I’ve been playing Assassin’s Creed game since the first, though usually not right when they come out. Typically I’ll wait long enough that I can pick them up on sale with all the DLC included, which is great for getting the version of the game with the most polish and the fewest bugs. I tend to like open world games, mostly because they give a sense of exploration and mystery that’s not always there in the real worlds. Right now the numerical score I’d give this game is 7/10, but you can read on for Thoughts.
I haven’t beaten the game yet, though I can’t imagine that it will pull out anything that makes me radically re-evaluate the game, and if it does, I’ll come back and edit this. My guess is that I have five hours left, plus another five hours or so of optional stuff that I will actually feel like doing.
One of my standards for how much I enjoy an open world game is this: how often does a goddamned bobcat pop out of the woods and attack me when I’m in the middle of going about my business?
I hate bobcat attacks. I loathe them. I think they’re horrible game design and they’re incredibly unrealistic, which means that when they happen, it both ruins my immersion and my fun. Typically, it’s not a bobcat, but I always think of them as bobcats because those were the most egregious offenders in Red Dead Redemption. Very often it’s wolves, sometimes it’s bears, and occasionally it’s a group of bandits or similar. What typifies a bobcat attack for me is that it’s an encounter that stops you when you’re going along your way, demands your attention and maybe some combat, and then offers essentially nothing in terms of a reward and has no impact on the ongoing plot of the game in any way.
To take the game design aspect first: bobcat attacks are only as interesting as the combat in the game is, and open world games typically don’t have all that interesting of combat. The combat tends to be even less interesting because these bobcat attacks don’t happen in areas with interesting terrain or conditions, and because the enemies that attack you tend to be pretty uninteresting. Bobcat attacks disrupt whatever else the other systems of the game were doing, sometimes cutting off dialogue that you were trying to listen to, other times interrupting a bucolic ride through the countryside or an attempt to line up a perspective puzzle or … whatever. They’re injections of action for the sake of action, something to do in order to trick you into thinking that the game has a lot of things to do. The more often they happen, the more egregious they are. Honestly, I struggle to understand who bobcat attacks are for, because I have never found them remotely fun, and never talked to anyone who enjoyed them. I think you do get the occasional good story out of them, but mostly they’re bad game design.
I have a few exceptions here. The first is a choreographed strike, like one set up by bandits, which I think can provide a substantial enough encounter that it’s actually worthwhile from a gameplay perspective. Days Gone had these every now and then, but they didn’t feel like bobcat attacks, because they happened at specific points and felt like an organic part of the environment. Valhalla has a few like that: I’ve run into two so far, which I feel is about the right number over dozens of hours of play.
Note that a bobcat attack where a bobcat unexpectedly jumps out of a bush and attacks you is different from, say, a farmer telling you that a bobcat has been harassing his sheep (that’s just a normal quest) or you coming across a bloody trail leading away from a wagon that’s been attacked (that’s a world event) or you going into Bobcat Canyon (a specific area with known dangers).
From a narrative/immersion standpoint, I think bobcat attacks are even worse. Apex predators don’t behave that way around humans, and there aren’t enough of them that you would realistically run into even one, let alone dozens. If the bobcat is a person rather than a wild animal, this is also not how humans usually behave: bandits are typically looking for easy marks and would let a huge guy who’s heavily armed and armored pass by, especially someone who’s world famous, or with an insignia that marks him as being part of some enormous power structures, or whatever else the case might be. It’s definitely worse with animals though, and makes them feel like game objects more than actual animals.
So how many bobcat attacks are there in Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla? Too many, but not as many as in other open world games I’ve played. It loses some points because there are literal bobcats. What happens more often is that there will be fake bobcat attacks when on the horse, and I’ll simply outrun the encounter with little trouble. I still find this annoying, but less so than if I needed to stop. Overall I quite enjoy riding across Lincolnshire and taking in the scenery (see the next section) but I like it a lot less when the game quickly notifies me that I’ve been spotted by an enemy, notifies me that someone is shooting an arrow at me, briefly slows down the game so I have a chance to respond, then does more sounds and visual effects to show me that I’ve outrun the danger, all without me having actually had to input anything on the controller.
I Can Show You The World
The thing that gets me coming back to AAA open world games is the world itself and the sense of exploration, the vistas and the unexpected little details that are tucked away for me to find.
Valhalla is pretty good about this, but not quite as good as the previous two entries in what I think of as the revival series, Origins and Odyssey. I still regularly come across things that I’ve never seen before, and sights that make me ooh and ahh … but I do think that the setting of Medieval England isn’t the best in terms of getting good views. The parts of the game set in Norway do a much better job of being interesting, and the occasional Roman ruins do offer some interest, but there’s only so much to do with the English countryside, and it was a good reminder of why I tend to prefer fantasy. The sameness of the architecture is also a drag, and though there are a number of varieties, by the time I saw my third long house, it had really stopped holding my interest. There are castles, monasteries, Roman ruins, Saxon villages, Viking settlements … but it’s enough content for a thirty hour game, not a sixty hour game, and it’s already worn out its welcome.
I’ve always liked the overarching story to the Assassin’s Creed games, the idea of these ancient orders that are at war with each other, the ways that the ideas of each are expressed differently through the ages and twisted to suit each time period, the way that the present intersects the past, ancient aliens and grand prophecies, and the idea of the Animus. It all works for me, at least in theory.
In practice … not always so much. The best parts of the story are those that involve the Order of Ancients (what will later become the Templars) and those that involve the overarching Isu plot (the ancient aliens). The series is a bit stuck though, both because they want to hew to real history at least a little bit, and because they want to get as many games from the series as possible. This means that the Isu plot needs to move as slowly as possible, the present-day timeline needs to crawl along as the games continue, and the majority of the story within the game needs to be focused on a particular time period and a character that will almost certainly not get revisited. They’ve been conceiving of these new entries as being “Kassandra’s story” or “Eivor’s story”, and I think this is probably the right way to go if they wanted the main plot to creep along like molasses.
My big problem with Valhalla is that for the most part, it’s not actually doing that. Most of the game is not Eivor’s story, since mostly what you’re doing is going to various places and attempting to secure alliances, and mostly those alliances are telling stories that are at a remove from what your protagonist is doing. It’s about a thane worrying about his son, or a love triangle, or something like that, and …. you know, it’s fine, but I would much rather the game actually revolved around what my character is doing, rather than being an anthology where my character does things for or because of other people. The writing for these side stories varies quite a bit in quality, probably because they were written by a bunch of different people. The writing quality for the “world events” is typically below the mainline stuff too, but I expect that.
Playstyles (and not being an assassin)
One of the things that comes with the territory for open world games these days is a variety of play experiences, and with that, a variety of playstyles. In Valhalla, these are divided into stealth, combat, and archery. Personally, I’m a stealth and archery guy, and the games does okay with enabling them, with one or two hiccups. Main story missions very often make stealth completely impossible, and sometimes make archery if not impossible, then so much more difficult that there’s nearly no point. I think the biggest problem I have is that the constellation upgrade system eventually runs a little dry, and beyond that, works to prevent true specialization.
Creating encounters is fairly easy work, but creating encounters that can be done in a number of different ways is difficult, and trying to make a game where you can go the whole way through like either a ghost or a rampaging bull is probably pretty difficult. I recently played Dishonored 2, which was a lovely game that did everything in its power to ensure that you could do both Ghost (no one sees you) and Clean Hands (you kill no one). Valhalla suffers in comparison, but the stealthy approach works more often than it doesn’t, and there are a number of times you get to take out a target when no one is aware of you. Frustratingly, there are also “enforced” stealth sections where you’ll fail if you get spotted, something I typically hate in games where the stealth is shallow, but these are rather few and far between.
I’m not entirely sure, but I think it was as early as Assassin’s Creed 2 that the games decided they were going to allow you to just completely fail at stealth. It could be that they were influenced by Arkham Asylum, but I have distinct memories of one of the Ezio games where I killed nearly twenty guards in a single fight. I enjoy the combat, but it gets a bit ridiculous when thirty of the king’s best men can’t so much as slow you down if you’ve mastered the combat system.
One of the big things that stands out for me, when I look at the gameplay, is that the series has really de-emphasized all the assassination bits. In the first game, you were often forced to sneak, and if you were caught, there was a good chance that you would die if you couldn’t escape, because combat against more than two guys was basically a non-starter. Against an assassination target, they would run away. In Valhalla, you’re very often forced into boss battles, and all of the assassination stuff feels shoe-horned in. Eivor is not an assassin, and wears the hidden blade in the open, exposed, which felt bad to me as a fan of the assassin stuff. There are a lot of times when it seems like the situation even calls for a parkour assassin! Someone will be holed up in their castle and instead of sneaking in through a back way or eliminating a handful of guards to make a beeline to them, there’s a whole big siege, which feels like a wasted opportunity given what the games have traditionally been about. This happened several times, and annoyed me each time.
Everything is a Minigame
I tend to use the word “minigame” to mean any gameplay element that doesn’t really interact with other elements. There’s probably some quibbling to be done here, but Valhalla has two or three of these, they crop up a lot, and … they’re all kind of lame, with the exception of raiding, which I mostly liked.
The biggest “minigame” that I’ve grown very tired of is figuring out how to get into houses. Eivor has this ability to “pulse” and see through walls, which reveals treasures inside of them. Once you’ve identified a house with a treasure in it, the front door will either be barred or locked, and you need to find a weak wall to shoot through, or a less weak wall to explode a pot next to, and even just typing this out, I’m bored, because I’ve done it forty or fifty times. I did it so much that there’s almost nothing that will induce me to try to go into one of these houses. Part of it is that the “minigame” of finding the lock or secret entrance is just not that compelling, and definitely shouldn’t have been one of the main things that you end up doing when you go to a place, but there’s so little there that it gets repetitive very quickly.
There was an interview I listened to maybe a decade ago with a few of the designers for Halo where they said “our goal was to make a compelling five or ten minutes of gameplay, and if we could do that, we knew that it wouldn’t matter all that much if we were only doing minor variations on it”. The thing that Valhalla gets wrong is that it doesn’t have a compelling handful of seconds for the each of these little minigames, and the lack of variation on each of them means that they wear out their welcome very quickly.
(I won’t belabor going through the other “minigames”, but “climb to a high place” is one that older games did a lot better, because with them, you had to follow a path of some kind and had actual impact on what was happening, going a bit faster if you could anticipate, needing to make special jumps, getting a rhythm, etc. Now, the “climb to a high place” minigame largely involves holding the joystick up and hitting a button over and over, which is a result of how they changed climbing to be something that you can do on any surface.)
Revisiting an Open World
There’s an inherent tension in an open world game that has a main story, which is that the open world aspects want you to go explore and find new things, and the story aspects want you to do things in some specific order that activates certain flags and changes the game world in some way.
Here’s an example: I come across a fort full of Saxons who will kill me on sight and have loot that I want. I go in, assassinate everyone that I can, then go into melee combat to mop up the rest of them. I steal everything there is to steal, pulse the see-through-walls power, then check the map to make sure I’m not missing something.
Then, fifteen minutes later, I decide to do one of the main story quests and end up going back to the exact same fort that I had cleared, and am told that I need to clear it again. It has been completely repopulated by enemies, and worse, there’s no extra loot.
This feels bad. There are three basic ways to keep it from happening, two on the dev’s end, one on my end. On my end, the way to do it is to go to areas only when a quest tells you to. I hate this, because then there’s much less a sense of “go anywhere and do anything”, and it kills the exploration that’s at least half of why I plan a game like this in the first place. On the dev’s end, there’s an easy solution, which is to keep the player from getting to things before there’s a quest (and Valhalla does this a bit, mostly with locked doors), and a hard solution, is to acknowledge what the player has done.
I’ve noticed Valhalla doing the hard solution in one or two situations, places where I thought to myself “oh, the game is actually responding to what I’ve done”. The problem is that much of this response just serves to keep the game on track. The most notable example was when I was told to go to a monastery that had some vital plot stuff there, and Eivor actually responded “I’ve raided that place before, we never found anything like what you’re talking about”. This was good! It made me feel like the game was keeping track of what I was doing and responding to my actions. Of course, after that line of dialogue played, the quest had me go back to the monastery, and indeed, we found the thing I had “missed” there.
One way of doing this would be to have everything dynamic, to have the Order of Ancients always walking around the world, and for you to be able to kill them whenever you come across them, even if you don’t know that they’re the Order of Ancients. Same with a bunch of the other plot beats. This would be difficult to do, nearly impossible to build a story around, and probably not all that satisfying … but I still kind of want to see a game attempt it.
Valhalla does its best to blend approaches, and every now and then, I do get to hand in a quest item that I had accidentally picked up on my wandering, but it’s still a notable tension within the genre, and there’s not yet been a good resolution to it.
The Bad and the Ugly
There are bugs, though less than I had expected. I got stuck on the geometry and had to Fast Travel twice. Some of the gameplay experience lacks polish. Sometimes the graphics are, for unexplained reasons, incredibly ugly. The inventory system is built in such a way as to allow for microtransactions, and this is not to the benefit of the game. There’s some bad history in the game, above and beyond what’s necessary or the aliens and grand conspiracies. The horse “follow road” feature is pretty busted. There are twenty to thirty times that little things have bugged me in various ways, and I’ve thought that the game would be better with a small fix or tweak. Some of these are small things that more budget would have gone a long way to, some are just matters of polish, and others are a result of the unfortunate AAA game business model.
6/10. I talked myself into rating this a point lower over the course of writing this review. I’ll probably play the next one. I may play the DLC if I can get it for a few dollars, especially if there are new areas to explore, or more integration with the “main” story of the series.