I love France. My grandfather was an honest-to-godless Frenchman, and I’ve ever been convinced that all the best exports always come from their shores. Good food, better booze, the sexiest language – it's just a great place, with great people.
Well, now Assassin’s Creed is back seven years after their last disastrous French vacation, in a brawny expansion pack for Valhalla: The Siege of Paris. Eivor ventures across the Channel to take on new threats and maybe take photos of the Champs-Élysées if she has time, while the game tries to rustle up some new USPs in the process.
The Adventures of Fat Man and Robbing
Like in the Ireland DLC before it, the overall tone is more political than personal. In France, a new regent going by the unenviable name of Charles the Fat has risen to power and is brutally subjugating his people, with particular emphasis on tormenting the Norse settlers.
When word gets out that he plans to invade England soon, the French/Norse resistance head to Ravensthorpe to petition Eivor and the gang for help. "Let’s hit Paris hard and give the King some second thoughts about conducting his mindless rampage," they suggest. Seems rather simplistic as plans go, but I suppose we’re dealing with a cast of characters who struggle to engage with any idea that isn’t based around axes.
It helps sell it all that Charles’ brutality is evident the moment you arrive. Whereas England was sodden yet attractive, Norway had icy, frozen fjords and Ireland was all majestic rolling hillocks, France looks borderline apocalyptic in the starting areas.
Fields are burned, corpses hang limply from trees, villages have been devastated, and Eivor Wolf-Kissed, the least self-aware Viking in the world, is apparently shocked by all this. Eivor, you were razing monasteries just five minutes before this road trip began, and the whole reason you're here is to burn a city to the ground. If anything, you should be recognising another professional’s good work.
It’s no small thing either; moral hypocrisy has been a real issue for Valhalla's story so far and clearly shows no sign of stopping, making it very hard to sympathise with anybody in the main cast. Eivor isn’t really any better than many villains, not when she frequently stops to pillage a small town in the same way that a person might stop to grab milk and bread on the way home.
This obliviousness would be funny if it weren’t so maddening. You realise early on that both sides of the conflict are being led by angry maniacs who refuse to stop escalating, which makes for an interesting powderkeg of emotions and motivations to be caught in, but King Charles is so grossly lascivious and evil that the situation never becomes really nuanced. The first time we meet him, he’s sprawled in a sex dungeon with dead animals hanging from the walls, his chins melting into his face, cackling about the genocide he’s going to commit in God’s name. He’s not a complex figure, just a human scoreboard for all the world’s worst vices.
In fact, something about Paris’ story seems a bit low effort all around, and as somebody who loves good storytelling, this bothers me. It’s all very… easy. The villain is a bloated mass of venal cruelty, King Joffrey via Homer Simpson. The Vikings can’t put two-and-two together that their constant raiding and pillaging is annoying the French, and that five minutes of restraint would do a lot to help their reputation. And one character, who we’re meant to understand as unambiguously good, is literally introduced placating a wild bear in a flowery grove so she can heal its injured wickle paw, done while being dressed like the Virgin Mary. All that was missing was the cartoon bluebird on her shoulder.
Things do improve somewhat later on though. As basic as the writing around Charles is, you realise sooner or later that the story is less about him and more about how utterly untenable his kingship is, so irrational that even his own team is starting to look for alternatives. It’s not about whether you’re going to work with Charles, but what kind of ruler and status quo you want to set up once he's inevitably gone. A fine idea, though it doesn’t really live up to that promise - without wishing to spoil, the DLC ends startlingly fast once all the chips fall, and the consequences of your actions seem to last about as long as unrefrigerated milk.
For some of you, criticisms of context will be meaningless. After all, cutscenes can be skipped, and Assassin’s Creed’s plot and characterisation have been suspect since a fifteenth-century Tuscan noble introduced himself with “its’a me, Mario!” Fine, let’s pivot and talk about what’s new and what’s not in gameplay.
First of all, the basics are exactly what you expect. France is a whole new area with extra collectables, gear, missions, and a new gimmick based around helping the local resistance in randomly generated quests with a squad of NPCs that you can upgrade. It’s not bad, just a bit thin, and the game pushes you into doing it slightly more than I felt was worthy. It’s basically the random quests given to you by the little kid in Ravensthorpe, only with a few hired goons following you and added progression.
There’s also a little of the more elaborate kills brought back from Assassin’s Creed Unity, perhaps because the Hitman franchise continues to do planned perforation so much better and somebody in the Ubisoft dev team felt a little insecure. And it’s still a good idea in theory - you scout around to find multiple opportunities to get close to the target, remaining undercover, or just barrel in with a greatsword and start lopping heads. But Hitman clearly puts a lot more work into it, and that makes all the difference. In Siege of Paris missions there’s usually only one or two special paths, and some of them are pathetically lacklustre. For example, at one point you’re given a knife that allows you to take part in a special ritual with the target, but then told it has to be specially prepared first to show you’re a proper god-fearing member of the Church. Intriguing!
Or not, as the case may be. I walked around the NPC who had given me the blade and behind her was the special preparation table. As in, three feet away, with nobody watching it. One use of the Interact Button and I basically had clearance to go straight to the victim-to-be. Nobody even raised an eyebrow when I showed up in full Assassin gear, because I had the anointed Dagger of Saint TrustyChum on me. “Ah, you must be my assistant,” said the target, chewing amicably on a handful of lead paint chips as a seven-foot-tall Viking approached them with murderous intent.
To be clear, I don’t want this whole feature gone, I want it improved for next time. There’s a weird irony that Assassin’s Creed’s stealth elements have gotten more vestigial even as its combat engine gets more elaborate, but this is the start of a much-needed rebalance, carrying on the trend that Valhalla started. Build on what you have here, Ubisoft, please. Make something out of this, a viable alternative to the more violent approach.
Other than that, it all felt fairly familiar, for DLC is rarely the time for a game franchise to really innovate. But whereas Wrath of the Druids managed to make its familiarity feel comforting, after a while I was starting to lose patience with the predictability of Siege of Paris. New weapons like scythes and shortswords were briefly fun, but not quite reinventing the wheel, and the actual new ideas not only weren’t good enough, they were so thin as to be actively frustrating because I could imagine such a better result.
On a final note, it also befuddled me that the missions were balanced for an Eivor maybe about halfway through the campaign, when most of the players now were surely much more powerful than that. The game can insist it’s scaled the threat up as much as it likes, but as somebody who’d done everything Valhalla had to offer, I waded through all of Paris’ armies without ever feeling challenged, their pikes and pilums plinking off my legendary armour.
Let’s be clear, the Siege of Paris has some good ideas within it that are worthy of praise. Focusing on open-ended assassinations was a good idea. Presenting a no-win situation in the plot and having the players try and lessen the consequences was a good idea. Being part of the resistance and building them up organically was a good idea. I just don’t think the game really lives up to these notions, and doesn’t do them justice. It’s often frustrating as a result, because I can imagine the better game behind these concepts.
Beyond that, what we have is more Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. And sure, I like Valhalla, but I was basically satiated on it a while ago and the Siege of Paris has not really changed my mind on that. Momentary fun cutting through archers doesn’t really save an experience that feels a bit lacklustre, and doesn’t quite live up to the advanced hype. Lovers of the core game will find more of what they enjoy here, but those who are less invested can be safe in skipping this one.
Review copy provided by the publisher
Reviewed on PlayStation 5