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Hey, let’s talk about hay. No. Really. It’s important. It turns out you can tell a lot about an Assassin’s Creed game by the way it treats dried grass.
Not visually – although these sun-dappled raids and castle sieges are easily some of the prettiest vistas in the series – but mechanically. Send Eivor toppling majestically from any of the iconic leaps of faith scattered across England and they’ll stay hidden in the grassy pile below.
Unlike Odyssey’s Kassandra or Alexios, who would automatically pop out for immediate Ancient Greek fisticuffs, Eivor’s restraint is the clearest signal that AC’s stealth is making a return. It might sound like a small thing but going hands-on with this fresh slice of Norse history proves that Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is a giant hooded hug for long term fans of the franchise.
Ubisoft’s medieval England is a world where you can swing a golden axe that bursts into flames after a critical strike, invest in oh-so-Instagrammable new body ink, and slurp mead from horns in drinking mini-games until you literally can’t run straight. There’s even a dice game called Orlog that’ll melt some Gwent obsessed brains.
But it’s the addition of a cloak option to the new radial menu that stands out as a horned hat tip to Ezio and co; a solid link to the series’ past amongst the options to quite literally blow your own trumpet (fine, horn), call your horse, or light a torch.
While there’s nothing stopping players hammering down the front gate of a castle with a battering ram or entering sleepy hamlets all dual-wielded axes quite literally blazing, you can choose to slip in undetected. Don your cloak and you can enter what are known as ‘distrust’ areas where guards are already on high alert. Get too close and they’ll see through your flimsy disguise but stay away and you can smugly pass through.
Blending in with your first group of monks makes the last 13 years of ACs disappear as Eivor saunters hidden in plain sight Altair-style. And there are multiple, equally nostalgic, ways to make yourself look like you fit in.
Taking a seat on a bench to relax will once again make you somehow disappear, and Eivor can even look busy at various workstations fixing bells and working with traders. Knowing that you’ve now got an ability that can throw axes at everyone in sight at the press of a button just makes it all the more satisfying. Anything feels possible.
Ubisoft says this is about following history rather than ticking off fan wishlists. “It was not something we thought ‘Oh we need to put this back,’” explains game director Eric Baptizmat. “It was really when we were studying the time period and the relationship between the Norse and the Anglo Saxons.
“At the time period of the game, it was already 5 years since the Norse invaded England and there was already a Norse presence everywhere. There were some places the Norse were welcome and there were some places that they were totally seen as enemies. We wanted to play with this.”
“Upgrading cartographers to reveal treasures, heading out with your line to supply feast ingredients to the fishmonger, and visiting the armoury for upgrades feels like the 2020 version of AC2’s Monteriggioni.”
It’s no coincidence that Valhalla sees Jesper Kyd’s return for soundtrack duties alongside Sarah Schachner for the first time since Assassin’s Creed Revelations. His atmospheric tones are as instantly recognisable as the satisfying clunk of everyone’s favourite murder gauntlet.
Speaking of, the return of the hidden blade is a welcome one. While Odyssey’s broken spear was useful and, y’know, magical, there’s a distinct joy to be found in a well-placed air assassination. But it’s important to note that a one-button kill option doesn’t quite fit with the granular level system at work.
While players can instantly murder enemies of their own level, happily skewering their way around Anglo Saxon camps like a deadly porcupine if you don’t fancy bringing your raid crew, more powerful foes are a significantly different prospect. “It doesn’t kill all enemies in one hit,” warns Baptizat. “Only enemies at your level. For the other enemies, the strongest ones, we wanted to always give a chance to the player to instantly kill. So you can unlock a skill that triggers a timing mini game.”
The higher level the enemy, the more difficult this mini-game becomes, meaning while it will be possible to get it just right, it won’t be particularly probable. Plus, given the sheer array of skills, abilities and rune customisation options for weapons on offer, it might not even be something you want to be able to do but it’s there.
And finally, there’s your Viking settlement of Ravensthorpe. Eivor’s upgradeable village builds upon the solid foundations of previous Assassin’s Creed games, making it feel all the more like coming home. Upgrading cartographers to reveal treasures, heading out with your line to supply feast ingredients to the fishmonger, and visiting the armoury for upgrades feels like the 2020 version of AC2’s Monteriggioni.
Brotherhood’s Rome was a fixer-upper, AC3’s Homestead built an economy around your endeavours, and Syndicate was happy to let you settle in a train chugging around London, but Valhalla delivers a tantalising prospect of a true home base actively involved in Eivor’s story. This is where romantic relationships form and where every mission starts in the war room of the grand long house.
“AC3’s Homestead built an economy around your endeavours, and Syndicate was happy to let you settle in a train chugging around London, but Valhalla delivers a tantalising prospect of a true home base”
Everything upgraded in Ravensthorpe makes a difference. The blacksmith is the only place you can upgrade your weapons in this world and you’ll want to train your horse to swim as well as customise your tattoos.
It’s also here where the symbol of the Assassins swings outside on a sign identifying the home of the Hidden Ones. Let’s not ask why they’d put a sign outside but it’s here where you’ll pick up missions to wipe out the pesky proto Templars, the Order of the Ancients.
And, thanks to one inhabitant, this small part of England is also the gateway to other realms. “The See-er is part of your clan,” explains Baptizat. “When you build Valka’s hut, she is going to allow you to access Vision Quests. Those will allow you to visit worlds that are part of Norse Mythology.”
Yes, trips to Asgard and Jotunheim will be a part of returning home, enveloping the more mystical side of the Assassins universe from Origins and Odyssey. Valhalla then feels like a fresh adventure but this fusion of old and new makes this Viking journey all the more appealing. These fur-lined boots, it seems, are where we belong.