Assassin's Creed Valhalla wastes no time renewing its stance on the series' stealth-based beginnings: When Eivor receives her hidden blade, she refuses to wear it on the inside of her wrist, opting to openly display it on the outside of her forearm. She balks at the idea of hiding a weapon, let alone losing a finger for a dumb knife. And she's right. Assassin's Creed has been holding onto tradition for too long, so Valhalla embraces everything the series has yet to delight in—namely lopping off limbs with comically large axes.
Why hide when you can become a fiery tornado of steel and blood? As Eivor, I am a blazing viking gore blender and no, I will not shush. This is Assassin's Creed Valhalla working as intended. Valhalla doesn't abandon stealth, but no longer treats it as the favorite child. It's clear Ubisoft realized that whistling from the bushes to form a covert stab-guy assembly line couldn't indefinitely carry a series of 80-hour games, and opened the gates to freeform murder.
Viking fire tornadoes mark a big change from the 2006 E3 demo of the original Assassin's Creed, which showed Altaïr delicately climbing a building to observe his target, then tip-toeing through crowded market streets to stab his target and bail.
Thank goodness Valhalla doesn't punish you for getting spotted. In previous Assassin's Creed games, and particularly in Odyssey, killing people in broad daylight was a big deal. Sticking around was even worse. In Odyssey if anyone witnesses your crimes, they run away and alert the authorities, siccing all the nearby guards on you. A GTA-like wanted meter increases, sending mercenaries in greater numbers as pandemonium grows. Paying the bounty on your head or killing all the mercs out of sight to reset your wanted level are pretty big penalties for roughhousing.
No such system exists in Valhalla. Zealots are a stand-in for mercenaries this time around, but there are no witnesses, there's no wanted level, and if you complete an early quest a certain way, Zealots will never hunt you. The pressure's off to play how you want.
In Valhalla, whether I finish cleaning out a fortress as a heaving, blood-soaked nightmare or don't get a fleck of the stuff on anything but my hidden blade, I'm told I did a good job either way. And yeah, cleaning out an enemy camp undetected is a reward in its own right, but Vahalla's gloriously hyper violent combat makes a strong case for never cleaning out an enemy camp undetected ever again.
Bustin' (heads) makes me feel good
Incidental swipes of an axe will cleave off heads and limbs. Melee arenas are pockmarked with giblets, little physics objects bouncing around like gore confetti. Fire and gobs of poison gas are regular guests, ushered in by explosions, the sounds of ceramics crashing, men screaming in agony and others shouting in adrenal bliss. Valhalla's battlefields are fucking rad, an audiovisual treat far more rewarding than pulling yet another guard into a bale of hay.
Stun an enemy and you'll kick off a special kill animation, often using their own weapon against them. Eivor props up soldiers by stabbing them through with their own spear, she swipes off both knees at once with their own greataxes, she pancakes their heads with hammers—all accompanied by indulgently cropped, canted camera angles and foley work that'll probably keep a couple lucky melon and cabbage stands in business for years.
A ton of new enemy archetypes make combat a far more interesting route than stealth too. In stealth, all you really need to consider is enemy placement and whether or not you're specced out to do enough damage to kill tougher enemies with one stab. But in combat, I never know what to expect.
Boar masters send pigs ping-ponging around the arena, forcing me to watch my back or just prioritize taking them out first. Berserkers are unrelenting axe-throwers that close the distance in seconds, rarely giving you a window to counter. There's even an enemy type called a MacBeth, some lumbering dope that downs a superpowered energy potion when they get desperate, even if it poisons them. It keeps going, too: no spoilers, but there are some pretty surprising enemy types you'll run across.
Get a couple dozen of these cronies mixed up in a given arena and you've got yourself a novel challenge—for Assassin's Creed in particular.
We've yet to even take into account the massive skill tree. Most nodules on this Path-of-Exile-esque web juice basic damage stats and resistances, but the perks can radically alter your playstyle. I can now dual-wield two-handed weapons, and when I set an enemy on fire their body continues to burn and readily set nearby dudes on fire. Another perk: guards I kill with poison send out a huge puff of poison gas. Paired with an axe that procs fire and another that procs poison, and I'm—well just imagine the kind of messes I can make.
Armor sets have special bonuses too, so there's plenty of depth for creating unique builds, and not just specializations within melee, ranged, and stealthy play. I can be a wolf-summoning bow master with a poisonous flail, a master of distraction that drops smoke bombs and darts into opponents' unblockable moves for a Sekiro-style counter—or my dumb and good tornado guy.
The majority of builds anticipate getting spotted and going all-in on the deeper, wider, shinier combat. Stealth is still there, but as a back pocket move, a valid way to reset or initiate combat. Picking off soldiers one by one is just boring compared to the alternative.
And as if to underline the shift, the Assassin's Guild is sidelined in Valhalla, sequestered to a hut in the settlement and an optional series of sidequests. The guild is basically there to keep the name on the box and bring back the cool cult system from Odyssey. But even though the shadows of old Assassin's Creed remain, I've killed every special target in broad daylight with the overhead swing of two huge axes. It feels good to finally have an audience.