Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is a game named for the grand hall of the slain in Norse mythology, a beautiful place where fallen warriors arrive after death. Perhaps as a contrast, the game is set in the rainy, muddy, utterly miserable north of Britain in the year 873 CE. At the time the Vikings crossed into Britain, the future UK was a series of fiefdoms ruled by paranoid regional kings. Into this fractured, dreary arena steps Eivor (pronounced Ay-vor), a Viking warrior sworn to lead their people as they attempt to carve out a home in this new land.
A leap of faith
From a raven’s eye view, there’s a lot about this new entry that feels very familiar. Following the lead of the previous two entries in the series, Eivor is set loose in a large, open-world with lots of activities to keep them busy. What I played of the main quest involved Eivor pushing into a new area called Ledecestrescire (pronounced Ledder Chester Shire). They spend a lot of time working with Vikings and willing local power brokers to secure peace, even as they sack and pillage British settlements for riches and supplies. The Catholic Church, of course, is deeply unhappy about the presence of the heathen Vikings forcing its people from their homes and pushes back against the tide of steel and blood.
One of the game’s new mechanics is Raids. Raids are similar in principle to taking an enemy camp in Far Cry. The player comes across a settlement ripe for the taking. Eivor can take to the long grass and creep up to a viable position, taking out any loose guards they may come across. When the time is right, Eivor can blow on their warhorn to summon a small moshpit of Viking warriors to sack and burn the town. Innocents are not to be harmed, only the guards brandishing weapons. The raid is over when the town is in flames, every last enemy soldier is dead, and the town’s riches are safely in Eivor’s pockets. That area then falls under the control of whichever regional lord the Vikings have placed on the throne.
Raids are actually quite fun, and very atmospheric. The cries of terrified townsfolk fleeing for their lives as thick smoke chokes the air, growing thicker as more and more buildings go up in flames. Your warriors fight with everything they’ve got, as though their lives depend on taking this tiny little hamlet in the middle of a swamp.
“We’ll do this the Vikingr way.”
The single biggest change to established formula in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is that you feel fully justified in tackling every hostile encounter head-on.
The whole game is built around Vikings and their various, violent activities. Raiding villages for supplies and engaging in brutal, bloody melee combat are not low-key pastimes. Viking warfare didn’t leave a lot of room for subtlety and for a series that built its house on stealth, that poses a design challenge. Earlier this year, Ghost of Tsushima ran up against a similar problem: how to make a game about samurai, warriors that famously rejected any form of combat that wasn’t face-to-face, and still introduce a stealth aspect? Tsushima‘s solve was to make the main character’s situation dire enough to warrant such dishonourable tactics. Jin didn’t have to like all the backstabbing, but he did have to survive.
Stealth has always been a pillar of the Assassin’s Creed experience. Historically, players have been encouraged to neutralise enemies quietly, avoid detection, and use its now-iconic parkour traversal to elude capture. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla will still let me do all of that — I just don’t know that I want to. It’s not that the stealth aspect has been reduced or specifically de-emphasised; it’s that it felt to me like a holdover from a different game. This is ultimately a matter of character. It feels more fitting for Eivor, a Viking leader and fearsome warrior in their own right, to reject the sneaky approach and charge in, axes akimbo. Where I might previously have taken my time scouting an enemy stronghold, I now feel a mad urge to simply kick in the door and demand a fight.
My hands-on with Assassin’s Creed Valhalla ran for about four hours. I spent much of this time trying to figure out if this is how the game wanted me to feel or if it was an unintended product of its design. I’m certainly not saying that the feeling is a bad one; being able to throw caution to the wind for once is actually quite refreshing. I just haven’t spent enough time with it to know if that’s what it’s going for.
Bringing back the biff
What is clear is that the combat has seen some changes since AC Odyssey. These are not the precise, military-issue strikes of a Spartan soldier. Vikings are all about blunt force trauma. Axes rain down in a deadly, feral barrage. Sheild parries feel like an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object. There combat still utilises the Dark Souls influenced chip-and-move design that worked well in previous instalments, but here it feels modified to give that sense of raw power.
You’re also free to make mistakes. Taking a hit in combat wasn’t the end of the world as, a lot of the time, I found myself working with other Vikings. I rarely fought alone. The moment I was struck, my enemy had to contend with two of my comrades. With that foe’s attention divided, I now have time to get up, dust myself off, and come back in for another swing.
Finding myself wanting to get into combat was odd enough. Actually enjoying myself once I was in combat was quite another. I think this is going to be what helps Assassin’s Creed Valhalla stand apart from its stablemates.
It’s still early days, but Assassin’s Creed Valhalla feels like it might be a turning point for the series. There’s a lot that’s mechanically the same, but the flavour is markedly different. I wonder if it will divide fans, or give them a taste of something that’s different but welcome. We’ll find out when the game launches November 10, 2020, on Xbox Series X, PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Windows PC. It also launches November 12, 2020, on PlayStation 5.