Sometimes a change of location is all you need. When I played Assassin's Creed Valhalla back in July, I found myself disappointed with the location available in the demo. Assassin's Creed has always been a series about verticality, and East Anglia simply wasn't. It was a big, flat landmass, leaving me to wonder if that was what Assassin's Creed's England would be like, or if it was merely the wrong location for a demo.
Having spent a few more hours in a different location, I'm happy to say that the flatness was just an East Anglia problem. We still haven't gotten a look at the major cities of Assassin's Creed Valhalla yet; London or Winchester should be akin to Origins' Alexandria or Odyssey's Athens, and Ubisoft is holding them close to the vest. But at least what I've seen this time around has more elevation, more chances to climb and more Eagle Dives to undertake.
I'm Not Settling
This latest demo begins in the settlement, a new key feature in Assassin's Creed Valhalla. When Eivor and their clan move to England, they put down stakes, making their home on the bank of a river. The settlement is your home and hub area, the place you'll return to time and time again in-between all the murder, assassination, and exploration.
Like the village in Far Cry Primal, Eivor can contribute to the settlement to build it up and as you explore England, more citizens will join your cause. Despite my expectations, the settlement itself is rather diverse—most characters are from Eivor's clan, but several key figures hail from elsewhere. Yanli is a general merchant who came to England from China to satisfy her curiosity. The English lad Rowan operates the stables and helps you train your horse to swim or have more stamina. The Roman Octavian collects artifacts for some purpose I couldn't entirely glean in the demo.
There are more general additions you can add to the settlement, like a cartographer that offers treasure maps or the fishing hut that unlocks the ability to fish. The Seer's Hut at the corner of the settlement unlocks vision quests, which will seemingly send you to mythical locales like Asgard and Jotunheim. And the Hidden Ones have a presence in the settlement, as acolyte assassin Hytham operates the Bureau, giving Eivor targets of opportunity within the Order of the Ancients.
The settlement is Ubisoft's vector into representing the full picture of the Norse during this time period and keeps Eivor tethered to the world itself.
"[The Norse are] not just conquerors, because they don't want to defeat everybody. They want to expand, they want to settle, because in Norway you're way more limited; the land is not as fertile as it is in England," says Valhalla Game Director CoDev Benoit Richer. "The fact that you go out to adventure, then you go back to your settlement and you see it grow. It creates this focal point and with these new people it creates new opportunities. To see it grow, you really feel that it's part of your home that you're establishing yourself."
Within the main structure of the settlement is the Alliance Map, which allows the players to choose where they'll go next in England. You'll have a few choices at any one time, each with a specific focus in the story of Assassin's Creed Valhalla. "Each of these territories have a specific narrative, a story arc that you can explore some different moods, some different emotions. So sometimes when you do a territory, you're gonna be allowed to continue that story arc to the next territory," says Richer. And completing these territories will gain you new alliances, adding citizens to the settlement and growing it accordingly.
Richer also hints at further lands beyond the scope of the Alliance Map, which just covers part of England. "Something that at this point we can only hint at, is that you're gonna be able to discover new lands that are not shown on that map, like America," teases Richer. "Or when you're gonna see the Valka, which is the Seer Hut, you're gonna be able to explore some dream worlds that are not on the Alliance Map."
Everyone Has a Weakness
One focus of this new era of Assassin's Creed that began with Origins is the interplay between the stealth-action the franchise started with, the more combat-heavy later entries, and the addition of RPG mechanics like levels and loot. Valhalla leans further into the gulf between these ideas, with an enhanced combat system and the return of one-hit assassinations.
I noticed during my hours with Eivor that there are now far more ways for a skillful player to exploit enemy weaknesses to succeed. One-hit kills with the not-so-hidden blade are based on timing. There's a new stun system, where parries and heavy attacks open up enemies to a downed state, letting you catch your breath or execute them. For ranged players, bringing up your bow and arrow now highlights random weak points on an enemy; hitting those weak points does enhanced damage and feeds into the stun system again. And doing a perfectly-timed dodge once again slows down time.
If you're a player with your reflexes about you, there are more ways to open enemies up. When I bring up that this might make the game too easy for skilled players, Richer brings up the harder-difficulty Drengr mode as one option. "When you start a game, you can choose your level of difficulty depending on the type of player that you. We wanted to make sure that the game could be adaptive to every type of player," he says.
This ability to exploit enemies also feeds into the change in level gates in Valhalla. Players of Origins and Odyssey complained that the leveling system made it impossible to challenge enemies far above your level. Here, your level is simply based on the number of skill points you've spent, and all enemies and regions have a suggested level. You can still kill enemies higher than you, you just have to be smarter about it.
"We wanted to avoid enemies like damage sponges," explains Richer. "Even if it's a way higher enemy level, you could still try to defeat the enemy. It's really tough, but from the start we wanted it to be still somewhat feasible. So it's not like, 'Hey, you're not the high level enough,' and you're hard-gated."
Also, level scaling is seemingly gone as well. In the previous two Assassin's Creed games, you could outlevel an enemy only so much: they stayed within a few levels of you on the bottom end. Here, you finally get the joy of spending time to level yourself up and then utterly destroying low-level foes.
"We didn't want the enemies to level up with the player. So if the player is spending a great deal of time collecting materials in the world, upgrading his weapons, and raising his power level, if he goes back against lower difficulty enemies, we want that to be satisfying for the player. We want the player to be satisfied if he's spending time to upgrade himself," Richer says.
That's not to say there aren't harder challenges. There are mythical beasts, the Daughters of Lerion, and the Lost Drengr that Ubisoft has shown off before; unique encounters that test the best players. A new one introduced in this demo are the Zealots, hardened warriors of the Order of Ancients, who are hunting the Hidden Ones and Eivor. I ran up against one on the road to another quest and after a battle that tested all I knew of Valhalla up to that point… I died in a big explosion. Literally, the knight threw an exploding barrel at me and I went flying as a burning ragdoll.
The Zealot was higher level than me, but I was still able to deal decent damage from range by focusing on their weak points. With enough time, I probably could've taken the zealot down. "When you face them, they're quite a challenge. They're what we call 'mini-bosses' that roam the world, but the player could get creative and try to take them out even though they don't have the right power level," says Richer when I mention the zealot encounter. "We want these systems to be emergent; if the player has been creative and watching how the game works, they're definitely able to take advantage of that."
Hiding in England
Combat isn't the sole purview of Assassin's Creed Valhalla though. Yes, Eivor is a Viking, adept with a host of melee weapons. You can wade out into combat easily if you want to. But there is another way, via the stealth skills imparted to Eivor by the Hidden Ones.
There's been a lot of talk about the fact that social stealth is back, which is an excellent change and I can attest to it being useful within towns and cities. There's also changes to the "last known position" mechanic; you could stand up and alert guards to your presence and then duck around a corner or hide in tall grass. First, there's no ghostly afterimage giving you perfect knowledge of where guards are looking, and they'll actually search an area instead of just standing there. Second, they also don't have perfect knowledge of your location once alerted: you can jump to attack mode, hide in some grass and lose the tail. The guard knows there's a person up to no good, and he knows where they're hiding, but the specifics are a little fuzzy. It's good for disengaging.
The environments are also tuned for more trickery in terms of play. There are more in-world traps available, like shooting a pulley to drop a load of goods on an enemy. There are more puzzle-like elements, like investigating a building from afar to find the right silent entry spot or shooting the inner lock on a door from a unique vantage point. There are also more doors where you have to actually locate the key. The world of Valhalla, at least in terms of town, cities, and the various tombs, is built more for the player to step back and think about things for a while.
And you'll need to, because sometimes you'll find alternate entrances to treasure, or sometimes, new abilities. Abilities in Assassin's Creed Valhalla are unlocked and upgraded via books you find in the world. Poking around in one location rewarded me with a secret room where I unlocked a new ability, Harpoon Impalement, which is one of the best goddamn abilities in the game. When activated, Eivor will throw a harpoon attached to a rope. Once it finds purchase in an enemy's tender flesh, flicking the analog stick in a direction will yank the enemy in that direction. If they hit another enemy, both will get knocked down. If they hit a wall, sometimes they'll just die from blunt trauma. Hell, you can yank them off cliffs. Like the Spartan Kick in Valhalla, it never got old.
Forging a Connection to Your Gear
Origins and Odyssey had problems with gear permanence, especially when you were leveling up. You would, over the course of a few levels, sell or dismantle a ton of weapons and pieces of armor. Many times, the same piece. You could upgrade a piece of gear to your level, but it honestly wasn't worth it. Most armor and weapons were disposable.
Valhalla seeks to change that. The new armor system prizes fewer pieces of gear, but more ways to upgrade them. First, certain pieces of gear have rune slots, allowing you to affix runes that offer bonuses to skills and stats. Next, you can upgrade gear yourself by paying various resources; each piece of gear has a different upgrade limit, partially dependent on the gear's quality. Finally, you can pay a blacksmith to enhance gear, increasing its quality level, unlocking rune slots, and potentially changing its appearance.
Combined with the lower drop rate of gear—I got gear from quests and treasure chests—it means players should be holding onto more of the gear they have. There are gear sets too, so you're incentivized to collect multiple pieces of gear that are the same type. According to Richer, the change was an acknowledgement of the loot disposability in the previous games.
"That was an intention from the beginning. We wanted to avoid the fact that you could collect dozens of versions of the same sword with different numbers, and make them more meaningful, he says. "For example, if you got a specific axe that is dear to you because of the story, you can keep it from the beginning up to the end. The same thing for pieces of gear: you're able to upgrade them, you have set pieces reinforcing the different play styles. It was mostly to ground these progression elements, to make it more meaningful when you meet the blacksmith for example. Shops are not just a place where you sell all of your dozens of the exact same weapon."
It also pushes players towards harder content, because the higher upgrade tiers require refined materials. "When you raid a monastery, when you go inside a military location taking out captains, that's when you find these rare refined materials," says Richer. It's a more holistic loot system in Assassin's Creed Valhalla, and a solid attempt to make the gear you do get far more worthwhile.
The Future of Assassin's Creed
Following this demo, I'm very excited for Assassin's Creed Valhalla this holiday. That excitement was muted in the first demo, but this one was far more of the content I was looking for. (Choosing the right location for a demo is key!) I have a clearer picture of where this entry in the series is going.
But I also acknowledge that I think that this is probably the last time Ubisoft can use this style of Assassin's Creed without diminishing returns. I break the Assassin's Creed franchise down into various rough eras. The first era is just the first Assassin's Creed. The second era is the rise of the more action-oriented games, starting with Assassin's Creed 2 and ending with Syndicate. There's a fork of the second era that focuses on the sea-faring side, starting with Assassin's Creed 3 and including Black Flag, Freedom Cry, and Rogue. And finally, the third era is Origins, Odyssey, and now Valhalla.
If released on an annual basis, I think Ubisoft could've gotten away with four or five games in this era. Every two years though, players have time to sit with a game. And the truth is the trilogy model works because around the third one, people get tired of whatever is being put down, unless each entry is vastly different. Eventually you have to change, to carry forward some ideas from the older version into a new iteration. This is why I also think continuing the traditional Assassin's Creed post-Syndicate probably wouldn't have seen great returns. Sorry.
Valhalla is shaping up to be great, I just don't think players are going to want this flavor of Assassin's Creed for much longer. It's long in the tooth, in regards to ideas and systems the series has carried forward since the first game. The competition is out there, and it's starting from ground zero with new ideas.
Ubisoft needs to take a step back, completely tear down the Assassin's Creed franchise and build anew again, like Unity tried to do or Origins succeeded in doing. It needs to ask what the series is, and start building from the ground floor with new ideas, concepts, and technology. The problem is development being what it is, work on the next Assassin's Creed—coming probably in 2022—started last year. I think Ubisoft needs the new flavor of AC to come next, but I think we'll get one more iteration of this era before that happens.
But I'm also heartened by a game like Immortals Fenyx Rising, which started from the work Ubisoft Quebec did in Assassin's Creed Odyssey and takes that foundation in a different direction. Where do you go with Black Flag as a foundation, away from the Assassin's Creed brand? Where does this RPG combat idea go, if you take the core concepts into a different franchise? And what does a new Assassin's Creed really look like? I want the series to move forward, not back.
Until that's a reality though, Assassin's Creed Valhalla is still a damned good game in this series (so far). Valhalla is coming to Xbox Series X/S, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Google Stadia, and PC on November 10, 2020, and PlayStation 5 on Nov. 12. It's the game that'll take Assassin's Creed into the next generation, even if it's not the next generation of Assassin's Creed.