Valheim Early Access Preview – Shake off the Rust
If you were to ask me if I like Valheim, I know exactly what my response would be. I would say something along the lines of "Valheim is certainly an incredibly popular game, and many people are talking about it. By that factor alone, you must accept that it's successful and very many people are enjoying it, and that's before you take into account the sales figures, a number so astronomical that newcomers Iron Gate Studio will likely never have to worry about money again."
If I decided not to give a politician non-answer, I'd say that I do like Valheim, but I also don't like it. I've found myself getting more absorbed with Valheim than a recently poured glass of scotch gets absorbed into my liver. At the same time, I've also found myself questioning why I'm still playing the game during every session, though they were marathon sessions. Even considering this, I still have more of Valheim to explore.
I feel like I've played almost every survival game since Minecraft was first released and kickstarted the sub-genre into overdrive. Rust was the first one to really absorb me, hooking me in when it was first released into early access, but I ultimately left when I had no more worlds left to Rust. Since then, I've gone through 7 Days to Die, The Forest, The Long Dark, Subnautica, Don't Starve, Ark: Survival Evolved, DayZ, H1Z1, SCUM, Terraria, and so many more. All this is to say that survival games became the next realistic shooters and are now being supplanted by open-world as the go-to thing for the terminally uninspired.
That is unless there's something to give a reason, to hook people in and arguably make them want to explore. For some, it's other people. That's why Rust and DayZ are still so successful. For others, the setting does it, which is why Subnautica, Raft, and The Long Dark are so good. Then you have creativity, the driving force behind the unsurpassed emperor of the genre, Minecraft. Valheim is rare. Valheim is looking to push all three of these simultaneously and, arguably, succeeding.
Getting dropped in this new world by a giant bird, you're given a simple task: survive. Well, you’ve got two tasks. Survive, and kill the five forsaken. At least there are five right now. These are boss fights in the very sense of the word, offering a mammoth challenge from Eikthyr, a giant electric Rudolph, to Moder, a giant ice dragon right out of Skyrim. You fight these by essentially pissing them off by putting a few heads, or babies, of their respective animals or subjects on their podiums.
This is the current loop of Valheim. You set up shop somewhere, adventure out to collect resources while trying your damndest to survive against the worst, most dangerous creatures. The even bigger threat to your survival? Trees. Chop one down, and a big log may drop on your head. Once you've stocked up or things get too dangerous, you head back and store the gear, cook some food and hopefully get the chance to either upgrade your equipment or even start crafting new, better gear, putting you that step forward in your conquest of this new world.
Now, the problems so far with Valheim are the gaps in between these bosses. They can feel incredibly long. The biggest gap that I've encountered so far is between the first and second boss. You're starting to mine, starting to explore the black forest, facing against Greydwarfs and skeletons. It's the awkward early-middle stage, and it genuinely feels like a terrible amount of grind. Honestly, the quicker you can skip this - either through teaming up with others or somebody just giving you the materials you need - the better the game will go.
Repetition, limitation, and a lack of purpose are what eventually kills me with most survival games. I don't need a game to give me a purpose; I can do the whole sandbox thing. Ever since Minecraft, I've essentially been the video-game version of Kevin McCloud. I love to build up my own super house, one that is aesthetically pleasing as well as functional based on the world it's in. Valheim has taken advantage of this brilliantly with some strong building mechanics.
They're not perfect, and some of them are annoying. Wood degrades way too much when water hits it. Wooden buildings last years, so this could do with some tweaking, if only because the game seems obsessed with showing off its quite fantastic storm mechanics—the wind gales, the rain batters you and everything around you, and the waves start to climb. I rarely find games with the weather adding this much atmosphere, but it's the small things that count. This includes more aspects of building, which includes the necessity of building in a chimney. You need a fire inside for heat, but if you don't have ventilation, you will suffocate in your sleep. This is highlighted due to some very impressive smoke and fog, which makes a very foggy day almost as atmospheric as Silent Hill.
At least visually. The terror isn't on the same level. This isn't to say that you won't find moments of horror. Your first time wandering through the dark woods and encountering a Troll is going to be one of much swearing, recriminations, and then death. You'll have to figure out a way to get your items back, then a way around the troll until you're equipped enough to beat the massive git. The world isn't full of these non-boss monstrosities. Not yet, anyway. There are enough to make any long trip hazardous to your health.
Small things adding to the big things. Synergy. That's what makes Valheim impressive and enjoyable to play, even during the grind, of which there is too much. Eating a balanced diet of meat, fruit, and a swig of frost-resistant mead is how you'll increase your health and stamina. It's not through levelling up. Of course, levelling up your skills - levelled through use, much like you'd find in an Elder Scrolls game - will give you a bonus in reduced stamina usage, increased damage, and so forth.
In keeping with the idea of small things and synergy being what makes Valheim so appealing, you have the aesthetics. You have the smoke and fog, wind and rain, and a great lighting system. All of this combines with a visual design that would otherwise look old; instead, it manages to look stunning. That's before you build your boat and start sailing the ocean, encountering the other biomes, and seeing the creatures, dungeons, and more that the world has to offer.
So, the original question is if I like Valheim. I do, but I also know that I'm close to the stage where I won't pick it up - unless I'm with a group of other people - for a while. The lore is enough to draw me in. The mechanics have given me a few mammoth sessions as I keep building up my home. I'm just hitting that point where I see that making my own fun brings in too much repetition, something that I know comes considerably sooner for me than it does most other people.
Do I recommend this, despite it being in Early Access? Yes, I do. The hard work is already impressive enough from Iron Gate, it's arguably already worth the money you'll pay for it, and there's so much potential for what's to come in the months and years ahead.