The last time I was in Paris I saw a game developer climb into a giant, plastic skull and bathe in red wine. Which is to say, the bar for exciting Paris happenings has been set pretty high. Did I expect Assassin’s Creed Valhalla’s Parisian adventure to meet it? I did not. The previous DLC, Wrath Of The Druids, was an underwhelming trip to Ireland that recycled the main game’s settlement development and conspirator assassinations. These ideas were frayed by the end of the campaign, let alone after enduring the rough baggage handling at Irish border control. Chances of surviving yet another long haul journey? Not good.
You certainly fear the worst at The Siege Of Paris’s outset: it’s another of Eivor’s viking pals asking you to visit another farflung region where another local despot is bumping heads with the invaders. That the main story consists of similar regional yarns means any DLC excursions slot neatly into the whole, but it also results in repetition. Go to a place, learn the stakes, make a decision, go home. In this case it’s Charles the Fat causing grief, with his habit of decorating the French countryside with headless settlers. He isn’t subtle, but I do welcome this ogre of a baddie, given the villain-shaped hole in Valhalla proper.
If the setup’s standard, the execution is more interesting. The Siege of Paris is a smaller, sneakier tale than what came before, about destabilising a region from the shadows and picking off its power players one by one. It makes sense: you are out of your depth in a foreign land - something Valhalla has weirdly struggled to evoke, despite it being the core hook of Eivor’s whole adventure. Here, you actually do feel like one person with one boat of back-up, and the whole thrust of the action shifts accordingly. There are no brash castle assaults here; even the titular siege is more of a cinematic backdrop to a subtler shanking.
The highlights are infiltration missions, which hark back to the Hitman-ish assassinations in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate. As in a Hitman level you explore and eavesdrop on gossip to learn about your target. You know: a secret password dropped here, a convenient priest’s robe picked up there. Yes, you can use Eivor’s traditional suite of stealth tricks to clamber within stabbing distance, but sticking to the story clues leads to choreographed takedowns with a bit more pizazz. Think of it as the difference between following Hitman’s opportunity kills versus more freeform assassination.
I’m being slightly generous. No stage here comes close to the ingenuity or complexity of even Hitman’s simplest destination. But given how far Assassin’s Creed’s recent RPG-inflected trilogy has strayed from its stealth game roots, any kind of nod towards, y’know, being an assassin, should be welcomed. Crucially, there’s nothing else like it in Valhalla, a game which runs out of new ideas about 20 hours into a one hundred hour quest. If only for breaking with the pattern of "perform two hours of menial tasks and top it off with a big castle rampage" this DLC unfolds as Valhalla’s most engaging stretch of mission design.
A compelling yarn, too. Navigating Eivor’s loyalty to Charles, his wife and your vengeful viking pals gave me a faint whiff of The Witcher 2 in the way moral decency and political necessity are played against each other. Ultimately, it’s more sanitised than anything Geralt faces, and ends with a spectacularly dumb boss fight that throws any nuance out the window (again: I’ll take it over the main story’s shrug of an ending). It also suffers from being a self-contained DLC. The big decisions you make are not reflected outside of France. Whatever happens in the season pass, stays in the season pass. It’s a tad deflating.
As is the decision to festoon a rock solid storyline with the usual bloat. Eivor gets involved in guerilla warfare, where you take on generic side missions - kill a guy in barn, kill a guy in a different barn - to level up NPC rebels who help in future barn murders. I’m honestly not sure if these missions are randomly generated, which is an indicator of how distinct and memorable they are. The more you unlock, the more bespoke cosmetics you can buy. It’s a Destiny faction, in other words, and another step towards whatever Sisyphean games-as-service vision Ubisoft has for Assassin’s Creed Infinity. Based on this: infinite guards to stab in infinite barns to unlock infinite hats.
And then around that it’s another chunk of - admittedly beautiful - map with regions to pillage of blue dots (events), gold dots (treasure) and white dots (tattoo designs caught by the wind). Whatever your thoughts on Valhalla are, can we agree it’s a terrible advert for the tattooists of Europe? Just put a rock on that paperwork. And I know they’ve got rocks, as this DLC has yet more of that terrible minigame where you Jenga a pile of pebbles into a precarious tower. I can’t believe they gave a work visa to a side activity so miserable. Same goes for offering altars: collecting sacks of seal parts is the worst kind of padding.
It’s a shame they lean on boring chores when the main game had more going for it in this regard. Its world events were narrative vignettes you’d wander into and often solve with nothing more complicated than punching a dude in the face, or pushing another into a puddle. They felt like joke setups for you to figure out a punchline. Eivor’s French holiday only has a handful of these, and it creates this constant drip of disappointments as you gallop towards a blue map splodge only for another lesser distraction to materialise.
Repetition stings more here than it did in the main campaign as traditionally Assassin’s Creed DLC has been a place for designers to test out weirder ideas. Think of Syndicate’s hunt for Jack the Ripper, or getting a suite of magic powers to fight a godlike George Washington in AC3, or taking a visually spectacular tour of the afterlife in Odyssey. If anything, The Siege of Paris’ run of strong missions and knottier story feels like what Valhalla probably should have been in the first place; a tantalizing glimpse of a better game penned into an eight hour DLC. It only dips its toe into the giant, plastic skull full of red wine; time for a bolder developer to take the plunge.