Assassin’s Creed Valhalla – a Strange Nostalgia

I haven’t quite finished the game yet, but I’m far enough in I think I can give a good review. Here it is.

First, the ugly. Feel free to skip these minor rants if you’d like.

I have a love/hate relationship with the Assassin’s Creed games. I love the historical aspects of them: running around in reconstructions of places I’ve studied but can never truly visit, hearing at least a palatable effort at ancient spoken languages (the Old English of Valhalla being the one I’m most familiar with, as it happens), and living an adventure–if overblown and grandiose–in another time. But I hate the framing device in which all of the Assassin’s Creed story takes place. If there weren’t so many people out there trying to peddle some version of historical belief in ancient aliens (an idea I find to be demeaning to historical peoples and often invoked as a matter of racism), I might not mind it in my fantasy games. But there are, and I do.

I’m also not a huge fan of the use of Templars and Assassins as factions for what is (at least in part) supposed to be a “good versus evil through history” struggle. Both factions are too nuanced and problematic for such use, and employing them in such a way, I think, plays too much into the conspiracy theories about them. From the narrative perspective, it’s sloppy writing to resort to them. From the historical perspective, its dangerous pseudo-revisionism thinly guised by fantasy. At best, their use makes unintended assertions about history that, while placed in a fictional environment that logically has no bearing on actual history, blends enough of the semblance of history into the setting to make that easy to forget. This is only partially side-stepped by the fact that the factions we’re dealing with in this game are the “Hidden Ones” and the “Order of Ancients,” the precursors, respectively, of Assassins and Templars.

So, I try to skip through those parts of AC games (though not all the Order hunting–I’m not a philistine) and focus on the “historical” portion of the games. Thankfully, they historical portions are by far the greater part, and I’ve only really had one cut-scene of the present “Animus” framing device in many hours of play.

Gripe #2: Assassin’s Creed Valhalla has no singlehanded swords for player use. Given that the early medieval sword (those that fall under Peterson’s typology rather than Oakeshott’s) is an iconic image of the Viking, it is nothing short of a travesty that they are missing from the game. This is exacerbated by several factors: (1) many enemies use a single-handed sword, so the assets and animations are at least partially present, and the “why can’t I just pick one up” question looms large; (2) you are given several ahistorical two-handed swords to use; (3) it’s just such an obvious oversight.

A further comment about the two-handed swords (with the caveat that I’ve mostly been using one in the game): my supposition is that the choice not to include dedicated one-hand swords arose out of a perk that allows you to use large weapons in a single hand (thus pressing the two-handed sword into service as a one-handed sword). Yes, it’s a video-game, but that choice strikes me as dumb anyway. From a mechanical standpoint, it reduces the value of choice of weapons, with the realism sacrificed for the “cool” value a bit over the line for my taste (which I admit is a personal matter). From a historical perspective, it pushes the problem of the lack of historicity even further.

You see, there really weren’t two-handed swords in the 9th century (when the game takes place). There are several reasons: first, the metallurgy of the time was not a precise science by any means, and making a durable blade of two-hander length wasn’t likely enough to succeed to be worth it. Viking blades, like katana, were created through the “pattern-welding” process of steel-making, which relies in turn on “forge welding.” In forge welding, several slats of metal are heated until they begin to fuse and then wrapped and twisted together into a cohesive whole, where the flaws of one original piece of metal are hedged by the presence of the other pieces. Because of the differing carbon content in the finished piece, a blade could be acid-etched to reveal the patterns in the twisted metal. The result is what the Vikings purportedly called “the serpent in the steel” and is often mistaken for Damascus steel.

There are a handful of photos sometimes claimed to be of archeological finds of two-handed swords, but these photos make their argument based on the length of the grip. That itself is problematic for two reasons: (a) these photos are not of complete weapons in useable condition, and it’s difficult (perhaps impossible) to know how much of the blade’s tang that would extend into the pommel is being touted as space for a hand, which it is not; (b) without full provenance and scholarly descriptions of these blades, the photos aren’t really that helpful anyway. The second and third reason two-handers weren’t common are related to the style and nature of early medieval warfare.

Valhalla never demonstrates this (missing some interesting mechanics, I think), but battles in the 9th century (and surrounding centuries) were largely fought based on the shield wall (as since ancient times with Romans and Greeks before them). For the shield wall to work, your shield is responsible for protecting part of your body, but also part of the body of the man standing beside you. That means that everyone in the rank needs to carry a shield. That leaves no place for two-handed swords.

There are anecdotes about brave warriors moving in front of their shield wall, exposing themselves and demonstrating that bravery, while throwing spears, collecting the gear of a fallen enemy, or undertaking other exploits, but it is the fact that this is extraordinary behavior, not common behavior, that makes these descriptions part of sagas (with parallels in Celtic literature and probable other cultures’ tales of the same period).

The two-handed sword largely (but not solely) developed in the high and late middle ages for a single reason–plate armor. The reliability of plate armor meant that a shield became unnecessary as a weapon of war, and that new weapons were needed to confront the threat. The acute-pointed, two-handed blades of the late 14th and the 15th century were a response to changes in armor, allowing a weapon that could be “half-sworded” to find the chinks in an opponent’s plate at close range and that could be wielded with greater speed, power and precision generally.

There is debate (and perhaps some consensus that the answer is “no”) as to whether a single-handed sword can break through the riveted maille used by Vikings and Anglo-Saxons. Even if it doesn’t, though the force exerted by a blade hitting mail can break bone and cause significant internal injury (of course, a padded gambeson was worn under mail to help resist this). Regardless, the single-handed sword (as well as spears and axes) where largely seen as sufficient to address this problem (or the metallurgy issue trumped all in preventing two-handed swords).

Okay, enough of that.

My third issue really has nothing to do with the game proper, so I’ll keep it short. I am concern about the idea of the “modern Viking.” I’m seeing an increase of clothing brands using that kind of terminology (on them or in advertising) in soliciting buyers in the tactically-minded, survivalist, or militia-type categories. This disturbs me because: (1) Vikings were not people to be emulated; (2) our society has no place for the kind of behavior for which Vikings are seemingly idealized; and (3) identifying oneself in such a way (except for a very small minority of people, perhaps) is not realistic. Even where it may be realistic, I’m not sure that it’s healthy. It’s essentially saying “I’m someone who thinks violence is the best answer.” I cannot disagree more. Alright, that’s done and done.

Now, what do I actually think about Assassin’s Creed Valhalla? A few things, in fact. Is it fun? Yes. Is there a lot of content to play through if you want it? Yes. Is it a beautiful game? Yes. If you liked AC Origins or AC Odyssey will you enjoy it? Absolutely.

All of that said, I have some reservations about Valhalla as an “Assassin’s Creed” game. This game has added some great elements to enhance the Viking side of things, but I think that this comes at the cost of the “Assassin’s Creed” heritage. The Raiding mechanic (in which your longboat crew assists you in attacking and pillaging monasteries to steal supplies and materials used to build and enhance your own settlement) is fun and, at least on a stereotypical level, emblematic of our ideas of Vikings. Likewise, references to holmgangs, weregilds and althings help immerse one in the Viking and Anglo-Saxon cultures. The reliance on tales of Ragnar Lodhbrok may lean too heavily on the recent History Channel (which, ironically, isn’t usually that great in its historicism, preferring in both documentary and fictional programming to serve entertainment over accuracy).

As an admission, I’m playing on “Normal” difficulty. I tell myself that this is because I don’t want to devote the additional time required to play at a harder difficulty level, but you’re free to substitute whatever rationale or psychology you’d like. On normal difficulty, there quickly becomes little reason to resort to stealth, as you become powerful enough to wade into even the most heavily-guarded fortresses and take out everyone without breaking a sweat. Very Viking saga, yes, but not very assassin-y.

Overall, the game has a lot more in common for me with the Witcher 3 (although less well-written, less complex, and generally less interesting than my travels with Geralt) than with the early AC games. Gone are the desperate roof-top escapes from guardsman in a world where everyone is inexplicably a parkour master. Gone are the hit-and-run tactics. Gone is the aching for the time when you unlock the second hidden blade to take out those pesky pairs of door guards. Do I really miss those things? I miss the Florence of AC 2 and the pirate shenanigans of Black Flag, but I’m not sure I miss the stealth gameplay as a whole. It is, though, notably deficient. Again, a higher difficult mode may sufficiently remediate that problem–at the expense of no longer feeling like a powerful Viking warrior in a saga. But, given my complaints about historical accuracy above, maybe I’m just not someone easy to please, and the fault lies more with me with the game. As you know from my last review, I just came off of playing Watch Dogs: Legion, so maybe I’ve been stealth game-played out for little while. Or maybe that’s just not my style of game, much as I’d like to think it is.

But there is an aspect of the game that leaves all of the rest by the wayside and has kept me coming back to sink hour after hour into it: the setting itself. If you’re a frequent reader of the blog, you know that my own historical study has more to do with the late medieval and early-modern periods than the time of the Vikings and Anglo-Saxons. But I took a semester of Old English in grad school; I’ve read Beowulf, The Dream of the Rood, and The Battle of Maldon, some of the sagas and the Norse mythologies. I know enough not to think of the 9th century as a “dark age.”

As with both Origins and Odyssey, the ways in which the culture, art and architecture of the setting are brought to life amaze me and put me in awe. In addition to the pure pleasure of dwelling in the setting for a while–what I’d argue is the game’s biggest draw–it’s actually helped me discover and think about some flaws in my own historical conceptions.

Some of these are part of our general culture, I think–our movies and books tend to conflate the material culture of the late medieval–knights in shining (plate) armor, palace-like fairy-tale castles, etc.–with oversimplified cultural concepts derived more from the late Viking age and early medieval.

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, in parallel to playing Valhalla, I spend some time re-reading through The One Ring roleplaying game books (impressed again at how well this system in particular captures the feel of Tolkien’s world without layering on other fantasy ideas and fandoms) and watching the Hobbit trilogy with K (we also got halfway through LotR, but some unexpected demands–mostly work in my case and football in hers–prevented the completion of the second trilogy). They reminded me how much Tolkien’s world should be conceptualized in light of the Anglo-Saxon world rather than later medieval ideas. The armored characters should be in maille, not plate, wielding Carolingian or Viking-style weapons rather than later-medieval ones. The Rohirrim embody the Anglo-Saxon feel within the films fairly directly (aside from having stirrups and cavalry), but that aesthetic, or riffs upon it, should extend far further. I wonder whether and hope that the impending Lord of the Rings reboot will follow that tack.

Since the films released, Tolkien’s Children of Hurin, relying as it does on elements of Kallervo from the Kalevala in the story of Turin Turambar, serves as a reminder that Middle-Earth belongs in the early-medieval more than the late in terms of material culture and style.

That, ultimately, is what I’ve come to love about AC Valhalla: that it makes me feel a nostalgia for a period of time I’ve discovered that I find far more enthralling and fascinating than I previously knew. I guess I’m going to have to start looking for a Great Course on the Vikings and Anglo-Saxons, or go back to reading Tolkien and Norse sagas.

Maybe this isn’t the kind of review you were looking for–with its diatribes and digressions, that’s perfectly understandable. But I’d like to conclude by saying that I think the praise I’ve given here, that the game immerses one in an amazing historical milieu, is about the best I can give. Except that, if you haven’t played The Witcher 3, for God’s sake, go play that first. Then you can play Valhalla. On the other hand, if you’ve never played an Assassin’s Creed game, Valhalla makes for an easy entry point, if one that won’t prepare you for the early titles in the series.

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