Assassin's Creed Valhalla has the typical Ubisoft open world map: a massive space obscured by fog until you climb every tower only to reveal a writhing, moaning pile of icons, each signaling what feels like the impossible: Fun here!
Over a decade of Ubisoft open world map cleaning experience gave me my doubts. Assassin's Creed, Far Cry, Watch Dogs, Ghost Recon—most of Ubisoft's starting lineup promise an abundance of cool stuff to do, only to deliver what amounts to, at worst, an empty collection task, or at best, a minor riff on the challenges already laid out and executed better in the campaign.
I'll never look back on collecting all those feathers in the first Assassin's Creed fondly, but I enjoy clearing out an outpost or climbing a tower as much as the next person. I could just do them in my sleep after as much practice as I've had. These little tasks rarely stir the heart or prod the mind in interesting ways. But I think Ubisoft's finally done it, and without reinventing the wheel. Almost none of my time feels wasted in Assassin's Creed Valhalla, and nearly every node on that big, scary map has something worth seeing.
The most notable improvement are the sidequests. Valhalla's World Events are pure viking cheese flavor dust. Rather than send you on long winded fetch quests, World Events are short, self-contained character pieces that range from absurd to heart-wrenching. I've pulled an axe from a delirious viking's head only for him to collapse and die immediately. Quest complete. I've wrestled the man at the top of a mountain to claim his title as King of the Hill. Tossed his body down the side after the fact. Quest complete.
I also told a viking warrior that it's OK to mourn, and so he did, wailing in the dark of night next to his friends' burning corpses. Quest, uh, complete.
Some world events feature extravagant boss battles against monsters and men with wholly unique move sets. My favorite so far was against three massive wolves called the corpse eaters. In a viking game? Deliciously metal. I was reminded of fighting Dark Souls 2's Ruin Sentinels, luring one wolf at a time to higher ground in the middle of the arena to separate the pack. Taking them all on at once resulted in a cute game of catch between the wolves, with my limp body as the sack of potatoes in play.
Even if a fight doesn't quite grab you or if a particular comedic vignette doesn't get you rolling, Valhalla's leveling system is extremely generous, doling out skill points for just about every other World Event wrapped. A minute or two in exchange always feels worth it.
The lesser nodes, the icons of sin, the dreaded collectibles may not get the theatrics of World Events, but I'm surprised how much fun I'm having picking up treasure and climbing towers. Key to the improvement: a collectible is never alone.
If I head to a tower, there's always something else waiting for me. Standout moments include two bears ambushing me after I made a move for the treasure in a nearby cave, or the huge underground witch dungeon I've yet to figure out. I have to find three knives and plant them in a spooky statue, I think? It's a damn mystery, baby, and no quest log's gonna hold my hand. If a tower or node isn't hiding a witch dungeon, it's at least gonna have a note and some skeletons or burning bodies, implying a tragic mishap or betrayal. It's rare to simply sprint to a tower or treasure icon and find no sign of life—or death.
Valhalla locks away goodies behind a simple puzzle system too, which includes arrangements of moving blocks to expose hidden entrances or reach new heights, destroying walls with explosive jars, and finding points of entry to shoot down door barricades or ladder latches. None of them are massive brain-busters, but they all get the cerebral blood moving, which is more than I can say for most Ubisoft open worlds.
If treasure's tucked away in an outpost, its purpose is confrontational. As a stealthy player, you'll either have to kill everyone, a time-consuming micro checklist of its own, or test your intuition. Treasure is usually tucked away in the most fortified location and locked up. You'll need to steal keys from elite guards (or kill them for it) or snatch them up from heavily patrolled areas, and then make the trek to the chest.
I've run into a few chests trapped behind weak walls that only go down with explosives, which requires first finding an explosive jar, then transporting it safely and quietly to the wall, at which point you need to find a safe vantage to blow that shit up. I tend to just run in screaming though, skipping stealth for the combat challenge. An improved variety of enemies and a much deeper skill tree makes duking it out a much better time, and scrambling to shoot down the alarm bell while getting swarmed adds a nice sense of urgency to ravaging an outpost.
A simplified loot system makes every collectible worth collecting, too. Bespoke armor sets come with distinct styles and stat bonuses, and I'm on a self-appointed quest to find the coolest clothes in the realm. Abilities are loot now too, so opening a chest could net you the ability to summon a wolf or rain down poison from the sky. And the rest, upgrade materials, help you make your favorite armor and weapons even prettier and stronger. I haven't clucked my tongue once after opening a chest.
Valhalla isn't going for Breath of the Wild's organic, systems-driven open world experience. It's not The Witcher 3's bespoke, curated sidequest museum. It's an Assassin's Creed game, ocean of map icons and all. Ubisoft just knows what to put behind them now. The result doesn't fundamentally change the formula, but Valhalla's open world activities are all framed by curiosity now, and I'm so damn curious I might just lick the plate clean.