I almost dropped my controller in a panic when a nun stopped praying amid a field of corpses, pulled out an axe, and charged at me. A couple hours into my demo, Assassin's Creed Valhalla (opens in new tab) had finally surprised me.
It was a short, vicious fight, with the nun deciding my show of strength meant I didn't need killing after all. After a short cutscene I learned this encounter was a "world event," shorter and simpler than a sidequest, but also more fun, because I had no idea it was coming. Completing world events is one way Assassin's Creed Valhalla rewards you skill points to level up your Viking assassin Eivor, alongside story missions and sidequests. As Ubisoft continues to turn Assassin's Creed into an RPG series, more focused on story and character-building and thoughtful narrative choices, it needs many more moments like that one. But not exactly like that one, because 'bloodthirsty nun' is the kind of card you can really only play once.
Three hours with Valhalla was barely enough to get a feel for this new Assassin's Creed. I can tell it's a giant open world, with plenty of the tropes you'd expect from the genre. There are points of interest on your map, vantage points to climb, completion bars to fill up by collecting treasure and finding secrets, ore deposits to break open for materials, bits of loot from enemies you can use to upgrade your weapons.
None of these things are inherently bad. You may even find an ocean of repetitive tasks soothing. But they do mean that if you've played enough Assassin's Creed games, or open-world games in general, you'll find a lot of what you're doing in Valhalla pretty familiar.
I didn't get to see one of the things I'm most curious about in Valhalla, which is the settlement you'll return to over the course of the game, upgrading with the riches acquired through conquests. I'm a sucker for a base-building minigame, and I also love the idea of having my own squad of Vikings I can call on to raid towns across England. Finding new loot to make incremental upgrades to my own character bores me after a while, but upgrading my followers and leading them into battle? That I can get into.
– After numerous public allegations of sexual assault and harassment within the company, Ubisoft promised (opens in new tab) a 'structural shift' to deal with its issues, and multiple executives have left the company (opens in new tab).
– Assassin's Creed creative director Ashraf Ismail resigned in June (opens in new tab) after allegations of infidelity with a fan.
The bits of Valhalla I spent most of my time with made it plain Ubisoft has taken a lot of inspiration from The Witcher 3, building decisions into the main story quests that help you define what kind of character Eivor is. Before I lead my troops into battle, do I fire them up with promises of vengeance, or tell them we fight for ourselves? If I show another Viking mercy after defeating him in a one-on-one boss fight, how will that come into play later?
I only played a couple story missions, but I loved female Eivor's voice acting and the little bits of the larger story I was able to pick up on. This isn't going to simply be a tale of the invading Vikings vs. Saxons, because I rescued a Saxon king who was marrying another Viking. There could be some cool, more nuanced politics here, and I hope Valhalla aims for a more natural story than another grand Assassins vs. Templars conspiracy.
Where Valhalla falls short of The Witcher, at least from the limited bit I played, is in its sidequests. I only ran into a couple, but they were very short. In one, I helped a kid find a cat. In another, I helped a kid recover a horse from the other side of a river. They were two-minute diversions, not the rich, unpredictable quests that rooted Geralt in his world so effectively.
Maybe that stuff is out there in Valhalla, just not available in the small chunk I played. I truly hope so, because they're vital for making these open worlds feel lived-in.
Valhalla retains classic Assassin's Creed's climbing and stealth, but I found myself thrust into combat or picking off enemies with a bow far more than going in for assassinations. The stealth feels like a holdover from a different game, but Valhalla's combat having more stuff in it than Origins or Odyssey doesn't necessarily make it more engaging over the long term, either. I wrote a separate article (opens in new tab) about Valhalla's combat design and how its stealth fits in, and you can see it in action in the video below, too.
If Valhalla's story is great, and its sidequests are better than the ones I encountered, then even a decent combat system will be good enough. The Witcher 3's combat was easily its weakest element, after all. I'd gladly put up with an evolution of Odyssey if this giant open world lives up to its potential as a vessel for great storytelling.
With a few months to go, Valhalla clearly needs some more polish. I ran into a few bugs, including getting stuck in a corner and having my entire screen turn blurry after I engaged the cinematic camera, which smoothly swaps between camera angles as your horse carries you to your next destination. And just generally, it doesn't feel like a game with the wow factor I'd hope for, considering it's debuting on next-gen consoles.
Combat is responsive, but AI characters tend to move with the same old stilted animations, which stand out more and more as games become more detailed. And though the environment looks beautiful, nothing in Valhalla really blew me away—from my memory it looks comparable to The Witcher 3, which came out in 2015.
The big draw of the last two Assassin's Creeds has been exploring a particular historical setting at a fidelity we've never seen before. They both also played off mythology better than the older games in the series. I barely got to see that in Valhalla, but I know it's lying in wait in the full game. By the end of Odyssey and Origins you were hunting down and battling the likes of the Sphinx and Cyclops and Anubis. I'll accept some open-world bloat if I eventually get to throw down with Odin or tame Fenrir and ride him into battle.