After it was largely abandoned for the last two mainline Assassin's Creed entries, social stealth returns in Valhalla.
I get the sense that Assassin's Creed is in the midst of some sort of metamorphosis. After getting hands-on with the game for six hours, I walked away from Assassin's Creed Valhalla with the general sense that I had been playing something that felt altogether different from 2017's Origins and 2018's Odyssey. However, Valhalla feels like it could be remembered as a game that acted as a transition for the franchise.
The Assassin's Creed franchise has always walked the tightrope between moments of stealth and sequences of action, with most entries leaning a bit more towards the former. This changed with Origins and Odyssey, both of which provided protagonists Bayek and Kassandra/Alexios with a more traditional open-world RPG set of combat mechanics and skill trees, and additional opportunities to fight bosses with large health bars.
Both games primarily take place outside of cities as well, removing the need for social stealth in most instances. And, of course, you're not an outsider in either one. Bayek is basically a cop who can get away with murder and Kassandra/Alexios is an educated mercenary--it's reasonable to see them work with the elite in one moment and then interact with the downtrodden in the next. Kassandra/Alexios isn't even forbidden from running free in Athens after they're seen aiding Sparta in numerous conflicts--it's all chalked up to just being a part of their job.
In contrast, Valhalla protagonist Eivor is a Viking and thus not welcome in England. So social stealth returns. Outside of cities, Eivor may travel as they wish but once they enter more civilized pockets of the world, they have to wear a disguise. Standing too close to others may draw curious glances, and guards are suspicious of you as soon as they lay eyes on you. For the first time in years, a new Assassin's Creed game encourages you to take to the rooftops, duck into crowds, or cause a commotion to distract wandering eyes. You either get good at blending in or you risk getting into a fight every single time you walk into town.
It's my favorite aspect of what I got to play. Walking into an area where you know you're not wanted can be tense. Every corner could be hiding a new patrol of guards you have to figure out how to avoid, and you know you won't be able to reliably stock up on items or weapons because no one will sell to you. You are unwelcome. It reminds me a lot of Assassin's Creed III: Liberation, the game in the series that best handled social stealth by tying it to both race and gender and allowing protagonist Aveline de Grandpré (a half-African, half-French woman born into wealth in 18th century New Orleans) to change her clothes in order to appear as either a lady, a slave, or an Assassin, and thus adjust others' perception of her. Valhalla feels like the mainline Assassin's Creed games finally taking a stab at that formula, even if it's not nearly as robust as Liberation.
But it's not ideal. Eivor moves like Bayek and Kassandra/Alexios do, lacking the grace of protagonists like Aveline, Connor, and Arno, among others--all of whom possess parkour and stealth mechanics designed for cities. Eivor certainly has more climbing and stealth skills than your traditional RPG protagonist like, say, Shepard or Geralt, but only just. So even though the stealth sections are delightfully tense, Eivor's clunky and awkward movements can prevent these sequences from playing out in a satisfying way.
Which brings me back to my earlier point: Valhalla feels like it's caught between two different worlds. Like I said a few months back, Valhalla's combat is enjoyably frantic--encouraging you to respond to overwhelming numbers by becoming a whirlwind of motion on the battlefield. But I was disappointed to see my six-hour hands-on only reaffirm my fear that assassinating targets with a hidden blade and bow is so easy that you rarely have to rely on combat outside of scripted sequences. And yes, unlike Origins and Odyssey, Valhalla brings back the franchise's tradition of putting you into the role of an outsider who must occasionally rely on stealth, not combat, to accomplish certain tasks. But the combat-geared controls don't allow you to achieve the careful, calculated movements that make stealth segments in games so fun. Both aspects of Valhalla are good, but they seem to be actively undermining the other.
At the very least, I'm just glad that social stealth is back in Assassin's Creed after being mostly absent in the last two mainline entries--when Ubisoft was presumably focused on improving the series' traditionally lackluster combat mechanics. The RPG elements that Origins and Odyssey introduced into the franchise also continue to evolve in intriguing ways in Valhalla; most notably, there's some very interesting stuff being done with the settlement. And it is worth repeating: I only played six hours of what assumedly is a much longer game. Who knows how the whole experience will shake out? Perhaps Valhalla will see stealth and combat more seamlessly complement one another later in its campaign with brand-new mechanics and features that we've yet to see. What I played occurs pretty soon after Valhalla's prologue, so it's fairly early on.
I guess we'll find out on November 10, when Assassin's Creed Valhalla launches for Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC, and Google Stadia. On November 12, the game will also release for PlayStation 5. If you're looking for more info, I got the chance to speak to both Assassin's Creed Valhalla game director Eric Baptizat and narrative director Darby McDevitt about how the Hidden Ones tie into the game, how Ubisoft balances Eivor's role as both a video game hero and invader, and the structure of the game's campaign as self-contained sagas.
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