A Ragnaroky Road Ahead: My 3 Hour Hands-On With Assassin’s Creed Valhalla
Like a leap from a precipice into a hay pile, let’s dive right in and get to the bottom of things quick. Did my three-hour hands-on with Assassin’s Creed Valhalla feel as underwhelming as that leaked video sure as Helheim looked?
The early footage circulating on the internet is just that – early, from some primordial point in the development. Presented in all the wonders of potato resolution and desyncing all over the place, that was code that not even the nefarious Abstergo would’ve sold you.
All that being said, I’m certainly not saying that Ubisoft is out of the glitch woods. Not by a long shot. Three hours is a long time to go under the hood of an Assassin’s. I was still haunted by my fair share of ghosts in this Animus (figurative and literal).
In a nutshell, I can tell you now that my time with Valhalla was fun, but it didn’t exactly Ragnarok my world.
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla
Fresh off its Egyptian and Ancient Greek holidays, Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed franchise now wants to jet-set you off on the ultimate Viking fantasy set during their 9th-century invasion of England. It’s actually a really interesting time to be a Norseman (or norsewoman); the hero known as Eivor can be tailored to your liking). Getting your Haggar the Horrible (or Broom Hilda) on in this era isn’t the old cliché that is “hey, every angry Norwegian, come hop a longboat to old Blighty, so we can ravage the horses and ride off on the villagers.”
Interestingly, you’ve actually come to England for the longer-term goal of setting up shop. The locals don’t want to make that process easy, but “sharing your culture” with your new neighbours (think: popping over to axe them for some a cup of sugar) won’t always be the way forward.
This is a broken and divided kingdom and that means diplomatic opportunities, decision trees and branching outcomes. As Eivor you’re encouraged to explore alliances with different characters and groups along the way — possibly arrange the odd cross-cultural and incredibly unlikely marriage — whatever it takes to ensure your settlement flourishes. And if all that doesn’t work, hey, by all means just go berserker.
My demo time was fifty-fifty of both approaches. Indeed, I didn’t even get a glimpse of Eivor’s origin story, set somewhere back in Scandinavia. Unceremoniously, I got dropped into the local drama of East Anglia, I was given a horse and told to get Norse. So I did.
The first thing I get to literal grips with is how this sequel is doubling down on the violence, with a new dual-wielding system. Like every RPG ever, you have a primary and a secondary hand and there are tons of different weapons and combinations and abilities to explore. I personally had the most fun with a crowd-controlling flail in my off mitt that could shatter shields, and then I’d shatter the smug face hiding behind it with my hammer.
As you’d expect, certain weapon combos work better against a bunch of new enemy archetypes in this sequel, all of whom come with unique abilities (think: unblockable grabs and bastards who kick sand in your eyes). You can also use a shield yourself or just stick with two-handed skull crushers – like Dane axes, greatswords and danish spears. The filthy sniper among you can also rely once more on light and predator bows which I do believe can be fitted with poison and fire ammo. Obviously, the base stats of all of your tools of the trade can be steadily upgraded, multiple times via materials found in the world.
Honestly and at a basic level, the violence department feels like a similar dance to last time. Left bumper/right bumper handle your respective hands and the parrying/blocking/evasion systems all feel very “Odyssean”. Likewise, you still have Heavy Attacks of RT and LT will zip you into a first-person archery mode that requires next to no drawstring pull time. It’s also worth noting that sniping ‘paints’ glowing yellow weak-points on the limbs of enemies. Not sure if that’s a standard deal or some perk my demoers pre-bought for me.
Overall, enemies definitely feel less spongy than last time and there’s a lot of satisfaction to be had from the ludicrously brutal kill animations that happen when you click your right stick to initiate a Stunned Attack. If you invest in a Stomp perk, you can do that to people on the reg. It doesn’t lock you into a mini animation – you can just chain crunch on the heads of any group of foes who have been knocked over by an explosion or the like.
I basically got the sense that all of the major combat changes reside in a slew of perks that can be unlocked via the skill tree or new abilities that can be acquired by finding Books of Knowledge. Typically, eight of these can be assigned to your shoulder button modifiers (LT for four ranged ones and RT for just as many melee surprises).
It’s also worth noting that the ol’ Skill tree has been rejigged to look like a sprawling constellation not unlike Skyrim’s. XP will earn you skill points that can be spent on stat nodes that improve a range of base fighting stats or main skills (passive fighting moves). The nodes branch out into three distinct but eventually interweaving paths, too; Wolf, Bear and Raven disciplines.
Interestingly, every piece of gear you equip in your inventory also aligns to these three schools. Investing in like-minded nodes and gear will provide damage bonuses. So you’re both given the freedom to mix your approach however you like, but purists will be rewarded for gearing themselves towards a more specific play-style.
Lastly and unlike Odyssey, health no longer regens. You’ll constantly be tapping D-Pad right to recoup it. You’ll also have to scour the world with Eagle Vision to scoop and stack up supplies of life-giving berries and shrooms.
I can confirm that there’s a variety of the latter which will kill you – tested it for science.
You needn’t always go by horse, of course, as summoning your longboat via a horn blast and raiding enemy settlements is one of your primary past times. Ubi insists they’ve scaled back naval combat this time around. That said, salty sea dogs and fans of Black Flag like myself will rejoice to hear that a sort of radio for Norse shanties and even a “regale us with a tale” pop up when you do set sail.
I also get to try out two types of action; Raids and Assaults. The first is done purely to secure precious resources for your peeps. You sail into an outpost, put everybody to the sword, have a mini-boss fight with an especially tall or obese person, blow a bighorn atop a church steeple and Robert’s your father’s brother.
Meanwhile, Assaults are against fortified military positions and are longer, far more hectic affairs. They involve siege weapons on both sides that will either need to be utilised or shutdown. All the while enemy AI feels like it’s spawning infinitely and your own allies will need to be healed if they go down. Get through three or so different phases of the attack and you’ll need to take on a boss. For me, it was Rued, a dude packing way too much health and a direwolf of the same school of thought. I did things the old Altair way and save myself a five minute battle by just shanking him from above. Note: this was made possible by an Advanced Assassination perk and a button timing which, if cocked up, would have ruined everything. Fortunately, I pulled that off, though I did still have to fight his pooch to the death.
Once the deed was done, a local nobleman (a Prince Valiant type named Oswald) debated me on the merits of keeping Rued alive, to recruit him. The leaked footage I saw spared him, for science and to sate my sadistic streak, I decided to not pick his option up. Shanking him didn’t go down so well.
Time will have to tell on how much this will shape my story of Valhalla.
With that sorted, I tried a few story missions. World-building stuff that was light on combat and heavy on talking, matrimony and mini-games. Weirdly, now that he was free, Oswald wanted to go get ball and chained to some Nordish woman who looked like she could snap him like a twig.
As Eivor, I embraced the mood of the day by doing a variety of merry making. First I got more hammered than Thor’s enemies by doing a skol the ale horn challenge. When I was sufficiently half-blind, I challenged somebody to a vase-shooting archery contest. I was later told by my Ubi handlers that there was a flyting mini-game to try, which is like a Viking rap battle.
I didn’t do that because I was far too busy nailing one of my clansmen via a romance option. Once again, for science.
Amusingly, once you bang them (off-screen in PG-13 ways) you have the post-coitus dialogue option to deliberately mispronounce their name. Funny stuff. Doesn’t go down so well.
Speaking of buggering off, with all that done I was given an hour or so to get into more mischief than Loki. I went on an unsuccessful hunt for a legendary animal called the Black Shuck which is a real-life cryptid that’s said to be a ghostly, over-sized black hound. I also went looking for an optional legendary boss fight with the Drenga, a Viking nobleman who’s kind of a Lancelot deal. He’s hoping for a warrior’s death but everybody who shows up sucks. Had myself another boss fight with a witch that was one of those is-this-supernatural-or-hard-drugs type things that AC seems to love doing so much now.
Hell, I even did some fishing, too.
I also took it upon myself to just circumnavigate East Anglia. It was a good twenty-minute ride that honestly and eerily felt like I was riding Roach through White Orchard in The Witcher III. Lots of spooky forests and moors. The odd wolf and/or bandit pack out to tear me off my saddle and rip me a new butt hole. Aside from a lack of griffin attacks, I think many people will draw the same sense of deja vu.
Because let’s face it, in pretty much every way Ubisoft has been steering their AC renaissance into a decidedly CD Projekt inspired direction for quite some time now. It’s my hope that they co-opt the better parts of that franchise – great scriptwriting and meaningful side-mission content that leads to a range of unique endings.
It’d also want to have a damn sight better combat than The Witcher 3.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have much time to truly get a sense of those things. Firstly, my time was short and secondly, be it the narrative experience or fighting in combat everything was soured a little by some glitches. I’m talking NPC actors not being present in key conversations (both in voice and in-person). And it has to be said that the old facial animation system is still showing it’s age. Performances are a bit wooden, and the odd participant can look dead-eyed.
Action-wise, the preview code bore none of the awfulness of the leaked footage – placeholder dodge animations, a lack of friendly AI, etc – but there were still minor rough edges. Usual suspect stuff like enemy AI leaping off elevated positions to fight me (to die hilariously from fall damage) or just showing a low sense of self-preservation when being peppered with arrows. Bodies clipping for half a second through the ground before coming to rest as they should. Thrown axes levitating in the air after hitting an enemy shield. Odd, levitating physics issues when your fights turn multi-level.
It’s little stuff that’s certainly patchable. Mind you, it was still a surprise to see things this ropey. I had the pleasure of playing early code of Odyssey and Origins before their release, and at roughly the same distance from their respective launches. I don’t remember those being as unpolished as Assassin’s Creed Valhalla.
Be all that as it may, there’s still time and I have to confess that Ubisoft has very much got me hooked with both the setting and Eivor who, by all accounts, is a well-voiced and thoughtful avatar, not a mindless barbarian. For the first time in a long while, the Assassin’s Creed series faces some stiff competition in the historical-themed sandbox arena, thanks to newcomer Ghost of Tsushima.
Providing Ubisoft shores up the leaks (both video-based and bug-wise), Assassin’s Creed Valhalla should still be ready to set sail and go to war. In true Viking fashion style, I’m still pretty horny for this.
Adam Mathew attented a hands-on event as a guest of Ubisoft.