It's hard to get a feel for a game in a couple of hours. It's even harder when your screen is filled with streaming artifacts, but such is life in 2020. Ahead of Ubisoft's Forward gaming event, the company offered us some remote demos of two of its AAA releases this year. While my colleague had no issues playing Watch Dogs Legion, my substandard internet connection meant my session with Assassin’s Creed Valhalla was taxing. But I like what I think I saw.
After losing its way with back-to-back-to-back releases in the early-to-mid ‘10s, 2017’s Egypt-based Origins was a return to form for the Assassin’s Creed series, followed a year later by the similarly good Odyssey, which mapped mainland Greece and its many Aegean islands. For Valhalla, Ubisoft is jumping a millennium forward in time, and focusing on the Viking invasion of England.
As the leaks over the past week have suggested, the demo Ubisoft has been showing journalists, YouTubers and streamers is set entirely in East Anglia, a still-fairly-rural part of the UK, situated to the Northeast of London. We’re in the late 9th century, when the Anglo-Saxons had already lost parts of the country to Viking colonists.
Much of the appeal of the past two Assassin’s Creed games, for me at least, has been in sightseeing; Ubisoft builds beautiful, if somewhat empty, sandboxes that I get lost in, exploring for hours. What little I’ve seen of Valhalla appears to be much the same. I traveled across picturesque landscapes to historical renditions of Norwich, Thetford and Bury St Edmunds, with little to do between settlements but admire the scenery and gather some resources. Sightseeing was tough, given the aforementioned streaming issues, but viewing the local capture afterwards showed a truly stunning world.
Like Odyssey, you can choose between a male or female protagonist, in this case both named Eivor. The demo allowed for switching between protagonists on the fly, and your gender, at least from what I experienced, has no bearing on how characters interact with you, or your ability to romance them. While this, and the many gay encounters I had in ancient Greece, felt natural in the last game, it makes less sense in this time period. It’ll be interesting to see how staunchly Christian Anglo-Saxons, who viewed any casual sex as sinful, deal with my advances. With that said, the intensely awkward silence after an otherwise-chatty Ubisoft rep watched me instigate some gay Viking sex was perhaps the most memorable part of my demo, and as the series has skewed more towards RPG, I appreciate being able to roleplay as I see fit.
Enough about what’s the same -- what’s new in Valhalla? The big-ticket items are assaults and raids. Assaults are roughly analogous to Conquest Battles in Odyssey. I led a small army to attack a fort or castle, which, in the demo, this felt remarkably similar to a round of For Honor: managing crowds, supporting troops and taking down more powerful enemies as I battered my way to climactic one-on-one fight. Raids are a more freeform exercise. You can approach these stealthily, or just rush in with your army from the offset. I took out six or so guards without being detected, and then reached a door that required a second pair of hands to open. I then blew on a horn to summon the raiding party, forced my way in and killed the remaining enemies inside.
Being a Viking, your character is better-suited to all-out combat than past assassins. You have two weapon slots, which can be populated with a combination of items; you could dual-weild small axes, carry a weapon and a shield, or a larger two-handed weapon. There are also three distinct types of bows, all of which handle differently. This leads to a greater variety of options when approaching combat encounters, especially in the context of the assault battles.