After reinventing itself with Assassin’s Creed Origins, Ubisoft’s flagship franchise has fallen back into a familiar malaise of open-world fatigue. Exploring its epic historical settings is a compelling joy, but oftentimes far too large and unfocused for their own good.
With so much content vying for the player’s attention, its finest moments became far harder to uncover. This is a shame, since ascending ancient relics as renowned assassins is an unparalleled joy, but one that ocassionally felt hollow compared to other contemporary greats. Now I’ve spent three hours with Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, this new entry is heading in the right direction to refine such criticisms.
Ubisoft Montreal’s latest outing takes the series to a new setting in the form of 9th century England. It’s a time where kings and queens ruled the land and unification of certain regions were slowly but surely coming into play. You play as Eivor, a young viking warrior driven away from Norway due to unbridled conflict. Together with your clan, you must carve out a new future in this strange and mysterious land.
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My journey with Assassin’s Creed Valhalla begins as my clan descends upon a small settlement filled with hostile soldiers, intent on killing everybody in sight and claiming this land as our own. I’m thrust into combat without a moment’s notice, and it’s like slipping into an old pair of shoes. The fundamentals from Origins and Odyssey remain untouched, although there’s a faster, more ferocious pace to encounters that perfectly reflects the animosity of Vikings.
Eivor is a formidable warrior, capable of wielding a stunning variety of weapons, and you’re encouraged to experiment before finding a combination that suits you. I ended up settling on the old fashioned combo of short axe and shield, parrying enemy attacks before sinking my bloody steel into their flesh for a swift and satisfying kill. The cadence of combat is hectic, although rather forgiving with the amount of time allowed for dodges, parries and counter attacks.
Compared to the likes of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, this is laughably forgiving, far more focused on engrossing you in a historical power fantasy than a fiercely challenging affair. This absurd fantasy is propelled further by the sheer amount of special attacks at your disposal. Eivor can hurl a trio of miniature axes at his/her enemies, or charge towards them with a tackle, leaving them vulnerable to an instant execution on the ground. I only saw a few of these attacks during my demo, but there’s a skill tree filled with them.
Valhalla’s progression system is depicted by a series of constellations, all representing different disciplines you can invest in which focus on the usual areas of stealth, combat, movement and more. Odyssey and Origins were positively sprawling in this regard, so I imagine Valhalla will be no different. That being said, I hope it makes an active attempt to differentiate itself from what came before, since there’s so much potential in the world of Vikings for brutal and uncompromising assassination techniques.
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Speaking of assassination, I didn’t see much stealth in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. Most of the missions I played focused on full-frontal assaults, with the act of “assassination” being put on the back burner in favour of bombastic raids which saw me invading small villages with my group of fellow Vikings. That’s fine I suppose, since I doubt Vikings were very subtle, and I only experienced a small fraction of what is bound to be a colossal open-world. However, I’d love to see some missions place a particular focus on stealth.
Instant assassinations make a welcome return after being absent for two games, now playing out like a rhythm game of sorts. You’re tasked with a button prompt and landing in a specific area on the screen. Succeed, and you’ll be rewarded with instant kill. Fail, and damage will be relative to where you landed. It’s an intuitive way to ensure the satisfaction of stealth without throwing away the meaning of Valhalla’s RPG progression, even if right now the mechanic could be a little smoother.
After raiding my first village, I’m given freedom to do whatever I please within the region of East Anglia. Given the time restraints I was under, I rushed through the story missions right away. The general arc of this section revolves around saving Oswald, a man who will soon be crowned King of the region. He’s your typical posh Englishman, but Eivor has a soft spot for him, and they don’t hesitate when asked to raid a fortress in aid of his rescue.
This sequence is a wonderful set piece, tasking you with escorting dozens of soldiers as they march a battering ram through the fortress. You can join them by taking hold of the ram yourself, or spend time slicing up all the soldiers foolish enough to cross your path. Be careful though, arrows raining from above mean you’ll need to prioritise the biggest threats and systemically eliminate them. Once I reach the higher floors, I find myself up against a formidable boss.
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The boss itself isn’t too much trouble. All enemies in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla have a stamina bar you can wear down with the correct combination of blocks and attacks. Once it’s depleted, you’re free to whale on them to your heart’s content. I used this strategy on the boss and bested him in no time. There’s an argument to be made that it’s easy to recycle the same tactics, but I haven’t seen nearly enough bosses to determine whether that’s true.
Upon his defeat, Euid surrenders, and I’m given the option to kill him where he stands or take him as a prisoner. Being a generous soul I choose the latter, not realising it will have consequences for me later. The battle culminates in a wedding where I’m free to partake in drinking challenges, axe-throwing competitions and even sleep with a friend of mine for the banter. Romantic relationships in Valhalla once again feel woefully one-dimensional, which is a shame after the potential displayed in Odyssey.
Once the fun has subsided, our aforementioned prisoner breaks free and challenges our newly-crowned King to a duel. I battle in his place, finally slaying the ignorant barbarian once and for all. This turn of events was fascinating, with a decision I considered insignificant growing to influence the narrative in ways I didn’t expect. I sincerely hope the full game is filled with moments like this, since it makes the world feel like it’s evolving alongside you, instead of simply being a gorgeous sandbox for you to gallivant about in.
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Now all the story missions are wrapped up, I’m free to explore the open-world and do whatever I like. Thankfully, Ubisoft Montreal has enhanced the Assassin’s Creed formula so it’s far more than a visually splendorous game of icon janitor. Taking a cue from The Witcher 3 and Breath of the Wild, you can now uncover “mysteries” across the world which are essentially bite-sized stories for you to jump into. I found wild children living in the forest, a local sage praying to dying crops and a few other surprises, all of which added a much-needed sense of life to proceedings.
You’ll also find optional boss battles and underground ruins filled with unexpected loot. Aside from generic side missions and synchronisation points, the majority of icons on the map are a welcome journey into the unknown. For a franchise infamous for its overstuffed busywork, it’s a brave change that will hopefully work in Valhalla’s favour. We won’t have the full picture until later this year, but the signs are definitely positive.
What isn’t positive is the handful of technical problems I came across. Keep in mind, this is a work in progress and the demo was streamed to me, so performance and latency problems are easy to forgive. However, a number of animations and combat techniques felt unfinished, lacking a polish I’ve come to expect from Assassin’s Creed. Ubisoft still have a handful of months to iron things out, as well as the extra power of the PS5 and Xbox Series X.
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla isn’t a dramatic departure for the franchise, but a bold new historical setting and some welcome changes to its open-world formula arguably offer enough to engross us all over again. It’s building upon a tremendous blueprint in Origins and Odyssey, so things can only get better from here. With any luck, this will be the first great open-world adventure to grace next-gen consoles.