Meet Eivor, an ice-blonde Viking with a spring-loaded blade wrapped around one wrist, a longboat, thronged with loyal brutes, and a pet raven, called Sýnin, who likes to keep a low cruising altitude, like a feathered UAV. Now meet England, variously composed of stone, thicket, hillside, and churl, caressed by freezing fogs and bright-yellow mornings, as if an egg yolk had broken and bled all over the clouds. The year is 873 A.D., and the pair do not get along. Their relationship is one of invasion and retaliation: just as Eivor, who journeys to England with notions of violently settling down, raids a local encampment, so, too, does England strike back, plunging the foreign pillager into a maelstrom of rain, mud, and Germanic accents. One look at Eivor trudging up from a river bank, wrapped in a soaking cloak, and you think, Why bother? To the victor go the toils.
Then again, it isn’t as though Eivor were arriving from a land of warmth and peace. The first act of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is set in Norway, where the night sky is restless with aurora, and numerous clans itch with the desire for conflict. This early sandbox—or, rather, ice box—is a blast. You can partake in minigames of drinking and dice, bouts of combat, or just sail around, taking in the tundra. And—get this—you actually meet a couple of assassins! Real ones, robed in white and red, with their ring fingers lopped off, and their conversational manner thoroughly aloof. At this point, the notion of an assassin in an Assassin’s Creed game feels novel. For a while now the polar-white hoods have been ditched in favour of period chic, and the most we tend to get, by way of tradition, are oblique nods to the rituals of old.
We soon meet King Harald, who rocks up under a creamy waterfall of hair and gives off the vaguely distracted vibes of someone who would be a lot happier in Southern California, with a surfboard under his feet. He comes bearing peace, an end to the infighting via the cooling balm of unification. “It is natural to fear change,” he says, to a chamber full of gathered countrymen. “To resist it. But all things change and all things end.” Evidently, Harald didn’t play the last game, the Greek-flavoured Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, of which many things can be said, but certainly not that it ever ended. According to howlongtobeat.com, a leisurely playthrough of the main story and the side missions will take you just over 185 hours; completionists can look forward to more than 355 hours, but I’m not convinced that anyone has actually seen the credits. For comparison, Homer only felt the need to stretch to 10 hours and 47 minutes, for the audiobook of The Odyssey.
I left the Spartan hero of that adventure shipwrecked on an old save file somewhere in the Peloponnese long ago. Thus, it was a relief, after Eivor dodges the draft of Harald’s truce and alights in England looking for glory, to see a map that felt remotely manageable. Behold, Hadrian’s Wall to the north, an ocean battering the coasts of east and south, and to the west an impassable shimmer, like cut crystal, as the simulated world drops away. The plot is still powered by the Animus: that rusty contraption into which the people of the present day plug themselves, in order to live out the memories of their ancestors, cached inside their own genetic code. It was always an odd narrative frame, splicing the historical epic with a sci-fi strain. In Valhalla we follow Layla Hassan, an engineer sifting through the ether of history in an attempt to save Earth, a miserable rock blighted by a failing magnetic field and all manner of ecological collapse.
The more pressing problem for Layla, however, as with Desmond Miles, the protagonist of the first few entries, is not that Earth will soon be history, but that history—at once more appealing, with its far-off glow, and more urgent—will sweep them aside. No sooner was I jerked back to the joyless present than I went sniffing around the Animus, eager for a return trip. Eivor’s struggles, meanwhile, concern a different kind of environmental ruin: namely, Roman. The countryside is strewn with statues of old gods, ironed out with straits of brick, and in the cities amphitheatres hold court like broken crowns. At one point, wandering in Shropshire (or, rather, Sciropescire) I happened upon the remains of Uriconium, and couldn’t help but smile at the layering of history that this series is unparalleled at pulling off—the scattering of kingdom upon kingdom, like ashes. Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I.
Sadly, that string of hours, spent clambering up towers and defogging the map, bounding across the fields in a hopeful, happy loop, was the last of the fun on offer. Why should this be the case? Why do these games so often, these days, thicken and stale before their stories are done? I can put my finger on a couple of reasons. The narrative flits between meeting halls—through which blow a number of windy discussions on conquest—and flirts with the Python-esque. You only need to see one cowardly king shouting down from the ramparts, thumbing his nose at the Nordics below, to see the lighter side of the Dark Ages, and it becomes tough to treat any of it with real weight.
And then there is the combat, a stew of stupid animations (a heavy axe blow, for example, sends your opponent flying like a pillow) and unsatisfying visual style. While fighting, the camera hangs back slightly too far, afraid to catch a steamy whiff of Viking breath, and rushes into closeup, like a shameless documentarian, whenever a grisly kill animation is cued up. Compare God of War, another Norse saga, whose camera stayed close, ensuring that the spray of its bloodshed remained hot and fresh in the memory. Here your enemies leak not only streams of red but numbers as well, owing to its RPG streak. I miss the cleaner clashes of yesteryear, where the likes of Altair and Connor would take after the camera, vanquishing entire mobs with a sequence of swashbuckling movements and cuts.
The new game suffers most of all from the anxiety of influence: from the general bleeding effect that occurs in many of developer Ubisoft’s releases, through which their mechanics mingle and homogenise across series, but also from the presence of other games. I can see no great reason for the map to be gated into level-sensitive zones, along with your quests, other than that The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt had a similar approach—and happened also to be brilliant. Rummaging through Layla’s laptop, I found a recorded chat between Desmond and his colleague Lucy Stillman. He asks about the dangers of his continued dips into the past: “Is it possible that if I do this for too long, it’ll push my own memories aside? That I’ll be everyone but myself after a while?” “That’s called identity substitution,” Lucy says, diagnosing the condition of the entire franchise in recent years.
To its credit, Ubisoft is aware of this ailment, and Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is keen to keep the genetic memories of its ancestors alive. Hence the settlement of Ravensthorpe, established early on, which harks back to the hero of Assassin’s Creed II, Ezio, who built up the town of Monteriggioni in his spare time. We also find Eivor equipped with a hood, the better for blending in with processions of monks, just as we used to do. And the landscape, while sprawling, doesn’t consist mainly of desert or sea; its three major cities—London, Winchester, and York—are girdled by greenery and intriguing distractions. It’s no wonder I spent so long clambering up those towers; I wanted the sights, but, more than that, I wanted the familiar ways, if only for a time. “I think people just want boundaries. They want to see the four walls that pen them in,” Desmond says, as he talks about the “rituals that give comfort” to our lives, and, indeed, our games: “But that’s just going through the motions.”
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Available on: PlayStation 4 [reviewed on], Xbox One, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X / S, PC, Stadia, Luna
Release Date: November 10, 2020
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