Originality can certainly be hard to achieve, even harder when you consider Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is the twelfth entry into the series. Is it better to emulate other games, stealing like a magpie from other popular games, to hopefully make a more perfect experience? Or is it better to step into abyss clinging to originality at all costs? Assassin’s Creed Valhalla struggles with this question and while it introduces new concepts, ultimately relies on what has made the franchise so successful.
The first thing that strikes you about Valhalla is how vast the game is. The prologue of Valhalla is more than a lot of games offer in their entirety and it is the sheer volume of things to do stops the game getting stale. Tired of the main quest why not take yourself fishing? Found fishing a bit too much, why not hunt down some contract assassinations? There is always something to do and it is the breadth of tasks in Valhalla that makes you want to play on.
The previous Assassin’s Creed, Odyssey ‘borrowed’ heavily from The Witcher and this time Valhalla keeps all those traits alongside nabbing the best elements from Read Dead Redemption. You’ll never see a more friendlier Viking than our protagonist Eivor. Side quests will see you carrying boxes out of houses, rescuing cats, fishing, all of which feel very familiar in tone if you have ever played Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption. Valhalla does benefit from putting a Viking gloss on these borrowed elements, but it would be nice to see them go further. None of these side quests change your character other than giving him points to spend on an endless skill tree, you feel no bond with your horse in the way you did in Red Dead Redemption.
As I am reviewing this quite late, I fortuitously benefitted from the River Raids game option being added and this is an added element that gives even more to the title’s play. You set off looting and raiding villages along the rivers of England in pursuit of treasure and what is nice to see, is that if you venture out onto the water, villages stay ransacked and soldiers have made hasty defenses in preparation for future attacks. It also gives the gamer more reasons to stay with the game once the campaign is done for.
And what a campaign it is, the story is genuinely gripping as it tells the tale of your hero and his brother as they forge a new life in England. I will not spoil the story, but it is the core strength of the game. I found myself playing into the early hours just to see how it progressed. There are betrayals, love stories, politics all interwoven into the main campaign and it is a joy. The only negative is that the missions for the story are quite formulaic, as your central protagonist tries to gain loyalty from the different regions of England. It is usually several fetch or assignation missions that then leads to a final siege. These are great initially, full of grandeur as you see the full scale of the battle unfold, but after several missions they grow very stale and the magic fades quickly.
This is also true of the animations. As you fight you will be able to trigger a final death blow to your enemy which will show a gory execution. Initially these visceral attacks wow you in a similar way to watching Gladiator or Braveheart for the first time, but I was underwhelemed to find out that these were largely specific to the enemies weapon, so the death scene for a sword wielding enemy tended to be the same, similarly was the case with an axe, a hammer. I found myself changing my own weapon to see if there was any variation, but there was minimal at best. It would have been nice to see several for each weapon type.
Another thing that was shocking was the amount of repetition of generic character models used. You will see the same faces again and again, this isn’t just limited to characters in the background – some who join your main longboat party will also be straight off the Viking clone production line.
The other characters are also sadly lacking in originality of look, but not because there are others who look like them in game, but instead that they’ve been lifted directly from television and films. The central protagonist Eivor could pass as a body double for Ragnar Lodbrok from the popular Amazon show Vikings. Even the main villain Fulke is a carbon copy of Milla Jovovich in the film Joan of Arc. Maybe Ubisoft wanted a feel of familiarity about their characters, but again it would have been nice to see them be more ambitious.
Before we go any further, having not pre ordered a next gen console I was left like the vast majority of you having to play this game on my trusty Xbox One, and it is clear that while being playable it certainly isn’t optimized for the standard last gen consoles. Textures load in on cliffs as you’re climbing and some of the textures (especially the fire) are so low res that you’d be forgiven for thinking this was on an Xbox 360 at times.
Other previous Assassin’s Creed games look better than Valhalla on the base consoles, certainly Odyssey, Origins and even Syndicate look and crucially run better than this on standard machines.
The game also has significant glitches and performance issues. At one point when traversing in a cave the frame rate dipped so low that it felt like a stop motion animation or a flicker book. The game’s camera is also problematic – this was especially noticeable when facing the legendary beasts that are dotted around England. Eventually you wear down the creatures and trigger a final animation as you kill these proud animals. The only problem with this was that the camera chose to throw me under the game world or into a wall which resulted in missing this animation, without the possibility of doing it again. This was most noticeable when facing the giant bear who had been drinking barrels of ale, ironically though it made me feel like I was drunk as the camera swung violently through the environment.
From reading all this, you’d imagine that the game is poor and yet weirdly it isn’t. The game’s story is engaging throughout, you are genuinely interested in the people and how their own narrative links with you and the Raven Clan. Sure there are things about the plot that are so obvious you can see them coming from miles away, but like watching a murder mystery on TV that you have solved in the first 20 minutes – there is still satisfaction in being proved right. Valhalla has a gripping narrative, the characters feel fully fleshed out and offer genuine moments of comedy – ‘Smack my Bishop up’ as a nod to the band The Prodigy was just one laugh out loud moment!
So what is original? Is there even such a thing? By borrowing so many elements from so many other sources does Assassin’s Creed Valhalla weirdly make something unique? Weirdly it does, but only just. For me I enjoyed it and was prepared to put aside many of the glitches and even the brazen copying of other games because the strength of story Valhalla offers, coupled with the vastness and array of choice makes it an enjoyable experience. Now other Viking offerings in the form of Valheim have been released, other gamers may not be as ready to journey into Assassin’s Creed Valhalla.