preciously worked against the grain making sure punters, and the wider world of gaming, understood its portrayal of viking culture wouldn’t align with the tried (tired), tested and overused barbarian stereotype. Is the Raven Clan
a brutal fighting force where Raiding and basic combat is concerned? Yep, absolutely. But is the Raven Clan not also one of ambition, diplomacy and expansion for reason, not unessential gain? Meh… that’s kind of a greywulf area, if you ask me. But as far as neighbours go, they’re okay. A DwulfG
pet, a kid learning the ways of fishmongering, an elderly woman managing stout young soldiers, creative tattoo designers, some sort of early-world ‘bureau’, a doctor who takes you on field (mushroom) trips to places you want
to be, a faithful and colourful raven named Sýnin
, and a waterfall in the backyard.
Yep, those ‘Danes
’, well they fit in just fine for mine.
"Eurviscre is no place to put bare feet up in recline, lest it be by a warm hearth...”
“This world is hard, and the gods care not,” exclaims a troubled Eivor after trying to help some kids in the harsh north of the Isles. Their dad needed to find a lost treasure to keep his kids warm, you see. Eurviscre
is no place to put bare feet up in recline, lest it be by a warm hearth. Still, they came first and he dove into cold, ruin-laden depths for their future. And in his efforts, drowned, leaving them now orphans.
They cry upon learning this information.
I couldn’t bring myself to LIE, though that is
an option. And while ascending the dilapidated tower to move on, and maybe nab a Large Brown Trout or two from the lake that surrounds Olikana Tower
-- the very lake that claimed the life of the father of these kids -- they keep wailing in the background. And no amount of Blue Bird or wind-shimmering visual perfection against the most orange sun and forever horizon you’ve ever seen will silence that sound.
Such is the World Events world of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla.
I talked at length about solitary events that hit personal tones in Red Dead Redemption 2
because the open-world genre has truly worked out that ‘world’ means more than ‘directed journey’. I use that last collection of words because the idea of an open-world is
But a vacuous world can exist. What good is SpeedTree and draw-distance if there’s nothing to fill it? In Valhalla, Ubisoft Montreal considered all of this, and it’s easy to see it borrowed heavily from The Witcher 3
and Red Dead Redemption 2
. The Ubi knack for repetition exists, but it’s now split in ways that trick you into thinking there’s none. In essence, removing towers doesn’t remove the point behind them, in Ubi’s case. Still, that basic shift has opened new design directives -- and outcomes -- that have opened up the Valhalla and AC experience, tenfold.
"Fallout as a series is renowned for it -- an open bunker, void of resources. It’s inhabitants, mere bones and radiated cloth. A Ham radio on with no signal. And oft, those skellies are of adult and child size...”
Remember the hobbit hovel in RDR2 where Arthur
is eventually buried a bit above? The day I found that hovel, my mind swam with question marks, as if I were a cartoon character from the 80s or 90s. Why is it here? Who lived, or lives, there? Why make such a house in a world of uniform construction?
Other games have played with this, too. Fallout as a series is renowned for it -- an open bunker, void of resources. It’s inhabitants, mere bones and radiated cloth. A Ham radio on with no signal. And oft, those skellies are of adult and child size. “Environmental storytelling” is the catch-all, but how you use it in a game-world is either set-dressing, or poignant. To Valhalla’s visual design, the aforementioned Ubi repetition exists here, but this is the most mature version of environmental storytelling the series has produced yet. But it comes coupled with the World Events we’re eager to blue-dot darken on our map; people, and peoples’ lives in a world not yet ready to be such. An odd statement, but bare with me.
"They play to the fears of the time; the plague, witches and ungodly beasts -- all abound for filler storytelling, or environmental storytelling...”
While these exist in the game’s Norway intro, it’s in England they not only surface triumphantly, but help sell the idea that vikings weren’t always bad invaders. This isn’t wholly by choice design, either. We can all be the best Eivor out there, rather each incident is a testament to the chaos and tumult of the time, and the machinations of those trying to control that. I mean, it’s Assassin’s Creed; a game designed around the idea of a secret order fighting a NWO (sans Hulk Hogan), so there’s obviously stretching here and there, but the way in which Ubisoft Montreal has filled its world(s) is glorious.
Odyssey arguably crossed a narrative line in the series, taking Greek mythology into its grasp and casting it at the player as canon for a franchise that had always treaded carefully around cultural myth (the creation of the Order and the Guild notwithstanding). And in Origins it was mostly handled through DLC. Valhalla takes a heady batch of berries from both and finds good middle ground, but they play to the fears of the time; the plague, witches and ungodly beasts -- all abound for filler storytelling, or environmental storytelling, as we’ve established. And as a locally R18+-rated game, the studios have done an incredible job of not being to OTT in this space. You might find a shop hidden in the tree-tops run by kids, and placate their game, but also find a Treasure Horde map as part of purchasing a single boot.
And these kids are off the leash, out in a violent world, but such was the times. And this is the sort of storytelling the series has lacked for a long time.
"Your job is to whack the tree and make the leaf fall; serving up a ready dose of Thorality™...”
You might also come across a child watching with great determination, a single leaf hanging lonely on a bald branch. Why? Her father said he’d come home before that tree’s last leaf fell, and he’s not back yet. Your job is to whack the tree and make the leaf fall; serving up a ready dose of Thorality to this kid; “your dad’s not coming home little one, move on”. A harsh lesson from a harsh culture (as witnessed in the Wulfkissed opener), but still moving in ways less binary than “bash that tree” as a directive.
What Valhalla does so cleverly is serve us that binary world where action and expectation -- from a gameplay perspective -- is concerned, and make it feel like we’re still impacting and that we’re a legitimate part of an ancient time-period where we control a magically-trained Raven, even if the Animus side of things is pulled right back (anomalies aside). It borrows, heavily, from the two games mentioned above, but paints itself with its own brush. And I’m still not tired of the expanded climbing puzzles tied to witchcraft, or the visits to Valhalla that have equal-measure quests and World Events. It doesn’t bother me that predictable AI responds how you’d expect, or that my horse magically appears from anywhere. That shops only really carry the bare essentials… that’s Ubi design to a tea. What carries it is the stories holding those binary events up; the meaningless-to-the-story notes riddled throughout the land, or the hidden caves with fresh food on the table for no reason, or the OP Drengr left to make you test just how you’ve managed yourself.
Best of all, however, is that you are a foreigner in this new world, and that world is yet to become itself. A tourist with the best of intentions but as brutal as your surrounds. It’s arguably the most indulgent Assassin’s Creed game yet, but it indulges in its world and not in characters so much (though the characters are awesome). And if you’re into world-building and discovery in ways The Witcher 3 and Red Dead Redemption 2 served up, as an Xmas alternative to waiting for the neon clock to right itself, you couldn’t go any better than Assassin’s Creed Valhalla.