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Assassin's Creed Valhalla

Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Stadia, Xbox One, Xbox Series X
Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: Ubisoft
Release Date: Nov. 10, 2020


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PS4 Review - 'Assassin's Creed Valhalla'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on Nov. 9, 2020 @ 11:01 p.m. PST

Assassin's Creed Valhalla throws players axe-first into ninth-century England, an age of warring kingdoms and Viking conquest. Wars will rage. Kingdoms will fall. This is the age of the Vikings.

Buy Assassin's Creed: Valhalla

It's hard to believe that it's been over a decade since Assassin's Creed first hit the field, but the series has proven itself to be a behemoth, averaging a new game every 18 months or so. The latest game in the series, Assassin's Creed: Valhalla, continues the series' time-bending adventures. The latest protagonist is Eivor, a young Viking whose family was killed by raiders. Since then, Eivor has lived with an adoptive family, but when their adoptive father surrenders the throne to a new king, Eivor and their brother set out across the sea to England to find a land of their own.

Valhalla's story is interesting but inconsistent. This is most noticeable in Eivor, whose bloodthirsty ruthlessness seems to vary. Sometimes, they are a hardcore Viking who sees conquest and bloodlust as natural parts of life. Sometimes, they are kind and merciful. Sometimes, they'll get angry at the slightest insult to their honor and other times, they shrug it off. I really like the idea of a protagonist who may break modern norms, but the game doesn't seem to commit to it. There are a lot of cool things to be found in Valhalla, and the characters are mostly well rounded.

One thing that may turn off people (or entice them) is that Valhalla goes way heavier into the metaplot and the idea of magic and ancient technology than most of the recent games in the franchise. The plot is heavily tied to some mystical elements, and several of the areas you can visit have no real-world counterpart. I enjoyed these side trips where it was clear the developers could be more creative in design and structure than the main game, but it also detracts from the feeling of "historical fantasy" in Assassin's Creed. There's still plenty of that, but it's definitely more mystic than the last game, where you played as a demigod with a magic spear.

A lot of the core gameplay in Valhalla is similar to that found in Odyssey: combat, exploration, and movement. Stealth is part of the game but feels significantly weaker and less prominent than in prior titles, since you're a Viking who goes into battle with a scream on your lips and an ax in your hand. It also means that simple stealth-killing requires a lot more work than going in with an ax held high. I found stealth to be a bit frustrating, since the trigger for stealth kills felt significantly more awkward than in previous games, but the point of the game is smashing, not sneaking.

You can customize your combat style more than usual. The biggest change to the game is the ability to dual-wield any two weapons, including shields; a shield in your off hand can be used to block, a dagger to dart forward, a giant ax to clear crowds, and so on. Each weapon has a weight, so you must balance the usefulness of the off-hand ability with how it'll slow you down. While this is a neat addition, most players will likely choose two weapons that they like and stick with them — likely a weapon and shield or one of the two-handed axes and swords.

While I can understand what the development team was going for in some of the small changes to Valhalla, many of the tweaks don't seem to be for the best. For example, gear has been completely reworked. Rather than finding lots of pieces of gear, you find much rarer gear that serves as a modifier to your skills. Some swords can catch on fire, some armor makes you do more damage at night, and so on. This change makes items feel more meaningful, but it makes the side-quests, which reward money or material to upgrade the items, feel less rewarding.

Since power is no longer associated with your gear level, it is dependent on your character level. Rather than having a few branching skill trees, you have a large Final Fantasy X-style grid of abilities that you can level up, with two skill points earned in every mission. Most of the grid is taken up by minor stat increases, and while they add up, they don't feel very good compared to Odyssey's system, where every skill point was a significant boost. You can re-spec at any time, but beyond a certain point, it doesn't make much of a difference.

One area in Valhalla that is much better is the Abilities system. Rather than having to unlock new abilities through your skill tree, you find them as rewards for quests and exploration. There are ranged and melee skills, and you can equip up to four at any time. There is significantly more variety to skills, and they add more choices to combat. You can summon wolves and ravens, set your weapons ablaze, slow down time, lock onto multiple enemies at once, and so on. Each of these skills takes a bar of adrenaline, which you earn by fighting enemies without taking damage, but this comes so quickly that you can often use abilities without fear. Each ability also has two levels, and you level up by finding the same ability again, so even after you've found every ability, there's still room to grow.

There is also, frankly, an absurd amount of content in Valhalla. I put over 60 hours into the game, but there was still plenty of things that I hadn't done. There are side-quests to complete, weapons to find, a surprisingly fun insult battle minigame, a collectible "card" game, and more. It feels busier because the game did away with the sailing that was a major part of Odyssey, so the landscape feels more compact. This is fleshed out by having multiple different lands to explore, including one area where you can't bring your gear and must scavenge off the land.

Unfortunately, the biggest issue with Valhalla is that it doesn't run well. The PS4 version is plagued with crashes, glitches, slowdowns, and many other issues that detract from the experience. It was a gamble on any mission if an NPC would trigger correctly or if talking to a shopkeep would crash the game. I lost access to one shopkeeper for no clear reason; they just stopped showing a conversation prompt. I compared it directly to Odyssey, which had significant fewer issues on the exact same console. The loading time in Valhalla is also significantly worse in almost every situation.

This made a lot of missions frustrating because I could never tell if I was missing something, if something had failed to trigger, or if it was just being so slow to load and I had to walk past certain things multiple times before an event triggered. This was noticeable with red doors, which sometimes meant "locked," "can't be entered," or "you need to trigger this." The last of the three would sometimes take forever to show up.

It is worth noting that these bugs seem to be associated with poor optimization of the last-gen console releases. A lot of the bugs seem to originate with the game having trouble streaming the data properly, which will be less of an issue on the SDDs on the next-gen consoles. I would not be surprised if the next-gen version runs more smoothly. However, for PS4 owners, this release did not get the development time and attention it deserved.

This is probably the biggest barrier to recommending Valhalla. Whatever strengths the game has are lost behind the fact that you're playing an unoptimized game. Perhaps some patches will smooth things out (and PS4 digital purchases come with a free copy of the PS5 version), but as it stands, the PS4 iteration is not a stable experience. You can play through it if you're willing to deal with crashes, resets, and occasional slowdown. The game even provides five different autosaves at any given time in addition to manual saves, which makes the issues a lot easier to stomach, but you really shouldn't have to stomach them. To the title's credit, it looks good when it runs well, but that's quickly forgotten when horses spawn in without fur or you die because the fire effects didn't load but the damage area did.

Assassin's Creed: Valhalla is a mostly solid, if somewhat unambitious, Assassin's Creed game that is dragged down by a shockingly poor PS4 release. I look forward to seeing how it runs on a PS5, but the last-gen version is hard to recommend due to the sheer amount of issues that I encountered while playing through the game. If you discount those issues, Valhalla would be a comfortable 8.0, but one can't just ignore those issues. Fans looking to continue the franchise's story should wait until Valhalla receives a series of patches or until they can pick up a next-gen version.

Score: 6.5/10

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