How do you follow up on a game as enormous, as all-encompassing and expansive as Assassin's Creed Odyssey? Do you aim for an even bigger slice of open world in which to set your next Animus adventure? Add evermore RPG elements, fetch quests, side missions and collectibles for players to spend hundreds of hours hoovering up? With Assassin's Creed Valhalla it turns out Ubisoft's answer is to neatly side-step into a richer, more narrative-focused space, resisting the urge to expand further outwards in favour of drilling downwards, striking a rich vein of well-written characters and captivating stories, replacing much of the series’ dull and repetitive open world busywork with genuine fun and intrigue and, in the process, delivering what is undoubtedly the best entry to date in this long-running franchise.

It doesn't take long to feel the change in the air in Ubisoft's twenty-third assassin adventure. In a prologue that's every bit as glacially-paced and snowbound as that of Red Dead Redemption 2, a game whose influence can be keenly felt throughout here, we're introduced to a world as large and intricately detailed as that found in the Egyptian and Ancient Greek romps of the previous two Creeds but one that feels so much more alive, so much more full of purpose and direction. This is Assassin's Creed filtered through Rockstar's cowboy epic, coloured by the adventures of Geralt of Rivia, and it's all the better for it.

After an admittedly slow start that sets the political scene and introduces central protagonist Eivor, a character you can once again choose to play as in male or female form here, Assassin's Creed Valhalla gets down to business proper, whisking our Viking hero and their raucous Raven Clan to 9th Century England where they quickly establish a base and begin to form necessary alliances across the regions that make up the game's world map. It's in these alliances that this latest entry finds a truly satisfying rhythm, each one involving a strongly written narrative arc split into multiple missions which must be completed in order to strengthen your ties with the Danes, Saxons, Britons and others who surround you. After each story arc is completed you return to your basecamp of Ravenscroft, building and expanding, adding blacksmiths, stables, breweries and tattoo parlours, which in turn increase your population - a population with whom you'll trade goods found on your travels, upgrade your weapons and armour, customise your horse and longboat and take on missions of a more personal nature.

It's a gameplay loop that keeps you tied into the game's narrative much more so than in previous Assassin's Creed efforts with Ravenscroft acting as a central nexus, a place you'll return to and develop between sorties. It's that Red Dead rhythm of heading out on the trail then returning to camp, to your friends and acquaintances, to divvy up and reset before getting back out there again, and it's one that helps refine this latest Ubisoft effort beyond anything yet seen in the franchise. The aimless wandering that made up a fair portion of the Odyssey and Origins experience, blasting around a huge open world from story point to story point, running fetch quests disguised as side missions and gathering endless trinkets is replaced here by a much more focused experience. It still gives you plenty of opportunity to roam, but it's roaming that feels like it's got purpose and direction, enriched by fun diversions, intriguing challenges, atmospheric treasure hunts and side excursions that help enhance the world and tie into the central narrative rather than wasting your time with fool's errands.

England as a setting too, in the mind's eye perhaps not particularly the most exciting or exotic of choices, is revealed here to be an enchanting place full of vividly detailed districts, autumnal forests, foreboding castles, murky swamps, ancient ruins and muddy, bloody battlefields, all of which hide secrets and treasures to be sought out. Beyond forming alliances and building bases of course, Vikings will be Vikings and, in order to increase the reputation and influence of Ravenscroft, you'll set out in your longboat or on horseback to raid and pillage monasteries and enemy fortresses. Combat here may not be quite as refined as that found in the likes of Ghost of Tsushima but it has a brutal, almost messy quality to it that suits the setting and subject well. Jumping from your longboat into the sea in order to charge ashore and attack a camp or castle feels suitably frenetic for a bunch of sweary Viking marauders, launching into bloody close-quarters action wielding axes, daggers and swords, explicitly chopping off heads, spearing foes and setting fire to bodies and buildings alike as you decimate everything that stands in your way.

You'll start your Viking adventure with a modest moveset allowing for light and heavy attacks, a dodge and a parry, everything you do now tied to a stamina bar system that requires you time your advances and retreats. As you level up through synchronising map points and completing missions you'll gain skill points which can be used to unlock a huge selection of new moves from the game's Skyrim-esque starry skill chart. You'll learn to stomp on a downed opponent's head, perform violent warrior takedowns, backstab, booby-trap corpses and much, much more. Alongside this you'll also gain special attack abilities by hunting down well-hidden Books of Knowledge that enable you to poison the tips of your arrows, fire venomous volleys into foes, perform powerful charges and leap into the air before coming crashing down with your weapon into the head of an unfortunate enemy. It's visceral stuff with just enough thought required through that stamina bar to keep it engaging.

There's a stripped back weapons and armour system in operation here that makes discovering a brand new axe, sword, shield, helmet or spear feel genuinely exciting. These things no longer litter every corner of the world and you'll need to search through ruins and solve puzzles in order to get your hands on them before strengthening them at your blacksmiths and affixing a variety of stat-boosting runes that you'll find on your blood-soaked travels. It's a much neater system that, alongside levelling up which is much less time-consuming and cloying than that found in Origins and Odyssey, leaves you free to just enjoy your adventure, to get involved in this world and its intriguing stories without constantly running item stats in your head.

Of course, ever since Assassin's Creed struck out in a new RPG-lite direction with Origins, some long-term fans have bemoaned the series abandoning its assassin roots in favour of bombastic brawls. In Valhalla this aspect of things is remedied by the return of the hidden blade early in the game, and plenty of opportunity is given to players to get down to some good old-fashioned parkouring around rooftops, hiding in bushes, blending into crowds and taking out entire enemy garrisons without being seen or heard.

There's an entire branching network of Order targets to discover and assassinate, high-ranking enemy units to be avoided or taken down and, overall, Valhalla somehow manages to simultaneously take a step back towards a more traditional feeling Assassin's Creed adventure while providing a world equal in size and scope to Odyssey that proves narratively richer and much less full of bloat and busywork. The almost forensic level of attention to detail and history that has become this series' trademark also continues here with a superbly realised recreation of a dark and bloody time and place, and a cast of intricately written characters and clans that help give the story so much of its drama and impact. There are plenty of surprises too, with this game going to some far flung and fantastical places far removed from the brutal realities of 9th century Norway and England, but we wouldn’t dream of ruining a second of the twists and turns for you here. We should also note that present day sequences are, happily, kept to an absolute minimum, the weakest part of the Assassin's Creed experience afforded the respect it deserves.

In terms of performance, although there are some minor bugs and glitches here and there and screen-tearing is an issue from time to time, this really is an impressive showcase for the Series X. Assassin's Creed Valhalla's world is an enormously detailed and busy one and it runs at an almost flawless 60FPS/4K here - although we did have one instance during a huge battle where that framerate wobbled for a few minutes. The constantly changing weather combined with quickly shifting time-of-day in this game creates some stunning scenes, volumetric effects provide a ton of atmosphere and drama and we genuinely found ourselves unable to stop hammering the screenshot button as we played.

With a best-in-series campaign clocking in at just short of seventy hours, a wealth of truly well-written, memorable characters and a captivating open world setting that manages to fill its map with much more in the way of meaningful activity, Assassin's Creed Valhalla sees this long-running series in the best shape its ever been. This is a fantastic showpiece for the power of next-gen consoles and a truly superb game in its own right.

Conclusion

Assassin's Creed Valhalla sees the long-running franchise at an absolute high point. A much tighter, more refined and narrative-focused experience, it learns lessons from other recent open world efforts, removing much of the series' tedious open-world busywork and channelling its players through a genuinely excellent and intriguing adventure. There's still plenty of exploring, looting and collecting to be done here but it's so much more engaging, full of fun puzzles and atmospheric treasure hunts that make the downtime between story arcs all the more rewarding. This is Assassin's Creed looking and feeling better than ever.