When Ubisoft revealed “Assassin’s Creed Valhalla,” the publisher presented two visions of Vikings. One showed the common perception of bloodthirsty marauders plundering towns and killing villagers. The other image showed a caring people, one that raises children and practices rituals to the Nordic gods.
The trailer shows that there’s more to these sea rovers than meets the eye. At a Ubisoft Forward preview event held virtually, I had a little over three hours of hands-on time with the upcoming game. The demo took players to 873 AD in East Anglia, that’s the bulbous landmass jutting out from the eastern coast of the United Kingdom.
A rival clan led by Rued had reportedly killed King Oswald and had taken over much of the land. As the female Eivor, I traveled to Theotford and talked to the sheriff there about a job. I had to clear out Rued’s men in King’s Bury.
It was a nice introduction to one of the major elements in “Assassin’s Creed Valhalla” — the longship. To call it, players have to press the down button on the directional pad and that brings up a slew of options. They can take out a torch or put it away. They can go incognito or even fish but what I wanted from the menu was a horn to call the longboat.
From there, I used the narrow ship to travel up the numerous waterways in the region. One of them led to King’s Bury, and that’s where I had to position the ship for landing by hitting a button to raid. This sent my men forward into a skirmish in town.
Like the previous two games, Eivor attacks by pressing the shoulder buttons for light and heavy attacks. Dodging is done via a face button, but surprisingly, I relied more on the block button to parry attacks. In addition, the adrenaline attacks return and they’re tied to the face buttons. Lastly, Eivor has a ranged attack with her bow.
In raids like these, there isn’t much in terms of stealth. Players throw themselves into the fray and must do enough to turn the tide of battle. Sometimes Eivor will have to help up a fallen comrade. The special attacks include a flurry of thrown axes, a shoulder charge that when connecting tosses foes against a wall, and a maneuver that’s similar to the Spartan kick from “Assassin’s Creed Odyssey.” It deals hefty damage but doesn’t look as cool as knocking an enemy into next week with foot to the solar plexus.
While all those offensive moves were helpful, it’s the parry that’s the MVP of the arsenal. A well-timed parry can stun foes, opening them up to brutal finishing moves such as a stomp. On tougher opponents such as Beserkers, it’s even more helpful and allows players to damage foes who are constantly on the attack.
Although parrying attacks is helpful in most instances, players will encounter brutes that will make Eivor crumple if she tries to block. In those cases, it’s best to dodge and live to see another day.
STORMING THE CASTLE
Further on in the demo, I encountered an assault mission on Burgh Castle. The Vikings discovered that it was where Rued was hiding, and Eivor’s Raven clan had a plan to breach the walls. A small force caused a distraction upfront while the main forces rammed through the walls in the rear.
These massive battles make the raids feel quaint. The set pieces crank up the intensity as players enter chaotic battles. Arrows will whiz by. Men will be chopping at each other. In this case, it’s best to take out the archers and keep an eye out for oil amphoras or cargo hanging precariously by a rope. Firing at those environmental hazards can save Eivor’s troops. Players will need to preserve men as they wade deeper into the castle and use a battering ram to open closed off doors. “Braveheart” fans will have hot oil flashbacks.
On this mission, the save points were brutal. I had to go through the castle in one run and that meant I had to save my health rations. Players receive a limited supply that’s represented by a number inside a heart on the HUD. Instead of using precious rations, players can keep their health up by foraging for mushrooms and other food from the battleground.
This mission culminates in a battle with Rued himself. On the last leg of the assault, players can wade through another wave of vicious Vikings or they can hang a left and avoid the battle by using a pulley to take Eivor straight to the boss.
The confrontation isn’t exactly fair. Rued has a wolf companion and players will be battling both, but because she’s an assassin, Eivor can drop in for an attack. Doing this slows the game down as Eivor pounces and there’s a quick-time event that players must nail in order to deal massive damage to the leader. It’s possible to take him out in two strikes and finish off the wolf. This shows that players will have multiple and methods to killing bosses and finishing missions.
Afterward, players will have to make a major decision concerning Rued’s fate. As in “Odyssey,” players has choices in the fates of characters and their relationships to them.
VIKINGS LIKE TO PARTY
Despite much of “Assassin’s Creed Valhalla” focusing on combat, the other half of the game showed off the lighter side of Viking life. Players bring together two historical figures and they form an alliance between the Vikings and East Anglia. During a wedding that cements those ties, players can engage in drinking contests that require timed button presses and quick analog stick motions as contests become stumble-down drunk.
While inebriated, I tried out a shooting gallery and didn’t hit the mark. (Pro tip: Do the archery before pounding the ales.) As Eivor, my character even hooked up with a random Viking named Broder. Again, players have a choice with these interactions and I wanted to see how far Viking romance went. (Everything just fades to black and the romances seem disposable.)
After the wedding, I had a chance to explore the open world and discovered other side quests. One was a Viking rap battle called Flyting, in which an opponent disses the player and Eivor has to turn that around by picking from three phrases that fires back at her foe and hopefully rhymes. Flyting requires good judgment and quick reading comprehension.
Another side quest are Cairn stones scattered around the world. Players can take on the challenge of stacking these rocks. It’s a strangely relaxing diversion. Players manipulate rocks and try to build a stack without having them fall over. It has a “Tetris” vibe as players try to fix the rocks in just the right places.
The other side missions tackled focused on hidden bosses scattered through East Anglia. I fought a Black Shuck, a ghostly black dog. I even tackled the wraithlike spirits of Cordelia and Regan. If the names sound familiar, they’re the daughters of King Lerion. The characters may be more familiar to fans of “King Lear.”
These missions and the celebration shows that Vikings weren’t constantly pillaging. Instead, they had their own culture that wasn’t as warlike as their common perception. The demo showed both sides of the coins along with some changes to the progressions system and perhaps a de-emphasis on loot. In the demo, I only picked one new weapon, a flail which was difficult to use because it had a long charge time before it could deal damage. Eivor had to swing around the Spinning Death — the name of the flail — before striking the enemy.
A NEW PROGRESSION SYSTEM
What’s notable is that each weapon coincides with a part of Eivor’s skill tree, and that part of the “Assassin’s Creed Valhalla” has been revamped. Instead of a tree, it’s more of a constellation of skills that is divided into three sections: raven, wolf and bear. These constellations appear to govern certain skill sets and gear. Spending skill points involves buying stat nodes, which make up a majority of the constellations. These improve base fighting stats. The goal is to unlock enough stat nodes to get to main skills which unlock fighting moves and other powerful perks.
Players can mix and match or go down one path. The constellations do intertwine and meet in different places so that means players can’t venture solely down one constellation branch. They’ll need to invest in some points of raven or wolf if they want to gain certain bear abilities.
It doesn’t rewrite the new format of “Assassin’s Creed” but “Valhalla” does appear to be a refinement of it. It’s a title that looks to carry on the success of “Odyssey” but places the core gameplay into a new context. It’s one that holds promise, but it will be interesting to see if this entry falls into the pitfalls of the previous game namely — overwhelming players with too much activities and quests.
“Assassin’s Creed Valhalla” is scheduled for release Nov. 17 on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Stadia and PC. It will also come to the next generation of consoles.
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