Sunday, July 12, 2020

Assassin's Creed Valhalla Hands-On Preview

I guide my longship along the waterways of East Anglia, one of the regions of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla’s Anglo-Saxon map. Ahead is the shoreline of Beodericsworth, which will soon be the stage for one of this Viking-themed entry’s flagship features; raiding. With the blow of a horn, my crew begin bailing out, charging up the sands and crashing into the shields of the village’s unprepared guards. Wood splinters, blood gushes, and heads drop from shoulders. It’s exactly the kind of skirmish you’d expect from a Norseman raid. Inside, we hack apart the guard leaders defending the village’s treasures and take it for ourselves. Amongst our findings are two caskets so large it takes multiple vikings to get them open, filled with raw crafting materials. It’s a bounty that will, at the very least, get a knowing nod from Odin, if not a smile. [ignvideo url=""] Raiding in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla feels smaller scale than I expected, but is nonetheless good fun, and a vital part of fulfilling the Viking fantasy at the heart of the game. It’s also not the only way to pillage a Saxon settlement. The first time I approached a raiding target in a recent three-hour hands-on with Valhalla, I actually bailed out of the longship on my own, snuck around the back, and crept from guard to guard, taking them out silently. Stealthing the entire camp was overly easy due to the enemies standing perfectly still at their posts - something I hope will be upgraded with patrol paths by the time of full release - but some satisfaction remained thanks to the fact that Assassin’s Creed’s iconic hidden blade has been restored to full power once again, killing instantly with a generous splash of crimson. Post-raiding party, I take protagonist Eivor to meet up with fellow clansman Finnr, who sets us on a course to assault Burgh Castle in Northwich, where we’ll face a rival clan. This transitions into what is effectively the boss fight version of raiding; Valhalla’s siege assaults. This one begins with a Viking variant of D-Day, with landing craft exchanged for longships and machine gun fire swapped out for volleys of flaming arrows. [poilib element="quoteBox" parameters="excerpt=The%20iconic%20hidden%20blade%20has%20been%20restored%20to%20full%20power%2C%20killing%20instantly%20with%20a%20splash%20of%20crimson."]As the boats hit the shore and the first set of walls are blown apart, I become tangled up in the first phase of the main assault. It’s here where Valhalla’s combat really shines, despite the rough edges of the work-in-progress build. It’s an iterative upgrade of the system first introduced in Assassin’s Creed Origins, but one with enough Norse-flavoured garnish that it feels just right. Active abilities return, including one that has Eivor hurl half a dozen throwing axes into a collection of nearby enemies, and another that’s basically a charge-and-tackle manovre that lasts for as long as there’s still yards left to sprint. Such abilities can only be triggered by spending adrenaline, which is built through performing standard attacks and parries. But the moments between those super-powered blows are no less entertaining. Enemies have a stun meter, which when worn down allows you to follow up with finishers such as beating them over the head with their own shield, or swinging your axe up through their chin. Foes knocked to the floor can be leapt and stomped on as if they were a bed at a child’s slumber party. And if they refuse to fall over, they can be gleefully booted across the battlefield with the Kick of Tyr; essentially Odyssey’s Spartan Kick in all but name. In moments like these, the spirit of the berserker really starts to shine through. With the first courtyard clear of enemies, I’m able to use a battering ram to break down a timber perimeter fence and progress up to the gate. There are three phases in the assault (frustratingly without checkpointing in this preview build, meaning a full restart on death) with each introducing a new wrinkle of complexity. At the next gate, contained within a stone archway, archers fire arrows from wall-mounted ballistas and pour gallons of burning oil over the ramming crew. On the other side in the final courtyard, the castle’s hardiest occupants do their best to scupper your assault. [widget path="global/article/imagegallery" parameters="albumSlug=assassins-creed-valhalla-ubisoft-forward-screenshots&captions=true"] By this point, I’m feeling fairly exhausted (I’m on my third attempt) and Eivor is feeling the burn. There’s no regenerating health in Valhalla, nor an HP boosting ability like Odyssey’s Second Wind. Instead, you have rations; effectively health potions made up of food gathered from the open world. While the grounds of the castle have a few mushrooms to nibble on, by the last phase of the assault I’ve picked both the land and my pockets dry of food, and have sustained a dent to my HP meter. In other words, I’m not well equipped for the boss battle the game then throws me into. Rued is a rival Viking armed with a longsword he can set ablaze, and is accompanied by a pet wolf. Like with many of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey’s boss fights, it’s in this battle where you can detect some potential Soulsborne influences. Eivor has a stamina meter, depleted by dealing heavy melee damage, dodging, and absorbing enemy strikes with your shield. While light attacks may come for free, in a tight boss fight arena populated by a walking mountain and a ravenous wolf, it means stamina is constantly in need of attention. The wolf is able to grab hold of my shield in its maw, opening me up to heavy cleaves from Rued while I try to wrestle my arm free. A few well-placed strikes and some throwing axes knock the wolf out of the fight, leaving just Rued and I to dance it out atop the castle wall. As the fight progresses Rued begins to throw his weapons at me, but the combination of his attack patterns and the gap between us means there isn’t enough time for me to pull out my bow and strike back at range. With the screen fading to black as my health drops to critical levels, I’m just able to dodge a blow and generate enough adrenaline to perform Dive of the Valkyries; a leap that brings both my axe and shield down on Rued in a bone-crunching slam. He’s done for. Before I can bury the hatchet in his skull, though, my hand is stayed by Oswald, an Englishman ally who we’ve saved from Rued’s clutches. He preaches of fair trials before God, and I’m offered the choice to kill or spare my enemy. I do the sensible thing and slice open Rued’s neck with an axe, much to Oswald’s distaste. [ignvideo url=""] A bug in the demo - something not uncommon in pre-release builds - means I have to reset the game. I continue from where I left off, but am told that in this save game Eivor has abided by Oswald’s request and spared Rued. Fair enough, I think, that’ll keep him happy for his wedding, which is Valhalla’s next quest. Very much following in Odyssey’s footsteps, Valhalla - at least in this showing - has a well-judged balance between light and dark. After a gloomy castle siege I’m treated to a wedding filled with fun conversations and mini-games. I’m challenged to shoot a field full of targets after downing a flagon of ale, and take part in a drinking competition in which I need to neck no less than three horns of beer and not fall over in the process. It’s a delightful time to celebrate Oswald uniting with our clan as he marries Norsewoman Valdis. At least, it is until Rued crashes the party. It appears that Valhalla has ambitions to take the RPG side Assassin’s Creed up a notch; this moment feels like the kind of narrative consequence akin to what we’d see in games like Dragon Age. Because Rued had been spared, he turns up at the wedding looking for vengeance (had he died, I’m informed I’d instead be enjoying a race around the town). But rather than my blood, it’s Oswald’s he’s here to claim. At this point I’m offered another choice; I can let Oswald fight, or I can be his champion and kill Rued on his behalf. I take the latter option, and while I cut down Rued for good this time, Oswald seems slightly disappointed in me taking his place. I wonder if, in later hours, this will have a negative effect on our relationship. I also wonder if this is not just a one off event, but a promise that Valhalla is filled with these kinds of choices and repercussions. [poilib element="quoteBox" parameters="excerpt=There's%20a%20drinking%20mini-game%20that%20demands%20you%20neck%20horns%20of%20beer%20and%20not%20fall%20over."]Along with narrative choices, Valhalla also iterates on the RPG stats systems its predecessors added to the Assassin’s Creed mix. Alongside the familiar active abilities is a constellation-style map of skill upgrades that provides a variety of passive upgrades. Some improve your basic stats - higher damage, increased health - while others unlock new combat moves such as stun attacks and finishers; those additional attacks that make the combat that extra bit more flavourful. Together, all of your upgrades increase your Global Power rating, a numerical indicator as to how powerful you are that replaces standard levelling. Alongside the introduction of further RPG mechanics, Valhalla’s world is also significantly more traditional of the genre, too; when galloping around it on my horse, or sailing down rivers on my longboat, it was easy to mistake England for The Witcher 3’s Velen. This means, visually, Valhalla is less striking than Odyssey or Origins, with its practically Tolkien colour palette feeling less fresh than the sands of Egypt or mediteranean greenery of Greece. Yet, perhaps because I’m English, I can’t help but get a thrill out of exploring just-about-recognisable versions of my own homeland. [ignvideo url=""] It should also be noted that Valhalla embraces British folklore perhaps more than it does Norse Mythology; as I explored this small chunk of the world I came across Black Shuck, a huge black dog that’s part of classic East Anglian folklore, as well as two members of the Daughters of Lerion; Gaelic women dressed in skulls with a fondness for sacrificial rituals and the supernatural. As with Odyssey, exploring uncovers optional bosses and other fun activities, although this time it’s all a lot more goth. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla looks to be, as is the tradition of the series, an iterative update on its predecessors. If the new approach to RPG design and gear-based progression has put you off the series, this slice of the game indicates that you’ll likely be unconvinced by Valhalla’s barely altered direction. But the few changes it makes to those systems suggests developer Ubisoft Montreal may have a newfound confidence in its RPG abilities, and a willingness to embrace more of the genre’s toolset. If its branching story points are frequent occurrences, it may be that Valhalla’s real innovation comes from player agency in the narrative, rather than any mechanical revisions. Provided the game delivers on that promise, my only genuine concern is that the return of the lethal hidden blade hasn’t resulted in instantly satisfying stealth. It currently feels underbaked due to those stationary guards, and so needs some extra challenge to make it a worthwhile alternative to the entertainingly barbaric combat encounters. Fix that, and Assassin’s Creed Valhalla might well be able to both reclaim its lineage and further its admirable RPG ambitions. [poilib element="accentDivider"] Matt Purslow is IGN's UK News and Entertainment Writer.  


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