Assassin’s Creed Valhalla

When I pre-ordered my PlayStation 4, I took advantage of an offer from Sony where you got three launch games for the price of two. Like most launch lineups, it was slim pickings, but I went with Killzone Shadow Fall (because it was one of the only made-for-next-gen choices), Call of Duty: Ghosts, and Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. Black Flag was my first AC game and I absolutely fell in love with it. I spent many hours over that winter break clearing every icon on the map and wishing I could pirate around the Caribbean forever. I was so into the game that I’ve since bought and played Assassin’s Creed, AC 2, AC 3, Brotherhood, Revelations, Syndicate, Origins, and Odyssey. I’m not as into the Vikings theme as many others seem to be, but I liked Origins and Odyssey enough that Valhalla was still a definite day one purchase. What complicated matters, though, was the fact that the game was originally slated to launch just a week before Cyberpunk 2077, a game I knew I wanted to play at launch alongside my friends. Well, when Cyberpunk was delayed by three weeks, I felt like a month would be enough time to finish Valhalla before I found my way to the streets of Night City. I was a few days off. [Some spoilers ahead]

I’m framing my experience like this because those last few days of finishing the game felt torturous. I have a very hard time putting games aside without beating them, especially if I’ve already sunk many hours into them. I wasn’t about to stop playing Valhalla when Cyberpunk came out because I was, I thought, right near the end of the game. Except I wasn’t. The game’s narrative structure is a bit loose, because like the last couple of AC games there are multiple branches of the broad, overarching story, each with its own quest lines. You have Eivor’s storyline, the Brotherhood storyline, the present day (Order of the Ancients) storyline, and the Asgard storyline, all independent yet woven together to form the “whole” story. This isn’t necessarily different than Origins or Odyssey, which had similar structures, but the game isn’t exactly clear about how these elements fit together. When I reached the “end” of Eivor’s storyline, I was legitimately unsure if I’d “beat” the game. Further, even after I’d finished the other storylines, it didn’t feel like the storylines had converged in a satisfying way. I think this was, in part, due to the way the last several stretches in Eivor’s story drag on and on. Just when you think you’ve done the last thing, they open a new area that you’re required to conquer. And that word, “required,” is what I think is to blame for my annoyance with the last chunk of the narrative.

Before I get into that, let me say that I understand pacing is a very difficult thing to nail in an open world game. When you give your players the freedom to explore an open world, complete side quests unrelated to the main quest, and finish segments of the narrative whenever they choose, you are essentially leaving the pace of the game and the narrative in their hands. You can include things to remind the player of the main narrative or incentivize main quests over side quests, but the more you do so the more you risk making your players feel more restricted and less “free” in this open world you’ve set up for them. So, it’s a balance, but even when you get it mostly right, players can be their own worst enemies. I have to admit that when I hear people talk about an open world game having “too much side content” or “poor pacing” (due to the aforementioned side content), I want to snap a controller in half. Not really. They are so expensive now. Anyway, it makes me angry. Because side content is, if a game is pretty well designed, optional. You don’t need to participate in any of it. So, if you do, and if that makes you like the game less or feel that the narrative is paced poorly, that is explicitly on you, right? You had a choice to go through the narrative at your own pace or to ignore side content, and you chose not to. How is that the game’s fault? We should celebrate open world games that allow for varying experiences, where one person can mainline the story in a manageable amount of time and another can spend many more hours with optional side content.

My problem with Valhalla’s pacing is that much of the content is not optional. Even if we leave aside the grinding (of side content) that seems required to be high enough in level to complete main missions, in order to “truly” complete the game, you have to go through all of the above mentioned storyline quests. You have to go through all of Eivor’s missions, all of the Asgard missions, all of the present day missions, and all of the Brotherhood missions. In addition to this, the game leads you to believe you’re approaching the climax several times, only to then introduce a new area that you must go through all of the steps to conquer and move the story along.

If I was playing this game in isolation, during a slow summer, maybe I wouldn’t have been quite as irked as I was by it. But we are in one of the busiest release windows in recent memory, and I have a new console and several new games to play. And I stand by my complaint that the interweaving of the four narrative branches is loose and unclear, and I think that played directly into my issue with the pace as well. When added to a few very irksome bugs (which seem laughable now that I’ve also just completed Cyberpunk, but more on that in the next post) and confusing “world events,” which have replaced side quests (so they’re essentially side quests under a different name and with a worse tracking system), I was left somewhat disappointed in Valhalla. Does that mean I disliked it? No! I decided to start with my negative impressions because the crush of new consoles and games to play is clearly affecting how I consume media, so it all felt very relevant and timely. But there was a lot to like about Valhalla, too.

I know there are some people that are annoyed at the series’ move away from stealth and toward open combat, and I have mixed feelings about it. I thought that by the time they got to Black Flag, Ubisoft had gotten very good at designing forts and other areas that required you to find one of several stealthy ways to infiltrate and topple. But sometimes, in my impatience, I wanted to just rush in and murder a bunch of bad guys and move on. Where it was very difficult to do that in previous games, it is very easy (and, in fact, preferred) in Valhalla. Especially as I gained levels and became more powerful, it felt very cathartic to vent my frustrations by running straight into battle, an axe in each hand, flinging myself into hordes of enemies and severing limbs and heads with relative ease. Returning to a previously challenging area later in the game, when I was very powerful, was particularly satisfying, as I felt I was exacting bloody revenge on the foes that had once given me such a hard time.

The game is also gorgeous. As with Origins and Odyssey, I spent a whole lot of time in photo mode, mostly capturing shots of the game’s incredible lighting and atmospheric effects. As I was sifting through my screenshots after playing Origins I remember thinking “how many shots of the sun did I need?” Then, with Odyssey, I had the same problem and thought “hah, I did it again.” And, now, well… I just have to resign myself to the fact that I will always walk away from a new AC game with dozens of screenshots of the sun. Rising. Setting. Behind a cloud. Behind a building. By the water. By a mountain. By itself. I have a problem, okay?

In addition to the graphics being great, Ubisoft continues to be masters of the physicality of open worlds. They are so good at creating topographic and geological environments, and I don’t think they get enough credit for it. I get it. With so much content in a game, how often do you have time to slow down and appreciate the way a river flows from a glacial peak, down to a small lake that feeds into a waterfall that has shorn jagged cliffs into the mountainside and created a system of caves? I found myself taking time to appreciate these things pretty often, but if I had time (and incentive) I would love to spend hours just travelling around the intricately designed worlds of Origins, Odyssey, and Valhalla, just looking for interesting and beautiful geographic features. A small example that I stupidly did not get a screenshot of: I saw a small tree that was set into an outcropping of rock in a hilly field. The rock on that side of the hill had crumbled, leaving a cleft in the hill, and where the ground became soft and probably mineral-rich, a small tree had been lucky enough to take root. It wasn’t special. There was no particular purpose to it. But some designer had thought about the environment closely and with such care that they added this small detail that most people would probably never even notice or think about. This kind of environmental detail is why, for whatever flaws they might have, I will probably always love these kinds of AC games.

Though the setting of ninth century England wasn’t quite as iconic as Ancient Greece or Egypt, there were some fun places to explore and odd allusions here and there. One of my favorite things to do was find and explore abandoned Assassins bureaus around the country. In fact, I wish there was a bit more to them than a brief environmental/platforming segment and a few scrolls. But I did like them enough as-is, and reading the scrolls left behind was a nice way to tie the long-standing Assassins’ story in with the current history of the region.

Some of the allusions and Easter eggs I ran across seemed very appropriate, and some just seemed… odd. Robin Hood’s band of merry men? Makes sense! A side quest that is based on and directly named after one of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales? Duh! A character made to look like The Prodigy’s Keith Flint, who asks you to beat up a bishop while he and his band sings “Smack My Bishop”? Yea- wait, what? I mean, yeah, they’re an English band, but what an odd choice. There are tonnes (see what I did there? With the British spelling? Because it’s a game set in England? I should delete this) of very famous British bands that they could have used. The Beatles. The Rolling Stones. The Spice Girls. That one with the dumb, unoriginal, angry brothers. Why The Prodigy? One of my favorite side quests/allusions was obtaining Excalibur, though. I waited until I was pretty much done with everything else in the game before embarking on that particular journey, and I kind of wish I’d sought it earlier. I definitely liked the dual axe thing, but the journey to find Excalibur was very satisfying and using it as a weapon was fun.

And to cram in a few more scattershot thoughts, I will say I thought the depiction of three religions (Paganism, Old Norse, and Christianity) trying to coexist was interesting. At one point, Eivor says “their soft god,” referring to Jesus, which I thought was very amusing. I loved that you could not only pet and cuddle the cats in the game, but you could have a ship cat! A cat! On your ship! Speaking of ships, the naval stuff was meh. Nothing will beat pirating on the open seas, but I guess I wasn’t expecting it to. I did love my rainbow ship decorations, though, with matching happy, smiling shields. Very tonally appropriate. The three witch sisters (the Daughters of Lerion) might have been my favorite quest in the game. They were super hard and reminded me of the Valkyries in God of War, but beyond that I loved their backstory of fallen family, betrayal, and vengeance. The fishing kind of sucked. But you do get into a rap battle with a squirrel at one point, so you win some, you lose some. Overall, I did like the game, but the pacing issues, seemingly sloppy mission design in some areas, and bugs, kept it from being among my favorite AC games.

This Magic Moment

When I was writing my top 20 list for this site, I was constantly wavering between games that I thought were objectively great and games that I had a special, personal experience with. I struggle with that every time I make a list or share my favorite video game/movie/book with people, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot as I make my way through Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate.

Syndicate

So far, Syndicate is as good as I’ve come to expect from an Assassin’s Creed game. The graphics and dedication to environmental detail is superb, the controls are fluid and intuitive, and the combat feels like a well-choreographed dance (when I get in the groove, anyway). With two years and as many AC games between it and Black Flag, it should be a better game. It is, arguably. The graphics are a bit better, the interface is slightly improved, there are some new features. It’s not hitting me as hard as Black Flag, though. I can play Syndicate for a couple of hours and be satisfied with putting the controller down. With Black Flag, I didn’t want to stop playing. Like, ever. I would play for hours, convincing myself I needed to sleep and maybe shower before jumping right back to my swashbuckling adventures. I thought about playing it when I wasn’t playing it. I dreamed about it. I was legitimately sad when I approached 100% completion.

So what is it that’s so different? Black Flag does have the advantage when it comes to setting. As gorgeously rendered as Syndicate’s Victorian London is, it’s, well, Victorian London. Dim, dirty, and drearily urban. Black Flag had some urban areas, but it was the vast, bright, sparkling Caribbean seas and islands that I most vividly remember. I could do all of the same building hopping and street stalking I can do in Syndicate, but then I could hop on my very own pirate ship and sail into the eye of a vicious tropical storm.

AC Black Flag

But can setting really impact my experience with a game that much? It could also have been when I played Black Flag, which was the winter break just after buying my PS4 at launch. So it was an exciting time, because I had time to devote to games and Black Flag was one of my first of the new generation of consoles. Sometimes I can feel pressure to rush through as many games as I can during the breaks between semesters, but I only had a few PS4 games so I gave myself plenty of time to dedicate to playing them. How much does this ‘right place, right time’ factor affect my reception of games? A lot, I would venture to guess. When I reflect on games that I’ve had a strong reaction to (Dragon Quest VIIIFallout 3Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic), I remember the actual act of playing them in addition to the games themselves. The time surrounding their playing seems special in some way. There was a sense of freedom and excitement, despite what my life was like surrounding the game. If I had played any of them, or Black Flag, at a different time, with different expectations/priorities/distractions, would I have become as invested? It seems impossible to know, but the logical part of my brain says that I probably wouldn’t have been ‘pulled in’ or immersed as deeply in some situations. I probably would have liked them, sure, but if I hadn’t had hours to spend playing Dragon Quest VIII while I was on leave, or Fallout 3 when I was job hunting, or Black Flag when I was on break, I probably would not have become as obsessed and overwhelmed by the worlds they presented me with.

Much of this is pointless, I understand that. Who really cares what makes a game a favorite? But it’s interesting to think about, and I do so pretty often, especially as I age and talk with younger gamers about experiences they might not be able to fully appreciate (the transition from 2D to 3D games, for instance). Someone could play Mario Kart 64 and Mario Kart: Double Dash back to back and make the obvious judgement that Double Dash is a better game. It’s a much smoother experience, thanks to improved frame rate, the graphics are much improved, there is more diversity in the gameplay, etc. And I would agree with them. Double Dash is a better game. But there is too much magic surrounding the time I spent with Mario Kart 64 for it to be that simple. I liked Mario Kart 64 more in the moment. If I hadn’t played it when it came out and played it just before I tried Double Dash, I’m sure I would had a completely different opinion of it.

Mario Kart 64

I don’t have a point that I’m working toward here, I’m just sort of talking (or, uh, typing) to myself. The question that often spawns these types of thoughts for me is “what is your favorite game of all time?” Will any game ever unseat my current favorite, Chrono Trigger? I have played better games, probably. I will play better games. But time and nostalgia and that nameless sense of timeless magic will likely prevent me from ever ‘liking’ a game more.

 

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