Raid, pillage, and plunder your way to Valhalla.
I still remember the excitement I felt for Assassin's Creed Odyssey back in 2018. The thought of running around Ancient Greece as a hero ripped straight from a myth, battling side by side with the mighty Spartans in large scale battles, it was enough to keep me hyped for months. Even when it launched it lived up to my every expectation, giving players the chance to explore and gaze upon the beauty of Ancient Greece, and delivering an epic and personal story. It's a game that's hard to beat, yet, dare I say, Assassin's Creed: Valhalla has done just that. Valhalla improves on many of Odyssey's pitfalls in many ways, condensing the open world to make travel feel like less of a slog, and populating its vast open world with various features and content. Valhalla is Odyssey's successor in every sense of the word, plus, you're a goddamn Viking, even a demi-god can't beat that.
Set in Viking era Saxon England, Valhalla places you in the shoes of Eivor, a young Norwegian Viking ready to seek their glory and prove themselves as a true Norse hero. It shouldn't even be too hard either, from the start Eivor is pretty well-known as a capable warrior, skald, and poet. What begins as a quest for vengeance quickly transpires into a much more epic saga, as Eivor sets out across the sea to make a new home for them and their clan in the bountiful land of England. But in the background lies a war fought by two ancient orders, a war that poses a threat to you and your clans new life on greener pastures.
The ancient orders I speak of is of course the series staple Assassin's, and the Order of Ancients (formerly the Templars). It's nice to see the Assassins' return to the series they've been somewhat absent from following Ubisoft's reworking of the series. Their presence from the get go appears to be a main staple of your story throughout the entire game, as you work side-by-side with two assassin's, a mentor and pupil duo, who seek your help in ridding England of the Order of Ancients. They even give you a hidden blade and everything. It's even great to see that Ubisoft has taken inspiration from AC: Black Flag when formulating Eivor's character, as he (or she) never really takes an interest in the assassin cause, at least not early on, making the story more about the protagonists own personal journey than the hidden war the series has opted to sideline. I'm even starting to think that the best Assassin's Creed titles are the ones where the titular Assassin's are hardly in it, which so far hasn't necessarily been a bad thing.
Valhalla's open world is large, though not the size of Odyssey's ancient Greece, as per complaints about getting from point A to B in what was an overwhelmingly large map. The story begins in Norway, which in itself is pretty big. This serves as your intro to the game and it's many features, allowing you to explore freely and use your longship whenever you see fit. Norway does have it's share of empty space, but there's enough to keep you going until you reach the shores of England. When you finally cross the sea, the real journey begins, as you are granted access to the entirety of England and its four kingdoms; North Umbria, Mercia, East Anglia, and Wessex. It doesn't look too big, but when you start to explore, raid, and pillage you start to get a feel for how vast it truly is.
The map's size is hardly it's best feature though, as the game is nothing short of visually breathtaking. Norway is a northern delight, dominated by vast mountain ranges and forests covered in heaps of the purest white snow. Just walking around is enough to enjoy this game, taking every detail and finely crafted element of the environment, even when sailing the water is crisp and smooth, glimmering under the sun. At one point, a Whale leaped from the water alongside my ship (luckily, it didn't scuttle) and followed the boat for a brief time, an experience which has quickly become one of my favourite moments in the game so far. England is no less beautiful, and the environments are much more varied given it's many territories. There's lush green forests, dead marshes, and large towns and cities that capture the medieval aesthetic to a tee. Valhalla is nothing short of a visual masterpiece, made better by next-gen technology, and it's the little things like watching the Whales in snow-covered Norway, or the sun rolling over the vast green hills of England that leave a big impact.
Aside form its visuals, the game brings a whole host of gameplay improvements and features that set it apart from its predecessors. Notably, Ubisoft have made sure that its beautifully crafted world isn't empty, and that the activities that populate the world are fairly interesting and worthwhile. Numerous puzzles and hidden secrets can be found around the map in things like caves and ancient Roman ruins. There's even a boss fight or two casually waiting for the player to go give them a good fight. Collectables are also laden in the countryside and towns for players to earn, should you be into that sort of thing. You can even pet the many dogs and cats of England, which is a feature we can all agree should be the norm.
Perhaps the best addition to the world is the varied, and often interesting, world events you can stumble across. These encounters act as mini side quests, often featuring some dialogue options and a specific task for you to do, with fully voiced characters and some decision making elements too. Where they shine is in how hilarious these encounters can be. In one instance, I happened across a seemingly peaceful monk, claiming to be euphoric in christ, asking me to burn his house and steal his belongings to test his faith, which I must say was very resilient. Even as his house burned and silver lined my pockets he merely sat in his wooden chair and spoke of how he can never lose his temper in what was the most smug and monotone voice. He does eventual lose it, but I won't spoil that here. Not far from him was a Norseman sitting by some ruins, who asked whether I could see what was up with his head. The man, aptly named Axehead, had an axe in his head, which was casually protruding from his skull. You could be honest and tell him he's got an axe lodged in his head, but where's the fun in that? These are only a couple of the numerous world encounters dotted across the map, and are by far some of the most enjoyable experiences the game has to offer.
When you reach England, you are also able to build up your new settlement, establishing new buildings and areas that unlock extra features for use, including the blacksmith to improve gear, and a tattoo artist to really personalize your Eivor. It's a nice little hands-on opportunity to make you feel like you're actually part of the world and story, helping to immerse you in the experience.
It's when you eventually need to get more materials to build up your settlement that the real Viking fun begins. True, you are simply looking to make a home for yourself in a foreign land, make new friends, and hopefully give your people a chance to live in peace. But when bald-headed monks hoard vast quantities of gold, jewels and untold riches, they're practically begging you to burn down their monasteries. Valhalla lets you live out the Viking fantasy you've always dreamed of, as with your Viking longship, you can engage in the glorious pastime of raiding, slamming into the shore of a small town or monastery and robbing it blind. There will be guards protecting your precious loot, but a good battle is always more exciting than chopping down a few monks.
Combat is far more action packed and exciting in Valhalla than Odyssey or Origins. Enemies for a start are more varied and deadly, with some being large tough brutes, and others being nimble dagger wielding ninjas, able to evade nearly every move. It adds an extra layer of challenge to combat that keeps it fresh and new, no matter the raid or battle you fight. There is the occasional instance where an enemy will not even attack you, instead engaging in a standoff with you as you both crab walk in circles, though it's a very minor bug that can be quite cinematic in one-on-one boss fights.
Enhancing combat further is how customizable you can be with your fighting style and build. The gear system returns to Valhalla from previous titles, allowing you to earn and find new armour sets and weapons to personalise your Eivor even more. Some sets give you special perks that add a new dimension to how you fight, and you can now add runes to gear to boost your stats. Perhaps the best addition is how the game allows you to pick and choose whatever weapons you desire. You could simply go for an axe in both hands, or you could switch it up and wield a dagger and hammer, even a shield and sword. You could also be a madman and dual wield shields, going full Captain America on the English soldiery. There's even a levelling system that allows you to build your character however you want, allowing you to focus on melee damage, stealth prowess or bow skill, and the further you go down each chain, the more extra abilities you unlock, including the ability to dual wield heavy two-handed weapons. Special abilities round off the experience by giving you special moves you can use in combat for extra damage and combos, though you'll need to find these around the map first. The intricate combat system and plethora of opportunities for some high-stakes brutal action truly make you feel like a proud and might Viking, and I couldn't ask for more.
It's important to note that currently the game has some minor bugs and glitches, though nothing that I feel severely impacts the experience. The worst I've seen was when I started a raid and my longship proceeded to leap into the sky after slamming into shore. It quickly descended and landed upright in the river, twirling round as though it were a graceful figure skater. It's hardly something that should happen in real life let alone a game, but it did fix itself eventually, and credit where credits due, the landing was flawless.
Assassin's Creed: Valhalla is the premier Viking experience in the form of a technical marvel, and even with a fair few bugs, its gorgeous world, engaging characters and detailed gameplay systems make this one of the best games of the year, and one that I can't wait to play more of.