I finally got around to finishing Assassin’s Creed Valhalla this week. And while I had a great time with the game I also parted ways on a pretty sour note, because like its predecessor, it is just too damn long.
There’s a cynical precision to the way modern Ubisoft games are developed. Assassin’s Creed and Watch Dogs and Far Cry don’t share so many key systems by accident. The company knows what works in a modern blockbuster video game, has tested those systems to death, and employs them in their games with ruthless abandon.
Because Ubisoft’s games are built on feedback and metrics, then, it’s little surprise that they’re so damn long. There’s a sizeable and vocal bedrock of gamers out there who will place enormous emphasis on a game’s length, as though you can divide a game’s cost by the number of hours you spend playing it and find some kind of value there.
Ubisoft also now have a two-year gap to fill with Assassin’s Creed games, ever since taking the (wise) decision to switch to biannual releases from Origins onwards. So if you bought Valhalla in late 2020 and are still playing it in late 2021 (or even early 2022), then that’s mission accomplished for Ubisoft.
I am here to say all of this is bullshit! The lengths of these recent Assassin’s Creed games sucks, and I hate it. I hate that you have to do the same things over and over again when you’ve already done them over and over again. I hate that there are so many different endings, some more substantive than others. I value my time, and when a game has said and done everything it has to offer I want it to release me from its grip, not hold me down for dozens more hours, just because.
Let’s get this straight before I complain any more: I loved Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, I loved Eivor, and I loved her story of leaving Norway, travelling to England not on some noble quest or divine pilgrimage, but to just wreck shit and have a good time. As I got to around the 60-hour mark in this game, my driving ambition wasn’t to find every little lost trinket that Ubisoft so loves to sprinkle through these worlds, but just to see how this tale of reckless conquest (and love, and tragedy) ended up.
Which I eventually did, I enjoyed her happy little ending, but man, it was a slog to get there. My last 15-20 hours with the game were nowhere near as much fun as the rest. The primary culprit? This is a game whose central focus is conquering the regions of England, and there are just too many of them.
Each one follows roughly the same formula: you walk into Randvi’s map room in your settlement, you give her a smooch, you look at a map and pick a region of England to bring over to your side. This involves travelling there, doing some missions—some killing, some sneaking, some detective work—before moving on to a big siege battle then returning to the map room and doing it all over again.
They start slow, as everything does in Valhalla, but some of these self-contained storylines are the highlight of the game, packing all kinds of intrigue and drama into a punchy, 2-3 hour campaign. After 5-6 of them, I was in love. After 8-10, I’d done enough and wanted to wind things up. After the 13th, boy, that was several conquests too many.
I’m not saying this as some jaded games writer, forced to rush through this game to generate content or a review. I was playing Valhalla purely for the love of it, dabbling in it over my Christmas holidays, and I still hated the amount of grind I was being subjected to. Maybe even moreso, since I was doing it in my own time!
The conquests go on for so long that their entire reason for being—to gain allies who will you support you in climactic final battles—has enough time to circle around and play out twice, the first time two-thirds of the way into the game, then again right towards the end, repeating every cliché from, “Chat with old friends before the battle,” to rousing speeches to tragic deaths, as though we’re trapped in a Dark Ages Groundhog Day.
All of this is in pursuit of tying up not one narrative thread but three, which as we’ve discussed previously, sure go some places. The big, main ending of the game, the one that ties up the saga of Eivor and her brother and some Assassins, has as a central component a prop from Assassin’s Creed Odyssey that I—someone who finished that game only two years ago—could barely remember, because it too was Too Damn Long.
It then reintroduces Desmond, formerly the guy from Assassin’s Creed lore, now dead and mercifully relegated to the history books. Or not, since he turns up here again, talking about stuff that I—again, someone who has finished every single one of these games—could barely recall or understand.
It’s a mess, and it reminded me instantly of similar mistakes Star Wars has made recently, where major plot points have been made with superfans in mind, leaving the average viewer in the dark. From Solo’s weird Darth Maul ending that I had to Google in the cinema, to The Mandalorian’s recent obsession with Clone Wars callbacks, is it so hard to craft a story that can tell itself, without relying on me knowing an entire Wiki page off by heart?
That’s a problem Assassin’s Creed has had for years now, though. There’s a small but passionate number of fans who are very into the game’s central story, of a Creed vs Knights Templar stoush that plays out in the present day, but also harks back to a lot of weird alien shit that happened a long time ago. Then there’s...everyone else, who just want to go back in time and murder dudes, who see references to the main story as an interruption.
Rather than picking one of these approaches and just running with it, Ubisoft continues to straddle the fence, not by adjusting the game’s writing or plot, but by simply splitting the games into multiple plotlines. Sounds great on paper, but boy, they just can’t get the balance right. Valhalla could have been a lot shorter, and better for it, if it had just seen Eivor’s story through from start to finish. Tell one story, tell it well, then exit the stage.
If you’re the type of person I mentioned above that sees time spent as a means of gauging value, you might be wondering where the problem is with a game that’s too long. But you can definitely have too much of a good thing. I like ice cream, but I’m not going to eat it for every meal of the week. And I like 40-60 hours of quality stealth stabbery, but asking me stretch that same stuff out for another 20 hours—the length of many good games in their own right!—is too much.
It turns stuff I was enjoying into a hassle. Sucks the joy out of the game. I’ve got other things to do with my life.
Plus dragging things out is so unlike Eivor! She is one of, if not the most direct Assassin’s Creed protagonists we’ve ever had, fiercely practical and to-the-point. A game true to Eivor should have wrapped up in 40 hours and been happy with it, leaving the scavenger hunt and deep lore stuff to be found later by dorks while she rides off to crush horns of ale.
Ultimately, Valhalla’s length added a little despair to my final thoughts on the game. The bloat created grind, which diluted the whole experience, and often felt like it was keeping my attention solely through brute force and checklists. It left me parting with a game I LOVED on less than lovely terms, which was a damn shame.
I like stabbing. But not when there’s too much stabbing.
I only have so much room in my heart—and my schedule, and my attention span—so I’m asking, please, whenever the next Assassin’s Creed game is released, can we wrap things up at a more reasonable pace?