With each new entry and new setting in the Assassin’s Creed series, we drift further from where the series began. In Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, the shift from assassin to warrior feels like it has completed its metamorphosis.
At least that’s how it felt when I had a chance to play the game for a few hours during a hands-on preview ahead of Ubisoft Forward on Sunday.
Taking control of Eivor, a Norwegian Viking warrior invading England in the ninth century, I accomplished a lot in my time with Valhalla. I raided a village, laid siege to a castle, took out an enemy camp through silent assassination, fought a legendary creature, beat an otherworldly foe in a thoroughly spooky arena, took part in a wedding where I won a drinking competition, and explored a vast section of England that only accounted for a small percentage of the full game’s scope.
It feels weighty controlling a hulking Viking compared to the more lithe characters of the series’ past. The land feels different too, edging closer to more classic Western fantasy games like The Witcher or Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor with rolling green hills, small farms dotting the landscape, and dark forests housing dangerous beasts.
Valhalla also expands on the RPG elements of the previous game Odyssey with skill trees, a variety of weapons and armor found in the game, and upgrades available for all pieces of equipment. It further feeds into the idea that this game is departing away from the series’ roots and setting up a more Western fantasy RPG.
Valhalla is certainly a different entry for the series. Good, but different.
A tonal shift
The biggest chunk of my time with Assassin’s Creed Valhalla involved storming a castle with a fleet of Vikings. I led the large group of warriors as we took out defenders atop the castle walls, rammed through gates, and cut down enemies on foot to reach the leader.
That leader was a fellow Viking, Rued, but not one that shared Eivor’s values, and had to be taken out to make room for the leadership of the king I supported.
As I bashed shields and stomped on stunned enemies, all while the battle raged around me, it didn’t really feel like I was playing an Assassin’s Creed game. It felt like something else entirely, something more focused on big moments of loud, visible conflict rather than scaling architecture for silent assassinations.
But that’s the direction the series has been moving in for years now. The hidden blade has given way to focus on a variety of weapons. In Valhalla, it’s Eivor’s Viking weapons (namely axes) and a shield. The combo makes combat feel more brutish and completely alters the tone of the game.
As I busted through gates and hacked at enemies alongside my fellow fighters, I felt like a warrior at home rather than an assassin forced into battle, a similar feeling I got from Assassin’s Creed Odyssey.
When I found an enemy camp a bit later and crouched around sneakily assassinating enemies one by one, I felt like a warrior forced into being an assassin.
It’s not exactly the experience I look for when going into an Assassin’s Creed game, but it still works.
Those classic elements are still there. I climbed some buildings and other structures to assassinate foes, but these moments weren’t the focus of the game. Given the theme of Vikings, invasion, and big battles, running in with my axe out to fight in open was the more natural option.
Becoming a Viking
After raiding that first village to kick off my hands-on, I got a feel for Valhalla’s combat. I mostly hit a single button to attack and another to block and parry with my shield, but I found out that my special attacks were vital to success. These are stronger abilities that can be triggered with a two-button press and let you perform actions like throwing multiple axes, knocking opponents to the ground with a powerful kick, or putting a poisonous substance on your weapon to make attacks hurt a bit more.
Without these abilities, I would never have been able to defeat the first drengr I came across. A drengr is a Viking warrior, and this one’s best years in battle were behind him. I challenge him to a fight to the death so he could die gloriously in battle rather than live out his life peacefully.
It took me a few tries to defeat this willing drengr, whose own son was watching him as he fought, knowing that he would soon be dead and that boy would take up his mantle.
While I fought, bloodying this man in front of his home and in front of his kin, the whole world fell away. This fight was intensely personal and I knew that the outcome would bring. It was a single experience in the game that seems to encapsulate the themes of Valhalla.
Death in Valhalla isn’t something that should come from the shadows. It should come at people head-on, and they’ll be ready for it with a weapon in their hand.
Yes, it’s an Assassin’s Creed game, but Valhalla’s setting doesn’t allow for the “assassination” half of that title to flourish naturally. In my time with the game, that seemed just fine. It would’ve been weird to control this huge, muscular Viking in that sneaky way.
It will be interesting to see how that idea pans out when the game releases in December and whether that shift away from the series’ core ideas undermines what it’s trying to do.
Problems at Ubisoft
One thing we can’t ignore when looking at a game like Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is the people at Ubisoft who have been accused of misconduct including predatory behavior, sexual harassment, assault, abuse, and rape. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla director Ashraf Ismail stepped down from his role after being accused of having extramarital affairs with people who worked for him.
These acts and others outlined by the brave people who spoke up about their experiences working at or with Ubisoft are unconscionable and disgusting. We cannot pretend that the people who helped bring these games to life did not suffer unjustly at the hands of those with whom they worked.
We do not live in a perfect world, and games like Assassin’s Creed Valhalla are not created by perfect companies.
In my hands-on with Valhalla, these recent news items popped up in my head and left me feeling sour about playing the game, let alone previewing it. Hyping up a game whose creators made their coworkers uncomfortable, afraid, or hurt feels antithetical to how I believe we should respond to video games, movies, music, and other creative works.
At the same time, Valhalla wasn’t made by Ismail or these other problematic — even criminal — people alone. Valhalla is being developed by hundreds of people, the majority of whom are not being accused of terrible things, and some of whom had to live through these instances of harassment, abuse, and pain. Should we discount their labor?
I don’t think so. There are pieces of dialogue, characters, events, systems, and more in this game that were made by people who were able to have a hand in this game even though the environment of the company could have kept them from doing so. From the smallest details to the biggest story arcs, Valhalla exists not as a product of people who commit these heinous acts, but in spite of them.