Reviewer’s Note: The game was reviewed from playing on both the Xbox One X and the Xbox Series X.
Clambering up the jagged cliff face was a slow, awkward process. There was an easier way to reach the peak, but I was fully committed at this point. Finally, after what I had made a far more difficult trek than necessary, I reached the summit.
As the camera swooped out for a panoramic view, I was treated to a spectacular sight. The sun was rising over ninth century Norway, beams of light dappling across snow-capped peaks, splashing shadows as far as the horizon.
This is the world of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla at its absolute best, full of life, wonder and a deep appreciation for the history of the world it recreates in stunning detail. From the icy north of Norway to the ancient Roman ruins dotting the land that would eventually unify as England, Ubisoft has created the most ambitious, lively entry in the Assassin’s Creed franchise to date.
Long-time fans of the series will find plenty of nods to prior games, but Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is equally friendly to newcomers. From moment one, the game thrusts players into fray of ferocious, visceral combat that offers a satisfying array of options to take down foes.
Taking control of the Viking warrior Eivor, players can customize everything from their appearance to how they approach each combat scenario. Different tactics and playstyles mesh well together, meaning there’s no right or wrong way to approach a fight, and Valhalla is forgiving in that it lets you respec your skills anytime, anywhere, as many times as like. This excellent design choice not only allows experimentation with different gear and playstyles — it encourages it.
The freedom and flexibility means the game focuses squarely on the action, which is excellent no matter what your preferred combat style is. Charging headlong into a bandit camp, blades slashing everywhere is the ultimate Viking move, and when you’re on a longship or near a body of water, you can call in a team of raiders to attack encampments and monasteries with you, creating a flurry of mayhem.
At the same time, larger fortifications are usually best approached with stealth because of the sheer number of reinforcements. And even though bursting through the front gate can be fun, there’s something that quintessentially captures the essence of Assassin’s Creed when you drop down off a ledge, kill a guard with your hidden blade and immediately hurl a throwing axe into the head of another guard without anyone being the wiser.
The ranged style of play is unique in that it can complement either of the previously mentioned combat methods, or it can act as a playstyle all its own. Using quick-firing light bows is a great way to chip away at an enemy’s health or stun them at close range before closing in to finish the kill, while long-range, high-damage predator bows are perfect for a stealthy approach. Hunter bows sit somewhere in between but are absolutely devastating when combined with the right skills and gear, and they can make the game feel more like a third-person shooter with the right setup.
The loadout you choose comes from your selected skills, armor, weapons and runes. Since Valhalla allows you to respec at any time, it doesn’t become a limiting factor in your build. Gear, however, can make or break your playthrough.
Armor consists of sets, and each one has different bonuses attached to it. At two pieces, you unlock the first bonus, with the full five-piece set unlocking the second. You won’t find all the gear pieces in one place, though, and they’re often hidden or placed behind well-fortified structures that require smart stealth or a healthy sense of bravado to reach.
Weapons also have bonuses attached to them, and the game allows you to wield any weapon in either hand, including dual wielding shields. To dual wield two-handed weapons, you have to have the requisite skill unlocked, but it’s easily obtainable early on.
To further customize your build, each piece of armor and weapons has rune slots. Lesser runes do everything from boosting your defense and resistance to increasing critical hit chance and damage. As you upgrade your gear, more rune slots unlock in each item, with some armor pieces and weapons unlocking a diamond-shaped slot. These are slots specifically for game-changing runes, which add a legendary effect to the item. As with skills, runes can be inserted and removed freely.
Gear aside, the skill tree is the other major component of crafting the perfect build. The game breaks down skills into three sections: bear, raven and wolf, or more simply, brute, stealth and range. Major skills in each tree have massive ramifications to your gameplay, but even if you have a preferred playstyle, picking and choosing from each branch is beneficial. As an example, the miasma skill in the raven tree allows your poison to spread quickly, but poison also benefits players who have focused more in bear and wolf skills.
Larger, game-changing skills in each tree are connected by smaller stat improvements. For instance, on the way to unlocking the heavy dual wield skill, which allows you to carry a two-handed weapon in each hand, you’ll also select skills that increase melee damage, improve critical hit chance and add damage resistance.
Additionally, each piece of gear has an alignment that corresponds to the skill trees, and some minor skills give an incremental improvement to any piece of gear matching that alignment. Those bonuses add up quickly and go a long way to making Eivor a one-man army.
You’ll also unlock combat abilities by finding books of knowledge scattered throughout the world, as well as receiving a few from quest rewards. They allow you to do everything from coating your weapons in poison to summoning a wolf to aid you in battle. They’re incredibly fun to play with, and there was never a moment I regretted firing an exploding arrow at a target or slowing down time to shower an encampment with a volley of arrows.
With so many ways to approach combat, it rarely becomes stale. A variety of different enemy types, animals to hunt and terrific boss encounters do an excellent job keeping the game fresh. In a strange way, I was often sad when I took down a boss because I wanted to fight them again. The Viking raids are terrific, and the game captures the frenetic energy of a siege with outstanding detail, but Valhalla’s one-on-one combat is a cut above and something truly special.
As good as the combat is, this wouldn’t be an Assassin’s Creed game without a massive world to explore, and Ubisoft has turned ninth century England into a vivacious sandbox. Hidden caves, underwater labyrinths. jagged mountain peaks and rolling hills all beg for you to see what surprises they hold.
It’s not just the environments that bring the game to life, though. Little details, like the stunning intricacies of weapons and armor, are painstakingly crafted to make each one look unique. Even something like the way fire reacts is remarkable. Holding a knocked arrow over a brazier or torch will set the arrowhead ablaze, but that reacts different if you’re using a light bow. Since it fires rapidly, Eivor holds multiple arrows in a downward position in addition to the one being fired. When near fire, those arrows are set alight as well.
Those little details help immerse you in Valhalla’s engaging story, and I was often torn between my completionist tendencies and wanting to know more about the main plot. A large part of that is because the voice acting is terrific. The emotion voice actors convey through their performances helps make the cast of characters feel authentic and genuine in their respective desires and goals.
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is extremely polished, especially with the sheer volume of content, but there are still some small issues. The repetitive missions needed to receive a daily reward are limited to a handful of rinse-and-repeat tasks, but they’re quick and can usually be finished in a matter of minutes. There have also been small issues with the game not registering when I was near an item on the ground, which required me to walk away and come back to it.
The game’s parkour elements are well done, and in their best moments, you feel like an unstoppable beast. There can be some issues with movement detection, though. At one stage, I jumped off a wall and landed at the base of a hillside. The game’s physics engine didn’t like that, and I went from full health to instant death. I’ve also encountered glitches that wouldn’t allow me to complete a quest until I saved and reloaded my game.
But with all that said, it’s imperative I note the developers at Ubisoft have patched the game on multiple occasions and are actively working out both major and minor bugs. They’ve been extremely open and transparent in this process, and they’re to be commended for how diligent they are in addressing this. I also need to emphasize that I haven’t personally encountered any game-breaking issues in more than 100 hours of playtime.
Put another way: None of the bugs I mentioned above remotely take away from the incredible gameplay experience of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, and by the time this is published, most or all of those issues may have been patched out.
I could keep writing about Assassin’s Creed Valhalla for days, but if I did, I wouldn’t be able to keep playing it. So here’s the bottom line: Go buy it. And if you already have, then go play it some more. This is one game that is made to be played for a very long time.
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla earns 4.5 GiN Gems out of 5 because it’s the closest any of us will ever get to being real Vikings.
Developers: Ubisoft Montreal
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Stadia, Xbox One, Xbox Series X