Title: Assassin's Creed Valhalla
Now in its 12th main series entry, and with an equal number of smaller spin-off titles, Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed is undoubtedly one of the most established and most successful franchises in video gaming. The stealth-action juggernaut may have evolved somewhat since its first incarnation, but shows no signs of slowing down after Assassin's Creed Valhalla became the fastest selling game in the series so far when it launched on cross-generation consoles and PC in late 2020.
Following the formula of the Ancient Egyptian Assassin's Creed Origins and the Greek adventures of Assassin's Creed Odyssey, Valhalla moves to another new period in history and again forgoes the linear narrative roots of the earlier series in favour of a fully open world with deep RPG mechanics. Naturally, given its burgeoning popularity, Valhalla is also complete with Ubisoft's usual photo mode ready for use as you roam over land and sea.
- LONGSHIP // AC VALHALLA -
As the name suggests, this latest entry is heavily Norse inspired and sees you play the role of clan leader, Eivor during the 9th century migration of Vikings into Anglo-Saxon England as you travel by longship from the cold lands of Norway to the English countryside. With the usual conflict between Assassin's and the Templar Order providing an underlying narrative along the way, Eivor's journey will centre around forging new alliances with local Kingdoms and eliminating key members of the Order of the Ancients while in search of a new home.
Being an Assassin's Creed game, there is a present-day timeline to justify this journey into the past, and the returning Layla Hassan once again uses the Animus device to relive genetic memories after uncovering the remains of Eivor, all in the hope of averting a catastrophe in the present. Leveraging Layla's discovery, the story does neatly use the myth and uncertainty surrounding the memory streams of the once great Viking hero to allow both male and female versions of Eivor to be official story canon this time and, regardless of which you choose, it is the overall historical setting that gives the game its true identity.
Cleverly justified duality also makes Eivor a subject with more stylistic options than most...
Gameplay-wise, many familiar elements return, but Valhalla also moves things on from Origins & Odyssey by bringing back some mechanics from earlier games that have been absent since the switch to an RPG-style. Particularly, these include the social stealth element that the series was originally known for, and the option to upgrade your home base with bigger and better buildings using the prized loot gathered from all of the inevitable pillaging.
In fact, a lot of the time in England will be spent raiding the surrounding population and generally setting fire to settlements, but there is also a total freedom to explore – along with a new winged companion in the form of a raven called Sýnin – and the ability to partake in local activities such as fishing, hunting, dice and drinking games that all sit well with a photographic hobby.
Key Photo Mode Features:
Composition mode with free camera & optional orbit
Edit mode with with bloom & fog control
Interactive photo locations on in-game map
Controls & Implementation:
Anyone familiar with recent Assassin's Creed games will largely know what to expect from the Valhalla photo mode as Ubisoft take the "don't fix what isn't broken" approach. With just a minor evolution of what was last seen in AC Odyssey, the same UI design with its distinct Composition and Edit modes makes a return in familiar fashion.
- PHOTO MODE UI // AC VALHALLA -
With convenient access via the L3 & R3 button binding, the photo mode is available at any time outside of pre-rendered cutscenes, and first presents the user with the Composition mode along with a minimal on-screen UI. Showing the control legend and any one of the 4 available grid guides – including crosshair, diagonal and thirds – the UI can be hidden with a press of Δ, but only to take the final shot. Any other action, even moving the camera, will immediately pop it back into view in a way that could be a little irksome for those who prefer to finesse their composition with a completely unobstructed view.
Camera movement itself is well handled with lateral truck & dolly on the LS, vertical craning on the D-pad, and a full 360° pan with near-vertical tilt on the RS allowing quick and convenient positioning of the camera. A decently sized bounding sphere determines the available range of that movement, and 180° of camera roll via the L1 / R1 shoulder buttons ensures that almost any type of compositional style can be achieved.
Consider all the angles...
It deserves mentioning actually, that the bounding area is fully 3-dimensional and allows the camera to be placed at levels lower than the playable character as well as underwater – both things that are surprisingly uncommon in most photo modes and are well suited to take advantage of various gameplay elements in Assassin's Creed.
For an extra compositional option, holding L3 while operating the RS replaces the pan / tilt control with an orbit mode that rotates around whatever object the centre reticle falls on. While handy for fine-tuning portrait angles, this mode can quickly become chaotic as the orbit will re-centre around any object that passes over the centre of the viewfinder; thankfully a click on R3 will reset the camera should things go a little awry for you.
- NO COLLISION COURSE // AC VALHALLA -
In terms of lens options, AC Valhalla makes use of a fairly straightforward zoom function, accompanied by a subtle mechanical sound effect as you widen or narrow the field of view using the L2 / R2 triggers. There is no given value for the amount of zoom or effective focal length, but my eye tells me it is not much more than ~70 mm at the maximum zoom level. With the zoom not really venturing into the telephoto range then, you may find and urge to get physically closer to the subject to frame close-up details or achieve particularly tight crops, and this leads to probably the biggest failing in the Composition mode.
For example, when working on an intimate character portrait and gradually edging the camera closer to the subject, the game will detect an impending collision and remove the character model from view. Ordinarily, this would be no problem and simply nudging the camera back a fraction would allow the model to reappear, but in Valhalla's photo mode, that doesn't happen until the camera has moved far enough away again. This inevitably spoils the composition and leaves you once again edging closer to restore it, desperately hoping not to do the same thing all over again.
Almost every input is remapped...
That is an admittedly specific use case, and once the composition has been mastered, it is time to head over to the Edit mode with a single press of L3. From here, almost every input is remapped – hence the two separate controller layouts above – although, quite what the logic is behind splitting menu navigation and adjustment between the D-pad and RS, I do not know.
More intuitively, the LS now operates an on-screen cursor that is used to set the specific point of camera focus. Helpfully defaulting to Eivor's face when visible, the cursor is simply placed of the subject or part of an object that is desired to be in sharp focus, and a defocus effect is then applied to the background and foreground on either side of it. The strength of this defocus is determined by a single DoF control slider with a range of 0-100 and can be used to create an authentic-looking depth of field with pleasantly rendered circular bokeh on distant points of light.
Note - in my time with the game, I did find that the DoF effect would malfunction on occasion; sometimes not being applied at all, and others at a much greater distance from the camera than intended. When encountering this, reloading a recent save seemed to return the DoF to normal behaviour.
As well as the handy focus control, the static UI of the Edit mode is otherwise dominated by a simple list of settings and a series of filter preview thumbnails, or analogous frame previews when selecting any of the 9 graphical overlays. The filters are in fact, preset configurations of the available settings and can each be used as an editable starting point, but not in addition to any manual adjustments.
Amongst the options, all of which use the same 0-100 scale, a group of colour-oriented sliders give precise tonal adjustment with Temperature & Tint bringing useful white balance control across the blue-to-yellow and green-to-magenta ranges, while Saturation can be used to create a B&W or much more vivid colour image. If anything, the latter too strong and boosting saturation can quickly make skin tones appear unnatural, but overall these are very useful tools for correcting white balance throughout the day or creating a vivid shot of the beautiful particularly landscapes.
- EDIT UI // AC VALHALLA -
For added authenticity, a believable film grain / noise effect and simple vignette can be included, but it is the Bloom & Fog options that add the most interest. Simulating the effect of signal bleed from an intense light source onto neighbouring pixels on a digital camera sensor, the bloom adds an elegantly diffuse glow around bright highlights, while the fog does exactly as you might expect and generates fog / mist in the environment to increase the sense of atmosphere.
But there is a problem, and it is mostly down to the in-game lighting. While so often majestic as it falls across a countryside vista (we'll ignore the constantly passing shadows from even non-existent clouds), the light in Valhalla does not always interact particularly well with character models. Anything other than the most contrasting bright light leaves subjects lacking detailed shadows or sharp highlights and ultimately looking very "gamey" and unrealistic.
This is especially so when using HDR on the relatively low default peak brightness and exposure settings and yes, boosting them does help and there is an Exposure compensation that will greatly over- or underexpose a scene, but the behaviour remains very flat and the Contrast slider does little to alleviate things as it fails to properly strengthen blacks or create any separation between the shadows and highlights.
A backdrop of crumbling castles and the dilapidated ruins...
With no custom lighting or time of day options to speak of, other than meditating to shift the game to dawn or dusk, the hunt for the right lighting becomes a job to do before even entering the photo mode. Of course, that is not entirely unrealistic when it comes to photography and the direct light from a low sun is useful to add some much-needed depth and dramatic detail to the resulting shots, it simply becomes a mission of importance to seek it out.
The opportunities are there though, and the game has one more trick up its sleeve that goes a long way to boosting the profile of virtual photography. Being able to capture images with either the standard Create / Share button on the controller or by pressing X as shown on the UI does seem odd at first, and the latter will unfortunately only result in a compressed JPG, but there is a higher purpose. The UI-based captures can be uploaded directly to the Valhalla Photo Mode website if signed in, and are also brilliantly integrated into the in-game map where they will pop up at the location the shot was taken as markers for friends to see. It's a great feature and still something that I would love to see a whole website dedicated to.
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With such a strong character as the main protagonist, the Viking hero naturally becomes the most obvious subject for photographers in AC Valhalla. The cleverly justified duality also makes Eivor a subject with more stylistic options than most by being able to switch between the male & female versions for different shots. While not possible to change gender directly within the photo mode, the option is available at any time via the Animus, or you can simply let the game choose the strongest memory stream.
- INK TO THE PAST // AC VALHALLA -
Customisation doesn't stop there either, as unique armour pieces and weaponry can be swapped around to allow mix & match combinations, and upgraded settlements give Eivor the chance to sport new hairstyles and non-permanent tattoos to create a style of your own. That said, the Vikings are no vanity models and Valhalla remains true to its murderous lineage with plenty of violent loss of life.
The somewhat clumsy standard combat is soon enhanced by various skills and abilities the elevate the gameplay with more interesting, and more devastating attacks that are ripe for action shot opportunities. Likewise, the improved assassination and stealth elements lend another dimension to the action and can even be used to blend in with the locals for more candid behavioural captures.
Get over here...
The surroundings have plenty to offer too. Populated areas are interesting places to be as the populous of warriors and townsfolk mingle around contemporary Viking and Saxon structures with a backdrop of crumbling castles and the dilapidated ruins of the long-since vacated Roman Empire. Remarkably intricate both inside and out, the more urban environments have no shortage of things to focus the photo mode's virtual lens on and the game does a great job of creating "everyday life" in 872-878 AD that sets it apart from the feeling of other recent Norse-inspired titles.
Get away from the occupied areas and the small population quickly vanishes to leave an often unsullied landscape to enjoy. Starting off in the snowy and somewhat desolate reaches of Norway where obvious features can be sparse, it is easy to see the potential in terrain that has been created with lots of verticality and detailed topography by evidently talented environment artists. Make the journey to England and this pays dividends as the autumnal forests amidst rolling hills become the star attraction and ensure that it is a pleasure to roam across the Yorkshire Moors, stand atop Dover's famous white cliffs or seek out famous stone circles on Salisbury Plain.
- STONEHENGE // AC VALHALLA -
It is in areas such as this that the game's light finds its best abilities with sunrises casting crisp low light through the morning mist and enormous sunsets bathing the land and diverse wildlife in deep oranges to give an endless supply of picturesque scenes. Perhaps the best thing about this, is just how easy the whole area is to explore thanks to the ability to largely ignore mission quests and walk, ride or sail to wherever piques your interest.
The latter two options even make exploration semi-autonomous by following roads and rivers to distant waypoints like a guided tour of the entirety of Eastern England, while Eivor's remarkable climbing ability leaves virtually nowhere out of reach.
- RAVEN'S SIGHT // AC VALHALLA -
Better yet, Sýnin is able to cover the entire map from above, not only avoiding the risk of being drawn into a fight with high-level foes but providing a flying starting point for the photo mode camera at any time. These elevated viewpoints and perspectives would never be possible from the ground and really do add another dimension to the photo mode, effectively like a camera drone for the Middle Ages, and if all of that isn't enough, you can always head to Asgard!
Assassin's Creed Valhalla may not be leading the way in technological terms, either in the photo mode or the game itself, and it does come with a few rough edges but that does not stop it being one of the best entries in Ubisoft's perennial series. Sticking with tried and tested elements for the most part, the developer clearly knows how to satisfy a dedicated fanbase of gamers and virtual photographers with minor tweaks to the formula and enticing new settings.
In an era where the biggest photo mode-centric titles are embracing evermore advanced options though, an overly safe approach leaves the Valhalla camera tools feeling a little less than state-of-the-art. The thing is, that almost doesn't matter as the interesting historical setting and fantastically beautiful environments are reason enough to recommend this as an RPG to get lost in with camera at the ready.