First impressions: Valheim early access is already one of the best co-op sandboxes in recent memory

...provided you play with friends, anyway.


Straight away, I’m going to admit that my favorable impressions of Valheim are wholly informed by the fact that I have the good fortune of playing on a server with a bunch of good people whom I was only exposed to because I know MJ. That’s not to suggest that you have to know someone who writes for MOP to play this game, or that you have to be in a large group of people. But this game really is engineered from the ground up to be a co-operative experience with several friends. And the game is absolutely richer for it.

That would certainly make a lot of sense given we cover MMOs, MMORPGs, and multiplayer games, but so often it can feel like survival sandbox games in particular are greedy experiences where the thrust of progression is laid upon your shoulders and other people are bumps in the road at best and challenges to surmount at worst. Valheim is different, however. It’s a world that’s already challenging and is best conquered with the collaboration of others.

At the absolute brass tacks level, Valheim’s overall beats are precisely the same as any other survival title that’s been released before, where you’re plopped into the world (by a massive raven) and left to fend for yourself by scrounging for materials, learning recipes, and crafting gear and shelter. It’s all tied together with Nordic lore as you’re meant to conquer large foes that can be summoned, which in turn lets you create special equipment. If none of that grabs you to begin with, it’s hard to say that there will be anything wholly exciting to experience here.

There’s something about these steps that feels like a graded slope in Valheim. Simply being exposed to a new material floods you with a variety of recipes to chase. The game also does a good job of smoothing out other survival sandbox contrivances as well. Food isn’t needed to live so much as something that makes you perform better. Being wet and cold can apply some negative effects, but not so much that they outright hinder your ability to do anything, at least in the early going. Stamina drains with everything you do, but it recovers quickly and can be mitigated with careful pacing of actions. Skilling up doesn’t require the navigation of obnoxious tech trees but simply accrues by doing everything, whether it’s running, jumping, using weapons, sneaking around, or logging.

image courtesy of Murderhobo

This all ultimately leaves you free to adventure as you and your group see fit, which leads to all of the fully realized sandbox gaming goodness one could ask for. Everyone in our group learned in the early going that cutting down trees haphazardly is a deadly experience. There was a little crypt delve that featured claustrophobic tunnels, dangerous skeletons, and lots of intriguing loot. At one point I was a cart horse, trying to walk a cart from our home base to a mine (and failing hilariously), followed by some dangerous nighttime mining while the others protected us, and a trip back that had us navigating terrain, clearing brush that would stopped the cart and making sure monsters were taken out.

And those are just the things that have happened in the few hours I’ve been playing. There’s more potential adventure to be had by us soon; the group I’m a part of has just entered its bronze age and we’ve put together a boat, which means soon enough we’ll begin sailing the seas to other islands in our world.

image courtesy of Murderhobo

On top of all of that, Valheim is a uniquely pretty title, hitting this fascinating middle ground between high-quality visuals and medium-poly models, painted over with gorgeous light and effects that draw you in. It’s kind of like Minecraft with RTX but with more polygons. These impressive visuals, paired with some truly gorgeous music, make your randomly generated world one to easily get lost in, on top of the well implemented gameplay beats and some extremely tight controls.

About the only demerit I can leverage against Valheim is connecting to an established server. I had to link to our private server through Steam’s unintuitive server list UI because apparently the server search function was doing some weird things. It’s not a dealbreaker, but for a game that’s built for multiplayer, it’s an annoying little hurdle.

That circles back around to my overall point: Valheim should probably not be played solo. The devs themselves have said it’s best played with three to five others and that really isn’t just PR boasting; this game truly feels like it’s been designed from the ground up to be a co-operative, collective experience where your group comes together to progress in shared power. I’m sure it’s entirely possible to play the game solo, but it also feels like it would be needlessly punishing. But hey, some people love that kind of challenge, in which case, shine on, you crazy diamond.

That really feels like that’d be missing the point and purpose of Valheim, however. Many MMOs are best with friends, obviously, but not many of them feel like they were tailor-made with such care and attention to detail and simple elegance. For all the bluster other sandbox studios make about the good ol’ days of MMORPGs, it can often feel like there are far too many that seem to have not learned any of the lessons of the past and conflate stern, stone-faced minimalism with creating a community. Valheim is simple without being simplistic. It’s refined, condensed, and easy to get into without losing its more hard-bitten edges. And this is just the first early access build.

There’s a lot of hay being made about this game, and that’s for good reason. I can honestly say, without any sense of irony, that you should believe the hype.

There’s an MMO born every day, and every game is someone’s favorite. Why I Play is the column in which the Massively OP staff members kick back and reminisce about all their favorite MMOs. Whether it’s the new hotness or an old fan favorite loaded with nostalgia, each title we cover here tugs at our heartstrings and keeps us coming back for more.
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