Assassin’s Creed Valhalla has had quite a ride for a game that’s only officially existed for about a week. After its reveal trailer on April 30, members of the Ubisoft development team relayed a lot of info regarding what we could expect in this fall’s Viking adventure, including an exciting focus on settlements. We were also promised that the first official gameplay footage was set to be shown off during Microsoft’s Inside Xbox stream on May 7, which turned out to be not quite what some had in mind. But perhaps most importantly, it was recently reported that Valhalla “won’t be the longest or biggest game in the (Assassin’s Creed) series. They addressed criticism on this one.” This may become a trend of what to expect from some of our favorite franchises as they evolve onto the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5.
To say Assassin’s Creed Valhalla won’t be larger might seem like a strange thing to say at first. After all, by their nature, so many video game franchises are iterative art where “bigger” and “better” are intertwined ideas, especially when it comes to a game debuting at the launch of brand new hardware. But if you take a moment to unpack the comment, it suggests that Ubisoft has learned important lessons in design, balance, and density going into the new generation.
For better or worse, Assassin’s Creed has always seemed like it treats a marathon as if it were a series of shorter sprints stitched back to back. After coming out of the gate strong with the solid foundation of the original game in 2007, the team took two years before releasing ACII, which improved upon the formula in nearly every way imaginable. But then the first sprint began, seeing yearly installments in 2010 and 2011 that wrapped up Ezio’s story, before hitting the first major hurdle in 2012 with ACIII.
As soon as everyone started questioning whether or not the series had finally run out of gas, Ubisoft pivoted in 2013 at the launch of the new consoles with Black Flag, a major gameplay and tonal shift that injected brand new life into the franchise. But of course, this began the next sprint: Unity in 2014 provided interesting tech that buckled under the weight of the game, and Syndicate in 2015 ended up being a fantastic adventure that fell victim to understandable franchise fatigue.
Thus, having the generally annualized series take 2016 off was one of the smartest moves Ubisoft could’ve made. It allowed Assassin’s Creed to come back strong in 2017 with Origins, which brought in a lot of the open-world RPG mechanics and design sensibilities that have become in vogue this past generation. They improved upon that even further in 2018 with Odyssey. But while journeying through the wonders of Ancient Greece occupied hundreds of hours of our time, it also brought with it a sensation that there can be such a thing as too much.
Glancing at your map throughout the course of your adventure could often lead to a creeping anxiety as you saw countless icons representing the dozens upon dozens of systems all layered on top of each other. Bounty hunters and cultists and leaders and warring armies melded together with animal dens and ruins and forts and caves and mysteries. It felt overwhelming, like if someone stepped foot into an IKEA that had somehow been procedurally generated.
None of this was bad — in fact, Odyssey was a remarkably fun game. But it felt like in trying to create a world unparalleled in size and filled to the brim with activities that Ubisoft lost some of the magic that comes from the idea of player discovery. It sometimes felt like you were ticking items off a checklist, as opposed to organically finding a new and exciting adventure that led to unexpected gameplay scenarios that rewarded you for overcoming the odds. A sensory overload like this can lead to the player becoming numb to the wonders of the world.
Only the rarest games are able to successfully create a massive world that achieves breadth without sacrificing depth. Red Dead Redemption 2 has the luxury of seemingly unlimited development time and money thanks to Rockstar’s pedigree, and Breath of the Wild has that special kind of magic that only Nintendo has been able to craft going all the way back to the ‘80s. And so it’s with this in mind that Teffaha’s comments point to Valhalla working to achieve a greater balance that is so tough to find in open-world games.
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is obviously going to be big, but it doesn’t have to be too big. What I’m hoping for as we move into the next generation of games are experiences that impress us with their density, as opposed to their size. I’m less impressed by No Man’s Sky’s promise of infinite worlds to explore than I am by the fact that I can drop an apple near a campfire in Breath of the Wild, and after a few moments, it’ll cook and change properties. These kinds of immersive actions are meaningful in a video game and carry a weight with them far greater than the feeling I get from zipping around the map the size of my home state and ticking off boxes like an errand boy.
A game that handled this wonderfully was 2018’s God of War. Obviously the world that Sony Santa Monica created was far smaller in scale than some of Ubisoft’s massive playgrounds, but it genuinely felt like every nook, cranny, and sidequest off the beaten path was in service of fleshing out Kratos, his companions, or his world. My curiosity was constantly rewarded with moments that deepened my relationship with the game itself. I would love it if, every time I leave my settlement in Valhalla, it feels like I’m doing something that’s actually shaping the world and its inhabitants in some small way.
I’d like to think that in 2020, we’re past a point where every game needs to occupy our time for hundreds of hours. In the Sisyphean quest to provide content, a term whose meaning has morphed into something that sends a chill up my spine, we seem to have forgotten that bigger doesn’t always mean better. Sometimes, being meaningful is better than being endless. Video games have already proven that they can deliver worlds that stretch far beyond the horizon. Now let’s see if they can make us care about what’s there.