The last time Assassin’s Creed broke from its yearly release schedule, we got Assassin’s Creed Origins, a game that fundamentally changed the direction of the series from an open-world, stealth-action adventure to a full-blown open-world RPG that rivals the scope of games like The Witcher 3, Red Dead Redemption 2, and so on.
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla represents only the third time Ubisoft has taken a year off in the 13 year history of the series, and while it doesn’t upend the series the way Origins did, my main takeaway from spending six hands-on hours with it is that Valhalla is significantly more ambitious and daringly different from its predecessors than one might initially think.
Good Bye, Side Quests
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla’s biggest departure from previous Assassin’s Creed games is that traditional side quests are no more. You won’t travel to a new area, talk to everyone with a marker over their head, and then just be loaded up with 20 different mini storylines to keep track of at any given time. But this doesn’t mean that Valhalla’s scope or scale is diminished. There are still a ton of side activities, just not in the way that you might expect. Instead, when you synchronize a new part of the map, you’ll discover a bunch of dots colored yellow, blue, or white that pinpoint those activities.
The yellow dots correspond to a side activity that will reward you with some sort of tangible item: some gold, a new piece of gear, or a book of knowledge that either teaches or upgrades a skill. The larger the dot on the map, the more substantial the challenge and greater the reward. A large yellow dot, for instance, might correspond to a heavily guarded fortress with multiple large chests, while a smaller yellow dot might represent a single chest hidden behind a minor locked door puzzle.
White dots represent Artifacts, which are traditional collectible scavenger hunts. Follow a white dot on the map and you might find a hidden Roman Artifact that you can take back to your settlement to trade with a vendor, or you might complete a quick parkour challenge and find a new tattoo you can use to customize your character.
Finally, the blue dots correspond to world events, and here’s where you’ll find the closest things to traditional side quests. World events are incredibly varied and could be anything: a quick minigame involving stacking cairn stones, a short encounter with an often… unusual NPC, or a boss fight against a mythical creature.
Let’s pause for a moment and go back to that word “unusual,” because one other huge departure from prior Assassin’s Creed games is that these World Events are, more often than not, hilariously bizarre. In one event I had to collect a bunch of viper eggs for a maniacal lady who presumably wanted to eat them just so she could unleash a nasty fart for the people above ground to suffer through; in another, I protected a lady locked in a tower who gets her kicks by pretending to be in trouble and having people save her; and in another still, I ate some hallucinogenic mushrooms and found myself in a field with seals watching them direct me through magical doorways in a specific sequence.
“Oftentimes, we find that we’re lacking a space with which to tell these more light stories. And that’s needed,” said Valhalla’s Lead Quest Designer Phillipe Bergeron when I spoke to him about this new direction for side quests. “You need peaks and valleys when you’re telling a story to sort of appreciate those stronger human stories, as opposed to a lighter story that makes you giggle and appreciate the world a little bit more. [World Events] give us opportunities to deal with other subjects, because when you’re dealing with warfare and politics that come with the Viking age, it can get very somber very quickly."
And true enough, I found myself giggling way more often than I typically would while playing an Assassin’s Creed game. One other upside to this change is that it makes exploration much more natural and less overwhelming. There’s no longer a massive backlog of sidequests to complete, so you can just explore at your leisure and complete these world events as you come across them.
“What we wanted to do, fairly early on, is have a clear differentiator between earlier games that have the same formula. We wanted exploration to feel very different. Instead of having something that turns out to be basically a checklist of things that you’re going through, we put things in broader buckets that keep the air of mystery where you don’t know precisely what you’re going for. We also wanted to remove that idea that you were grinding the map by having these same sort of repeating activities,” said Bergeron.
What’s nice too is that this pivot allows Ubisoft to devote more effort into Valhalla’s main quest. Bergeron said that the team took the budget they typically dedicate to side content and invested it in making sure the main content had richer, deeper stories, so that any time you commit to any given territory, you’ll get a complete, self-contained story that has its place in the greater scheme of things.
Fight, Kill, and Sack Like a Viking
Another of Valhalla’s departures from the series is the fact your bird will no longer spot enemies for you. In prior games, it could be used to scout an entire encampment, revealing the locations of enemies throughout – even allowing you to see them through walls. It was a tactic that Bergeron described as an almost “press this button to win” kind of scenario. This time around, the team wants to create a more cohesive synergy between you and your bird.
In Valhalla, your Raven can get you an overhead view of an enemy encampment and scout out potential entrances and areas of interest, sure, but in order to actually get a feel for where enemies are, you need to physically be near the area. Once you’re close to an area where you suspect enemies, you can click the right stick to activate your Odin Sight – Valhalla’s take on Eagle Vision – to highlight all enemies in a circle around you.
And, of course, one of the most talked-about features in Valhalla is the return of the iconic hidden blade, which can once again instantly kill most, but not all, unsuspecting foes. With all of these pieces working together, along with Eivor’s bow that can be powered up with a multitude of skills, there’s no shortage of stealth tools in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla.
Once blades start clashing, things are pretty familiar, though there are a couple of very notable differences in combat. For one, each enemy has both a stun bar and a health bar, and you can choose to go after either one by tailoring your combat style. Take a more defensive approach by going for counters, and you’ll chip away the enemy’s stun bar, which allows you to execute a powerful finishing move for huge damage that can kill an enemy outright. Or take a more traditional offensive approach by just swinging your weapon at whatever moves, and you’ll hack away at enemy health bars.
But there’s a wide variety of special enemy types, each with unique behaviors and attack patterns, so you’ll have to tailor your combat based on the enemy you're fighting.
One other big change in Valhalla is how it handles loot. In Origins and Odyssey, you are essentially showered with loot from beginning to end. That’s changing in Valhalla, as Ubisoft adopts a more quality-over-quantity approach to your hard-earned spoils.
“There’s a huge trend in gaming … increasing amounts of [loot] drops and you're constantly cycling out your inventory.” said Bergeron. “One thing we wanted to do from the get-go is have the player appreciate their inventory a little bit more. So we went for a collection system instead, where there’s a narrower range of different gear and weapons, but you can invest in and upgrade [them]. So you find the playstyle that fits you, and then you can decide whether you want to invest in that playstyle.”
Home Sweet Home
At its core, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is about a crew of Vikings trying to make a new home for themselves on foreign land, and with that comes your settlement. This is a home base that you’ll frequently return to in order to pick up new quests in the main storyline, talk with important characters, upgrade your gear, and upgrade the various structures of the settlement itself to provide your character with better buffs and persistent perks.
What’s nice about the settlement is that everything you do in the open-world kind of feeds back into it. You see the progression of your settlement mirrored on your own personal progression. When you raid a town and collect gold and supplies, those supplies can be used to improve your settlement and make it feel more like your own personal home. Admittedly, it’s hard to see just how deep the development of your settlement can be after only six hours, but it’s nonetheless a nice change to have all of the vendors you need centralized in one place, rather than having to scour the map to find the nearest blacksmith.
Ultimately, I ended my hands-on experience with Assassin’s Creed Valhalla very hopeful. I really dig the large high-level changes that Ubisoft is making, and the reasoning behind each of them makes a ton of sense. There are still a few problems with enemy AI and general bugginess in the combat that I’d like to see cleaned up before launch, but above all else, my six hours of playtime made me breathe a sigh of relief. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is absolutely not just a retread of the ground covered by Origins and Odyssey – it’s an exciting departure from what’s already been done.
Mitchell Saltzman is an editorial producer at IGN. He's played like 10 hours of Assassin's Creed Valhalla at this point, so hit him up on twitter @JurassicRabbit.
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