Assassin's Creed has never been short of ambition. You're not donning the Assassin's cowl expecting a breezy 15-hour historical jaunt. There's even something comforting about starting a new one and knowing you'll probably be at this for months, chiseling away at the latest dense epic. But these behemoths just keep on growing, with every game piling on new systems and diversions. Things are getting out of control.
Even in this age of big games, Valhalla (opens in new tab)'s size and density is noteworthy. It is a vast, endless thing. But I don't really have much going on right now, trapped in my flat as I am, so I'm fine with losing myself in medieval England. It's not really the scale or length of Valhalla that's the problem—it's the lack of focus. It is heaving with shiny things to grab, quests, sieges, raids and settlement management, and they all suffer because of Ubisoft's divided attention.
Starting with Origins, Ubisoft started to really rethink Assassin's Creed. Methodically stabbing people had slowly been pushed further to the side, and when the series hit Egypt it more overtly moved from a stealth game to an action game. Odyssey then threw a whole RPG layer on top of it, which has been continued with Valhalla. But through all these big shifts, Ubisoft hasn't really cut anything. All the stealth stuff is still there, but it competes with the faster, more immediately rewarding action-RPG combat. There are all of these legacy systems, and then all the new Viking shenanigans, and it all just feels like too much.
This isn't to say that stealth and assassinations have been thrown into the game without any consideration. The whole world has been designed with sneaking in mind, even if it's much simpler to just go in axes swinging, and there's a dedicated assassination system where you've got a huge list of targets to get through. Unfortunately, a lot of concessions have been made to stretch this across 100 hours and several beefy maps.
Most of the castles, forts and villages you sneak through blend together—a collage of thatched roofs and wooden towers—never really offering any memorable challenges. And that list of hits is just as forgettable. Few of your victims will be characters you actually know, and taking them out is as simple as just walking up to them and stabbing them. They're often just hanging out on a bench or walking through town. Valhalla does a great job building up this idea that there's a vast conspiracy and you can't trust anyone, but that's undermined when you're sent to kill a random blacksmith you've never met before. Though none of this is procedurally generated, it doesn't feel bespoke either.
Valhalla lets you be an assassin, it just doesn't let you feel like one. You'll kill a ludicrous number of people, but there are no plots, no need to plan, no risk if you get caught—it's shed all of its appeal. And I don't see a solution if the series is going to keep on getting larger. A smaller number of elaborate, set piece assassinations would be great, but how do you pace that out over a game that's probably still 50 hours long even if you're just skimming? The system Ubisoft has come up with—initially in Odyssey—doesn't leave much of an impact, but it's always present.
Even things that feel quintessentially Viking don't quite land. Raids, for instance, look thrilling, with your horde of warriors burning down villages and forts, but after you've done a couple they devolve into a repetitive, formulaic activity devoid of surprises or real progression. This is one of Valhalla's biggest new additions, something you could wrap a game around, but instead it becomes another item on a gargantuan checklist, forced to make room for crap like flyting—making Viking rap battles this bad should be a crime—and the endless array of brief not-quite-side-quests that rarely go anywhere.
Assassin's Creed has never been one to focus just on a few good ideas, though; it always seems like it's being pulled in too many directions. It's almost baked into the series thanks to its most cumbersome legacy: the overarching story. It's always been much better at historical fiction than sci-fi, but this is constantly interrupted by Isu, Pieces of Eden and modern day nonsense. The latter, at least, plays a much smaller role these days, but that makes it even more awkward when you're reminded you're in the Animus and really playing as Layla Hassan, who sucks.
It's like the Snyder Cut, going off on wild tangents and dragging you all over the world at super speed. It's all ambition, no restraint. You can get high and visit Asgard. You can fight frost giants. After a certain point, you can drop everything you're doing and take an extended trip to Vinland, in North America, to hunt one man across a vast forest, all without your fancy gear. You have to make new allies, investigate forts, trade for local equipment, and there's this distinct survival vibe throughout the trek.
I'm fine with Assassin's Creed veering into mythology, and only a few paragraphs ago I said I wanted more bespoke assassinations, but these side adventures never comfortably slot into the main story. Vinland in particular feels like something experimental that never really came together. It doesn't commit to its theme of survival, instead just making you grind ore and leather for gear, and it is bizarrely paced. I ended up bumping into my target in the second fort I investigated, and once I killed him there wasn't much more to do. A whole region, dedicated to a task I accidentally completed. I stuck around to get more useless Vinland gear just because I felt bad. It's simultaneously too much and not enough.
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Maybe it's because I spend a lot of my time as an editor telling people to kill their darlings, but I can't stop seeing things desperately in the need of pruning. And it's tough because all of these systems and tangents have a lot of potential, some of it already reached. I adore running Ravensthorpe, for instance, even if Valhalla's management system is extremely shallow. It roots Eivor more firmly in the world she kills her way through, and I've found myself growing extremely fond of its inhabitants. I want to protect them, raising the stakes of the deals I've made with England's rulers. But all of that could be achieved just as well without making me grind for resources so I can build a farm that will give me a small buff.
There's an argument for nearly everything deserving its place in Valhalla, but not all together in a single game. Next time, it might be nice to put some of these things in the vault. Sailing hasn't really evolved since Black Flag, so maybe we don't need to bring it back again and again. Let's toss out all those trite minigames while we're at it. Death to tradition!
Unfortunately, I don't get the impression Ubisoft is going to rein it in. There's an expectation now that these games will keep growing, even after they're out. My dreams of a single-city Assassin's Creed with more depth than breadth, and—for unrelated reasons—a transmog system right from the start, are probably unrealistic. I'd kill for something like Unity's Paris again, but the series is heading in the other direction at full steam. I'll keep pining away regardless.