I think it’s the sense of freedom, which used to be more limited to RPGs, and the ability to approach things at your own pace, but being stuck inside a lot over the past year has made games like this all the more significant. I don’t know about you, but the idea of jumping on my trusty steed and setting off to see what random encounters I can find was certainly a big part of maintaining my sanity throughout lockdown. In fact, I’ve purposely replayed games and avoided doing many of the main missions recently just to become more deeply involved in the depth and breadth of the experiences available through side quests, random encounters and world events. I now also make it my default setting to remove all aspects of the HUD including map/compass and location pointers so that the experience feels even more immersive. Having to learn the geography of a game so that you can traverse the environment using only your wits and knowledge is a hugely satisfying experience in itself and it makes the screenshots and game clips look infinitely better.
In the run-up to the release of the latest in the hugely successful Assassin’s Creed series, I was thinking back over the evolution of the franchise. Having brought the idea of ever-increasing freedom of movement to the forefront of the games from the very beginning, Ubisoft have worked tirelessly to give players an increasingly incredible sense of exploration that works as seamlessly as possible. Within the first few minutes of playing Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla it becomes clear that the feeling of freedom on offer here is second to none.
By holding down the A button (on Xbox – X button on PS) you can climb/traverse pretty much any vertical surface you come across and this includes buildings, rocks, cliffs and even entire mountain ranges. This is a hugely intuitive and fluid system that has improved dramatically in the past few iterations meaning that the simple act of getting around the world map is incredibly satisfying, even when you have no real objective in mind. Being an avid wanderer (in the virtual sense more than in reality) I have to admit that I found myself feeling completely engrossed in climbing the snowy realms of Norway as I set off from my basecamp with my sights set on a variety of summits. The vistas are absolutely stunning, with glorious sun beams splitting through dynamic clouds and casting god rays across the rocky crags and crevasses as you sprint and slide through powdery snow that reacts to your movements and gathers on your clothes. There are a huge number of neat touches that really add to the overall fidelity and sense of realism, thanks in no small part to the detailed character models and brilliant levels of animation. Essentially, it’s a gorgeous game on every level with some phenomenal audio touches that deliver a real sense of immersion.
In addition to the parkour elements and the associated running, climbing, sliding and leaping, you have the option of calling for a horse and setting off at a much quicker pace. Whilst not quite as solid an experience as in some other games of this ilk, the horse controls work well and it’s definitely a nice change of pace when you need to cover a lot of open ground. My personal favorite though is the option to jump in a boat (either solo or with a crew) so that you can reach the shores of distant islands or head out in the hope of finding sunken wrecks or underwater caves. The boat controls are reasonably precise and I thoroughly enjoyed pushing about in something that resembled a gondola (until it smashed to smithereens on a rocky outcrop and left me splashing in the freezing cold waves). Waves ebb and flow to varying degrees and look quite striking at times, especially when you are in a smaller vessel being tossed about on the surface, all of which adds to the overall atmosphere of the environments.
After the first ten hours or so (depending on how easily distracted you are) you get the chance to set sail for pastures new and the blinding whiteness and rocky crags are replaced by vast, lush, rolling green pastures filled with plenty of new opportunities to explore and plunder to your heart’s content. It’s at this stage when the fighting system becomes more widely used and the first few steps of upgrading your skill tree brings with it a number of special attacks that help to maintain the flow of combat. In the beginning the fighting feels a little bit clunky, with limited attacks and aggressive enemies often attacking en masse, but this quickly becomes a thoroughly enjoyable and deceptively deep experience once you have put in a few hours of experience. Particular credit should be given to the minor details, like the ability to set arrows alight by holding your bow near to an open flame so that you can entrap enemies or burn down their settlements while you fight. Recognizing enemy attack patterns and working your way through hordes of opponents quickly becomes a satisfying experience, although it is a hugely punishing game on the hardest difficulty level. The ever-brilliant photo mode comes into effect here as you can pause the game at any moment by clicking both thumbsticks simultaneously, leading to plenty of opportunities to get epic screenshots of flying limbs, clashing swords and savage executions.
Quick note: there is a wealth of options available here including choices linking to different aspects of the game. This means that you can alter the challenge for combat, modify the level of on-screen notifications and hints and essentially tweak the experience to your liking. I found that my initial decision to ramp difficulty up to the maximum was totally misguided when I got my ass handed to me multiple times in the opening fight sequence. Always good to learn the hard way.
Loot, treasure, quest rewards and the spoils of pillaging can be spent on upgrading your character’s equipment or establishing your settlements. It’s worth investing in crafting superior gear and helping those in your settlements to improve the quality of their goods early on as it can make a real difference.
Along with the open exploration and endless opportunities to separate limbs and heads from their rightful owners, Ubisoft have added in a range of side missions, hidden quests, treasure hunts and even some brilliant period activities to add depth to the experience. Some of the side missions are hilarious and many offer special rewards or information that leads to the discovery of hidden locations around the map. My personal favorite pastimes come in the form of Orlog, a strategic dice game which is weirdly addictive once you get your head round it, and engaging in Flyting, a form of combative wordplay similar to modern battle raps. Being a big fan of lyricism, the Flyting experience has become something of a fascination (I’ve even been doing some research into its history and it seems to have developed as an alternative to killing those who disrespect you – why butcher someone when you can embarrass them with your superior wit and linguistic skills?) and now I search out any willing opponent I can just to polish my skills. It’s nerdy but a lot of fun.
For obvious reasons I’ve avoided touching on the main storyline here, but it’s well-written and acted fantastically for the most part. As you might expect, there is a bit of back-n-forth between the world of the Animus and the real-world as you try to unpick the mysteries of Eivor’s story and the significance of their impact on the modern era, but roaming the open lands and carving out a name for yourself is where the game holds its own.
Overall, this is a brilliant evolution of a stellar franchise and while it may not have changed that dramatically from the last couple of outings, the setting and sense of place couple incredibly well to deliver one of the most comprehensive Assassin’s Creed games to date. Highly recommended.
Reviewed on Xbox One X – Code supplied by Ubisoft