triple-A excess.
Assassin's Creed began as a stealth-oriented take on this open-world blueprint with a setting inspired by the Order of Assassins, founded in medieval Persia by Hassan-i Sabbah, the bloke to which the maxim "nothing is true; everything is permitted" is unreliably attributed. From memory, admittedly rusty after 13 years, you'd gallivant across the Holy Land around the time of the Crusades killing targets belonging to another secret society, the Knights Templar, in the name of truth and justice or whatever, effortlessly scaling huge buildings in a "Parkour" style, and blending in with the peasantry to avoid detection by the city guard.
Since then the series has visited a number of other locales including Victorian London and Revolutionary Paris, and also managed to contort itself into a pirate game with Black Flag. The most recent efforts, Origins and Odyssey, took the franchise to Ptolemaic Egypt then Classical Greece. Now, with Valhalla, Assassin's Creed returns to Britain but during the Anglo-Saxon period, when the idea of a single English kingdom was but a glint in a certain Alfred of Wessex's eye.
At this point, it may be salient to ask what on earth these later games have to do with a guild of assassins formed by a Muslim military leader centuries later. To someone who has only had the briefest of trysts with Assassin's Creed, "Person from historical society is really good at climbing" seems a more appropriate name these days. Rest assured, Ubisoft's lore attempts to explain, but the lore absolutely stinks. More on that shortly.
Definitions aside, Valhalla is a decent romp. As a one-time student of ancient history, sure, Origins and Odyssey could have tempted me back earlier, but I have a personal interest in Anglo-Saxon England, Danelaw, and Norse mythology without mentioning my affinity for "pagan" metal. What can I say? I'm hopelessly romantic. As soon as I knew Valhalla followed the exploits of a band of Norse self-exiled to Britain, it was a done deal.
You take on the role of Eivor – who can be either male, female, or both (not at the same time and there are stupid lore reasons for this, though female appears to be the canonical choice) – a Viking-Age Norwegian whose family was murdered by a local warlord during a feast where the clan was to pledge fealty to their king. Years down the line, Eivor is the adopted child of the Stavanger-based ruler who upsets his son and Eivor's best friend, Sigurd, by bending the knee to Harald Fairhair, widely considered to be the first king of Norway. Sigurd, Eivor, and others who reject Harald's yoke flee to England, where it's known the sons of the semi-legendary Ragnar Lodbrok are carving out kingdoms of their own.
Obviously, it's a great concept and setting for any action game, but where do the assassins come in? During Sigurd's voyages, he came across the Assassin Brotherhood in Constantinople and a couple return with him to Norway, where they end up showing Eivor some tricks of the trade – including the Hidden Blade, a staple of the series that enables stealth attacks. Eivor already happens to be an inhumanly accomplished climber, mind you, able to zip up sheer cliff faces with only their fingertips.
In England, Eivor and chums establish a base of operations, Ravensthorpe, which you can upgrade over the course of the game to unlock perks and quest lines. But for that you need resources and materials, which are pilfered by raiding the country's wealthy towns and cities. It should be clear which one you're attacking even though each bears its Old English name.
While the original Assassin's Creed had a basic combat system where a button press in time with on-screen cues would counter an incoming attack, Valhalla's is more like the PlayStation-exclusive God of War reboot. It's organic and visceral, divided into light and heavy attacks as well as a counter that, if timed right, can unleash a devastating riposte that either defeats the foe at once with a delightfully violent animation or whittles down their "stun" (stamina) bar, which appears to have been borrowed from Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice.
As a result, combat is bloody good fun – literally – and at no point did the game suggest I had to do something while remaining undetected, for this is not the Viking way. Sure, you can crouch around in bushes to dive out and shank a Saxon with his mates none the wiser if you want, or bring death from above having clambered over the rooftops to avoid alerting soldiers, but you won't be punished for sprinting into the middle of an encampment and taking everyone on in hand-to-hand.
Eivor can also utilise a number of handy bow and melee abilities that can be unlocked by finding "books of knowledge" throughout the land, ranging from dramatic aerial lunges to crash down on enemies, to throwing-axe attacks that hit multiple opponents at a time, thus exploring the world is a must. Another signature of the series, climbing tall landmarks will highlight areas of interest for you to investigate, where there may be "wealth", "mysteries", or "artefacts" waiting at the other end. Wealth is either resources, armour or weaponry; artefacts are simple collectibles; and mysteries function as "side quests", though they tend to be rather shallow and distracting.
This green and pleasant land is rendered in a way that captures England at its far more green and pleasant, and it is nice to traverse a version of my homeland that is unspoiled. However, Brits will find it amusing that you can make it from somewhere like York to London in about five minutes by horseback. Though the developers can be forgiven for scaling down an entire country, this isn't the only inaccuracy. A pal familiar with weaponry of the time said: "It makes absolutely no sense to me that there are no useable one-handed swords in the game yet there are zweihanders that weren't in use for another couple of centuries."
Stuff like this will bother some more than others, but Valhalla is very axe-fixated because, of course, that's all Vikings ever wield in our many modern reimaginings, although weapons like flails and seaxes are available too. On the other hand, we're also fairly certain that people didn't have mind-melds with pet ravens, which grants Eivor a bird's eye view of the area to locate objectives or treasures. But I think we can all agree that Saxon children with American accents are ridiculous.
You're Viking so what's to stop you from giving a cowardly priest a blood eagle if you see fit? The answer should be "nothing", but no, killing civilians results in "desynchronization"
Though historical accuracy may not have been front of mind during development, that's not to say Ubisoft hasn't tried. Einar Selvik, once drummer of Norwegian black metal band Gorgoroth and now leader of the pagan neofolk ensemble Wardruna, has made much of the fact that he was employed on the game to give a "voice to the skalds and the poetic traditions that once lay at the heart of Norse culture". Valhalla gets this right, with legendary tales or the strumming of lyre and song to regale you as your longboat winds its way along England's rivers. There is even a section of the game that takes place in Asgard, realm of the gods, as Eivor embarks on a vision quest under the watch of their shaman.
Sadly, Valhalla falls prey to the same error of judgment that has tarnished the entirety of Assassin's Creed – the goddamn "Animus". Yeah, turns out the whole thing is a simulation run by modern people, although the events actually happened… I think? I hated it in the first game and I hate it now. Whenever the game jerks back to modernity with Layla Hassan stepping out of the simulation pod, it's a huge immersion-breaker and I cannot fathom why the writers insist on it.
These sections do help fill players in if, like me, they haven't religiously played every game in the series, but the lore borders on absurdity with mention of ancient aliens/gods (called the Isu) and I can't really follow it. It also interferes with gameplay. You're Viking so what's to stop you from giving a cowardly priest a blood eagle if you see fit? The answer should be "nothing", but no, as with earlier titles, killing civilians results in "desynchronization" with the sim. The Animus should be abandoned with prejudice and leave Assassin's Creed as a straightforward series set in the past. Mercifully, these flash-forwards are sparing and only seem to be triggered by major plot points, which can be put off for hours on end if you are an avid explorer.
And it wouldn't be a Ubisoft game if it wasn't afflicted with mild-to-severe bugs. I witnessed two Norse women apparently conjoined and able to drift across the ground sideways without moving their legs, and children have been reported to appear adult-sized. At the more game-breaking end, I came across a glitch in the simulation (part of the game) that had an actual glitch preventing me from completing the puzzle – as if I needed more reasons to avoid anything to do with the Animus. I haven't gone back to check that it's been patched out. There was also an issue with saves becoming "corrupted" on consoles. This appears to have been resolved – though not before people complained online of losing all their progress.
If you clamp your hands over your ears and scream LALALALA over the crappier aspects of Assassin's Creed, Valhalla is fun if a little mediocre. The game is vast – in the nearly 40 hours I've managed since release, I feel like I'm scraping the surface of the map and can't really comment on the quality of the overarching story since I am so often probing the game's more sandboxy corners. There's bound to be more than a hundred hours of life in this beast, but as open-world adventures go it's no Red Dead Redemption 2, and one can't help but wonder if Valhalla would have been better served as a wholly new title without any connection to Assassin's Creed. ®
*It looks like X is right, though there are more than 20 titles, sub-series, and spinoffs under the franchise over a variety of platforms.