I am, supposedly, a Viking assassin. Latest in a long line of famous assassins—we beat up the pope once—best known for pouncing from the shadows with silent hidden blades. Assassinating people usually involves some stealth, but Assassin's Creed Valhalla (opens in new tab) is a lot more interested in what you can do with an axe than with a hidden blade. In the three hour demo of Valhalla I played this week, I spent a lot of time dissecting the most complex Assassin's Creed combat system yet, and about five seconds doing assassinations.
It's a fitting direction for an Assassin's Creed focused on warrior Vikings. What I couldn't tell, from just a few hours of hands-on time, is whether Valhalla's combat being more complex will actually make it fun over the course of 50 or 100 hours.
I have only one strong surviving memory of the first Assassin's Creed, which I played nonstop for a week over Christmas break in 2007. To eliminate one of the game's last assassination targets, I spent nearly an hour scaling the sheer back wall of a massive castle, hunting for a way in that let me slip past every guard. I waited out each patrol, learning their paths, before slipping another layer deeper into the fortress. Finally I reached the inner courtyard, my target within reach, and kept waiting, until at last his closest guards left him alone.
I dropped down behind him, and with a single clean move stabbed him in the back. I think I got an Achievement for pulling it off without ever being spotted.
It was thrilling—almost an hour of tension of my own making, building up to that perfect kill. I remember it so well because it was a goal I set for myself, a challenge to be stealthier than I really had to be. Brute forcing my way in would've been a lot faster. But that's why it stuck in my mind as the rest of the game faded, and I still remember it better than anything I did in Assassin's Creed 2, even though the sequel was a more refined game.
That perfect moment was the fantasy early Assassin's Creed chased, but it's not the fantasy of today's Assassin's Creeds, like Odyssey and now Valhalla. These new games are action RPGs first and foremost, with quests more focused on plot and character-building than assassinating targets. You can read more about Valhalla's RPG aspirations in my broader preview (opens in new tab).
There were so many Assassin's Creed games in the old style, it's for the best that the series has evolved into something different, and I'm glad they're taking inspiration from The Witcher 3. But it was still surprising that in three hours, I barely had a chance to use my hidden blade.
Here's the first guy I assassinated. The circumstances are a good example of how, at least in the bit of Valhalla I played, it's more geared towards bows and axes than shivs:
Not exactly a clever kill. Leading up to this moment, I rode my horse towards the objective marker for a story quest, which took me to a small outpost called King's Bury. On my first attempt, I rode my horse up to the objective and was immediately in combat, every enemy in the area alerted, which meant stealth kills were impossible unless I left and came back. On my second try, I scaled the largest building in Kingsbury, the church, and started taking out enemies with my bow. I probably could've gotten the drop on one if I waited for him to come near the church, but then another guard would've seen me. The bow is a much better stealth tool in Valhalla, especially when you can get a height advantage.
To complete the mission, I eventually had to enter the church and kill an elite guard, and it didn't seem like there was any opportunity for stealth there. The front door was my only option.
Later in my demo, I led a boatful of vikings on a raid of a small city, and partway through the battle I got my second assassination prompt of the day. I took it.
As much as I loved pulling off these leap attacks in classic Assassin's Creed, they feel a bit out of place in Valhalla. The animations in combat are weightier, with crunchy sound effects as you slam an axe into a shield, and dramatic camera movements as you activate special abilities to bum rush an enemy or hurl a pair of axes through the air. The stealth kills feel like a holdover from a different game.
– 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.
Ubisoft's clearly done a lot of work to make the combat look flashy, and there are so many systems at play Valhalla gives the impression of being an intricate action game. There are skills and abilities (totally separate), equipment stats and upgrades, main hand and off-hand weapons, parries and dodges—but after playing it, I feel like Valhalla has a more is more approach to design, rather than combat tuned to really engage my mind and reflexes.
I never felt anything close to the tension I get from swinging and dodging in a From Software RPG, or the satisfying rhythm of Batman: Arkham combat. I've played a lot of Monster Hunter World in the past year, and despite Valhalla giving me way more abilities to use at any given moment, I don't think it demands (or rewards) nearly the same precision that makes Monster Hunter so interesting to learn.
In a very different way, the original Assassin's Creed did reward precision. The payoff back then was carefully planning a perfect stealth kill and navigating the environment skillfully, even when the final blow required just a single button press. Maybe Valhalla's version of that exists in the full game somewhere, in its hardest combat encounters or in sidequests that require careful planning to pull off.
Valhalla's combat will definitely keep giving you new toys to play with for dozens of hours, but I think compared to the best action games, it's blunted by trying to be an open world game that does a little of everything. It can't match Monster Hunter's demanding combos and enemy knowledge, or the danger inherent in committing to a swing in Dark Souls.
I think the real fun of Valhalla is going to be less in the moment-to-moment action, and more in the gradual process of turning yourself into an unstoppable Viking warrior over the course of 100 hours, finding the best gear and picking out your favorite abilities. Like Odyssey before it, I hope Valhalla's story makes that time investment worthwhile.