Assassin’s Creed Valhalla hands-on: An incomplete Witcher-ization


Enlarge / Assassin’s Creed Valhalla stars Eivor, a Viking in the Early Middle Ages. Note: all images in this article were captured directly from live demo gameplay, not altered or sweetened by the publisher.

Ubisoft

Assassin’s Creed‘s many-year transition to becoming a full-blown RPG is complete. The November 17 launch of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla on PC (UPlay, Epic Games Store), Stadia, PS4, and Xbox One follows the progression we saw in 2017’s AC Origins and 2018’s AC Odyssey, which guided the series’ open-world formula away from sneak-and-assassinate parkour and toward a full-fledged hero story.

Ahead of today’s Ubi Forward reveal event, Ubisoft invited us to a 3.5-hour hands-on session with a prerelease build of AC Valhalla. And our experience confirmed exactly what we’d assumed when the game’s concept (codenamed Ragnarok) leaked late last year: the series has gone full Witcher. Sadly, thus far, that comparison isn’t as watertight as AC fans may hope.

The world feels real, but not the characters

My demo put me in control of Eivor, the game’s Viking protagonist, roughly halfway in the middle of the game. (AC Valhalla‘s protagonist has the same name whether you pick their male or female version.) I’ve arrived in East Anglia in the Early Middle Ages with the goal of helping a deposed local king regain command from an invading force—to stabilize the region and thus engender my Viking brethren to its leadership.

Two things stand out from my session, which revolved around an otherwise boilerplate open-world adventure: visuals and combat.

A good percentage of AC Valhalla looks absolutely breathtaking, with a rendering pipeline that seems tailor-made for higher-end PCs and consoles. (My session took place on a high-end PC with an RTX 2080 Ti, 64GB of RAM, and a recent Intel Xeon CPU, and it ran somewhere in the ballpark of 60fps.) Reminder: Buying the game for either current-gen console will include a free upgrade to its version on respective next-gen consoles, though Ubisoft wasn’t ready to confirm how each console version will differ, in terms of resolution, frame rate, or other graphical upgrades and downgrades.

Volumetric clouds absorb the game’s clear-sky shades of blue, orange, and violet. Crepuscular rays carve through battlegrounds. When rain falls, either with sunlight peeking through the clouds or in the middle of a lightning-filled night, its particles twinkle to reflect whatever light is available. Water wave patterns employ subtle 3D tricks to look more handsome than a standard-issue blend of textures. And this Early Middle Ages world is flush with deeply green and highly detailed, windswept foliage, which appears to realistically sway and trample whether affected by the wind or your footsteps. I’ve never delighted so much in climbing one of the series’ lookout towers so that I might breathe in AC Valhalla‘s beautifully modeled world.

Yet the same cannot be said for the game’s facial rendering, which (at least in this preview state) languishes in derpy territory—proving, at least, that Ubisoft is committed to keeping all of its cut scenes within the real-time gameplay world, as opposed to building sweetened faces and character models for conversation-specific moments. Older AC series games could get away with this, owing to plots that revolve more around historical references and frequently disposable allies and adversaries. AC Valhalla‘s larger plot will likely share these qualities, but the session I played hinged squarely on liberating King Oswald, then attending a wedding sequence. Meaning, its cast was consistent.

The result was a lot of conversations about the region, about an alliance between Danes and Saxons, and about the battles and struggles required to reach a brief moment of peace. And when I wasn’t bothered by facial animations in this unfinished build, I was bored by the lack of narrative stakes. Eivor, like other AC protagonists, is a battle-hardened everyperson by default—and, in terms of personality, decidedly less challenging and acerbic than the Alexios/Kassandra hero options we got as a breath of fresh narrative air in AC: Odyssey. You can choose to end one sequence by either killing or sparing a foe, but the outcome of that decision doesn’t vary much.

Otherwise, Eivor is a toothless warrior: battles hard, drinks harder, and delivers some mild sarcasm, but nothing as memorable or surprising as CD Projekt Red’s beloved Geralt of Rivia. And without a solid supporting cast of comic relief or ethos-challenging allies, Ubisoft didn’t make up for Eivor’s issues—at least, not in this demo.

Bosses, raids, and “horsie height”

I have to get that out of the way because AC Valhalla‘s combat and traversal will focus fans’ expectations on something Witcher-esque. Should you wish to play by the original series’ core tenets, particularly wall-climbing and surprise assassinations, those options are occasionally available, but this game’s major battle sequences are tuned much more toward open, shout-and-charge, ability-filled combat.

The best examples come from battles against beasts and bosses, a relatively new AC series concept. I faced off against two “major” foes during my demo. One was an armored, lightning-conjuring warrior named Cordelia, a “demon goddess” who emerged when I paid respects to a gravesite, while the other was Rued, the leader of an invading clan and King Oswald’s captor. In both cases, the bosses I fought were the same size as Eivor, each with their own variety of high-speed dodges, charge-up weapon swipes, and ranged blasts (with Rued throwing axes and Cordelia shooting electric blasts). The resulting combat felt more like The Witcher than Dark Souls, primarily because your hero has no stamina meter for basic moves like quick swipes, heavy swipes, ranged attacks, or dodges.

Instead, you have a meter dedicated to special abilities, which range from putting poison on your next arrow to a straight-line rush to throwing a pair of axes at your two nearest foes. Your ability meter refills with successful melee swipes and dodges, and I had a good time chaining together simple moves (particularly perfectly timed parries) to build up my supernaturally charged strikes against these foes. This isn’t the AC I grew up with, but the combat designers for these bosses know what they’re doing.

The same cannot be said for “raids.” You’re now expected to rush into fortified zones alongside an army of fellow Vikings, where the total number of combatants, friend and foe alike, nears the two-dozen range at any given time. That sounds positively epic, but this slew of bodies has not been coded to fit neatly with the kind of huge-crowd combat you have seen in series like Batman Arkham. Instead of letting you aim your movement-specific joystick to guide attacks at enemies all around you, AC Valhalla expects you to juggle a “lock-on” system with the right joystick. The trouble is, enemies surround you so frequently that the person you’re aiming at isn’t who you’re hitting roughly 33% of the time, and worse, enabling a lock-on makes it more difficult to successfully dodge or parry other nearby attackers.

I’ll be blunt: I had zero fun slogging through waves of melee battles during these raids, though that may be because I didn’t have a handle on the special-attack system just yet. (I had more fun running away from foes, pulling out a bow, and shooting at 1-2 nearby pots of burning oil. Explosions!) Worse, the game’s selection of special moves appears to lack useful “clear a crowd” powers, instead focusing on one or two foes at most. And the game’s series of automatic melee strikes constantly slowed me down with “cinematic,” zoomed-in finishing moves. I would pause to whack a foe with my shield as a bludgeoning tool, only to watch another nearby enemy wind up a heavy, health-depleting blow. That “finishing move” stuff looked wickedly violent at first, I’ll admit, but after the same animation repeated eight times in a single encounter, I was pretty done with it.

Like the last game, you can move from one combat encounter to the next via an easily accessible horse—tap a “whistle” button, and your steed appears. New this time is the longship, a river-ready boat that can also be instantly whistled for, typically stocked with Viking allies. The map I traversed was carved with a number of rivers, and the longship’s waterborne speed was sometimes a boon for my travels. But more often than not, I wound up over- or under-steering the longship while navigating the rivers’ thinner sections, at which point I just hopped off the thing and called for my horse. (Worth noting: every river’s water depth is just shallow enough for your horse to wade through, so I’m calling the game’s rivers “horsie-height.”)

Boozing, cairns, and comparisons to Shenmue

I generally agree with my colleague Samuel Axon regarding the AC series’ redemption in 2018. AC Odyssey saw Ubisoft’s years of genre-blending effort finally coalesce into an engaging alternative to other open-world properties, and that puts quite a burden on its AC followup to somehow one-up its progress. So it’s easy to furrow my brow at some of the biggest experiments listed above.

And to Ubisoft’s credit, there’s only so much I can surmise in a preview-grade look at the game, so I have to reserve my judgment to some extent. Additionally, I’m quite curious about this demo’s little touches, which hint to a level of whimsy in the game’s outskirts. When I wasn’t engaging with the demo’s primary, underwhelming plot, I found a button-tapping drinking game, a “stack the rocks” Cairn creation system, some trippy spatial-arrangement puzzles, a “match your foe’s rhyme and poetic meter” challenge of words, and a range of quirky side quests to help wayward children all around. There’s almost a Shenmue-like quality to the open-world distractions I found in this demo, and I’d love to see that content resonate further in the final game.

But Ubisoft has its work cut out for it over the next few months, based on the open-world issues I described above. Quirk can only go so far when the primary thrust of a Viking game—to feel like a badass Viking of legend—left me stumbling a bit. We look forward to seeing whether Ubisoft can pull this one off in November.



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