Review

Assassin's Creed Valhalla review: a fine Viking fantasy

4/5

Ubisoft's quasi-historical adventure finds its way to 9th century England... and provides the best Assassin's Creed game in a decade

Assassin's Creed Valhalla
Assassin's Creed Valhalla is out now is out now on PS5, Xbox Series X/S, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC

I don’t know, you wait for what seems like years for video games to pitch up in England and two come along at once. Ubisoft has found fertile ground on these shores with Watch Dogs Legion and now Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. But while one in a dystopian view of near-future London, Valhalla takes the quasi-historical series to the verdant 9th century wilds of the entire country. A chance to indulge in your Viking fantasy, beach your longboat on the shore of the river Trent and raid pesky Saxon monasteries with an axe in hand and Norse brethren at your back.

Ubisoft has done some raiding of its own to build Valhalla, adapting ideas and philosophies from other games in order to refine its own. In its sprawling naturalism, shifting countryside and off-piste distractions is the influence of Red Dead Redemption 2, it looks to invoke Breath of the Wild’s constant sense of exploration and there is even a smattering of Sekiro in its approach to combat.

Valhalla can’t quite match its inspirations --that would be some feat indeed-- But there is the tremendous sense of lessons learnt, weaving improvements into its own tapestry. But the biggest influence on Valhalla is Assassin’s Creed itself. This is the game that marries the vibrant stealth-action of its earlier entries with its more recent RPG trappings. It’s not just because the hidden blade returns. Or that you can swan dive from battlements into the conveniently placed hay bales below. Or even that you have your own hub --Ravensthorpe-- to build and maintain in an echo of Assassin’s Creed II’s Monteriggioni.

These all help, but it is about its broader, more organic sense of adventure. Origins and Odyssey were fine games that breathed new life into the series, but more mechanical RPGs coming to terms with a new identity. Valhalla seems far more comfortable with itself. And the result is the best Assassin’s Creed game in a decade.

Eivor

Eivor helps too; a brusque, smart and entertaining companion. You can choose to play Eivor as male or female, with the default being a third option that very occasionally swaps them up in a narrative conceit tied to the game’s brief and infrequent modern day sci-fi interludes. Though for the majority of this ‘canonical’ choice, Eivor is a woman, and it feels difficult to imagine it was intended any other way. Even if Ubisoft’s marketing team has a penchant for her more hirsute alter ego.

After a lengthy prelude in the snow-swept wilds of Norway, Eivor and her head-strong brother Sigurd go a-viking to England. The goal is a simple one: conquest. By espionage, diplomacy or simply giving Englishmen a good kicking, Valhalla has you sweeping through our fair country and conquering counties one by one. Starting from the base of Ravensthorpe in the Midlands, your gaze spiders outwards. North towards Jorvik and south towards Lunden and Canterbury, a predictably vast expanse of land with an intimidating amount of stuff to see and do.

Being an Assassin's Creed game, the map quickly becomes peppered with icons and waypoints. Yet Valhalla manages to be far more organic with its exploration than more recent entries. In between following the main story's simplistic but diverting thread of brisk pillaging, it is easy to venture into the verdant countryside and find yourself drawn off the beaten path to a Roman ruin or suspicious crypt.

Treasure is hidden in tricksy alcoves you must figure out and navigate. Ancient Order goons are there to be tracked down and assassinated. Mad Vikings and Englishmen might need your help burning their own house down, for instance, or there are mini-games of flyting (Eivor is a talented poet) and drinking challenges (and a fine quaffer of mead). It's not as if previous Assassin's Creeds were bereft of things to do- and there is still a sense of information overload at every turn-- but it is more of a pleasure to lose yourself in what feels more like discovery than checking things off a list.

An early story mission is a decent indicator of this, where you are tasked with finding a traitor in your Viking midsts. You hunt out evidence, talk to suspects and witnesses and then must come to a fatal decision without much in the way of hand-holding. Playing Viking detective was not something I expected to do during Valhalla, but it is a game that --while following much of its traditional template-- is capable of surprise.

Perhaps more expectedly, you will spend much of your time as Eivor smashing things with an axe. Combat has the medieval heft you might want from 9th century skirmishes, taking great swings with two-handed weapons, dual wielding blades or packing a shield in your off-hand. It is generally fairly simple stuff, but takes a leaf out of From Software's book which allows you to wear down an enemy through parrying before executing a brutal finishing blow. It doesn't have the variety to entirely sustain itself over the course of the game --even as you loot new weapons and unlock new abilities in Valhalla's sprawling skill trees-- but it is rarely less than satisfying.

It particularly comes into its own during more sprawling battles with your Viking pals at your side. Story arcs within the game will typically come to a head with a grand assault on a fortress, smashing in gates with a great battering ram and careering through enemy armies. There are also raids scattered throughout England, with you pillaging monasteries for supplies crucial to building up Ravensthorpe amid the sound of crackling fire and the bellowing of your Viking horn.

It is a good thing that the more direct form of scrapping works well as the stealth element is not quite so successful. Eivor finds herself with the assassin's hidden blade for sneaky stabbing and is able to cloak herself to hide her vikingness from suspicious Saxon guards. But such espionage crumbles all too easily, with keen eyed guards seemingly able to spot you from miles off, leaving you to do it 'the Viking way', as Sigurd would say.

Fortunate, then, that Valhalla's ‘Viking way’ is a splendid thing indeed. It may not pierce all of its targets and rough edges remain. But its willingness to learn from others, while plundering its own gilded history means that Assassin's Creed is ever closer to being the game it has long threatened to be.

Assassin's Creed Valhalla is out now on PS5, Xbox Series X/S (version tested), PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Google Stadia and PC