Assassin’s Creed Valhalla hands-on: Pastoral pleasures

By Paul Davies

Vikings. Their reputation precedes them. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla leaps with both fur-clad feet into the lives of 9th-century Nordic warriors, questing against the backdrop of Anglo-Saxon Britain. Be ready to bear arms and bring the fury, reaping the benefits of diplomacy while performing as a god on the battlefield. Ubisoft’s series discovers newfound intensity.

The chronicles within this latest masterwork are many and interwoven. Seemingly the most nuanced and extensively researched tapestry of historically linked deeds that the publisher has attempted to date. More on that further down, but for our money the talking point has to be combat and character progression in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. Ubisoft has worked so hard this time to make trading blows a vital experience across scenarios large and small.

I am a Viking

As a young man or woman in the Eivor Clan, your greater goal is to claim territory for your people. Whereas sword-fights, fisticuffs and gunplay have helped characterised protagonists in the Assassin’s Creed saga before now, the Eivors are heavily defined by dices with death.

Dual-wield returns and is refined, expressed through twirling battle axes that summon our close-range confidence. As with previous Assassin’s Creed instalments, combinations can include one-handed shields and weapons such as swords and spears. There are two-handed alternatives too, for those that believe attack is the best form of defence. Eivor (referring to the man or woman) can deftly switch hands on the fly to land the most damaging combos.

Among the showpieces of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla are the Raids: long-fought battles on an epic scale, pushing battering rams while shielding against burning arrows and boiling hot oil. Huge fortresses, such as ‘impenetrable’ Burgh Castle, are overpowered in stages, each one a puzzle to solve comprising archers, skirmishers and named leaders. Yes, archetypes are back in a big way! They are further exploited in the guise of boss battles and similar encounters.

Specialist foes include witches, chilling in both their appearance and predilection for torture. Our hero(es) square off against legendary beasts, such as the Black Shuck – a wraith of a dog. Not all strong opponents are wicked. There are Drengr (warriors) tending to their everyday lives, seeking fights to the death for honour before their admiring families. It’s so very dark.

By all the gods

To lighten the mood, which you may soon find is needed, Ubisoft has upped the ante with Abilities; immensely overwhelming complementary attacks. A shoulder barge interrupts a heavier assailant’s most damaging technique. Hurling axes at targets from range or into one big ‘pincushion’ up close can buy further time. Leaping into the midst of well-organised units is both damaging and disruptive. Use the seconds between cool-downs to effectively whittle your foes down.

As many as eight Abilities can be equipped, a sure sign that Ubisoft intends them to factor heavily into the Eivor’s repertoire. In addition, three distinct Skill Trees, assigned to animals Bear, Raven and Wolf, place emphasis on accuracy, stealth and power-oriented capability. Spending experience points to unlock nodes also buffs Bear-, Raven- or Wolf-spirited gear.

Curiously, Ubisoft also brings a resource-based health system to Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. Instead of stamina regenerating automatically, Eivor must chomp a few berries, leaves or fungi to recover hit-points lost in combat. Possibly this is intended to uphold the realistic world concept. It encourages players to ‘stop and smell the flowers’, in a similar vein to Guerrilla Games’ Horizon Zero Dawn, further reward for exploring, changing the pace. In practice, during heated moments that often feel desperate, snacking feels kind of weird.

Let’s say we’re undecided on that one for now …

Taking you back …

Broadly, meanwhile, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla absolutely fits the bill when it comes to shit-kicking protagonists with swift blades and faster tongues. At its peak, Assassin’s Creed is an ambient experience par excellence; such quality exists in the contrasting Anglo-Saxon and Nordic architecture that comprises settlements amid the marshlands and rolling hillsides.

Compared to the scorching sands and sun-bleached shorelines of AC Origins and Odyssey respectively, the pastoral aesthetic appeal of AC Valhalla is so hauntingly distinctive. There is an uncommon mood to sample here that conspires with the soul, a kind of yearning that we vividly recall from the first time we set foot in the Holy Land with Altaïr. Enthralling.

Character design is exceptional. Viking attire and rituals appear authentic, Ubisoft at the top of its game in this critical respect. With Odin Sight – the Eivor’s ‘Eagle Vision’ – to guide you, many puzzles embedded into the environment have potential to become as compelling as those maddeningly elusive anomalies that afforded Brotherhood such a powerful mystique.

We get to live the Viking life to the extent that we became pirates in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, or a Native American freedom fighter in Assassin’s Creed III. The Viking persona brings so much to the table in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, something tangible to take risks with or guard with your life. And when not preoccupied with observing the Viking way, not always harmonious to the needs of Anglo-Saxon brethren, there are light-hearted pursuits to affirm character: drinking games, bedding partners beneath the stars and helping old friends find their way home after a long night partying. Being a Viking is wholesome too.

Closing thoughts

Somewhere between Horizon Zero Dawn, God of War and with shades of The Elder Scrolls, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla has broad appeal. It doesn’t have the same mythical glow on the surface, but its riches promise to be found deeper within. Anglo-Saxon paganism aligned with Old Norse religion is a potent brew. As ever, we are sure to encounter First Civilisation artefacts to unsettle the narrative further. Moment to moment, taking control of Eivor feels empowering. The land feels alive. This could turn out to be low fantasy of the highest order.

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is being decked out for launch on Google Stadia, current- and next-generation PlayStation and Xbox consoles and Windows PC Winter 2020.

If it has the letters RPG in it, I am there. Still battling with balancing trying to play every single game that grabs my interest, getting 100% in a JRPG, and devoting time to my second home in Azeroth.

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