After six hours of hands-on with Assassin's Creed Valhalla, I've got a new appreciation for Vikings as excellent multitaskers, as well as well-honed machines of violence. The new Assassin's Creed has more systems and a more intricate world than ever before, with a settlement to manage, a raiding crew to keep busy, a world of barmy side quests to uncover and a new rations system to get to grips with. It all comes together to make this the most compelling adventure in the series so far, even if managing your own Viking snack supply takes a little getting used to at first.
We got to check out the part of the story concerned with Ledecestrecire, and the attempts to replace its King Burgred with someone more allied to our cause. That meant finding a teaming up with a pair of brothers - one handsome and stoic, the other mad as a sack full of skunks - tracking down and capturing a runaway queen, exploring underground, a huge assault on a town, and plenty of small skirmishes along the way. I also had to face off with another Viking, a badass lady called Tonnan, and attempt to sneak into her camp to find out what she was up to. Someone with slightly more stealth skills could have probably done this without shedding a drop of blood, but a mishap that involved falling from the ceiling and the unexpected arrival of a couple of wolves sort of blew my cover. I ended up killing Tonnan, something which could have consequences later on, according to Julien Laferrière, producer.
"One of the pillars of the Viking fantasy that we wanted was one of a clan leader, and being a leader means making difficult decisions, harsh choices," he explains.
"Sometimes you're making a decision that feels difficult, but you're like, 'I'll make one, but the game will never slap it back in my face, but the game might actually slap it back in your face. It's not always the case, but there are some pivotal moments that you know will have some consequences for the characters that you meet, and will be reflected back on your settlement. We wanted players to be the seat of a leader and make some tough decisions."
What the consequences of my battle with Tonnan will be didn't become obvious during my playthrough, so I'll get another chance to make the choice, and see it's consequences, when I play the full game. Note to self, try not to fall into the middle of the busiest building in her camp right off the bat.
Eivor got a crush on you
There have been a lot of memorable characters in the Assassin's Creed series, but Valhalla might have some of the best. Ivarr Ragnarsson - AKA Ivarr the Boneless - was a major part of the Leicestershire storyline, a madman with a heart and a talent for scaring the crap out of people with a combination of decapitated heads and pigs. Ceolbert, the son of our chosen king stole my heart, with his quiet hopes for the best in people. Even the usurped king's main man Leofrith, who just wanted to chop my pretty tattooed head off my shoulders, had a quiet nobility I couldn't help but warm to.
Away from all these characters, there was a world of weirdness to explore, packed with... interesting strangers. I've played a lot of Assassin's Creed, but I'm hard-pressed to think of a game that contained weirder quests. There was a woman in a dark cell that demanded viper eggs, only to deploy a weaponized fart once I'd done some serious damage to the local snake population. I went to rescue a damsel in distress, only to realize I'd interrupted some kinky roleplay. In another, I had to find an eel for a man who was trying to create his own special sauce, only to have him declare he was giving up and moving to Worcestershire. Some hinted at bigger stories to be told, like a girl willing a single leaf to stay on a tree, because her father had promised he would be home before it fell.
It would be easy to spend all your time exploring the strange nooks and crannies of England, but the chance to shape your Viking settlement makes regular trips home a satisfying part of the adventure. Supplies and resources can be claimed on raids, and used to upgrade and build up your home camp. Upgrade a fishmonger's hut and have somewhere to sell your catch, improve a brewery and it will boost the morale of your raiding party. You can change your hair and tattoos at the Viking equivalent of a beauty parlor, build barracks, an aviary for your ravens, and a blacksmith to improve weapons. I even spotted an intriguing looking building marked with the familiar assassin crest. Laferrière also hinted and even more significant improvements that will give you access to newer, more mythical parts of Viking life.
"In your settlement, you have a seer, and you can build the hut for the for this seer. This seer will send you on vision quests. So you craft elements for a potion, and you just drink it, and you go the vision quest, and that vision quest will bring you the Viking myth worlds of legend. And this is where you kind of do explore the mythology."
You can make tweaks to the look of your camp too, choosing monoliths and statues and wells to make it feel like home. It's optional how much time you want to invest, but just like Viking life, the game is built around making a new home on English soil, and you'll be rewarded for putting time into expanding your base.
Flyting, fighting and feeding
One thing that I really noticed in this latest installment of hidden blades and blood was the team at Ubisoft really leaning into the RPG side of action RPG. A chance encounter in a town led to a ye olde rap battle, called flyting, that upped my charisma rating. Having health you have to manage, by stocking up on rations, seemed simple enough until I found myself in a boss battle type encounter where there wasn't a stew pot or mushroom to be seen, and I couldn't rely on the old faithful move of running away and avoiding blows until my health regenerated. It made every fight feel higher stakes,
"Going RPG for us was about player freedom, we wanted players to be able to express themselves more and more within the universes that we're making," says Laferrière.
"One thing, though, that for this game that we wanted is that now that we've kind of matured our approach to RPG, we wanted to make sure that access to the content did not feel - or at least removed as much friction as we can - in terms of gating and grindiness. We wanted to make sure that I don't feel like I have to do a bunch of side quests I don't really care about to be able to access content that is too overpowered for me."
Assassin's Creed Valhalla is aiming to do something almost as complicated as double fisting very sharp axes, and that's pleasing a bunch of different types of gamers, staying true to the Assassin's Creed spirit, and moving the series forward to be richer and bigger than ever before. We'll have to wait for our review to see if it pulls it off, but from what we've seen so far, it seems like the gods are on its side.