By Paul Davies
Loyalty, hospitality and courage define the Viking code. By courage, this means fighting fury!
As competent as the combat system has grown to become in Assassin’s Creed through the years, artful is not a word we’d use to describe it. Necessary, of course. Enjoyable, mostly. The number one reason to play AC? Not so much. Sneaking among the rafters in hopes of setting up an assassination is where the series got started, with basic sword fighting relying heavily on counter-attacks. Mystical intrigue and open-world exploration bringing finesse.
For the last instalment, Odyssey, Ubisoft experimented with Conquest Battles to promote ambitious crowd-control mechanics. Heavy going, they’ve proven tiresome for some players who just want their side order of swashbuckling. This same crowd is likely eyeing Assassin’s Creed Valhalla somewhat pensively, since so much of the focus is placed on combat smarts.
The heavily action-oriented direction chosen for Valhalla is undeniable, but in its defence, we can confidently report that the battle-centric approach can be hugely enjoyable. Our hero or heroine, Eivor, may be silver-tongued but negotiates most spectacularly with blades of steel.
Raids and Assaults set the tone, both of which are grand-scale conflicts that involve Viking armies descending upon Anglo-Saxon strongholds. Raids are initiated by players from their Viking longboat, the crew shadowing Eivor up muddy river banks to violently ransack villages and monasteries as church bells ring the alarm. Raids are the equivalent of smaller locations in recent Assassin’s Creed titles, Origins and Odyssey, classified as camps, opposed to fortresses. The purpose of Raids is to claim territory and plunder for wealth and resources. They are an exhilarating alternative to stalking and looting tents and caves with a free-form approach that involves kicking down doors or crashing through shutters to pillage for wares.
Raids are pretty much man-to-man and players can leave their fellow Vikings to the business of slaying while searching for treasures. Assaults, though, are linked to the story progression and therefore much more organised, literally gated, and lengthier ordeals. During The Sons of Ragnar quest, the Tamworth Fortress is breached with a Light Ram that is first manually pulled back before leaning into the push. Arrows rain down from the ramparts, forcing your men to brace with shields above their heads – kind of an adaptation of the AC sea battles.
Once through the outer gate, the palisade is more heavily defended by skilled soldiers and this is where Valhalla starts to shine. Rather than proffer a mass of similar foes, Ubisoft has significantly revised its archetypes structure to make enemy units more of a conundrum.
There are said to be as many as 25 different roles, from the familiar archers that take higher positions to fleet footed skirmishers that jink past attempts to land arrows on their heads. Systematically breaking down the ranks requires more than simply yanking away the shields of larger enemies to allow sword strikes to land cleanly. Vikings are taught to target enemy Weak Points that remove Defence Slots, eventually placing foes of any size at your mercy.
Eivor is similarly nuanced, dual-wielding smaller axes and blades but most rewarding of all the counter-attacks have returned feeling new and improved. With only a few hours under our belt, it is too early to proclaim that Valhalla has the greatest combat system ever in any AC game. However, it appears true that a varied approach is required rather than optional: arrows from range to soften up targets if they don’t always kill, wiser positioning up against multiple foes of various archetypes, and closely observing attack patterns of higher-ranking opponents to dodge or counter in order to stagger/stun and retaliate. Boss battles cannot be won cheaply. The timing of any counter-attack offers only a slim window of opportunity.
There is also much, much greater depth to combat capabilities via the introduction of RPG-like Skills, unlocked by amassing experience points. Any activity – individual kills, discovery of locations, completion of quest lines – adds to this experience. Skill Points are awarded each time a new experience level is reached. Skills are not to be confused with the Abilities of Origins and Odyssey, which are special powers with cool-downs applied. Skills are such techniques as Bow Stun Finisher, that assures kills on stunned targets; or Stomp to smash your heel into the face of a downed opponent. Skills are acquired in order of sequence, placed along Skill Paths, meaning that the cooler examples are held at arm’s length until enough time has been invested in the game. Dual Swap is one such Skill mentioned in our previous hands-on report, allowing Eivor to deftly swap weapon hands when dual-wielding.
Further, there are three Skill trees: Way of the Bear (melee), Way of the Raven (stealth) and Way of the Wolf (range). When unlocking nodes you must consider which of these pathways best suits your playstyle and the type of gear that Eivor has equipped. Certain armour is e.g. Bear-aligned. Particular nodes unlock buffs to Attack, Stun, Critical Chance, Block, Armour, Evasion and Weight for that gear category only. Mercifully, Ubisoft does allow for players to reconsider and reset nodes to reclaim Skill Points for allocation elsewhere. Now, if you add to this the option to infuse weapons and armour with performance-enhancing Runes, this is heading into MOBA-like ‘build’ territory and the stuff of heated forum debates to come …
Controversially, Ubisoft still looks intent on delivering a health regeneration concept which demands that herbs are collected to manually consume. Usually in Assassin’s Creed, health regenerates automatically, allowing players to back out of conflict to fully recuperate. Now, a limited supply of herbs is the only fall-back. Arguably this encourages tactical execution which can be rewarding. In practice, it can mean frustration, for example when a boss is down to its last bean of health and lands a lucky blow to Desynchronise worn-out Eivor.
It feels like the Assassin’s Creeds of old – pre-Unity. Kind of raw, but with welcome depth.
There’s no doubt that Ubisoft has thought meticulously through its application of Assassin’s Creed themes to what the publisher is calling The Ultimate Viking Fantasy. We even see the return of blending into crowds to patrol undetected or perch on a bench to spy on targets. Synchronisation of locations, activated from highest viewpoints, has reverted to detailing key locations (in Origins and Odyssey, sync improved ‘perception’ of the protagonists’ bird). Oh, and in case you missed doing this, the floating parchments are back to give chase while revealing scenic routes through settlements. The balance of quest objectives to complete and desire to explore is as compelling as it has ever been, based on what we have played.
It feels like the Assassin’s Creeds of old – pre-Unity. Kind of raw, but with welcome depth. Easily the coolest surprise during our play-through was the discovery of an Animus Anomaly, which ‘glitches’ the scenario to one featuring Layla Hassan, the present-day archaeologist, who must then solve a peculiar AR puzzle involving switches and vanishing platforms. Not everybody’s favourite aspect of Assassin’s Creed, but if you were big into Desmond Miles traversal challenges, it looks as if there is plenty of that to explore here too.
As fans of the series, we are now suitably intrigued by what Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is bringing to current and next-generation consoles, Google Stadia and PC on November 10.