A Valheim Story (in Four Parts)

Every so often a game comes along that I become obsessed with. The first time was “Battletech: The Crescent Hawk’s Inception” played on the Commodore 64. After that, was the Legend of Zelda series on Nintendo. I found an affinity for the SimCity games on the PC in the mid-late 90’s, followed by the first God of War on the PS2, and more recently, the PS4 remaster of Shadow of the Colossus. During my “One-Hour Videogame Review” series for this blog, I started playing Valheim, and I can safely say it’s been added to this list.

I suppose it could be said that my One-Hour reviews are unfair, in that one hour isn’t enough time to adequately review a game. I agree with this sentiment on principle, as sometimes games are a slow burn. Valheim didn’t feel that way at all, as it only took 10 or 15 minutes to really get into it. When I started writing this article, the total hours played in the featured image at the top was around 34. I had to re-take the screenshot a few times, as the number kept going up. Now that I’ve surpassed 50 hours I felt it was time to actually put virtual pen to virtual paper, and start writing.

Since I’ve put some serious (for me) time in, I’ll attempt to write a more proper review, with screenshots, likes/dislikes, “wow!” moments, and some general thoughts on the game.

Part 1: Online Multiplayer for those who hate Multiplayer (But love the idea of Multiplayer)
When we first played Valheim, we ended the night waiting out the rainstorm, excitedly talking on discord about all of the cool things we’d be able to do in-game. I think Jeremy and I both knew we wanted to play more and didn’t want to wait a week to jump back in. Unfortunately, because I was responsible for the game server on my end, Jeremy could only play when I was online and it felt unfair to advance without him. For a few weeks, we made arrangements to meet up online on weekends and play, however, we both agreed that it’d be better if we could just have a persistent world that we could play in whenever our schedules allowed us. We’re both “old” by conventional internet standards, with 9-5 jobs and families, so our schedules (and more importantly “free” time) are wildly inconsistent.

Around this time, I mentioned to Ryan at work that we’d started playing Valheim. Earlier this year when Valheim dropped, Ryan had mentioned it to me and he said he was playing it quite a bit at the time. He was excited to hear that we’d started playing and since his online group had disbanded, said he’d be interested in playing multiplayer with us if that was ok. I checked with Jeremy and he was cool with it, so Ryan said he’d connect the next time we were online.

While we’re talking about multiplayer games I’m going to go on a tangent for a moment: Generally speaking, I hate online multiplayer games. The experience of playing with unknown random individuals has been wildly documented as being a toxic, hateful environment where you are shamed for not playing better, and it really isn’t something I enjoy. My first in-game experience with League of Legends was living proof of this; I was endlessly trash-talked by a clearly more experienced player. I can handle a bit of joking around but this went to a whole new level, full of profanity and slurs. I actually felt nauseous when I logged out that night, it was draining trying to play with all of that going on.

As a result, I tend to shy away from playing online because it’s rare that you can control the entire experience. Thankfully Valheim multiplayer-mode seems to recognize this. The system forces you to set a server password which means you always know who is in your game world. It becomes a truly cooperative experience (and if you wanted it to become competitive, you can just turn on player damage). As a bonus, the Valheim Dedicated Server is included with Valheim at no additional cost. Using this, you can spin up a server that remains online for players to connect at will and supports up to 10 people at once. Every server is password protected, which ensures the server is only accessible by people you know.

The initial problem of maintaining a persistent world we could all connect to whenever we wanted was solved. We just needed a dedicated physical server to run it all and conveniently, I just so happened to have one available. About two years ago I convinced my wife to let me upgrade my aging gaming PC, and I still had the old one here waiting to be repurposed. It has been resurrected as a headless Valheim server, and so far it seems to be handling the task extremely well. We now have the means to play the way we want, either together when we’re all available, or exploring solo as our individual schedules allow.

Some quick notes on setting up a Valheim dedicated server:

  • Ideally, you’ll want to run this on a dedicated PC if possible.
  • You’ll need to enable port forwarding in your router to allow UDP connections on ports 2456-2458.
  • The Windows firewall on the server will need to allow UDP connections for the server on the same ports.
  • The server itself isn’t much more than a batch script and a basic text interface. There is a third-party GUI that shows who is in-game and facilitates admin/ban/allow lists, but that’s about it.
  • If the game world glitches, the server will need to be shut down and restarted. The biggest glitch we’ve found so far is chests that will no longer open or close. Restarting the server fixed the issue.

As a note, if you aren’t interested in hosting your own server on-prem, lots of places seem to be offering dedicated hosted Valheim servers for a small monthly cost (and who can blame them, it’s a lucrative business). Also, we could’ve imported our existing world on the new server, but opted not to because it’d allow a fresh start on a new map.

Now that we had a functional dedicated server, it was time to start bringing our characters and items into the game world.

Part 2: A Proper Valheim Review (Proper-ish)
As I mentioned earlier, one hour isn’t enough time to properly review a game. That was never the intention of the series, it was more to find hidden gem games exactly like this one. As a result, I may be putting the one-hour reviews on a brief hold while I play some more Valheim, and return to them in the future.

Valheim (currently in early-access) an open-world Viking exploration, survival, and crafting game, released in early 2021 from a small developer called Iron Gate Studios. The game starts with your character being brought to the mysterious world of Valheim and left to collect resources, and clear the land of the evils to be found within. I was an early purchaser and picked the game up for around $20 in Canadian Dollars. I believe the cost is still the same, so if you’re thinking of picking it up, do so now before it goes up in price.

I haven’t played a lot of survival/crafting games beyond Valheim and Minecraft. I’m told that Valheim feels similar to RUST, which I haven’t played but have on my Steam wishlist. Perhaps when Valheim has run its course I’ll give it a shot. (Edit: It looks like RUST is exclusively multiplayer, so I may end up passing after all. We’ll see) It’s entirely possible there’s an entire genre of games I’ve missed out on, similar to the Interactive Dramas I discovered a few months ago.

In the beginning, you collect resources in the usual way – by punching trees. Starting with the small saplings and stones, you can craft tools and weapons. As your skill tree progresses, you can build more advanced tools, weapons, armor, and buildings. Valheim is divided into multiple areas called biomes, each with its own set of unique features. The game starts in the meadows, where there are rolling hills, fields, trees, and streams. In the daytime, monsters are generally sparse but they grow bolder as darkness approaches. It’s generally advisable to build or find a small shelter to wait out the night. Before long you can build a bed, which allows your character to rest and pass the night more quickly.

Because Jeremy and I had already put about a dozen hours in, and the system lets you transport resources with your character across servers, I spent some time destroying the bases we’d built in our starter world and ferrying them to the starting area in the new world. The goal was to have a good supply of wood, stone, and food available immediately so we could start building a bigger base right away. This is accomplished by logging into the initial server, deconstructing everything, and picking up items until your carrying capacity limit is reached. Then it’s just a matter of logging out and into the new server, and drop the items off. Depending on how much stuff you have this can take some time.

Everything was going rather well until I saw my first Troll. Up to this point, the biggest enemy I’d encountered was a Greydwarf Brute, which stands slightly taller than your in-game character and packs a mightly whallop. The giant Troll caught me completely off guard as I was dismantling a smaller two-floor shelter in the Black Forest, the second biome you encounter in Valheim. As I pulled down an upper wall and roof, the Troll appeared and started attacking. There was no warning as it was raining at the time, and so I didn’t notice the ground shaking with the Trolls approach. I panicked and ran – hoping to make it back to our home base and the safety of familiar surroundings.

The Troll was relentless however and stalked me endlessly through the forest. Disoriented, I stumbled through the woods, frantically trying to find my way home. I assumed the angry Troll would be caught up in the trees but it was able to navigate the woods much easier than I could, and it caught up to me as I tried to cross the river separating the Black Forest from our base. Because I had been busy dismantling our current environment I had already destroyed my respawn point, which meant that I had to make the long run back to the riverbanks from the initial starting point. Valheim recommends you stay out of the woods at night, and with good reason. By the time I’d reached the riverbank, I was being followed by a few Greydwarves and I had no food, weapons, or armor. I was exhausted, and just needed to reach my items and I’d be back in the fight.

Except there was one thing I hadn’t counted on. The Troll, who I had anticipated would wander back to its home in the woods, was perfectly content taking a bath in the river, right beside my dropped possessions. I’d have to lure the Troll away, circle back and collect the possessions without dying – again – and do so with multiple Greydwarves in hot pursuit. Somehow I was victorious and was able to pick up my possessions without being killed by the Troll, or the dwarves. I ran to the safety of the base and decided that I’d collected enough. I logged out of our initial starting world, never to return.

If there’s one thing Valheim takes seriously it’s weather and environmental physics. For example, when it’s raining it’s not just an effect that looks cool – visibility is hampered, your character becomes exhausted easily, fires are extinguished, and it’s easy to experience a genuine sense of panic (especially when an angry Troll is chasing you through the woods!). Besides rain, there’s also fog and wind, and as I approached the base of a mountain small snow flurries would crop up from time to time. If you venture too far into the snowy area, your character starts to freeze and it’s important to get back to warmer climates.

Smaller foggy hazes appear in low-lying shady areas in the woods, which stir as your character runs through them. Later, standing at an oceanfront beach, you see the waves lapping on the shore, the water levels rising and falling with each wave. As the wind increases, the water becomes less transparent as whitecaps appear and the water takes on a frothy appearance. When the sun shows itself, which it does do from time to time, the game has light bloom and “god ray” effects. Shadows on the ground move as trees sway in the breeze. A deer darts through the woods, startled by your presence – and much like real deer, if there’s one there are others nearby.

The entire experience feels authentic, even with the stylized pixelated graphics choice that the developers adopted. Initially, I was caught off guard and assumed the graphics were scaled back for performance reasons but this isn’t the case. It’s not heavily pixelated like Minecraft, but it’s not super polished like current-gen games. (Originally I was going to say “polished like Crysis”, but I realized I may be dating my current-gen game knowledge) Iron Gate has definitely has found a sweet spot where the stylistic choice feels perfectly natural for the environment they’ve crafted.

Speaking of crafting, originally the construction engine that allows for creating buildings didn’t make a lot of sense and I experienced quite a bit of frustration. After spending some time with it, I realized that the only limits of the engine were in-game physics and my imagination. The tile snapping system makes a lot of sense the more time you spend with it, and the color-coded support structure is crucial in helping with the build process. Originally we’d assumed the game set an arbitrary height limit as our buildings kept collapsing. Ryan showed us some build methods that increased overall support, and used additional materials that we hadn’t considered looking for. Soon, we had a mighty Viking longhouse constructed near the ocean, straddling the border between the meadows and the Black Forest. It is from this longhouse that we will head out on adventures, and tame the wild lands of Valheim.

Everything was going really well, until I got my first Blue Screen of Death.

Part 3: Is Valheim a computer killer? (Reply hazy, ask again later)
The first time we played Valheim on the dedicated server we started playing around 9:00 pm on a Saturday. We were still going strong at 1:00 am and I was dreading waking up early to walk our dog, who has become accustomed to 5:00 am walks through the week. As it turns out she can’t read a calendar and maintains this ridiculous schedule even on weekends.

And then it happened – the game stalled, my computer went silent, and the screen went black only to be replaced by every Windows user’s worst nightmare: the Blue Screen of Death. The system then rebooted, and I found myself back in Windows. I quickly reconnected to Discord and Valheim and let everyone know what’d happened. Within a few minutes, the same thing happened again. Not wishing to push my luck, after the second reboot I let the guys know that I was going to bed and I’d figure out what’d happened in the morning.

Before Valheim I’ve never had a BSOD on this computer before. It’s been remarkably solid since I built it, so my initial Google queries naturally were “Valheim BSOD”. Much to my surprise, it seemed to be a common thread up until February 2021 then the complaints just … stopped? People were complaining of the exact same situation I was in – they’d never seen a BSOD before on their system, and one happened during Valheim. For some it happens repeatedly, for others, it’s a once in a while situation. System specifications ranged from daily driver business-class machines, to fully tricked-out gaming powerhouses. There didn’t seem to be a common theme at all (except for everyone was using Windows).

The replies however seemed to be very consistent. They were a collection of:

  • Your video card drivers are out of date
  • Your Valheim client is out of date
  • Another device or service on your computer is out of date
  • Your computer is overheating
  • Your power supply can’t handle Valheim
  • Your video card can’t handle Valheim

I could sense that people were getting frustrated; there were a lot of replies indicating that this had never happened before, they’d played resource-intensive games like Cyberpunk 2077 recently without issue, etc. The “helpful troubleshooters” held fast however – your system is at fault, even though it only happens when playing Valheim.

My approach for handling this was an attempt to systematically rule out each possible cause in order. I checked the video card drivers and Valheim client (and server) versions – all good there. There don’t seem to be any devices out of date either, so we’re good there. Up next was computer overheating. I did notice that the fans were spinning up every time Valheim was opened so it’s possible over time the thermals were too much for the system to handle.

Interestingly it didn’t take a prolonged gaming session to experience my next few Blue Screens. It’s also worth noting the “Cause” listed on the screen was a different result every time it crashed. And although I was worried about temperatures, they remained in the normal high end for my video card, never exceeding the maximum capabilities of the card. Could it be my power supply? That doesn’t seem right at all – why would a power supply cause a BSOD? I did some further digging and found that it may not be the supply itself, but a combination of the increased load on the components drawing too much power for the supply.

Which led me to the only real customization I’ve done to the system – a custom D.O.C.P. profile on my memory. I’d overclocked my memory to get it over 3000mhz from 2666mhz, which has been consistently stable across the board otherwise. I decided to drop my memory back down to “Auto” in the BIOS and see how bad of a performance hit I’d take. As it turns out, when you have 32GB memory and your maximum memory usage is on average less than half of that, the performance hit is virtually nonexistent. Now that my system had been returned to stock I tried Valheim again – and much to my surprise – no crash!

I let Jeremy and Ryan know what’d happened. They agreed that it was really weird, but something to take under advisement. Everything was going fine until our next extended gaming session. At about the same time as before, just after 1am, Ryan suddenly dropped offline. My phone lit up a few seconds later:

My initial reaction was “oh god that sucks, but thankfully it wasn’t his video card!”. The next day we chatted about possible power supply replacements, and he picked up a new one the same day. Later that evening I got another text:

Ouch! Replacing a video card in 2021 during COVID is nearly impossible unless you’re willing to pay 3-4 times retail value (and even then, it’s a matter of actually finding a card). Thankfully Ryan had an older workable video card that he was able to install in his system. The next time we were all in-game, we chatted about what’d happened and how bad things could’ve been if he hadn’t had a spare card. I then opened my graphics options and disabled a few of the higher-end settings, which dropped my average video card temperature by almost 10 degrees. Ryan did the same – better safe than sorry.

Now that things had returned to some sort of normalcy, we were able to branch out and kill the second boss – the Elder. Because of my love for the YouTube channel “Let’s Game it Out“, I knew this was coming. What I didn’t realize is how difficult this boss was going to be to kill. We all died a handful of times, and it took way longer than I expected it would. My strategy of using fire arrows proved to be useless, and in the end, it was repeated respawns, run-in and attack (and die), then repeat as needed, that finally took down the Elder.

At this point I had no idea what was coming next. Generally I’m really good about avoiding spoilers but Valheim is a pretty hot game right now, and I spend an unhealthy amount of time on Reddit, so things got a bit spoiled anyway. I won’t share any spoilers here, because I want to talk about something Reddit is famous for: entitlement.

Part 4: The Reddit Machine vs. a Small Videogame Studio

When I first started playing Valheim I had no idea the size of the studio or the development roadmap. I assumed it was a smaller studio based on the price, but I was baffled when I heard it was one main programmer doing the dev work and a small team of four supporting them. That’s insane – I’ve played AAA major studio games with less polish. So far I’ve put 50 hours in and I feel like I’ve explored 1/10 of what the game has to offer. Considering I paid around $20, that means I’ve paid less than 50 cents per hour of entertainment.

In my opinion, that’s damn good value. Even if I could never play another minute I’d be happy with my investment (That’s a lie – I totally wouldn’t, I’d be jonesing for a fix and trying to find a way back into the game). So I was baffled when I kept coming across posts of people complaining about the dev cycle and the lack of in-game features. Apparently, Iron Gate Studios had talked about an expansion that everyone really wanted, and it’s taken longer than expected for them to deliver. This has thrown a group of players into a frenzy, ranting about how they’d been ripped off.

Ripped off? How exactly? By playing an early-access game at a discounted rate that you KNEW was incomplete when you purchased it? The dev studio promised more features, biomes, and updates – they just haven’t arrived yet. I’m sure much like me, everyone has a Steam library of games waiting to be played. Can’t you just play something else in the meantime?

Instead, the rants continue – “they’ve sold 6+ million copies, why not hire another developer?” I’m sure that’s their plan, but like a few levelheaded Redditors have pointed out, the new dev will need a few months to acclimate themselves to the environment a single dev built. Before anything new can happen, their visions need to be aligned. Then they can actually start producing new content and putting it through the QA process. All of these things take time and effort, and there’s always a possibility of the new dev not working out, starting the process again.

I want to state for the record I am perfectly content waiting for new content. For as long as it takes. In fact, I’d rather not have new content at all, if the means the content is rushed or even worse, the dev sells out to a major studio. The one thing that would break Valheim for me is the monetization of features, skins, blind boxes, “open” multiplayer, and other nonsense that major dev studios seem to include in all of their games these days.

Valheim is perfect the way it is, a MMORPG that has been dramatically scaled down for less hardcore players and I sincerely hope it stays that way. I’m loving the way the game plays right now and the thought of a major dev studio breaking it for profit scares the heck out of me.

So as a favour to me, please stop complaining about how Iron Gate should take their earnings and expand rapidly. It won’t end well for anyone, except for maybe EA or some other studio that buys and ultimately destroys the game.

Author: Greg

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