Playing a big ol' chunk of Assassin's Creed Valhalla made me realise how much the series has changed since the first game in 2007. If you played Altaïr's first adventure and then skipped straight to Valhalla, where big buff blonde viking Eivor is running around 9th century England, you probably wouldn't realise they were in the same series. Assassin's Creed Valhalla doesn't feel like an Assassin's Creed game, then, but I'm okay with that. Because it instead it feels like a really good Viking game where you smash people with axes.
I spent three hours wandering around the region of East Anglia. Zoomed out, the other regions I could see on the map were Northumbia, East Mercia, West Mercia and Wessex, so, a compressed version of basically the entire South-East of England. I can't tell you how this relates to the confusing discussion of Valhalla's total map size, though. I can say that, even though I just had Norwich and the surrounding area to explore, three hours wasn't enough for me to see everything - I think I managed, perhaps, about half.
Because this is England during the Middle Ages, there are no beautiful Azure seas or sweeping deserts or architectural wonders that can be seen from space. But Ubi seem to have a good understand of what makes our oft' melancholic Albion beautiful. Most of the villages were mud coloured, but the countryside was an almost-autumnal joy. Some trees still had their leaves, but others were golden brown, and others still were bare. In some places flowers dotted the grass, but there was also fruit to collect.
You are encouraged to travel by water, taking to the rivers in your longship, but I found I only used the ship if I had a particularly long journey, or was going back somewhere I'd already been. It's not that I didn't like the ship. I just wanted to explore the land, where the sun rode low in the sky. It started raining several times. Ah, home.
Although obviously it's not the same England wot I'm living in right now. There are almost zero Pot Noodles in Eivor's time. Instead, you loot food, pick the aforementioned fruit, and even snarf down mushrooms in a pinch (mushrooms are apparently the universal health kit of games) to fill player character Eivor's personal rations. You can then press a button in a fight to get a bit of health back, and the more berries you've grubbed for the more insta-health shots you get. It's sort of like a Viking Estus Flask. And you need it.
See, the least Assassin's Creed thing about Assassin's Creed Valhalla is the stealth. As in, there seems to be basically no reason to use it. Like Assassin's Creed Odyssey, combat skills are vaguely divided between shootin', hittin' and sneaky stabbin'. This time the skill tree is actually a skill star map, sort of a disorganised Sphere Grid from Final Fantasy brought to you by way of the heavens. Each dot in a constellation is a minor skill that costs a point to unlock, something like an increase to melee damage or all archery attacks. The centres of constellations are more important skills, like Stomp, which lets you jump a stunned enemy to death. Stomp is amazing and should be unlocked as a high priority when you play. Stomp is the new kick, even though kick still exists as Tyr's Kick.
Amongst all this, I'm not sure why you'd bother with stealth at all. It feels like an appendix. Might as well whip it out at this point, since so many of the problems in Valhalla are solved via axe. But the melee combat is lovely and - I'm going to say it - visceral, sending big loops of silky blood through the air. And yet it moves so fast, demanding all the blocking and dodging, that you sort of don't notice the gore and it doesn't feel gratuitous. Even when you cut someone's head off.
You can switch between bow and melee on the fly, with a short range quick bow allowing you to fire off three arrows in quick succession. Enemies have glowing weak spots that will stun them if hit with an arrow, allowing you to move in and do a more impressive, more gruesome attack to properly fuck 'em up. Along with that you have your active abilities, which seem less mystical than in Odyssey - throw a load of axes, shoot a load of arrows, or, yeah, kick someone real hard.
I don't think I did a stealth once, really. But even if you avoid open combat at every other point in the game, you'd still have to go through the big set-piece raids, which are very up close and personal. They're also harder than you'd think.
The assault in my hands on session (which had to do with helping out Eivor's choice for local regional king, a soft squishy man called Oswald who could clearly not achieve anything without my Eivor) took me three goes. Protect your battering ram as you and your forces advance into the keep, use explosive oil pots to take out archers, and fight your way through waves of enemies and occasional brutish lieutenants with stronger attacks and more health.
It sounds pretty simple on paper, but it's harder in practise. Like the fortresses in Odyssey that you snuck into by yourself, the raid is still a sort of puzzle, it's just that this is a Rubik's cube you have to solve whilst being punched in the face. But like, a fun version of that. I did a couple of smaller raids, too, and enjoyed beaching my boat to take the enemy a bit by surprise. The AI seems a bit dim generally, but I did enjoy turning around to see one of my lads take out a gold star enemy by punting him off the top of a gate.
You can still choose between weapons like a jabby spear, a flail, or a big two-handed axe, though I favoured the hand axe and shield combination in the demo. And you can still upgrade your chosen gear using crafting materials you find in the while. The inventory in general seems to have been streamlined, though it could of course be that they didn't want to show too much at preview stage.
But you know what else has been streamlined? Fuckin, everything, mate.
The joke, right, is that AC maps (Ubi games in general, really) are as covered in pock marks as my face was when I was a teenager and needed to go to the doctors for antibiotics. In Assassin's Creed Oranges and Odyssey, they'd started trying to pare that back. But how do you get rid of map markers when your map is so big? Ubi seem to have finally found an elegant compromise.
The map is peculiarly barren. After exploring an area, or syncing a high point, little markers will start to pop up. That's all they are - little points of light on the map that indicate something interesting might be there. Gold ones for valuables, blue ones for just something interesting. That's all you get, aside from a marker for the quest you're doing right that second. And then, on top of that, there are things you just have to look out for. I went up to a cool looking tree and found two orphan kids living in the woods, and they didn't have a marker at all.
Here is another example that I really liked. You know that boss fight with a spooky witch that got leaked? There are three of them, and you just run into them in the world. If you find one, you don't suddenly get markers for the other two going 'Big Weird Witch Here'. But the really cool thing is that, VidBud Matthew, who also played, found those fights first. I didn't.
I, completely accidentally, found a secret tunnel leading from a church to a ruined estate. In that tunnel was a big spooky pagan statue, and notes indicating that three sisters had disappeared into the wilderness. And finding that didn't give me quest markers for the witch boss fights either. But Matthew didn't find that estate, and he didn't get a quest marker for it. Some things you have to actually look for.
I found a quest in Norwich to catch a cat, but the quest marker stayed on the child who asked me to help - I just had to remember which way that cat had buggered off when it first ran away. I know you might not be impressed reading this, but God, it made me so happy. It feels like finally Ubisoft's developers trust that I, an adult who has watched all of prestige television shows like Broadchurch, am not a total idiot.
Not that there are no map markers. You eventually open up a bunch of fast travel points, and cities have a few more showing where you can get resources. Norwich was bustling, almost. It was in Norwich I found the cat, and where I did a spot of flyting, the much touted Viking rap battle (which was really just the insult duelling from The Curse Of Monkey Island.)
What I didn't get to see was any of the stuff that's brand new to the series. I didn't get to go to my little settlement and get a tattoo or check on how my clan were all doing. This was a bit annoying because you can't craft arrows on the fly any more, and from context I think you can stock up back home. But that just means there are still some surprises left to see from this, the least Assasssin's Creed-y Assassin's Creed game yet. I remain excited.