Before its release in a few weeks, we dove back into Assassin's Creed Valhalla's 9th century England, for one final blast through its muddy open-world.
A few years ago, I was ferociously touting Assassin's Creed Origins as a serious Game of the Year contender, and miraculously, a few of my colleagues supported me in that mission. Now, this isn't miraculous, not because Assassin's Creed games historically have been bad, but rather that they rarely transcend the expectations of the formula to the degree where it's proper Game of the Year material. While entertaining, it's also built using a very particular palette of elements that while rich in detail, also can become empty calories rather quickly.
This is actually a compliment to a series, content with being the big blockbuster open-world, that gets published on a semi-annual basis, and which does well every single time. You have to give the series credit for maintaining a cadence, and coming up with new worlds and stories on that basis. The point of this is that Origins represented a massive tiger leap forward for the series, one that was celebrated across the media landscape, and amongst fans across the globe.
The follow-up, Assassin's Creed Odyssey, was a return to form, but not in the good way. It was, well, more of Origins essentially, which many of us didn't really mind. So what about Valhalla then? It's made by the same design team that did Origins, so can we expect the same kind of complete design overhaul? Well, no. You really can't, because Valhalla is once again more of Origins, but with a few ideas of its own. And once again, I don't really mind.
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Recently, I got to play around six hours of the game, which started once main character Eivor has gained a proper foothold in 9th Century England, and is attempting to establish trade relationships and alliances in this new, unknown land, while keeping enemies at bay. It's an interesting set-up for sure, being the invader rather than the protector, and the game does play with the role-reversal, painting a picture of an anti-hero with a moral compass, albeit one that needs adjusting every now and again. Luckily, Eivor's allies are less inclined to invade with grace and mercy, and it seems that one of the central narrative angles is to keep your closest friends from losing themselves to bloodlust, with their tendencies to choose the more violent path in search of glory.
In fact, it seems the main narrative is split into segments, separate arcs if you will, that tell the story of a particular kingdom. Our demo began after gaining a foothold in England, at the settlement, which can be expanded and upgraded using resources gained from plundering and raids. You can construct buildings, such as a barracks or a bakery, and then subsequently upgrade said structures for added benefit to yourself and your soldiers. Furthermore, you can visually alter the village using runestones or statues, and even call for feasts to boost morale. While not offering up a ton of depth, like deciding how and where to place buildings for an added personal touch, it does seem like it's time worth spending.
However, most time spent in the demo was outside of the comfort of home, because one of the first arcs to be completed was to depose of the king of Mercia, placing a puppet king more willing to make deals and negotiate treaties with the Viking horde on the throne. For that, we had to travel to Ledecestrescire, and that took us on a long trek across what seemed to be an absolutely massive map consisting of many separate kingdoms to explore.
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While the colour palette in and of itself is blander than Origins' spectacular cities, and Odyssey's Greek coastal towns, with everything stretching from windswept green to various shades of brown, each city or settlement we entered did seem handcrafted, and purposefully built, at least to an extent, but not nearly as endearing as Watch Dogs: Legion's insane rendition of London.
On our way there we came across enemy settlements, exciting rune puzzles, the typical viewpoints and side-missions ranging from the bizarre to the downright odd. It does seem like Ubisoft has taken onboard the criticism of there simply being a barrage of question marks dotted around a humongous map, but it still does feel like you are sailing in between islands of content, rather than exploring and finding nooks and crannies of truly specially designed stuff. It's definitely better than Odyssey though, and that step forward is significant.
Overall, Valhalla appears to take itself much more seriously than Odyssey, and thank Thor for that. Bathos, the awkwardly and forceful insertion of humour to undermine the stakes of what happens on screen is too abundant these days, and Valhalla does genuinely feel like it has something it wants to say, be that through the main quest cutscenes, or through simple interactions with villagers and settlers.
Once in Ledecestrescire, we searched for the king, and got involved in both a raid, where you can plunder peaceful monasteries and villages for precious resources and engage in a full on siege, which was both epic in scope and beautifully staged. Through these activities, I also got a feel for the combat, which does seem to be based on the Odyssey's system, albeit with a slightly more grounded feel. You have four abilities, ranging from applying poison to your weapons, to leaping onto an enemy in an instant kill. All in all, it was decent in its execution, and with the freedom to choose a variety of different weapons, and a broad skill tree that supplies fresh new abilities to try on for size, it doesn't seem samey. But someone hoping for an overhaul, simply won't find it here, for better or for worse.
The game was delivered to us through a restream, and although there were some sacrifices made to draw distance and texture filtering, Assassin's Creed Valhalla does look the part. In spite of its limited colour palette, there's enough grime, enough dirt and enough brutal muddy combat that it does feel like the more realistic rendition of 9th century England, like in David Mckenzie's Outlaw King (which takes place in the 14th century, but you get the point).
Overall, I did leave the demo impressed with Assassin's Creed Valhalla, and I can safely say, that if you want more of the Assassin's Creed formula that was established with Origins, this will give you just that. Whether it'll give you more? See that's a much tougher question, one that I'd probably say no to. But at least you now know exactly what you're getting into, and that makes me excited for November.