Assassin’s Creed Valhalla: A wonderful piece of software

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VIDEO GAME REVIEWS
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla
Sony PlayStation 5

WRC 9 FIA World Rally Championship
Sony PlayStation 5

Battle Hunters
Nintendo Switch

ASSASSIN’S CREED VALHALLA

From the outset, Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed Valhalla feels like a mish-mash of games, incorporating the very best of its lineage into its makeup. Reminiscent of previous titles in the franchise, there’s the trademark mix of historical plots steeped in science fiction, stealth, action, and drama. There’s Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag’s fun and exciting ship-to-ship combat, but refined to include Assassin’s Creed: Origins and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey’s fantastical ingredients. In short, it’s everything that makes modern-day Assassin’ Creed releases stand out, cloaked in a beautiful, pre-medieval version of England.

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In Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, gamers take control of Eivor, a Viking who seeks to avenge the death of his father at the hands of Kjotve the Cruel. What starts out as a simple quest for revenge against one dishonorable warlord soon has him fighting against powers far greater than he even envisioned. Across the Anglo-Saxon kingdom, he is compelled to stand his ground against enemies shadowy and seen en route to claiming the fame, fortune, and glory that befits the greatest of the Norse.

Notably, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla has gamers do what every other Assassin’s Creed title before it had them doing: climb, fight, assassinate, hunt, travel. With England as a vast playground, Eivor treads across history. And while figures and settings are played fast and loose, those familiar with the era will find themselves marveling at the amount of detail on the screen. From the lush landscapes to the characters on tap to the weapons used to the armor donned, the intellectual property’s inaugural offering on the Sony PlayStation 5 pulls no stops. The goal is to immerse, and immerse it does at a glorious 60 frames per second. The power under the hood of the latest-generation console is put to excellent use while soldiers are beaten down, castles are laid to waste, monasteries are raided, and Viking are being, well, Vikings in an effort to establish a foothold on the British isles.

The graphical wonders aside, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla features content that sticks close to already-established Assassin’s Creed quest tropes. Gamers will find themselves running from place to place, stalking important figures, dueling tough bosses, and gathering what supplies and coin they can get. Needless to say, the missions have a tendency to be repetitive, but the combat invariably becomes a saving grace. Eivor parrys, dodges, and combines light and heavy attacks at will. He can go loud or quiet, killing up close or shooting enemies down from afar. The builds on hand are variable and viable, providing the option to navigate through three different combat trees of stealth, melee, and ranged combat with their unique benefits and drawbacks.

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla parades a wide variety of weapons, from great Dane longaxes to swords, shields, flails, and spears. There’s really no dearth of choices, and all of them prove to be equally fun. And for the first 10 hours or so, the visual splendor coupled with the newness of objects and objectives make it a must-play. Missions are done one after the other with no regard for time passing by just to see what rewards can be garnered and what named gear can be scavenged. These then serve to strengthen character attributes and upgrade weaponry, armor, ship, and settlement. In turn, the progression allows for the dealing of more damage, the taking of more damage, and the performance of stronger abilities in upcoming battles.

As with Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is at its core an action role-playing game. How well gamers do depends on personal skill, but also on the gear being used and the abilities gained. In the early story missions, these present no issues. The content is enjoyable and the challenges are somewhat dangerous but still manageable. Ignore the side missions for too long, however, and the problem soon manifests itself. Eivor will wind up straying into areas he’s not meant to be in yet. Enemies are much stronger and much tougher, and if their power level is much higher, dealing damage becomes next to impossible even as death comes in one to two hits. In these areas, combat mechanics completely fall apart.

In short, side quests aren’t really just side quests in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. They’re mandatory objectives. Gamers basically have to do them if they want to be up to speed for the next areas. To be fair, the game does try to strike the right balance, and if Eivor is properly leveled, satisfaction is guaranteed. The big damage numbers that come from hitting enemies and the slow but gradual character progression from mission successes feel great once they’re attained. En route, however, the hours can drone on and the numerous side quests can grate.

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is a wonderful piece of software. Its historical slant, combined with its amazing visuals, fluid combat, and decent character customization will hold the interest of even those new to the genre. On the flipside, it runs the risk of overstaying its welcome with its insistence on grinding. While its main missions are fun and its decent array of side quests are entertaining for the first 30-odd hours, its insistence on rinsing and repeating for the sake of length may well turn off the more impatient gamers. It pads out its latter half with the same array of side missions to be done over and over again.

Make no mistake. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla remains a hearty recommend in the final analysis. If there’s one thing the franchise would do well to consider moving forward, however, it’s the abandonment of the notion that 70 or 80 hours of gameplay are required before the end can be in sight. Any new title in the series just needs to feel meaningful by standing out while staying true to its roots.

THE GOOD:

• Amazingly detailed visuals that really bring the period to life

• Fun if easy combat and stealth system

• Varied character progression through three distinct paths

THE BAD:

• Side quests can be repetitive compared to their more unique main missions

• Grinding become a requirement given the unlocks and upgrades needed to progress

• Occasionally stiff animations

RATING: 8.5/10

WRC 9 FIA World Rally Championship

Racing games aren’t for everybody. In fact, conventional wisdom pegs them as part of a self-limiting genre. Outside of thematic choices, they are constrained by an intrinsic need to be about, well, racing. For all the challenges, however, WRC 9 FIA World Rally Championship proves to be a transcendent title. The smooth, easy gameplay mechanics serve to make it appealing to a wider audience base, not to mention holds its attention far longer than envisioned. And on the Sony PlayStation 5, it makes full use of the stronger, faster engine at its disposal and shows off its strengths proudly, leading to an outstanding experience overall.

WRC 9 FIA World Rally Championship isn’t complicated in what it intends to do. Broken down to nuts and bolts, it’s really just a game revolving around the driver, the road, the elements, and the vehicle in use. With different tracks to conquer and different locations to race through, gamers are expected to drift, speed, and blitz their way through to the finish line in the fastest time possible. And, given the glorious graphical and aural presentation, they’ll no doubt feel good doing so. Cars are responsive, the interface is topnotch, and the general design of the game is one that would make even the most discriminatory hardcore racers proud. It lets gamers live the life of a WRC competitor, in the process losing themselves in a high speed fantasy of tires, gas, and dirt.

The PS4 version of WRC 9 FIA World Rally Championship, previously reviewed on this space, earned glowing marks. For those out to double dip, here’s the bottom line: The PS5 version is even better. As well as it looks and sounds on the previous-generation console, its latest iteration is by far the best. And as a launch title on the hottest gaming hardware currently on the market, it’s more than happy to show off how well it runs. Alongside its still-top-shelf handling, the smoother framerate gives it a decided edge. Boasting of a 4K resolution running at a crisp 60 frames per second, it provides a visceral and aural feedback that wholly complements its gamer interactions. The difference is noticeable; the enhanced details, superior performance, and the heightened sense of speed the game imparts is nothing short of phenomenal. Blazing down the track amid a photorealistic environment, the car models look stunning, period.

Meanwhile, the PS5’s DualSense controller further enhances gameplay. Marketed as one of the PS5’s unique selling points, it lays claim to the trigger buttons that rock and tremble as gamers negotiate the challenges before them, resisting or giving in to their presses at certain points depending on what’s happening. This might seem like a small thing; controller vibrations aren’t exactly a new invention. Then again, the way the buttons react to situations elicits a surprising level of immersion. Its variable resistance adapts to in-game occurrences; the seemingly simple change to its programming design helps amplify the experience — from mimicking the screech of the brakes to highlighting the roar of the engine to accentuating the feedback from the road.

Simply put, WRC 9 FIA World Rally Championship is at its finest on the PS5. Previous owners of the title on the PS4 and Xbox One get this next-gen upgrade free of charge. Racing fans won’t want to miss it, while those new to the genre could do much, much worse than pick it up and bask on the unparalleled high it provides. Highly recommended.

THE GOOD:

• Smooth 4K graphics playing at a constantly high framerate

• Comes as a free upgrade for previous owners to enjoy

• Retains all the content of the previous release, guaranteeing hours upon hours of gameplay

THE BAD:

• Mainly a graphics and performance update

• Contains minor glitches that can pull gamers out of the moment

RATING: 9/10

BATTLE HUNTERS

Released by independent developer Phase Two Games on mobile in 2019, Battle Hunters proved to be a surprisingly polished title that transcended the limitations of its platform through its unabashed display of the passion of those behind it. No doubt, the pedigree of creative director Dan Tonkin and technical director Tony Charlton helped; the co-founders of IronMonkey Studios and EA Melbourne drew from their experience and wealth of knowledge in providing gamers with guilty pleasures dating back to the industry’s eight-bit days. The result: an engrossing role-playing game well worth the 15 or so hours required to see it through.

Considering the success of Battle Hunters on the go, porting it over to the Nintendo Switch was but a matter of time. True enough, it found itself on the hybrid console in November. And, as with the source material, it’s worth its salt. It’s essentially the same immersive title, but enhanced to take advantage of current-generation specs. While it does manifest its mobile origins in its soft graphics and relatively shallow audio, gamers who play through it will appreciate it’s far better feel. Whether through the Joy-Cons or the Pro Controller, navigation is a breeze; in this regard, the integrated tutorial providing on-screen directions is a boon.

Story-wise, Battle Hunters on the Switch stays true to its roots. Gamers initially take control of three from a roster of up to 28 heroes. Devon Highcastle, a soldier, Galador Stormwarden, a wizard, and Martin Swiftbow, an archer, have banded together in an effort to help keep evil from overrunning the kingdom. They go on a journey to meet the Old One, still able to hold the enemy at bay but slowly weakening over time, and, en route, they aim to overcome danger with their unique skill sets and special abilities. And even as the challenges presented before them become more and more difficult to overcome, they manage to recruit others to their cause.

With greater processing power comes greater promise, so gamers — even those who did not experience it on mobile — not surprisingly expect more from the Switch version of Battle Hunters. The good news is that it delivers for the most part. The interface is smooth, and the additional screen real estate of Nintendo’s tablet does help in reading text and selecting command options faster. Loading times are quick, but there remains no fast-forward option to skip animations and cutscenes in favor of decision points.

That said, Battle Hunters features excellent turn-based combat mechanics; after the issuance of instructions to each member of the party of three through simple clicks, the action unfolds in real time. Victories provide experience points with which to upgrade character skills. Meanwhile, the exploration of the fantasy role-playing game is propped up by variety; five regions are on tap, with non-playable characters serving as starting points for quests that yield objects deemed crucial to progress. En route, more heroes are recruited, thus increasing the range of options available to gamers.

Significantly, Battle Hunters likewise retains its engaging, occasionally overwhelming, soundtrack. For the more sensitive gamers, a tweak of the settings to control its volume is all that needs to be done. Indeed, the option is one example of the receptive nature of Phase Two Games to user feedback; it wasn’t initially isolated from sound effects in the mobile version. Which is why it’s an easy recommend, its humble origins notwithstanding. Developer support is continually guaranteed a rarity for indie titles, and a decided plus for a release that’s already among the better ones on the Switch.

THE GOOD

• Immersive

• Integrated tutorial enables even neophyte gamers to pick it up with ease

• Smooth interface

• Excellent combat and exploration mechanics

THE BAD:

• No fast-forward option to skip animations and cutscene

• Soft graphics and relatively shallow audio

• Does not provide for equipment and weaponry upgrades

RATING: 8.5/10

THE LAST WORD: Nintendo of America and the Starlight Children’s Foundation have been ramping up their partnership to allocate Nintendo Switch gaming stations to more hospitals and health care facilities across the United States. The tie up, which led to Mary Bridge Children’’s Hospital in Tacoma, Washington’s receipt of the first Switch gaming station in December 2019, has provided “millions of seriously ill children with the healing power of play, entertainment, socialization, and emotional support, and have helped to normalize an otherwise scary situation or setting for families,” per Adam Garone, Starlight chief executive officer.

Distributed under the Starlight Gaming program, the Switch station is customized for use in a hospital setting. It can be completely cleaned with disinfectant to meet strict safety infection protocols and includes a mounted playback monitor that can roll anywhere in a hospital so children can enjoy some of their favorite Nintendo video games from the comfort of their own hospital beds.

Since launching the partnership in 1992, Starlight and Nintendo of America have delivered more than 7,200 Starlight Gaming stations to close to a thousand health care facilities in the US, “bringing smiles to an estimated 11.6 million seriously ill children.” Previous versions of the gaming stations involved the use of the Super Nintendo Entertainment, Nintendo 64, Nintendo GameCube, Nintendo Wii, and Nintendo Wii U systems.

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