Three games into its rebirth era, whatever Assassin’s Creed once was, it is definitively not that anymore. Momentum is no longer the most important play pillar. The endless oceans of easily clambered two-story rooftops seen in Venice and Constantinple have faded into the historical record once more. Topography does not encourage flow. It often hinders it, in fact.
In the series’ latest entry Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, this is at its truest in the opening section; a Norwegian settlement nestled by huge, annoying mountains, slow and tedious to scale. And it remains true once your raiding party sets sail for the riches, fertile soil, and blood of England; those annoying mountains crumble into grassy fields and muddy swamps. This game literally has bogs, the geographic antithesis of Patrice Désilets original free-flowing design for the series.
But change can be a blessing. Though this is clearly not the same series, what it has become is in many ways more interesting. With Valhalla, the RPG-lite pivot has been refined. Crucially, for the first time in a long time, Assassin’s Creed cares about pacing again. Valhalla, in stark contrast to Odyssey, manages to feel large and awe-inspiring without being disrespectful of your time.
It achieves this with an almost-episodic structure. You choose which English kingdom to visit and then interact with the local big shots — often kings, sometimes usurpers — messing the hierarchy up to your own ends. Over the course of a few hours you experience an arc with a satisfying conclusion, before moving on and doing it again. It works well.
This localised, contained storytelling even gives side tales and minor world events a sense of purpose. Because you’re attempting to immerse yourself in a region, it follows that talking to farmers and finding lost kids in the woods for example aids that overarching goal.
Valhalla also cleverly marries its setting with the obligatory new gameplay elements. In the past these additions have felt at odds with the theme; Revelations‘ tower defence minigame being a prime example.
Raiding and pillaging monasteries for wealth to build up your settlement is both a compelling combat/base-building loop and something that feels appropriately Viking. Using your longboat as the primary form of transportation, rowing and sailing across England’s meandering river system, is both useful and sets the mood perfectly. Drinking strange potions and holding trippy council with Odin, Thor, Loki, and the rest of the non-MCU Norse Pantheon; ditto. Valhalla shows admirable congruence.
It’s not all Christian pillaged gold, though. AI, at times, can be atrocious. Bloodthirsty raids are undermined by warriors standing around waiting for an axe to the neck, and companions fail to instil confidence they’ll be in the right place.
At one point, a crucial NPC didn’t board my longboat so I set off without him unaware. After I’d pillaged, I had to wait for him to arrive from his lengthy solo swim before we could talk and progress.
But Assassin’s Creed has always had its share of jank, and this is a top-tier entry regardless. Momentum might not be important anymore but the other key pillar, history, is utilised better than ever. Not the specifics of what once happened, but the depiction of life elsewhere, elsewhen, and how well that is incorporated into core gameplay loops. With a clearer, more deliberate focus on the past, the series’ future is bright.
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is out now for Xbox Series X/S (reviewed), PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5 and Xbox One.