FBT is back in the AC world as he goes full skinhead on Assassin’s Creed Vanilla.
I'm back! After last year's epic AC playthrough, where I picked my fave assassin and fave AC game, Ubisoft is back with another instalment in the ageless secret war between control and freedom. Will Valhalla upset my AC game rankings? Nope.
In 9th Century Norway, young Eivor is orphaned during a Viking raid. Adopted by another Jarl and raised with heir-apparent Sigurd, the two become feared raiders and troublemakers. But when their father acquiesces to King Harald, denying Sigurd his claim to be Jarl, the siblings depart for England intent on creating their own kingdom. Hitching a ride are men claiming to have business in Britain for their order, The Hidden Ones…
Oh My Odin, did this game piss me off. I don’t know why everyone’s comparing Valhalla to Odyssey. It’s a reskin of Origins. They’ve just replaced sand with mud. Same menus, weapons, actions, same pointless bird. But the thing about Origins and Odyssey is that Bayek and Kassandra were flawed and volatile, and it was personal; Bayek’s quest for his child’s murderer, Kassandra for her family’s linage, and their stories collided with the Templars (Cult, Order, League, whatever) as they try to control the politics of the era. Here, while Eivor suffers Visions of her betraying Sigurd and has Odin as an imaginary friend pressing her to take all the glory, we’re not a heathen brute tearing across England; we’re the politest, most woke Viking ever.
Every AC lead starts as a cocksure brat and ends embittered but better for the experience. But Eivor is blank from start to finish. I chose a skinhead look because, well, we’re in Britain, but cut-scene Eivor doesn’t want to plunder, she wants to be pals. She’s passive, pulled along by events instead of driving them. It’s true that once her blood is up, she cuts through Saxons like bloody butter and when we’re in control there’s axes and heads flying everywhere, but she doesn’t seem that bothered. She just holds the line, has few emotional beats or problems, doesn’t even struggle really, she’s just going through the motions. Which is exactly how the story plays out too.
I thought we’d be causing mayhem across England, yelling ‘for Valhalla!’ as we rampaged - instead, I’m yelling “for f’s sake!” as I come across yet another generic situation, mission, event as we try to claim England from King Aelfred. Every region is the same and the local bigwig is the same. It’s the classic “Hi, I have a self-contained problem, fix it and you shall have my support”. Meanwhile, Sigurd and the Hidden Ones chase an artefact which draws the attention of The Order of Ancients.
Even The Hidden Ones seem uninterested in the Order’s plans, they just give me a list of names like “While you’re out can you kill those lot and get some milk?”. Only two of the FORTY-FIVE Ancients are directly connected to the ‘story’, and some of them actually seem quite pleased they’ve been assassinated and can leave. It’s a sub-plot, and the only reason to bother at all is because it brings the hidden war back around to the series’ beginning. It’s so perfunctory that you can almost see the to-do list Ubisoft ticked off; assassins, Isu artifact, check Wikipedia for some historical refs, templar kill-list, lunch.
There’s also lot of callbacks to earlier games, like ACIII’s Homestead which is fun, and some which were best left in the past - being able to hide a hulking Viking in a posse of priests (?), chasing flying paper; glad that’s back, love being reminded that AC’s parkour has never really worked. The hidden blade is back too - why? To appease the superfans who raged about it missing from Odyssey, like Kass’ spearhead wasn’t vastly superior – there, I said it. We never join the order, why give it to Eivor? Stealth is pointless and it’s out of character for a Viking anyway - and when we do use it, for some inane reason we get a slow-mo shot of the blade slicing through bone and gristle like Sniper Elite. Why? Much like a needless detour to Vinland (The US of A), couldn’t the effort that took be used to fill areas in the U of K?
The scale of Valhalla is frustrating. Ubisoft dialled back the RPG in favour of the ACII era but placed it in a landmass technically bigger than Odyssey – then spread it across one third of England – it’s practically 1:1 scale! In other words, miles of nowt. Origins tested the patience of even the most hardened explorer with its miles of desert of nothing, but this… I’ll admit it’s ever changing and often very pretty, but when you do stumble across something, be it towns, people, or places, they’re similar and get very generic and repetitive. You can take your longship for a punt down the rivers, but there’s not really much point after a while.
Each county will have a few forts and camps knocking about, but they re-populate and serve no purpose – you can totally rinse ‘Cent’, but it doesn’t alter the balance of power or reduce the king of Cent’s influence, making attacks a bit meaningless, and most seem quite welcoming to the foreigners – how inaccurate of Brexit Britain is that? And major events always result in the same castle storming event. You’d expect some sort of intrigue; the king of Suthsexe wanting Essexe under him before he’ll provide an army to take down Oxenefordscire say, but then their king makes a counter-offer - or we just blast through them all, but no. Aren’t we supposed to be invading? We’re not sacking, pillaging, conquering, there’s not even any brigandage, whatever that is. You can raid monasteries for supplies to build your camp, but even that doesn’t bother the God-fearing Christian Lords of England.
In the vast nothingness there are ‘events’, fun mini-problems to fix, but they’re timewasters or map-wide collectables to gain a weapon you won’t use. Most of the other ‘points of interest’ scream filler (and those Cairn puzzles can FO), none more than when Layla has to complete cyber assault courses to unlock a teaser to Eivor’s fate – that’s cool, I’ll wait. You can find Knowledge Books that give you some great bits of British-style violence like head-stomping someone who’s down; the only time Valhalla feels like its drawn inspiration from Britain and its re-enacting scenes from outside a Kebab shop on a Friday night?
It is thin on the ground when it comes to British nods. There are some incongruous in-jokes like references to the doggo Fenton (and Keith Flint which is cool), a couple of the big-game hunts are mythological creatures like Black Shuck, we can see Stonehenge, Sutton Hoo and some of the chalk sculptures (but not the bloke with the penis), a few legends like Excalibur and real-life leaders, places and battles, but it feels very ‘that will do’.
Britain’s not embedded in the story, it’s not a deep-dive like other AC experiences - we do set fire to someone in a Wicker Man, so that’s inaccurately something. The most fun you have as a Brit is trying to find places you know. I have several friends from Nottingham and enjoy slaughtering their ancestors and laughing at how it was originally named ‘Snotingham’ – accurate. But I don’t feel lost in lore, like I’m in Dark Ages England – Hellblade was an indie title and it batters this in the immersion stakes. It just feels more Vanilla than Valhalla.
And where the hell is Kassandra? What was she doing for the last thousand years? I assumed she’d be following Isu clues, guiding Hidden Ones, at least having a bit of fun – I got excited when I spotted her partying with Vikings in the trailer, which seemed in-character for her but no, all the Viking women just have her hairdo. Cost-cutting Malakas.
Perhaps due to using Origins as a base, Valhalla actually feels dated, while Eivor is like a patchwork of other heroes - ‘use Ezio’s parkour, get Edward’s idle animations, use Connor’s missing personality’. It feels cheap, there’s no new innovations here, and while the release was a standard Ubisoft shitshow, it remains buggy and stitched together. There are some nice little touches, like flinging weapons NPCs drop, and… actually that’s about it.
All this sounds like I’m winding up for a rage quit. And at times I came close, but I plundered the British Isles for a butt-aching, girlfriend-annoying 130 hours. I often really enjoyed Valhalla – I lost hours looking for Brighton, loved wandering the countryside, took a stroll along Hadrian’s Wall, and I enjoyed being a Viking; the down ‘n dirty brawls, calling in my clan to raid a monastery – but all the fun I has was my own making. I dislike how empty it is compared to what the Dark Ages, Viking conquests and England’s strive could have offered.
If Britain had been leaner, like the Unity/Syndicate era it would have been intense, and that would have forced me to focus on the story - but it’s spread so thin, over so little, I just lost track of what it was trying to tell me, what it was building toward.
But … when Valhalla does shoot it’s shot, it hits hard; the ending reveals are brilliant and I have to admit, the lacklustre story suddenly makes solid sense. And that’s the problem – 9th Century England, Viking mythology, The Hidden Ones, Order of Ancients, me, it’s all irrelevant; the entire game was just set-dressing for Ubisoft to roll out yet another AC reboot.
Layla's story is hilariously reduced to flicking off a switch - she was built up as the first Assassin-Templar, the one to balance order and chaos but Ubisoft are clearly jazzed for their new direction and ship her off in favour of what happens next; it makes no sense and has plot-holes bigger than the map, and I should know better, but I am stoked … it’s such a good ending it made me forgive 130 hours in 140 sq. kilometres of mud and nothing. I mean, I should be pissed I just spent all that time and effort to reach a cliff-hanger (and one that won't be explored in the DLCs), but man, I can't wait for the next AC Odyssey-based game.