First, the recent news out of Ubisoft to be addressed because our article goes live the day after several key figures at Ubisoft resigned or were let go. Serge Hascoët, Chief Creative Officer, Yannis Mallat, president of Ubisoft Canada, and Cécile Cornet, head of global HR.
After hundreds of employees spoke out about the allegations against key figures within the organization, the world watched as the truth unravelled. As today is Ubisoft Forward, the decision to oust the people who enabled toxic behaviour is a step in the right direction for the company but we as fans of their games must stay vigilant and hold them accountable for change.
CEO Yves Guillemot released a statement yesterday, condemning the actions of the accused. “Ubisoft has fallen short in its obligation to guarantee a safe and inclusive workplace environment for its employees. This is unacceptable, as toxic behaviours are in direct contrast to values on which I have never compromised — and never will,” Guillemot said in the statement. “I am committed to implementing profound changes across the Company to improve and strengthen our workplace culture.”
It isn’t an E3 event without Ubisoft having their games leaked, and like clockwork, 2020 delivers on that promise. Even with no E3 event this year, Ubisoft’s lineup has been beholden to leaks, and what we saw made their lineup look less than good. Thankfully, I’ve been hands-on with Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, which saw roughly an hour of footage leak this past week.
I’ll be honest, I watched it half a dozen times. I didn’t like it. I swore to myself that it was more of the same and that we’ve seen it before. I’d judged the game before even playing it, something that I don’t like doing because we all know how assumptions make us look. So, when Ubisoft invited me to preview three hours of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, I said yes.
For King Oswald
I played a handful of side missions and two-story missions in almost three hours. I died, repeatedly, might I add and came to appreciate how different Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is when compared to 2017’s Assassin’s Creed Origins and 2018’s Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. For the first time since changing formats to an open-world RPG, I can say with confidence that Valhalla is an amalgamation of classical and new Assassin’s Creed elements.
For starters, the iconic Animus corridor is back when loading the game, something that’s been missing for the last two games. Welcome back to the Animus! I spent a bit of time playing as both the male Eivor and the female Eivor with my first half of the demo focusing on the male iteration of Eivor. Finnr and Eivor are on the way to Thetford, to talk to the locals about storming a local village that is controlled by Rued’s soldiers. Eivor offers his services to save the village in order to rally the locals for a bigger struggle against Rued later on.
Moving on, I make my way to the quest marker and quickly learn where my next point of interest is and how to get there. I’m told to use my longhorn to summon my ship which works in almost every available body of water in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. I sound the horn and watch as my ship appears on the dock. As I board the barge, the crew immediately begins to hum Nordic shanties to get the crew pumped up and ready to raid the church. As we make our way to the destination, I’m told the Cinematic Camera angle is worth checking out by my demo assistant so I press the menu button to initiate it – and it reminded me of the camera found in Red Dead Redemption 2.
By the beard of Odin
I signal to dock the barge and ready myself to battle the local soldiers currently holding a church as their base. To my surprise, my entire crew disembarks with me and amps the energy by shouting and running up to the church. Together, we start to tackle our enemies and dwindle their numbers down. Battles feel good, themselves feeling like an extension of Origins battle system and less like Odyssey; a win in my books because I preferred Origins combat by default.
Some of the neat things I picked up on as I played was Eivor’s ability to swap what he’s holding in his hands at any given time. In my left hand was my shield and my right hand was my axe. Together, I can handle most situations thanks to the shield’s ability to block and parry incoming attacks. By double-tapping A or X on PlayStation, Eivor swaps what he’s holding, so your left hand now has the axe and the right hand now has the shield.
A new mechanic is a stamina bar in battle and on horseback. Now your horse has a stamina bar when on horseback that allows you to spring for a finite amount of time. In battle, Eivor’s stamina is tied to his attacks and I came to love the new system added for Valhalla. Sure, you can still swing wildly at enemies but now it costs stamina that depletes as you strike using both light and heavy attacks.
The Raid of Burh Castle
Next, I meet Finnr, our companion and head to the next waypoint to advance the story. The mission is called “A Fury from the Sea,” and it leads up to the Forward Camp. Oswald, the future king of Anglia is being held captive at Burgh Castle and Finnr has gathered the local farmers as well as soldiers to storm the gates.
After a brief discussion, we board the longship and into the dark of night. Our goal is to crash into Burgh Castle and face Rued, the man who kidnapped Oswald. With fire raining down on us, we brace for impact, holding out and praying we don’t sink into the abyss. We make it to shore and Eivor looks on, ready to ram the gates with the soldiers.
This is where I died, several times and even felt overwhelmed by the enemy onslaught. The shipyard is a mess, enemies are attacking me from all sides, shooting arrows upon us, and all the while an epic score by Jesper Kyd, Sarah Schachner, and Einar Selvik narrating the struggle taking Brugh Castle. While I felt the combat was previously floaty in Odyssey, Eivor is brutal in combat.
Yes, it plays similar to Origins but the team has done a good job at updating the mechanics. The new executions, the brutality of Viking warfare is unlike the way the Medjay or Spartans fought, it’s brutal to a fault and being on the receiving end of Eivor’s axe is awful. Limbs fly as I land the final strikes of attack, and Eivor decapitates enemies that dare go near him with ease.
And this is all without even mentioning dual-wielding. I’ve used a shield and an axe for almost my entire play session. Until I found a flail to match Drengr’s Axe that I’ve used this entire time – and suddenly combat is new all over again. See, the flail has an area of attack that sweeps enemies before crushing their skulls. I found myself surrounded by soldiers during the Burgh Raid and my demo assistant hinted at pressing LB to use the flail and crowd control the soldiers. And since you can dual wield many of the weapons, I’m excited to see what other combinations I can use when the full game launches later this year.
Another thing that caught my attention is the way healing occurs in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. Gone are potions and skills that healed you (at least in my demo). Instead, various kinds of berries, including Raspberries, are found all over East Anglia, which you stockpile and build your reserve of restorative berries. Others may even restore your stamina or abilities are, which are shown above your health as gold bars.
As I clear the first area, I grab onto the ram and help get through the first barrier, all the while enemies are attacking us all around me and arrows are still falling from the sky. Onto the next area where things get even tougher for Eivor and crew. Not only am I dealing with archers, but the added trouble of oil covering entrances with fire arrows protecting the gates. If you get caught in this, Eivor immediately catches on fire and good luck trying to open the gates like that.
I spent almost an hour figuring this section out and I learned that there are several ways to complete this section because of how many times I died, leaving me with the idea to try a new approach each time. I’ve heard others playing the demo tried to clear the archers out and destroy the oil reserves from afar, while others found a way to get up to the archers and take them on in combat. I got in close, set them all on fire and decimated the rest. Onto the third section of Burgh Castle, which only escalates the raid into sheer chaos.
What I really liked about this section is that you’re not only facing soldiers but new enemy types including the Berserker. Berserkers present themselves as unrelenting and fast, you need to be on guard when a Berserker is around or risk death. I was caught off guard several times before learning how to eliminate them before anyone else.
As we reach the final gate and breakthrough, Rued shows his face and he has Oswald as his hostage. You can complete this section in a few ways as well, with many going up and directly to Rued while I decided to climb one of the towers and go around, which leads to an air assassination attempt. If you time the onscreen prompt correctly, you can effectively take a chunk of Rued’s health off. And I’m told he can be killed in one strike as well but didn’t learn the logistics behind that.
In my encounter, Rued lost a quarter of his health but now I’m facing him and his Hunting Wolf. By using Eivor’s abilities, and the bow and arrow, I whittle his health down before having Rued fall to Eivor. The decision to kill or spare this traitor is left to you, the player and your choices have consequences in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla.
My demo ends shortly after this scene. Oswald and Valdis, his bride to be, are having their wedding and we’re off to celebrate the event in Elmenham. I board my longboat and sail to join the festivities. Along the way, I discovered a shipwreck and I’m told you’ll find sites like this that hold treasure, and it reminds me of Black Flag. Moving on, I sail as close to the city as the longboat allows and head the rest of the way on foot. I see a ruined tower in the distance and that familiar synchronization point calling my name.
As I head up to the ruins, I use my Odin Sight to understand what I’m going up against. I quickly dispatch of the enemies holed up in this tower and make my way into a search for any lingering items before beginning in the climb upward. Climbing feels smooth but it still isn’t nearly as deep as in Unity, a game that has the makings of the perfect parkour system. Valhalla offers the one button press to initiate climbing, but it feels better than it did in Odyssey. I didn’t get the chance to spend too much time climbing buildings but the few times I did, I enjoyed far more than the last two games.
Finally, Eivor arrives in Elmenham and witnesses the nuptials of Oswald and Valdis. After the wedding ceremony, we are free to celebrate the festivities and this is one of the best sequences I got to experience. Broder wages he can drink more than Eivor and I agree to a drinking challenge which is offered as a minigame. In short, you tap A or X to chug and it gets faster every time you press the button. To add challenge, the more ale you drink, the more drunk Eivor is, which leads to stumbling and you having to balance her while chugging.
Next, drunk Eivor talks to Broder and I witness the first glimpse of romance in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. “You impress me, Eivor. Your battle wisdom, your strength of character, skilled in so many ways,” says Broder. “Yet I wonder. Is there any skill of mine that I could impress upon you?” Oh, how romantic, I think, as Broder wants to “Show Eivor how to wield his plough-sword.” The demo ends shortly after this scene.
Things I Liked
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla shakes things up once again. Getting Jesper Kyd back to compose the score is a big part of bringing authenticity back to the series. Kyd’s score helped define the legacy of Assassin’s Creed and all those that followed did an excellent job. However, there’s a certain magic that only Kyd can deliver and I can’t wait to hear more.
Combat is less like Odyssey and more like Origins. While the last two games certainly focused on action over stealth, combat never felt satisfying. Don’t go in expecting the quick counter-attacks and combos of Assassin’s Creed 3, either. I judged by the leaked videos and didn’t like what I saw but getting the game into my hands changed my opinion – I like the combat in Valhalla more than the last two games.
Tying into combat, I enjoyed the difficulty of the Valhalla. I like to believe I can handle what most games throw at me and pick up on mechanics pretty quickly. The raid of Burgh Castle took me an hour because of how the enemies dogpiled me. It could a fluke since it was only a demo but the difficulty offered a challenge, something I haven’t felt since Assassin’s Creed Unity.
I want to explore the world as much as I can. Sure, I know, we’ve heard comparisons to The Witcher 3 and I get why we’re seeing them but the world of Valhalla caught my attention. My time was spent navigating through the countryside of East Anglia and I only caught a small glimpse of what is available. We know there will be forests, grasslands, beaches, and snowy mountains to explore across two countries, and there’s a dynamic weather system I found enjoyable
Between Odin Sight and using Synin, my crow companion, I had little trouble scouting an area of enemies, ammo and loot. I didn’t get much chance to use Synin, but Odin Sight is great and I’m glad we have it back.
I always enjoyed customization and that is back once again, you can also toggle your hood on and off at the press of a button and the weapons I got to play around with all felt different, each several animations. Another thing that I hope stays is fall damage. In Odyssey, once you hit level 20, there would be no fall damage. I didn’t see anything about this in Valhalla but I think it’s good to keep it in for the entire game.
Things I didn’t like
I think the issue for me is I prefer the older style of Assassin’s Creed over the new open-world RPG iterations. After years of improving the parkour with Unity nearly perfecting it, we regressed with each game released after. It’s now a simplified system that lacks the diversity and freedom the older games offer to the player. I can’t do wall ejects anymore, or ledge grab and those elements helped the player navigate.
I call it Ubijank, and it’s erratic NPC behaviour, the AI working against the game itself. What I mean is that after playing The Last of Us Part II, I’ve been spoiled by coherent AI that actively works against the player. In Assassin’s Creed, many times you can find a way to cheese the mechanics and bypass the intended actions of a character.
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla isn’t going to win over everyone but it’s already changed my mind after seeing those leaked gameplay videos. While I only had the chance to explore a small section of East Anglia, I ended my play session far more confident than I was the day before. Granted, it is still a Ubisoft game in the end, and some erratic AI issues that you may expect in the Assassin’s Creed series are still here.
I’m ready to try to love the Assassin’s Creed series once again after burning out on Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and for the first time in years, I feel like we’re getting a game that marries the old and the new in exciting ways.