Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla Preview | Vying to be king

I got a chance to play three hours of Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla in advance of the Ubisoft Forward stream. During my time with the game, I got a chance to get a feel for the revamped combat system and how Eivor and the Vikings fit into the historical background of England in the late 9th century.

Assassin’s Creed is a series that’s always sold well, but not every entry has been met with critical acclaim from the press and fans. The latest two entries, Origins, and Odyssey were generally well-received. The move from yearly to bi-yearly(ish)releases has done the franchise well. Unfortunately, even after the preview, I’m not sure what to think of the game.

Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla Preview | Once upon a time in East Anglia

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I found the plot I experienced in the preview to be a mixed bag. As stated above, I was put into the game in media res, so I’m a bit spotty on the events leading up to the part I played. Upon taking control of Eivor, I found myself in East Anglia, on the path to vengeance. All of the Viking leaders in the region save one pledged themselves to Oswald, an Anglican who sought peace with the Danes. The remaining chief, Rued, appeared to have killed Oswald. In turn, Eivor is attempting to unite the forces in the region so he can attack Rued’s castle and claim his life.

I won’t go in-depth on how this all played out, as I don’t want to go into any spoilers. However, I do want to touch on where I feel the plot is going off the rails. For one, all historians know of Oswald is that he was a King of East Anglia around 869-880. His existence is only confirmed by the finding of two coins minted during his reign, which feature his name. However, Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla takes this and expands him into a full-fledged side character with multiple quests surrounding him.

I previously wrote that I feared Valhalla would mischaracterize the relationship between the Viking invaders and their victims. I didn’t get to see anything of the Wessexians but considering that Ubisoft is spinning Oswald, a man we know nothing about, into a significant character, I don’t hold out a lot of hope for historical accuracy. The Vikings are made up of multiple factions in this game, as made evident by Rued’s opposition to Oswald, which makes me doubt Eivor’s story will involve any grayness. Instead, there’ll probably be Eivor’s “good” Vikings against “bad” Vikings. Because of this internal struggle, all the atrocities of the invasion of England will be swept under the rug.

Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla Preview | Historical fiction vs. fictional history

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I usually wouldn’t care about how closely a game follows history. However, times are changing. The Assassin’s Creed series has always only flirted with history, using it as a background for fiction rather than an actual basis for the plot. However, with the major deemphasis on the humanities throughout our education system, I feel like too many players will see this game as history with a bit of fiction sprinkled in rather than the reality that Valhalla is fiction with a splash of history for flavor.

Aside from the significant issue above, the disregarding of recorded history in favor of fiction wouldn’t be as much of a problem if not for a few things. The Viking invasions of the late 9th century have plenty of characters and exciting occurrences that actually happened that would provide a fantastic basis for a game. There’s no need to make up events when you’re centering a title around the events that led to the foundation of the Kingdom of England.

Additionally, the Assassin vs. Templar dynamic is played out, and by extension, so are the modern sections of the game. The age-old fight between the Assassin’s Brotherhood and the Knights Templar was a useful framing device up through Syndicate. With Origins and Odyssey, it started to feel more restrictive. We have these massive worlds to explore and participate in. The amount of content and narrative in the most recent titles begins to make the Assassins and Templar feel like afterthoughts.

In my preview, I didn’t encounter any modern-day sections. Still, I can only imagine they’re just as immersion-breaking as ever. I get that they formerly served as a narrative framework and an explanation for gameplay elements. However, since Origins, the games have felt cohesive and open enough to do without the Animus.

I’ll have to wait for the final game to make up my mind on the narrative. I encourage anyone who intends to play Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla to not expect it to a grand historical epic. I mean to play it as a complete fiction with a historical backdrop and not obsess too much on how closely it follows reality.

Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla Preview | Bringing the fight back

Combat sees a lot of changes for the better in Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla. Enemies are no longer leveled, which gets rid of the sponginess that plagued Origins and Odyssey. This is possibly the single best change Valhalla brings because it opens up more options to the fighting. Instead of having to be overly cautious and continuously worry about cheesing enemies, you can go full throttle, charging into your foes ax swinging.

There’s a greater emphasis on offense, and this is helped by two ability wheels that expand your combat options. One wheel is for ranged attacks, and the other is for melee, and both can equip up to four skills. On the melee side, you get abilities that let you charge foes, throw axes at multiple targets, or poison your weapon. For ranged weapons, you can use skills to fire multiple arrows or give your arrows special effects.

The weapons themselves also have a different feel between each type compared to Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey. Using a shield as a primary weapon allows you to parry attacks and slam into enemies. If you equip an ax as a secondary, you can quickly swipe at them when they’re off balance. If you’re facing a group of enemies with shields, you can use the two-handed ax to bust them to splinters, but the slow windup can leave you vulnerable.

Combat generally feels better than it did in Odyssey, but there were some issues. One-on-one combat controlled nicely for me, but it can be challenging to take on multiple enemies at once. Switching from target-to-target doesn’t feel as fluid as it did back in the entries in which combat was a more straightforward affair. There’s a lock-on, and you can flick between targets with the analog stick. Still, it felt primitive when multiple games in the Assassin’s Creed series made one-vs-many melee combat feel natural.

Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla is very close to suffering from the controller not having enough buttons. Many functions are accomplished by holding a button and pressing another. Also, some buttons have multiple uses depending on whether you tap or hold them. PC players can likely bind these actions across a keyboard for more comfort, those using a controller may find the game a bit unwieldy at times.

Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla Preview | The potential for greatness

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Despite my issues with the game, I enjoyed my preview of Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla. The scope of the title seems a bit smaller, which is excellent because Odyssey was a sprawling mess at times. Riding my longboat down the river and raiding villages with my Viking troops was a lot of fun. The game does go out of its way to make you feel more like you’re apart of the world than previous Assassin’s Creed titles.

The build I played was a work-in-progress, and the content was only a snippet of what will be available in the final product. The overall impression I got was that the game is going in the right direction. I definitely believe that Ubisoft can polish this into a great Assassin’s Creed experience.