If there’s an RPG in this generation which was more well-received, more highly praised and more loved than The Witcher III, I’m hard-pressed to think of it. So, it makes sense that Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed franchise, as it edges further into RPG territory, would crib from CD Projekt Red’s magnum opus.
I recently spent four-hours traipsing around the English countryside as Eivor in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla and on more than a few occasions, I could have mistaken it for The Witcher III. On first blush, it’s the scenery and environment which gives Assassin’s Creed Valhalla its Nilfgaardian flavour.
But there’s more to it. The Witcher III excelled when it gave the player free-reign to explore, interact with the world and discover its multitude of secrets. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla leans on this style of gameplay hard and so far, it seems to pay off.
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla
In our previous hands-on, Adam Mathew wrote in great length about the various activities and gameplay events he took part in. I too was able to give a Raid and a Siege a go and enjoyed the brutality and epic scale of the combat. Caving in skulls, countering attacks and stunning enemies only to murder them with their own weapons and, of course, pillaging everything insight is what you’d expect from a Viking simulator. Combat feels chunky and gritty. It’s ferocious, vicious and certainly not for the squeamish. Eivor is a death-dealing expert and over and over, I marvelled (both in horror and morbid delight) as she dispatched her enemies so violently it’d make Ed Boon look twice.
However, with Adam already covering combat, I wanted to experience Assassin’s Creed Valhalla by wandering, exploring and see what I could find. Turns out, I found a whole lot.
My hands-on dropped me into Eivor’s leather booties as she and her Viking pals are taking up settlement in Ledecestrescire. Here, I pledged to the region, showing my interest in forming an alliance which sent me to a town named Repton to meet Ubba and Ivarr Ragnarsson. These brothers were in the midst of trying to remove the King of Mercia and installing their own to secure their foothold in the region. My entire playthrough took place during this chapter and while I played it through, I won’t give away the details as it’s far more rewarding to experience the plot yourself.
That being said, there’s mystery and intrigue, underhanded dealings, double-crosses, murder, mayhem and, of course, climbing to the top of tall buildings and looking wistfully out into the middle distance.
It is Assassin’s Creed after all.
Also, Ivarr Ragnarsson is already a stand-out character and I can’t wait to see more of him in the final game. He’s exactly the kind of lunatic you want on your side…until you don’t.
In between story missions, I meandered across the map, zig-zagging between points of interest and taking in the sights. Being a Ubisoft title, the map is littered with obligatory icons. However, I have to say, there certainly seemed to be less than in previous iterations. Lots of icons have been done away with and instead, the map shows a glowing hot spot which indicates ‘something’ of interest is in the vicinity. This method makes exploration far more enjoyable and far less like ticking off a list of chores. Even locations which are marked by an icon have more bang for their buck.
For example, as I roamed, murdering Saxons, I discovered a number of treasures, armour and ability upgrades. Despite there being a clear indicator on the map, when I arrived at the location, I needed to work to unlock them. In my hands-on, more often than not, this boiled down to an environmental/traversal puzzle which saw me having to figure out a way to get to the prize. Some were very simple and some were so head-scratching I had to walk away after 15 fruitless minutes. And it’s great. Such a simple addition to the gameplay makes a world of difference. Instead of knowing I can hit each map marker and collect some stuff to add to the pile, playing Valhalla, I knew I’d be getting an extra, little tasty morsel of game each time. It almost feels like an extension of the Sea Shanties you used to have to chase down.
Something else I found remarkably enjoyable, and very much of The Witcher III school of gameplay, were the World Stories. These diegetic snippets of storytelling flesh out the world and add colour and flavour without needing to tie-in to the overarching narrative. World Stories are brief, simple affairs requiring Eivor to carry out all manner of tasks; some combat, some exploration. The first I discovered, and my favourite, saw me having to chase and protect a man who’d ingested some mushrooms which sent him on a bad trip. Thinking he was invincible he travelled to a nearby encampment and started beating up soldiers. My task was to simply keep him alive. Eventually, he wore himself out and no longer had control of his limbs. Returning him to his long-suffering wife, I dumped the man on the ground and was on my way.
In another, I heard a woman shouting for help from a tower with a man standing guard at the door. Thinking she was in peril, I beat the absolute piss out of him and he ran away. When the woman heard what was going on she was distraught since the man and her were roleplaying for sexy times. Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla’s World Stories are a weird and whacky window into life in this world and they’re a great respite from the drama and seriousness of the plot.
What struck me most about Assassin’s Creed Valhalla was just how far it had evolved, even from Odyssey. Where Odyssey felt like the awkward first steps, Valhalla seems to be breaking out into a full sprint. Ubisoft seems to be far more confident in the direction it’s taking the franchise, as well it should. The franchise has always had a bit of an “everything and the kitchen sink” gameplay philosophy but in recent years, Ubisoft has pulled back. Valhalla continues to show restraint, though being an RPG there are plenty of activities to get involved in.
Beyond the killing and the combat of the main missions, Eivor’s settlement is a place to relax and unwind. When I first arrived, the Settlement was a couple of shacks and a longhouse, however, I was able to make changes and upgrades which would grant Eivor access to all manner of perks. Adding a cartographer allowed me to purchase maps showing points of interest. I didn’t quite have enough resources to go upgrade happy but there’s definite importance given to the Settlement, in building it up, fleshing it out and using its advantages to further your progress throughout the rest of the game. It also feels more integral than ACIII’s homestead with direct impacts being observable. It also helps that the longhouse is Eivor’s base of operations, so returning to the Settlement is pretty frequent.
In addition to the larger, more important buildings, I was able to place decorative items in certain locations. Think The Elder Scrolls Blades. My Settlement was rife with old Roman statues and weapons racks, giving it that rustic, homely feel a Viking needs.
Best of all, there are large dogs sniffing around and yes, you can pet them. It’s bloody adorable.
Despite having four hours to play Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, I feel as though I barely scratched the surface. I’m sure people still playing Assassin’s Creed Odyssey will have ‘thoughts’ on that fact but for me, I’m keen as mustard to get some more time with Eivor. In four hours, I managed to speed through the chapter’s main plot and explore about 1/3 of the map. Of the treasures and collectibles I found, I only managed to collect about half of them and due to my time running down, I had to skip tonnes of content. What I was able to experience was impressive. The world of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla feels well and truly lived in and alive. The countryside is vast, open and begging to be explored and when it is, it’s really rewarding.
Small changes like the extra effort required to collect items or World Stories make all the difference to a massive open-world RPG like Valhalla. By ensuring players are always doing something at least vaguely interesting, Ubisoft is building systems to prevent players losing interest and burning out. It’s not flawless and there are people who will bounce off Valhalla due to its scale but those players who dig in and embrace what’s on offer are looking likely to have a blast.
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla launches on November 10 for PC, PS4, Xbox One and Xbox Series X. It launches for PS5 on November 12.