Assassin’s Creed Valhalla review: A Viking quest worth sinking your axe into

Patrick
Enlarge / In Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, Eivor reps the Raven Clan while storming 9th-century England the only way a Viking knows how: By swinging axes, making pals, and drinking mead.

Ubisoft

Before I go into everything about Assassin’s Creed Valhalla—the writing, the action, the open-world jank—I want to offer an unusual preface. Basically: Gosh, I like this game.

It’s a rare earnest turn for me, especially when I’m talking about open-world Ubisoft games. I try to find a fair-and-balanced way to talk about their hours of gameplay, and I respect the heck out of how their multi-studio teams slam together so many moving parts into a giant, playable romp. But personally, I can get bored with them—same fetch quests, same ho-hum mechanics and checklists, year after year. After playing only a few hours of these games, I feel less like an adventurer and more like an errand boy or girl. None of their high-end rendering or historical references can change that feeling.

Yet the Assassin’s Creed series has been evolving into AC Valhalla‘s shape for some time, which we last saw from the character-driven surprise of 2018’s AC Odyssey. This year’s model is undeniably messy and imperfect, and it doesn’t surpass Ghost of Tsushima as my favorite open-world romp so far this year. But it earns my recommendation for getting enough things right—and doing so with more nuance than a phrase like “a more RPG-like Assassin’s Creed” implies.

Equal parts diplomacy and pillaging

Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla product image

Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla

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We’re now roughly 7,000 games into the series, so if you don’t know the basic drill, check any of our older AC reviews. In short: once again, you control a “chosen one” warrior in a real-world historical era, as dramatized for the sake of a video game. You’re occasionally interrupted by a modern-day plot about researchers who dive into ancient warriors’ DNA to wage war against a global, generations-deep conspiracy theory. This offers enough wacky plot hooks for anyone invested in the series. But mostly, you’re back in time juggling a mix of open-world traversal, stealthy Spider-man crawls around massive historical sites, and all kinds of murder.

In AC Valhalla, this formula lands in 9th-century England, where you’re cast as Eivor, a high-ranking warrior in a band of Norse Vikings. This historical angle obviously means more beards, axes, and mentions of Odin than in any AC game before, which I can get down with, but the plot also hinges on the real-life immigration of Viking bands to begin new lives in other nations. This does something new for the AC series: it creates a home base. Eivor and her brother Sigurd have their hearts set on winning over England’s “unpacified” kingdoms with equal parts diplomacy and pillaging, and both angles are helped by a central base for recruiting, resting, and gathering strength.

Sure, growing your home settlement (named Ravensthorpe, after your clan’s affinity for ravens) amounts to a glorified menu system. Gather enough in-game resources to build a fishery, for instance, and you get access to the game’s fishing mini-game. Other buildings do everything from adding cosmetic options to unlocking quest lines. But unlike the home bases found in older entries like Assassin’s Creed II, this one has much more personality and unlocks brand-new gameplay features—and makes me wish we didn’t have to wait so long for Ubisoft to toy with the concept again. It’s nice to have a hub that always welcomes your hero with open arms, full of town-specific NPCs and past adventuring companions alike, and it fits into the game’s expanded emphasis on narrative.

Trash talk: Two thumbs up

Speaking of: if you were to think of AC Valhalla as a cable TV series’ single, lengthy season, you’d land somewhere between SyFy and AMC, and closer to the latter. Its reams of dialog and cast of voice actors deliver about as well as you might expect from over 30 hours of primary and secondary quests. It’s perhaps easiest to compliment the game’s narrative by way of elimination: one character, who appears in modern-day flash-forward sequences, is a travesty in terms of voice acting and dialog. I point that out because her misstep is the only glaring example I can think of in a cast of hundreds. Everyone else receives ample breathing room to establish traits, quirks, and motives, often broken out in mid-mission dialog passages or optional Q&A moments, and I appreciated how each in-game “chapter” of quests (usually two to three hours of adventuring) introduces and establishes at least one interesting character, if not a few.

I am also compelled to praise the game’s Viking-proud propensity for vulgar and sexual banter. Ubisoft’s narrative team was given full rein to let men and women alike revel in the brutal realities of battling as a Viking and celebrating with booze, dance, and outright sexual thirst as appropriate (though always with words, not with awkward polygonal sex). AC Valhalla is a rousing success in terms of going rated-hard-R with its dialog without coming off as sophomoric or leaning on punching-down humor.

Plus, roughly every hour in this game, you’ll be treated to a shouting match between two very angry people—sometimes two blood-stained warriors, but more satisfyingly between a fighter and an impish noble—that calls for a battle to the death. The trash talk that plays out in these encounters is somehow always brutal, vulgar, and darkly hilarious. That this quality doesn’t waver by the game’s end is a testament to Ubisoft’s Viking interpretation of “yo momma” fights. After seeing reports about Ubisoft woes in terms of management and HR, I have to wonder if lower-rung Ubisoft developers used this game’s pre-battle face-offs as a way to subtweet at their bosses. If so, I hope it felt as good for the devs to record these lines of dialog as it was for me to listen to them.

A refreshing perspective on side quests

That dialog is meaningless without an enjoyable game attached, and AC Valhalla gets just enough right to keep you mashing away at a controller for dozens of hours. Much of that boils down to the usual AC open-world formula of quests, combat, puzzles, and mysteries, which Ubisoft has honed to a mostly steady sheen. But I was surprised by the way one major tweak to the games played out: emergent missions.

Your average on-foot march, horse ride, or longship charge through the Dark Ages will include some form of organic interruption. Ubisoft knows where you’re likely to go in terms of valleys between massive mountains or direct paths between primary mission objectives, and it uses obvious visual and audio clues to nudge you toward passers-by in need of help. That’s not anything new in this genre, but oftentimes, such an interruption dumps a new “quest” and list of objectives into your pause menu. Like, “I’m on my way to install a puppet king, and you need me to go to which five chapels to interrupt impure marriages, m’lord?!”

AC Valhalla is careful not to interrupt your noble journey in such a manner. Instead, the people you meet along your path offer one-and-done requests, which you complete in the vicinity you find them in. As an example, if you run past a crowd of children while holding two axes and looking determined, those children will lose their minds—you’re the closest thing to Lebron these kids are going to see on an average, disease-filled day—and ask to play with you. Sometimes, this will turn into a makeshift game of hide-and-seek, which makes you flex your arsenal of sneaking moves. Other times, they’ll want to pantomime war games, so you’ll “fight” wooden dolls staged nearby.

“Nearby” is an operative word: side-quest objectives, with very few exceptions, do not derail your primary progress or make you fast-travel to another part of the map. But Ubisoft is also mighty clever about what these tasks entail. With less distance to travel, the side-quest tasks you’re given do not light up as icons on your map or appear as vague clues in a text sidebar. Instead, you’ll get a spoken prompt from the questgiver, then look around their vicinity to find and resolve the objective. Here’s one of my favorite examples: early on, a young man says he seeks to engage in an honorable battle; your hero suggests that the man fight a woodland creature as a baby step into such battle-hardened glory, and he agrees. At this moment, you hear some wolves in the distance, and if you run to them, they make chase. The idea: lead the wolves to the man so he can battle them. (This is… not exactly how the quest plays out, but I’ll leave its resolution unspoiled.)

With these side quests, Ubisoft’s quest developers break the mold of the average open-world quest—and seem to openly have fun doing so. Primary objectives, after all, still require romping through massive cities, epic battles, and “defeat three warlords before you continue” kinds of sprawl and movement. You’ll still check your map for icons and guidance to accomplish those, but since side quests are designed that much differently in AC Valhalla, they can be much quirkier by default—and in ways that don’t turn out annoying or tedious. Like the time I had to carry a guy’s barrel of apples down a half-mile stretch of road and… nothing else happened. On one hand, this quest toyed with my expectation that carrying apples would devolve into, say, a fight against a bear (which it didn’t). On the other, the narrative team took advantage of my rapt attention to host an odd conversation, beginning with a man’s love for apple orchards and ending with a sweet conversation about differing religious beliefs. How about dem apples?

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