This week on Zero Punctuation, Yahtzee reviews Assassin's Creed Valhalla.
Prologue: Will Destroy the Galaxy for Cash
My latest novel, Will Destroy the Galaxy for Cash, has been out on audiobook for ages, yes, but now, the print and ebook versions are available from all good retailers, courtesy of Dark Horse Books! All the same words, but now you get to know how all the names are spelled!
Ah, Vikings. Who doesn't like Vikings? "English monasteries?" Oh, right. "Anyone who's ever been forced to listen to Norwegian black metal?" Yes, thank you. The point was, in the games industry, it seems to be only a matter of time before you go full Viking. God of War did it; Assassin's Creed are doing it; that new Elden Ring thing that FromSoftware are doing isn't strictly full Viking, I know, but it's definitely giving it some funny looks.
Fair play to Assassin's Creed; it held out longer than a lot of series would. I mean, it did the fucking American War for Independence before it did Vikings; that's like forcing yourself to eat all the party napkins before you can have any of the birthday cake. But there's no putting off going full Viking forever; it's one of the points on the graph: ninjas, pirates, Vikings, and I guess maybe cowboys. Hey! Is that a Ubisoft drone? Oh shit, it's taking notes. Sorry, everyone; don't know how they keep getting in here. If they announce Assassin's Creed Deadwood next year, I guess you can all blame me. Anyway, Vikings and Norse mythology have always been fairly prevalent in the world of video games. Not sure why; maybe it's because it hits all the right notes. It's not just that we get to cleave motherfuckers in twain for looking at us funny; it's that we can do it with a silly accent and a nice beard.
So everyone piles into the fun bus to enjoy some cleaving in twain, but Ubisoft, who, let's not mince words, are all over the fucking place these days, stands in front of the fun bus to go "Ooh, don't forget, the Vikings were a nuanced people who also did a lot of trading and colonizing when they weren't cleaving stuff in twain, historical accuracy, 'This game was developed by a multicultural team of extremely large beards,' and all that." And I can't help feeling there's a bit of wanting to have one's roast boar and eat it going on here as we and our group of hairy tattooed raiders run up to an English monastery to smash all the windows and set fire to everyone's pubes, and then a monk gets caught in the melee between me and the poorly-equipped Saxon bodyguard who was just trying to do his job, and the game goes, "Whoops! Don't kill civilians, or you'll desynchronize!", the implication being that killing innocent monks is in some way out of character for someone who is, at that precise moment, PILLAGING A MONASTERY. But let's wind back a little.
The plot of Assassin's Creed Valhalla concerns Eivor, a Norwegian warrior whose parents are killed by another Norwegian warrior, but who gets revenge before the prologue is over, which, much like most of the beards involved, leaves things at a bit of a loose end. For want of something to do, and in the wake of Norway being peacefully united under Harald Fairhair towards the end of the first millennium and becoming all lame and non-murdery, Eivor decides to sail to medieval England to start a new life, this being probably the only era in history where people went to England to make their lives more interesting; most other times, that's like going to the Arctic Circle for the beaches.
But fate has more in store for Eivor, as, for some reason, a couple of weird, dogmatic fellas with hooded robes and a slight finger deficiency are hitching a ride. Let the record now show that while the Order of Assassins normally reserved their trademark hidden blades for the actual sworn-in devotees to their cause, it seems they also occasionally passed them out to randoms if they seem even vaguely into the whole "freedom from oppression" thing, or if they just got dragged along to someone's party and forgot to bring a gift, because I can't imagine these Assassins not feeling a little awkward after the monastery-pillaging starts in earnest.
So we have the second Ubisoft sandbox in as many weeks to be set in England; I guess we're making the most of it before Brexit really kicks in and the British government starts selling off national monuments for bread. But while Assassin's Creed Valhalla seems to be a lot stabler than Watch Dogs: Legion, and my PC runs it without me having to constantly hold a sick bag in front of the vents, it's also a lot less interesting to talk about; without a unique selling point like NPC recruitment, it's just another Ubisoft Jiminy Cockthroat, another to-do list of samey stealth action missions with crafting and collectibles. While riding over the green hills of merry England at one point, I suddenly realized that I could switch to Ghost of Tsushima at this moment and probably not fucking notice, if it weren't for the main character suddenly wearing a much more interesting hat.
There's still the bird-scouting and the RPG elements from the last two games, but it's a little closer in spirit to the Assassin's Creed II era, since you've got a whole village to pour resources into and a bit more of a story focus. But who the fuck cares?! It's just another point on the line graph, another shake of the bag full of the same shit. The only thing that really marks it out is that, instead of the climbing all over elaborately-realized cathedrals and palaces we got in previous games, you're leaping across mud huts and wattling and fifteen copy-pasted examples of the same Viking longhouse, because it's the fucking Dark Ages. And they missed a trick by still having us jump into piles of straw and leaves when it would've been much more authentic to replace them with gigantic piles of shit; I guess Ubisoft thought that might've been a little uncomfortably representative of the company's trajectory over the years.
The initial spark of getting to play a burly Viking can't be sustained through the subsequent 40 hours of trudging through mud and dealing with political squabbles between people dressed in earth tones in the name of Assassin's Creed's trademark historical accuracy. I was getting sniffy about the ethical ramifications of monastery-pillaging earlier, but if anything, the game should've learned more into that; let us tear shit up, swinging a giant "fucketh-off" hammer as our muscles bulge like mating walruses, and seduce all the hot monk chicks away from their inadequate monk boyfriends. It's this "trying to hit all the points at once" thing that muddles the tone, trying to make out like we're some kind of freedom fighter while we laughingly set all the pigsties ablaze and hunt down the usual laundry list of Templars that we are assured are evil, but who seem to be mostly minding their own fucking business.
There's an RPG skill tree split between melee, ranged, or stealth-focused builds, but you have to do all three at various times, so there's not much point in specializing. There isn't really a stealthy way to raid a monastery; I try floating the idea to my raiding party while we're all sprinting up to the gate waving axes, but turns out it's hard to talk with your shield between your teeth. And there's the longboat, because having your own ship has ticked enough boxes in previous Assassin's Creed games to keep bringing back, but lacking the need for ocean travel, it's just there for moving quickly along rivers, and there's no boat combat unless you notice a particularly antisocial-looking frog.
So that's Assassin's Creed Valhalla, noteworthy only for its extreme un-noteworthiness. What a dull way to end the video; here's a picture of a leopard in a scarf.
- Has the blood of conquerors: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- And after they've done ninjas, pirates, vikings AND cowboys it's probably going to have to go to astronauts
- Sure was a nice civilization we had for a while there