When a new Assassin’s Creed game is on the horizon, the question is never who it’s going to be about. It’s where? And when? I have a huge fondness for the band of misfits who have graced the covers of the series. This time, the setting is the North star.
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is set in ninth century England — close enough to modernity to be recognizable, and yet still shrouded in the mists of myth. Last week I sat down for a six-hour preview during which I installed yet another Viking-friendly puppet king on an English throne. The session started in medias res, at a point where I’ve established a well-populated Viking settlement and have a handful of special abilities.
Sailing away from my shiny new settlement, as the Viking Eivor, I pass Roman ruins, already centuries old. The sun breaks through the trees and catches on my longship’s sail. I marvel at the way the light flickers between the branches, and at the golden haze that clings to the land when I dock. More than the ruins, more than the hulking statues of gods that dotted the islands in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, this sunlight and this land feel magical.
Valhalla faces the same challenge of any new Assassin’s Creed game: How do you recreate a place and time that feels real, and yet which no living person has ever visited?
Assassin’s Creed is about historical events in historical places. But, according to brand art director Raphael Lacoste, “emotion needs to come first.”
“We don’t want to have the feeling of a simulation of real life. Because if I want to see the real world, I just open my door and I go outside,” Lacoste told me. “It’s great to deliver a credible feeling of England, but we also want to deliver a very strong fantasy.”
The game’s England is real, with familiar city names and monuments, and a detailed mix of Scandinavian, Saxon, and Roman architecture. “We have to pay attention to tiny details,” says Lacoste, like the wooden carvings on Norwegian temples. But this England is also mythic, a moody and romantic fiction that seems to share a lighting system with the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich.
Designing the world began with concept illustrations and paintings that capture characters and locations, but also the lighting and mood. There are multiple seasons in this England-that-never-was, happening all at once. One region might be flaming with red and white birch trees, while another is dense with greenery. There is a global day/night cycle, but it’s also tweaked hour-by-hour, a “picturesque interpretation of the time of day,” rather than a generic simulation.
The technology is always chasing the feeling of those original concept paintings. During development, the team does “paint-overs,” taking screenshots from the game and painting over them to further develop elements like lighting and shadow.
“You can be in a very dark area, and you see the sunlight hitting the top of the hill, and then you see the sunlight touching the edge of a tower,” says Lacoste. Suddenly, this tower is a pitstop on your way to the next objective.
Since I have a Viking longship, doing pitstops is incredibly easy, and I can anticipate myself choosing the boat over a horse when I can. The region I played was absolutely lousy with rivers, enabling me to land directly at my objectives, or near enough that it was just a short walk. I can set the longship on autopilot, and then whip the camera into cinematic mode, or just pan to the side and watch the countryside.
They nerfed my bird
Valhalla took away my eagle vision. In Assassin’s Creed Origins and Odyssey, the player’s eagle companions were Swiss Army knives for stealth missions. They could be used to tag every enemy in a fortress, hone in on exact objectives, and find treasure.
“It made for a weird relationship with your bird, where you would just pop it into the air, and then scan the environment,” says level design director Philippe Bergeron. “It became very mechanical.”
Eivor has a raven, Synin, and I can send this bird up to see surrounding objectives like treasures and world events. A quest objective is highlighted in blue. In practice, that means that I can tell that my target is somewhere inside a fortress, but I’m going to have to do the hard work of scouting a way in myself.
Initially I balked at no longer having access to a tool I had relied on so heavily in Odyssey. This is my smooth-brain game. Last summer, my ritual was to put on a podcast and sink into ancient Greece for hours and hours. When I revisited it recently, I put on an audiobook, thinking I could knock out an hour of listening. Instead, I put in five.
All this to say, perhaps it’s OK that Valhalla introduces more friction.
“It forces you to get in there scout a little bit, use your own insight to narrow down that objective even more,” Bergeron says. “There’s a little bit of an element of danger. When you’re going in there, you’re not as safe as you would have been in the past.”
That friction is also present in other elements of the game. I heal by eating rations, which deplete. Dodging and parrying feel less forgiving, at least in my initial previews. Building a charge to unleash special abilities is more difficult — enemies keep draining my stamina.
But Valhalla welcomes back some familiar features. Eivor has a hidden blade, and can hone the ability to kill enemies in one stealthy stab. When infiltrating a hostile town, I pulled on a hood and blended in with the townsfolk by walking through crowds, or sitting on benches. Bergeron says the game’s three cities — London, Jórvík, and Winchester — purposefully evoke the original Assassin’s Creed, “emotionally and tonally, but also in gameplay,” referencing assassination setups and free-running sequences.
An Assassin can have little a hidden blade, as a treat
When I first played Odyssey, I wrote that the series was changing, and it was time to kiss the standard gameplay goodbye. My first preview of Valhalla reinforced that — I spent that session acting like a Viking. In this go-round, I was determined to act like an assassin. And this time, the game obliged. The goal, and the challenge for the team, was to make both possible. That’s largely Bergeron’s job.
“If this was golf, [the world designer] would be crafting the terrain, where the holes are,” says Bergeron. “And then the quest designer would be the one dealing with the story that’s there. What are the challenges, what are the actions that we’re asking the player to do?”
The hidden blade actually poses a specific problem now that Assassin’s Creed has gone full RPG. After all, most role-playing games don’t straight-up hand you a weapon that can one-shot any enemy. Odyssey dealt with that in an interesting way. The hidden blade hadn’t yet been invented in ancient Greece, so Kassandra carried the broken tip of Leonidas’ spear. Some ability upgrades would increase the spear’s assassination damage.
Valhalla takes a slightly different tack. For the stealthy player, there’s always a “slim opportunity” that the blade can deal a one-hit kill. But within the completely enormous and fiendish Skill menu — not to be confused with the Ability tree — you can choose to sink more points into the blade and increase that likelihood. It sounds complicated, and the Skill menu is still the most sadistic piece of work I’ve ever seen, but in practice it went like this: I sneaked into a fortress and assassinated a bunch of guards. The encounter needed to work for players like me, but also for those who want to play more like, well, Vikings.
“You could get on your long ship and get into that location, blow your horn, and have your Raiders come in and help you take down that entire location,” Bergeron tells me. Or I could have rowed in on a little boat, or ridden my horse in the front gate. That I chose to do it old school doesn’t negate the other possibilities, and the quest designers decided they needed to provide for that.
“There’s a balance to be had with the amount of guards that you have in the location to not impede the fighter play style, but that still challenges the stealth player,” says Bergeron. Adding more guards might provide a nice difficulty spike for a stealth player, but it would render the fighter’s play style totally un-fun. “A lot of it is just really good placement of guards looking in the right direction, and then also communicating angles of attack … we put the setups and the context there, and have enough ingredients for you to hopefully express yourself in the way that you like to play.”
Over the course of my preview I infiltrated a large warehouse, a castle, and the subterranean vault of a church. In the church, a difficult enemy guarded a key that I needed to move forward. Now hang on a minute, I thought, and cracked open my Ability menu to check something. There it was: a sleep-inducing arrow. Absolutely delighted, I knocked the guard out and continued on my merry way. For me, an insufferable but determined stealth player, this is what I love: confronting what is essentially a knot and using my silly little tools to untangle it.
Valhalla polishes up Assassin’s Creed’s new RPG elements, at the same time that it resurfaces familiar tools and level design. I’m pretty impressed at this point with Ubisoft’s willingness to add, remove, and add again, making a game that’s familiar and new all at once. I am going to play it for 500 hours.