In the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, where release delays and event cancellations have been happening at a daily rate, Ubisoft still managed to deliver a surprise performance from artist BossLogic in late April, and during this creative reveal the world slowly discovered the true nature of the next Assassin's Creed.
One day later, the first trailer showing the next entry in the series dropped (see above), revealing a charismatic protagonist and the setting for this new adventure: Dark Age Britain. Following that, now that we all know the when and where of the new Assassin's Creed, a lot of information concerning the game's story and gameplay quickly followed suit (I've collected everything you need to know right here, and it's a great place to start if you're not already clued up).
Since then we have learned that Valhalla was the result of a two-and-a-half-year-long collaboration between now-departed creative director Ashraf Ismail and narrative director Darby McDevitt. The two men had already worked together on AC: Black Flag, a widely-appreciated standout entry in the series, and Valhalla is said to offer a unique narrative never before seen in a video game!
But looking past promotional soundbites, we also learned more about the adventure itself. It takes place during the 9th century, mainly in England but also in Norway. It was an era of conflict during which parts of Britain were controlled by Vikings. The player will follow Eivor, a clan chief attracted by England's green and pleasant land, a potential new home for his kin. Our new protagonist wants to settle there permanently, a landgrab which will lead him into conflict and deliver consequences that he can't yet comprehend.
Over the course of the reveal, we also got a lot of information about how the game will play, resulting in debates about the new formula and the newly revealed mechanics. Now, after a four-hour-long session spent playing during a recent remote hands-on, I can begin to share some answers and tell you about both the qualities and flaws I noted during my time with Assassin's Creed Valhalla.
The Hidden Blade's Effectiveness: If you are familiar with the license, you know what we are talking about here since the hidden blade has always held a lot of importance in classic AC gameplay and lore. Needless to say, many hardcore fans were surprised or even disappointed when its effectiveness was nerfed, before disappearing entirely in Odyssey. The thing is, lots of players liked this change too because not being able to instantly eliminate a much stronger enemy makes sense. In Valhalla, Ubisoft has tried to find a middle ground to satisfy both sides. From now on, nobody will be invulnerable to your hidden blade, but when it comes to stronger foes you will have to complete a QTE before delivering a one-hit-kill.
The Exploration: We have never been freer to explore an AC sandbox than we are in Valhalla. Just like certain open-world RPGs, there are only coloured dots on the map to hint at what kind of location we are going to visit next. The location type will become clear and permanently marked on the map only once you've actually visited it, which means it really is up to you to find all the important locations in the game and explore this new landscape.
Balancing Overpowered Abilities: If you played Origins or Odyssey, you know about the adrenaline that allows you to use various abilities to get rid of your opponents more easily. Maybe a little too easily at times. In my opinion, it gave the player an unfair advantage that made the combat one-sided. That is fortunately not the case anymore, and while adrenaline is still really effective, it will no longer offer you complete domination of the battlefield.
The Navigation Puzzles: Not so long ago, Assassin's Creed devs really loved to highlight your character's agility (and their great work on the animations) with what they called 'navigation puzzles'. These puzzles required the player to find a way through challenging architecture that might look simple on the face of it but that are actually pretty complex to climb. Although enjoyable, these moments eventually disappeared from the franchise, which can be explained by more limited parkour abilities as well as the architectural styles of the various civilisations we've visited. Such constraints and barriers could also be a concern during the Dark Ages, but these acrobatic feats are definitely back on the menu thanks to a clever system that I won't spoil here.
Your Crew, Captain: This point is more a source of hope for the final game than something that I really liked. I saw that it was possible to attack a location with the longboat if it was close enough to water, which is a good idea. However, my main expectation is more about enjoyment than strategy. When I played, the crew was made up of procedurally-generated strangers, but I know that in the final game I will be able to bond with them, which should make these raids much more satisfying. This kind of reminds us of Brotherhood, where one would recruit and train assassins until they were finally ready to become part of the order. This was a great idea that turned random NPCs into important partners that we learned to like, and I really hope to rediscover this kind of feeling in Valhalla.
A Well-Worn Experience: The thing that bothered me during my hands-on the most is that Valhalla really struggles to stand out against the two previous games in the series. Most of what we're asked to do has stayed the same since Origins. Of course, I only played a fraction of the final game, but the side quests and collection tasks will clearly be an important part of the experience. I want to see more fresh ideas, especially for a game that will also be released on next-gen consoles. And by that, I don't mind new mini-games, because I must say that the flyting and the drinking games did not convince at all. While they are indeed simple enough, and they might very well be more significant in the final game in our settlement or against other clan leaders, however, if things stay as they are, most players probably won't bother with these side-activities at all.
A Bland World: First, let's keep in mind that Ubisoft still has several months to work on its game and improve this aspect. I also have to note that I had to resort to cloud gaming for this hands-on, which often results in a suboptimal experience. The thing is, I was really surprised by the world itself. Of course, the sights may seem more pleasant in Greece than they are in 9th century Britain, at least for some, and the architecture is more austere, but Valhalla's villages end up looking like mock-ups. They don't seem to exude any life, and the NPCs look more like automatons that are here solely to give sense to a city. It may well be time for Ubisoft to focus on NPC AI behaviour to make it more believable in future games.
In the end, I noted plenty of entertaining elements, even if a lot of them are only really slight improvements over pre-existing features. My biggest frustration was that Ubisoft decided not to lift the veil on systems that I wanted to see more of, such as the management of the settlement and how that will work. That said, I feel like the studio has once again listened to feedback, and I still want to see much more of Valhalla when it lands on PC, PS4, PS5, Stadia, and Xbox later this year.