Assassin’s Creed Valhalla Hands-On Preview – Long Live the (Vi)King

I haven’t played an Assassin’s Creed game since 2014. (Okay, that’s a lie. I played a short preview of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey at E3 2018.) Perhaps I was exhausted on massive open-world games leaning on the same tropes and mechanics, or maybe I was just starting to tire of the old tried and true Ubisoft formula that the developer itself committed to changing earlier this year. I missed Syndicate, and then both Origins and Odyssey just seemed like far too big of investments to dive into, despite the drastic changes that were extremely well received. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, then, with its Viking themes, immediately piqued my interest in a way both those game hadn’t, from the earliest rumors saying we’d sail as the Norse raiders.

I recently had the opportunity to spend six hours with Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, more or less free to do whatever I wanted in a massive open area of the map. There was a series of story missions for the region in which my Eivor (female) joined with another Viking faction under a pair of brothers to depose and replace the king with a puppet ruler. This mission chain sent me to various locations around the map, tasked with different activities and choices to make throughout. There are decisions to back either merciful approaches or go full-on murderous Viking raider, and there was even a brief cameo from the Norse god of gods himself, a voice of clarity and definition in a moment of moral dilemma.

Assassin's Creed Valhalla Hands-On Preview

The story gives the distinct feeling of grey morality, tinged with the running red of blood from both sides. I didn’t feel like I was the good guy, but neither was I the baddie. I was just in this pseudo-fictitious moment in history. It was all a matter of perspective, whether the Vikings were invaders, or if the staunch English rule deserved to be violently dethroned. While I generally approached interactions mercifully when given the choice—I let the deposed king live and banished him and his wife to Rome, as well as showing mercy to another major character present in this story segment—there was still plenty of murder to be done. I’m a Viking after all, and if my axe isn’t cleaving hearts while my hammer cracks skulls, I’m playing the role all wrong.

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla Hands-On Preview – The Witcher’s Black Flag

At cursory glance, I would say Valhalla is Assassin’s Creed Black Flag meets The Witcher III, while continuing to refine the RPG-centered developments made in Origins and Odyssey. Gear plays into your character’s build and looks, from armor to weapons, which you can now fully dual wield. I started out with the default axe/shield combo, but soon swapped out the shield for a one-handed hammer to go full Thor in my off hand. There are a litany of moves available, many of which change depending on which weapon type is in which hand. Experimenting with different builds—and even just swapping hands—led to a variety of combat styles. Though when I discovered that the off hand hammer allowed me to tackle enemies to the ground and repeatedly bash the hammer into them, I locked my build in for the rest of the demo.

Assassin's Creed Valhalla Hands-On Preview

More of your build comes through an enormous and varied skill tree. Three separate paths focus on melee, ranged, and stealth, but certain paths through the board cross over into other disciplines, allowing you to mix and match your focus. You can also respec your entire tree at any time for free, so if a stealth build just isn’t working for you, you can restart and pour everything into attack. Valhalla really promotes experimentation with your playstyle by removing as many barriers as possible. There’s apparently even an ability that lets you dual wield two-handed weapons.

Beyond the series of campaign missions, the map was littered with markers and things to do. Yet with as many activities and collectibles as there were, rarely did it feel overly “video gamey.” Everything seemed implemented and immersive. From the old banished Viking musician found on a lonely island to the north, to the hallucinatory mushroom experience that tasked me to solve a puzzle with… seals. Yes, the ocean-faring mammal. It was weird. Even picking up objects scattered around the map has come a long way from the pointless “collect 100 feathers” tasks of yore.

One random encounter I stumbled on was in a sewer area under a small town. A woman locked in a dungeon here was requesting Viper Eggs. I had no idea how to get this item and planned to just leave, when I was attacked by, what else, a viper. Killing the creature and looting it gave me a Viper Egg. Then another. I returned to the woman. She now asked for three Viper Eggs. I shook my head. The sewer area didn’t have anymore Vipers. As I was getting back into my boat outside, I saw one near the shore. And another. I scoured for a third and returned to the woman. Now four eggs. I’d come this far, right? After a bit of a search, I finally came up with the four eggs, and went back one last time, where the woman proceeded to… pass gas. Rancid, viper egg-induced gas filled the small cell as a green haze and the woman just cackled. I’d spent time killing snakes and collecting eggs just so this lady could rip one. It was weird, but hey, it was memorable and made me want to find other oddities and secrets like this little quest—a quest that the demoist assisting me said he’d never actually come across before.

Assassin's Creed Valhalla Hands-On Preview

And then it was back to the boat, for real this time. While not as ship focused as the likes of Black Flag, the rivers crisscrossing the environment act as something of a highway and main method of travel. During travel along the game’s waterways, you’ll listen to either songs or stories from your Viking crew. From here you can quickly Raid nearby villages and settlements you come across, at the push of a button. Your crew will disembark and start a massive battle against the forces on the shore, and you can loot and pillage the area to gain materials to upgrade your settlement, weapons, and armor. It became all too easy and enticing to just raid and pillage every occupied piece of land between myself and any given objective.

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla Hands-On Preview – Loads to Do and See

After six hours, I’d finished the demo region’s story quest and touched maybe a third of the collectibles and activities scattered around the area. And yet I never fell into that old open-world pattern of boredom at the collectibles and quests. Ubisoft did a great job integrating everything in Valhalla to feel compelling to the Viking experience. Whether its scouring a raided monastery for loot or exploring the far reaches of the English countryside, nothing felt out of place or added just for the sake of inflating the content bubble. But with Assassin’s Creed, there’s always the itching question: what is the modern day experience?

Every Assassin’s Creed takes place within the fictional Animus, a computer simulation that takes genetic memory and allows a person to relive them. In Valhalla, our modern-day protagonist, Layla, can sometimes be transported directly into the Animus, taking over for Eivor at places where Animus Anomalies disrupt the simulation. There was one such anomaly present in the demo, a large tree that seemed to be glitching out. Interacting with it led to a platforming puzzler as Layla pursued the rogue code on platforms reminiscent of Tron, all embedded right into the open world. It was a rather interesting way to bring the modern day story into the Animus, rather than forcing players to leave it in order to experience that side of the story. Similar to past games, this unveiled a very, very short piece of a video clip, likely a piece of a much larger mystery.

Done here, I went back to exploring. I raided more villages. I took part in flyting “rap battles.” I played games of dice. I could have eaten up hours just playing the minigames in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, but with a clock ticking down on my time with the demo, I had to decline offers to play again. Flyting in particular is rather interesting, besides being a fun side game, because it gives Eivor charisma, opening up new dialogue options and choices for missions. Best get to practicing your rhymes and timing.

Assassin's Creed Valhalla Hands-On Preview

One aspect I didn’t get much time exploring was the settlement, spending most of my time out and about exploring the map. When I did come back briefly, I found the opportunity to upgrade my settlement, both for form and function. The settlement feels lively, with other characters talking to Eivor and children running about playing games and occasionally chasing after Eivor. It’s another of those elements that dispels the “bloodthirsty killer” tropes that Vikings are known for, offering a more warm familial community aspect to the invading force. There’s a significant amount that I didn’t really have a chance to dig into here though, and I’m eager to see how building out your main home area supports the rest of the gameplay.

Assassin’s Creed is a franchise that lets players explore history. While sure, a Viking isn’t exactly the epitome of stealthy assassin, every game doesn’t need to be Altair continued. Eivor is allowed to break free of the shackles and be her own kind of assassin, all while letting players explore a severely underutilized period in history for games. By evolving the gameplay and worldbuilding, Valhalla embraces the best elements of both its own roots and other RPGs while still retaining a unique identity. After six years away, it’s time for me to return to Assassin’s Creed. Axe in one hand, hammer in the other, I can’t wait to conquer England, deposing crowns and setting fire-forged steel to anyone who gets in my way. Long live the (Vi)king.

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla releases November 10 (available on PS5 launch day).

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla hands-on preview event hosted by Ubisoft. Played digitally via cloud streaming on PC using a PS4 controller.