Assassin’s Creed Valhalla preview: Sailing into the storm

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla might be the first Assassin’s Creed game to feel like it was born as an open-world RPG, rather than an open-world RPG that is also an Assassin’s Creed game. That’s fitting, since it comes from Ubisoft Montréal, which provided the blueprint for this change in Assassin’s Creed Origins.

This game’s development is also coming to a close during a time of seeming instability at Ubisoft. The Ubisoft Montréal studio’s creative director has recently taken a leave of absence after allegations of misconduct with women. The company at large is also hemorrhaging high-level employees after an internal investigation.

I recently sat down to remotely play three hours of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, in advance of its holiday 2020 launch. It’s incredibly difficult to get a handle on a game like this in only three hours. In Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, it was easy to spend six or seven hours on the first island alone, and Valhalla is supposed to be “even bigger,” which is unimaginable and seems like it will not scale if the series stays on its two-year release schedule.

But there you have it: In my three hours, I played what Ubisoft describes as “half a story arc,” in one region of the map. By the time I was done, I’d seen only a fraction of this world, and new map markers kept popping up.

What’s happening here?

The demo was mostly concerned with introducing the political intrigue of East Anglia. As is typical for Ubisoft’s PR strategy, larger questions about topics like Assassin lore, how the game explains its dual protagonists, and the modern storyline have been tabled, probably until Valhalla’s release. Apologies to everyone who still mourns Desmond Miles’ death-day.

Those god rays!!
Image: Ubisoft Montreal/Ubisoft

I’m allowed a choice between a male or female Eivor, and I choose to play as a woman. Eivor’s Raven Clan hopes to settle in England, but wouldn’t you know, there is some tension between the Danes and the English, as well as between rival Viking clans. Eivor seems more even-keel than some previous Assassin’s Creed protagonists. At this point in the story, she’s well-established as a respected warrior and leader. If she has messier personality traits — like Bayek’s drive for vengeance, or Kassandra’s dirtbag humor — they don’t come through here. It might be that Eivor is simply stoic, unsentimental, and dutiful. Certainly the series has plenty of rambunctious hotheads, so why not feature someone who has their shit together?

Still, when attending a wedding during my playthrough, Eivor loosens up a bit to participate in the festivities, aka minigames. She drinks straight from a barrel of mead, and says it’s a “fool’s wager” to challenge her in a drinking game. She brags, but her confidence is quiet and clearly earned.

(Though not, it should be pointed out, by me: I fail at target practice, and at the rhythm-based drinking game.)

I also could not pass up the chance to try what Ubisoft has termed “Viking rap battles.” Flyting was just one of many, many activities available in East Anglia: Aside from the target practice and drinking game, there was also a meditative stone-stacking exercise. This gave me the feeling of being at a county fair, trying to decide between Whack-A-Mole or the milk bottle toss. Eivor is as confident about flyting as she is about everything else. In a match, my rival issues a spoken-word insult. I have a limited amount of time to select a rhyming comeback, which Eivor delivers with her husky voice. I crushed this.

When I’m propositioned by a beardy Viking at the wedding, the demoist watching me play says that the same interaction will happen no matter what gender my character is. To this I say: hell yeah. In retrospect, I should have chosen to bone down so that I could report how the game handles sex scenes, but I was too shy to do that in front of a stranger.

The nugget of plot I’m given in the demo — a clash between Eivor and another Viking clan over who is the rightful king of East Anglia — doesn’t sing for me. I’ve been dropped into the game in media res, so whatever the political stakes are, I don’t have a great reason to care. What does sing is the setting.

A darker England

Assassin’s Creed has always been tied up in religion, and one of the things I appreciate about Origins, Odyssey, and now Valhalla is that ancient beliefs are as vital to the stories as the Catholic church is in the Ezio trilogy. As I’ve written before, in a world where people know less than we do about everything — science, navigation, their own bodies — it makes sense that myth feels tangibly real. This is not Miss Marple’s pastoral England. It’s more like Agatha Christie’s Murder is Easy, where danger lurks in the fields and someone might be a witch.

Valhalla takes place in 873 CE, at a time when England’s future as a Christian kingdom was by no means certain (and when the country that would go on to brutally colonize much of the world was itself being colonized). Norse, Christian, and Pagan elements mingle. Eivor speaks naturally of Odin, and at one point tangles with a fiendishly difficult boss, a woman decked in fur and skulls, her entire body tattooed: She’s Cordelia, one of the daughters of King Lerion. The king’s desiccated corpse is strung between two nearby trees.

Cordelia summons lightning strikes, and a mystical fog shrouds the shallow pool in which we fight. Earlier, in a spectacular set piece, my fleet of Viking longships sailed through a storm to besiege the castle stronghold of Rued, an enemy Viking. Every so often a flash of lightning would illuminate the castle’s craggy silhouette against the sky. As I drew nearer, flaming arrows fell on my ships in a blinding golden rain. It ruled, my dudes.

Elsewhere, a village of thatched cottages is decked out with flowers for the wedding. There are sheep in a pen by the road, and pigs have wandered into the churchyard for lie-down.

If the predominant color scheme of Assassin’s Creed Origins was gold and blue, then this game is gold and green. Green ponds that I want to dip my toes in, green ponds that are fetid and cursed. Stone bridges that sit low on the green rivers, forcing my crew to lower the mast of our longship when we sail under. The sun bursts through the trees or a stained glass window and breaks into distinct rays of gold. If the state of global tourism hasn’t improved by “holiday 2020,” this game is going to upset me.

Eivor surveys a lake with a ruin in the center.
Image: Ubisoft Montreal/Ubisoft

Actually talking about gameplay

The last three years of Assassin’s Creed have been a steady progression (ha! This is an RPG joke!) into RPG-land. Like Odyssey before it, Valhalla lets me unlock abilities that I can map to the face buttons on my controller. Depending on the weapon I’m using, these abilities correspond to the bow or to the rest of my general melee situation (in my demo, I was allowed to choose between axes of various sizes, a flail, and a spear).

There is a Viking equivalent to Odyssey’s Spartan Kick, and another ability that lets me charge enemies and crush them into walls. With my bow, one option lets me fire a burst of arrows that can target multiple enemies — or, in the case of a difficult boss, I can choose to absolutely light up one enemy. These abilities, as well as heavy attacks, are crucial for dealing with enemies who carry shields.

Valhalla’s Ability menu is more sparse than the sprawling web that was in Origins, but it lacks the perfect clarity of Odyssey’s neat rows. But just in case you thought we hadn’t hit RPG bingo with a vast open world, dialogue choice, weapon customization, and an ability tree, fear not. There is a new menu in this game: the Skill tree. I can increase my skills in three areas and get results such as higher attack power, more damage done in an assassination, and so on. But some skills are also activated with a button press, such as my Dual Swap skill that lets me swap weapons in my hands when I’m dual-wielding.

The Skill menu appears as a vast and interminable net of constellations, with stars corresponding to different skills, and more appearing when I zoom in. This menu is bigger than God, and is evil. At one point, I acquired a new skill and another branch of the already huge skill-zodiac unfurled, and I made an agonized sound. Three hours of gameplay was nowhere near enough time to wrangle with this beast, not even remotely.

Now that you’ve read 300 words about menus, a subject on which I apparently have a lot of opinions, let me tell you how the game plays: pretty good!

Eivor doesn’t feel particularly weighty with the basic hand ax and shield combo. The combat at first put me in mind of chopping firewood, and dodging when I’m locked onto a target is hyper fast.

At its best, Valhalla has a rhythm of parrying with the shield to disarm a foe, and then hacking away at them with the ax. Sneaking in a special ability, like the one where Eivor launches in the air and then drives her enemy into the ground, is super-duper satisfying.

I never quite became confident with this rhythm in my time with the game. It’s tempting to put that down to latency in the remote play setup, or maybe my 113 hours in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey have ruined me for the very slight mechanical changes of Valhalla. Either way, I experienced moments of ecstasy, followed by moments of absolute embarrassment when I mistimed a crucial parry, or got caught by an attack instead of dodging.

Ready for a wedding!
Image: Ubisoft Montreal/Ubisoft

Fortunately, I can heal, and it’s innate now. Eivor needs to gather things like mushrooms or berries to replenish her rations, which she can munch during battle to recover health at the push of a button. The Witcher-esque aesthetic, the mushroom gathering, and the skill tree all added up to a moment where I needed to get to the top of a church and genuinely forgot that I could just climb there because I’m playing Assassin’s Creed.

Players who feel that the game’s traditional assassinations are being sidelined may not be swayed by Valhalla. Certainly we’ve been told that what we might consider the franchise’s calling cards are still a feature, but the story missions that I played were all castle-taking brawls, at one point complete with battering ram.

I still believe the franchise’s changes are for the best. As I’ve written before, the series cannot sustain itself simply by offering different variations of large buildings for me to sneak into. What’s being delivered to me now is apparently a mist-ringed bisexual Viking adventure that I will sink one hundred hours into.

I’m gonna be OK with that.

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla

Pre-orders for Assassin’s Creed Valhalla on PS4 and Xbox One are $10 off at Amazon.

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