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Words: Andy Brown
If you're a PC gamer, chances are high that you've been playing Valheim - or at least know someone who's been talking about it. With over five million copies sold while still in early access, it's probably the biggest gaming hit of 2021 so far.
For those who aren't familiar, Valheim is a cooperative survival game set in Viking purgatory. The game itself is a Norse-flavoured cocktail of inspirations - some of the most recognisable ingredients include Terraria, Rust and Skyrim.
You're tasked with cleansing the realm of evil, which comes in the shape of huge bosses dotted across the world. To do this, you'll need to utilize every aspect of Valheim's mechanics - from crafting weapons and armour to exploring and building a sturdy home capable of withstanding attack.
There's plenty that Valheim does right, but there's one thing in particular that sets it aside from countless other survival games. By giving the player a specific setting, an unwritten character, a smidge of lore and an open sandbox, Valheim is built to offer a world of immersion - but how far can a budding Viking take their experience? Can you really live like a Viking, in Iron Gate AB's game?
One of the first things you'll be introduced to in Valheim - out of absolute necessity - will be the flexible base building on offer. While building is similar to existing survival games such as Rust, some nuance allows you to lean into your inner Viking architect. Unlike most survival games you're not restricted to the lock-to-place interface, and the materials (thatch, wood and stone) are restricted to the materials that Vikings would almost exclusively use.
While your aesthetic choices will need to be at least slightly rooted in the practical (real Vikings, as far as I'm aware, never had to account for ten-foot troll attacks in their architecture) there's an incredible amount of room for you to build the Viking home - or fortress - of your dreams.
Valheim's building system allows for some incredibly realistic builds. Above and below, I've had some help from an expert in putting together two true-to-life recreations of homes that real Vikings would have lived in back in their time.
As you can see, it's totally possible to build perfectly realistic buildings within Valheim. For those who want to lean into the high-fantasy side of things, the possibilities are endless - this subreddit of incredible Valheim buildings is proof!
For many, however, the real Viking experience is something entirely different to the process of meticulously building beautiful houses. If you're thinking Vikings, there's a good chance you're thinking of their slightly angrier side - surging from a longship onto the shores of a new land, axe in hand to raid and pillage.
This is where Valheim is simultaneously at its best and worst for immersion. In terms of the "Viking experience", Valheim's biggest drawback is its lack of settlements or other NPC's to conventionally raid. Unlike Assassin's Creed Valhalla, there are no villages to overwhelm, no dramatic charges from shored longships, no large buildings to dramatically put to torch.
It's strange, then, that despite missing such obvious attractions to the Norse lifestyle, Valheim still finds room to offer one of the best Viking experiences around. While you might miss out on the specific scenes you had in mind, the Viking spirit here is absolutely alive and unmissable for those looking to immerse themselves.
Progress requires sailing on rough seas until you reach new lands - the definitive Viking pastime. After landing on unfamiliar shores, you'll leave the safety of your longship to hunt for the rare ore you need to smith powerful weapons and armour. These materials aren't free - to safely extract them, you'll usually have to fight monsters pulled straight from Norse mythology.
Ore cannot be brought through portals, which means that you'll have to haul your riches back to the ship in order to get it home safely. Your other option is to settle on the new lands and refine your loot there. Both options can answer that essential Viking question: were they invaders, or settlers? In your search for better gear, you can choose for yourself how to answer that question.
There was one particular moment in Valheim where I felt really, truly absorbed by the experience of playing as a Viking. Some friends and I - my clan, even - had finally sailed to the shores of the infamously difficult swamp biome. After jumping to dry land, weapons in hand, we fought through fierce resistance towards the sickly green light that heralds a sunken crypt - and the calling of treasure within.
After further fighting inside, we stripped the crypt of anything valuable. Gems, coins and - most importantly - iron ore were all taken and loaded onto the ship. Eventually our ship could carry no more, and we decided it was time to return home with our vast spoils.
Homeward bound and laden with loot, we sailed through a vicious storm and desperately fought off an enthusiastic sea serpent attack. With our ship on the brink of destruction, the promise of turning our newfound wealth into valuable gear for ourselves and those who stayed home was ever present. Infused with grim determination to survive our return voyage and reap the rewards of our raid, we finally made it home with our precious ore.
It was in that moment that I felt completely in-tune with the Viking fantasy. Returning from raiding a new continent, loot in tow as our rain-slicked boat was bounced and rocked violently on the stormy waves, I was utterly swept up in the hard-fought life of a Viking.
That, right there, is where Valheim delivers on the ultimate Viking fantasy. Not in the cinematic set pieces or ground-breaking graphics that other games excel in, but in the open-ended sandbox that lets you forge your own enthralling Norse experience. It might seem easy to judge what's missing from Valheim, but once you've jumped in, you'll realise that the depth to this game is absolutely unmatched with the spirit of Viking lifestyle.
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