A tale of true cities.
It took two hours to see the opening title of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, and just one more before I knew I was done with it. And that moment of realisation came at the most unlikely of moments – just as I stepped out of my longboat onto the shores of England, not far from where I spent the first eighteen years of my life . It’s not a common thing to have your actual home town in a video game when you’re from the Hampshire green belt, and I’d anticipated a more glowing reaction.
However, as I opened the map and saw the sprawl of space ahead of me, with the towns and icons dotted around the sparse rolling hills, I finally realised why Valhalla – or Odyssey or Origins before it – just had not clicked. And it took the mucky streets of Unity‘s Paris and Syndicate‘s London to bring it all into focus.
I have no idea how the Assassin’s Creed Unity developers ever thought their game would run on the PS4 or Xbox One. The title earned a terrible reputation, mostly because it was so broken as to be unplayable at launch. Apart from the crowd density that destroyed framerates, and the broken missions that locked up machines, it often seemed like the characters themselves were falling apart. It was chaotic, and not in a good way.
On new hardware, though, the game is a revelation. The PS5 locks to a solid 30fps (or 60fps if you own the disk and reject the auto-update). On Xbox Series X/S, you gain 60fps (thanks to FPS Boost) and auto HDR (although I prefer the look and feel on PS5 for some reason). On either machine, you now have a game that can be appreciated for its sheer ambition without fear of judders or crashes.
And what ambition there is. Paris is a dense, richly-populated city teeming with life and noise. Many buildings can be entered freely with people working away at their projects inside. Churches and palaces have the most beautiful adornments and interior design, with one cathedral in particular leaving me open-mouthed as the light filtered in through its massive stained-glass window. As you wander the streets, there are little stories unfolding all around you. It feels alive.
As the action kicks in, often resulting in cheeky protagonist Arno sprinting through the crowds, the game now doesn’t miss a beat. People get pushed aside and react, scuffles break out, things get broken. As you find a hiding place the energy slowly dissipates, the NPCs looking on in shock before slowly going back to their lives. It’s a whole different world compared to Valhalla, where the occupants of an enemy camp walk obliviously past a dead body because the alert state has finished.
It occurred to me that Assassins’s Creed, as it shifts into more of an open-world RPG, has lost so much of that dense city charm. Black Flag sowed the seeds for exploration with its open seas (even if they were packed with fighting ships at every turn), and Origins doubled down on the open spaces as the series took its huge step away from the previous games.
There’s no doubt that the shift into open worlds, gear levels and skill tress has been hugely successful for Ubisoft as they’ve made it clear this is the future for the series, but it’s a shame that the old focus of a single, dense location has been left by the wayside (especially now the hardware can keep up with the vision).
Valhalla began with a nondescript viking village in Norway, before dragging me to the first of many English fields. There is an overall blandness that totally drained any wish I had to explore. In comparison, the busy streets of Unity feel as next-gen as anything else I’ve played, and I would love for future Assassin’s Creed games to refocus back on the density I so miss.
(Now, Ubisoft, please fix whatever’s going on with Syndicate‘s broken lighting so I can wander around old London too.)