The combat is what made me love the first few Assassin’s Creed games. There was a simple joy in getting surrounded by enemies, waiting for them to attack, then countering them to death one by one. Then Ubisoft started to overcomplicate things.
Some of the complications were probably necessary. The simple counterattacks of the earlier games were already wearing thin when Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag came out in 2013. By the time the series got to ancient Egypt in Origins four years later, change was necessary. But when Ubisoft revamped its combat system in 2017’s Assassin’s Creed Origins and then improved on the system in Odyssey, it never quite managed to find an identity the way the first few games had. In Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, however, it seems Ubisoft finally figured out how to make fighting fun again.
The main catalyst for Valhalla’s improved combat is the game’s setting. Far from the previous two games’ noble warriors of ancient Greece and Egypt, with their careful duels, Valhalla is about Vikings. That means axes and broadswords with heavy swings and wide arcs. It also means that the fighting has to be fierce, quick, and brutal.
In Odyssey and Origins, combat was slow and either tactical or tedious, depending on who you asked. Those games followed in the footsteps of the complex swordplay of the Witcher series, and the rolling dodges, shield-heavy blocks, and parry timing of FromSoftware’s Soulslike games.
All those elements still exist in Valhalla, but they’re simplified and put into a larger system that feels unique. I can still block my enemies’ attacks or roll out of the way of a falling axe, but these aren’t well-trained Greek warriors with impressive shields. The enemies in Valhalla are mostly infantrymen, carrying wooden shields and swords that look like they’ve never been used. And, as befitting a Viking warrior, I don’t need to wait for the perfect moment to strike: Smashing through those wooden shields is always an option, and usually the best one.
Demolishing the enemy with all the fervor of a Viking may sound like it would turn every fight into a button-mashing frenzy, but Valhalla manages a lot more depth and challenge than that. One of the ways it keeps the combat from being too easy is with the sheer number of enemies it throws at you. Valhalla has some of the biggest fights that have ever been seen in an Assassin’s Creed game.
Raiding villages, and even castles, is an exercise that can often sprawl over huge areas hundreds of meters long. Buildings burn and archers rain arrows from ramparts, while battering rams splinter the wooden doors of fortresses. And behind those doors are dozens and dozens of soldiers, all ready for a fight.
Where previous Assassin’s Creed games had small orderly battles with careful dodging and blocking, Valhalla substitutes in raw chaos. Dodging becomes a split-second reaction rather than a careful prediction of one enemy or another’s attacks. At one point in an early raid, I sprinted ahead of my fellow Vikings and threw myself in the center of nearly 20 enemies. Arrows were flying everywhere, swords were getting jabbed at my back, and I had to constantly move and dodge, or I’d catch a stray ax to the head. It’s not that it’s any more or less difficult than the combat in Odyssey or Origins; it’s just a different, simpler kind of challenge.
Over the last several years, games have gotten really good at the sparseness of “real” melee combat, where equally matched fighters wait carefully for openings in their opponents’ defense. That definitely seemed like what Assassin’s Creed Origins and Odyssey were going for. But few games manage to convey the cinematic thrill of being the best warrior on a crowded battlefield, tearing through dozens of enemies with ease. When I was on a roll in Valhalla, I looked like the Viking version of Aragorn cutting through an army of orcs in Lord of the Rings. I would smash one English defender to the ground, then round my ax on the enemy behind me, then move on to the rest of the army without missing a beat. That’s where Valhalla is at its best, and where it finds a brand-new identity for Assassin’s Creed.