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Hold the Heathen Hammer High - Assassin's Creed: Valhalla

Well Assassin's Creed is back, and this time we're going a-viking. So, grab your axe, a tankard of mead, and play Amon Amarth at full blast, because we're going to dive into the second-best Assassin's Creed game you'll play this year.

I'm playing the PS4 version of this game and I haven't beaten the main quest yet because as with the last two AC games, Valhalla is massive. You can play as a male or female, I played the male Eivor, who's voiced by Danish actor Magnus Bruun, best known for playing the villain Cnut on The Last Kingdom. A show about Vikings on Netflix, and worth watching.

You play as Eivor, a Viking of renown in the Raven Clan who leaves for England after they decide they can no longer stay in Norway. You and your clan arrive in Medieval England, put up a settlement, and soon begin the process of making alliances with the leaders of England (which at this point in time is made up of multiple Kingdoms. Along the way you can do side missions, explore the world and collect treasure, as one does. There's been some criticism, and fair criticism at that, regarding UbiSoft's core gameplay loops. And while that's a valid criticism, it's a gameplay loop I tend to enjoy and so it doesn't really bother me.

The gameplay builds upon what was done with Origins and Odyssey, with the combat really being the highlight. You can lock onto an enemy to take them down easier, and there's a lot of dodging and parrying involved. However, parrying was kind of frustrating in Odyssey since you always fought with the Spear of Leonidas, and in Valhalla that's been vastly improved. First of all, shields are back (YAY!), and if you time a parry correctly, you perform a shield bash which can potentially stun your opponent. You'll know you've done it right when "Stun Attack" is prompted onscreen. Doing so will grant you an instant kill using a variety of executions that depends on your weapon, and your enemy's weapon. At sixty hours in, I was still seeing new executions, which include: beheading with an axe, impaling a spear into someone's chest, decapitation with a sword, splitting a skull in half with a long axe, doing that with a small axe but then stomping on their head and forcing it into the ground and this driving the axe further, bashing someone's head to pieces with a shield, and hitting someone with a warhammer so hard that their head literally caves into their neck. Also, half the mooks who you kill in increasingly gory and horrendous waves are women, so props to the devs for gender equality. Very few games would have the balls to let you literally cave a woman's skull in. But UbiSoft showed complete gender equality here, and I call that progress.

Valhalla is easily the most violent Assassin's Creed to date. In some ways it reminds me of Ghost of Tsushima (aka the best Assassin's Creed game you'll play this year) the way limbs fly off and blood sprays about. But there's a stark contrast in the way the combat feels. Whereas Ghost of Tsushima feels precise, Valhalla feels more chaotic, much like the battles you see in The Last Kingdom. Personally, I really like that because it feels more Viking. It's particularly evident when you raid monasteries.

Raiding is a key component to this game. As you build your settlement, you can continue to upgrade it and add new stores and other buildings to boost it, but that costs supplies and raw materials. Supplies you can find anywhere in the world, but raw materials are only kept in monasteries, here's how it works. The entire map is connected via rivers, and you can sail your longship up and down all of them to traverse through the land. Monasteries are set locations on the map where you can institute a raid. You land and proceed to sack the monastery (and probably the town its part of) with your crew of Vikings. You know, a raid, which is what Vikings did. It's fun, especially if you start blasting Amon Amarth while doing so. Of course, you encounter resistance in the forms of guardsmen, but those are the only people you can kill. Killing civilians and priests will result in being desynchronized, which I admittedly found hilarious. For anyone who doesn't get it, the real Vikings didn't give a fuck about civilian casualties, and they were known for taking particular pleasure in killing priests. Cruelty-free Vikings were never a thing.

That said, for any Christian readers who may feel a bit guilty about this game, I want you to know that despite the absolutely idiotic article from last week (from a website I won't name), at no point does anyone ever yell "Kill Christ and burn down his house." If anything, tensions between Pagans and Christians are downplayed. When you first arrive in England, someone on your crew compares Jesus unfavorably to Thor, but that's about the extent of it. Aside from one side quest where Eivor escorts a group of Nuns who beat the shit out of Danes with their bare fists, which has been my favorite side quest so far, there's not much animosity between Pagans and Christians for religious reasons. Which I have mixed feelings about.

The game tries to present Eivor as a good person, and as generally in the right. The problem is that you're the invader, and while you never discriminate against anyone or kill civilians, it's evident from the gameplay that despite what the story is trying to say, you aren't the good guy here. You can't be because you're literally the invader. You're really only the "good guy" because Eivor becomes friends with the Assassins, who assure him the Templars (both groups are called different names at this point in the timeline) are bad. I feel like it's a missed opportunity, and I would have preferred if the devs had actually embraced the idea that Eivor is a villain protagonist, not some noble hero. That doesn't mean he should be evil, but his morality should be vastly different from the Saxons, as opposed to mildly so. It misses the mark even more if you come across an implication that the Assassins were responsible for the collapse of the Roman Empire, and thus hundreds of years of misery and lost knowledge.

Leveling and equipment since this review is already nearly three pages. Leveling up and equipment are handled differently here than in previous games. Abilities are things you have to find in the world. Whereas leveling up always gives you two skill points to put in the huge branching skill trees, so you always feel like you're getting something. Equipment doesn't come as loot from fallen foes. Instead its hidden in the world, and you can upgrade your equipment with ingots throughout the game. This lets you find something you like and stick with it. I'm still using my starting armor set and an axe I found in the first region, I've just leveled them accordingly.

Nitpicks. A handful of bugs that come with games this size, I wish they had one handed swords you could use with your shield, for some reason those don't exist for you, even though we see plenty of enemies wielding them.

If you liked Origins and Odyssey, you'll probably like Valhalla. If you don't, I sincerely doubt this will change your mind. Personally, I'm having a lot of fun, and of the three games since the soft reboot, I think Valhalla is the best. I'm interested to see what locations the upcoming games will be set in. I still think they should do Japan, but I don't know how likely that is since Sucker Punch beat them to the, well, punch. And did it better. Still, there's plenty of different locations in Asia that would be great to see. I've got my fingers crossed for Imperial China.


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