Just seen a gameplay walkthrough of Immortals Fenyx Rising Definitely not Breath of the Wild. Just breath-taking theft. Anyway,
Six hours into Assasins Creed: Valhalla and I am deeply unmoved. It’s lovely looking and all but it feels a considerable step backwards in respect to a sense of place or even it’s own identity.
Ubisoft have been streets ahead of the competition in respect to creating simulations of populous spaces since Black Flag. What they lacked in narrative depth or direction was easily compensated for in terms of spectacle and scale.
Odyssey added to this by investing in an overall tone of cartoonish wit and family recrimination which provided a nice opportunity for a spot of fable-making or un-making. The quests were never particularly good but they worked, they fit within the wider structure which was really about…well, an odyssey. The transience and exploration were the point. Kassandra (there was no other choice) was an ode to exploration. She was uniquely, divinely blessed with the skill to traverse terrain, culture, and her moment in time at the place of a crucible in Near-Eastern and Western Civilisation, myth and legend.
Whether this is “historically accurate” is besides the point. It is an invocation of the history that history has since told of itself. History is fundamentally a story by which people understand their present. That’s what Assassin’s Creed Games have done uniquely well- presented themselves as moments which self-consciously place themselves within the wider arc of History.
So Valhalla really should be a done deal. The Vikings arrive in England at a point when the bones of the Western Roman Empire are starting to be fleshed out with the musculature of Christendom, a second Empire beginning to establish its own post-Latin culture nonetheless beset by the Moorish Conquests in the South and now Demons from the North, foretelling Armageddon. It is an era positively pregnant with myth and legend, poised on the edge of eternity. Valhalla is bereft of any of that.
Having spent 5 hours in Norway, fighting people and stealing their stuff, I’ve since set sail to England, to fight people, and steal their stuff. Why? Just cos, basically. I mean people talk about it, they’re like "We’re Vikings, we sure love to fight people and steal their stuff! " They talk about it like it’s work. There’s no motive. They’re Vikings, the buy in here is-you know what Vikings are, do Viking things, off you go. Go and burn things. Go and fight in a castle etc. In Odin’s name, I will pick these Berries, by Thor I have levelled up +2.
The engine beneath Valhalla is just very bad at being a game in which there is reward in this endless cycle of dead-eyed violence. I was initially going to discuss mechanics etc but the single biggest condemnation of it is that it’s just dull. Here we are, the Vikings, history’s great raider people, I’ve sacked two villages, I’m bored, can I go home now. We have taken the castle, my brave clan are trapped in crouching animation cycles because I haven’t broken a Quest Pot. I challenge you to a Duel in the name of my disgraced father, great foe of my people, I will bring shame upon your family, Valhalla will witness this great clash, you have two entirely telegraphed attack patterns, we will circle each other for 5 minutes, you will walk into a cliff face and get stuck.
As you arrive in England, a dramatically confused conversation takes place. One of your companions asks about the cross on a church, to which your well-travelled brother replies that it commemorates the cross on which their God died. The other Viking scoffs in response wondering why any people would ever worship a God who was humiliated. This is the essence of what Valhalla could have been, an exploration of the intersection between a nascent Western Christianity seemingly in retreat in the face of an established, irrepressible pagan Society at their zenith almost bursting with violent power. Your protagonist’s people are in the ascendant. Everything should be marked with a sense of momentum and energy.
Instead, the brother halts his companion in mid flow and essentially scolds him for his ignorance and intolerance on the matter of other people’s beliefs. At the precise point where there should be motive, fire, soul, things just collapse into confusion. There’s no voice or tone. Everything is based around what you do. And what you do is boring.
The issue of course is that the Vikings are really problematic. Your archetypal “a people of contrasts”. Scandinavian historians and archaeologists have been discussing with great interest the quandry inherent in uncritically approaching a civilisation which eulogised rape, slavery, theft, slaughter of innocent parties etc as essential credos. Wherever they fell, the various Viking invasions were reported worldwide within contemporary sources as something akin to the arrival of ISIS. Unlike ISIS however they also settled functional and thriving population centres, immigrated and peacefully joined established civilisations, were masterful crafts people and excelled in farming both the land and sea, and established a highly literate and artistic culture and folklore which proved fully capable of surviving the foreign religion and ideology which the Vikings eventually converted to en masse.
Valhalla ignores all of this completely in favour of presenting the Vikings as some sort of race of dull poets whose insatiable violent output is not reflected in any other way besides talking about it perfunctorily and without relish. These unproblematic Vikings are boring. They are possibly the most videogame creation ever created, tediously intent on murder for progress, entirely lacking self-awareness, or joy.
This is best reflected in Eivor’s controls, a weird, unresponsive feeling like you are manipulating a drunken spider. Stroll like an undertaker, stumble into a jog, accidently climb the frame of a house. The purpose of controlling this…vehicle so far being to walk to boring people to talk to them about their boring problems and then find their boring solutions which invariably involve boring fighting (by Odin’s beard, tho. Vikings.).
Better to burn out, than fade away. Valhalla! This game should be Metal, dude. It should be adrenal and brutal and physical as a bare minimum. Not 150 hours of empty buildings, meaningless mechanics and dull people.
There was an interesting debate flared up in the comments of Alice’s review objecting to her quoting the “Burn Christ in his Home” line. A game which truly permitted the sort of fidelity around attacking the peaceful practitioners of any religion with the degree of wanton savagery and zeal which Valhalla mechanically facilitates should cause such debate (I actively practice a Christian faith, so I have skin in the game here, but I maintain the same for any other faith as well ). But at no point will you believe these people hate Christians, or indeed believe in or love anything.
Maybe in 40 hours of playtime Valhalla grows a personality. But it feels about as big a condemnation as I can think of to say that I it wants me to hang around for 40 hours to see if Vikings become interesting.
The most Viking thing I can say about Valhalla? Fuck off.