Much like how Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag is a good pirate simulator, Valhalla seems to excel as a Viking simulator.
I genuinely tried to stealth my way through most encounters in the first hour of my three-hour preview demo of Assassin's Creed Valhalla. I'd crouch among the sparse bushes and use a mixture of well-placed arrow shots and instant-kill hidden blade assassinations to carefully chip away at an outpost's defenses. But it wasn't exactly easy and it felt like I wasn't adequately responding to the situation at hand.
Perhaps additional abilities, additional enemy types, and new environments in other parts of the game will allow Eivor to pull off more types of silent kills and make stealth a more enjoyable option, but the placement of enemies in most of the encounters I experienced in the demo seemed to encourage fighting out in the open over skulking in the shadows. So for the latter two hours of my time with the demo I decided to do just that.
Frankly, it made for a far more satisfying experience. By the end of the demo, I was having a much better time than I was at the start. Choosing to confront foes head-on reminded me of my time with Edward Kenway, the protagonist of Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag. As a pirate who only becomes an Assassin in the final few campaign missions of the game, it makes sense that Edward solves many of his problems as a pirate that's making the most of the tools of an Assassin, as opposed to an actual trained Assassin--and this is reflected in the combat and mission structure. Some are enjoyable and others (like the mandatory stealth and tailing missions) are less so. Black Flag is at its best when you play it as a scrappy pirate who sails around in search of treasure and ships to pillage, only turning to the tools and strategies of the Assassins as another method in Edward's vast arsenal. In those moments when Black Flag affords you the agency to pull from both Edward's combat and stealth abilities, it's a better game--Black Flag is perhaps the only released entry in the Assassin's Creed franchise where I regularly transition between both combat and stealth as the two playstyles flow together in a satisfying way.
Similarly, the demo for Valhalla showcased how combat pairs with stealth to make Eivor into this incredible Viking warrior that transitions between both styles of fighting. In the demo, open combat was more challenging than stealth, but I had more choices in how I wanted to fight when out in the open, which led me towards more satisfying moments of risk vs reward. On the surface, Valhalla's combat looks a lot like Odyssey or Origins, but there are a few notable changes. Eivor is the first true dual-wielder in the Assassin's Creed franchise. Some of the previous characters, like the aforementioned Edward, have fought with two weapons before but Eivor is the first where you have complete control over what they hold in both their dominant and offhand.
Most weapons--whether it's an axe, spear, shield, or flail--behave differently depending on which hand Eivor holds it with, allowing you to pretty drastically switch up how you fight. For example, a flail I found in the demo could pull off some wide, sweeping attacks in front of Eivor when held in their dominant hand. It was very slow but powerful, an ideal method for cracking and breaking enemy shields or stunning enemies. However, when it's held in their offhand, Eivor holds the flail above their head and then maintains the swing. This attack is a lot faster but not as strong. Since it's constantly swinging, it damages enemies all around you but the attack drains your stamina a lot faster. In the offhand, the flail is essentially a more aggressive version of a shield that keeps enemies at arm's length through the threat of damage. You can change your loadout at any time, even in the midst of combat, and you'll likely need to in order to account for the different types of foes you'll encounter. You may not find the weapons you use to counter mini-boss Cordelia's fiery ghost-like apparitions that constantly adjust the tempo of the fight to be as effective for overcoming the far more aggressive legendary animal, the Black Shuck--I know I didn't.
You'll also need to carefully manage your stamina to effectively block, dodge, parry, attack, and heavy attack. Stunning enemies allows you to pull off an instant-kill attack on weaker enemies and a powerful Bloodborne-like visceral attack on stronger ones, and pushing them to the ground opens an opportunity to crush their skulls with a mighty stomp. Pulling off these two types of finishers or a perfect parry, eating certain mushrooms, or doing something very Assassin-like (headshot with an arrow or hidden assassination, for instance) provides adrenaline segments that you can save up and then expend to use special abilities, like charging into an enemy to pin them to a wall or leaping at a foe with whatever weapon you're holding. The healing system of the old-school Assassin's Creed games returns as well--Eivor will not heal out of combat, so you'll need to forage for seemingly magical healing berries to recover health.
Additionally, enemies behave more strategically and have a wide variety of different types of attacks and defensive measures, so combat is more about creating your own openings as opposed to countering like nearly every other game in the franchise. Combat isn't exactly challenging (in fact, I think it could be tweaked to be a little harder) but enemies flock to you as the dominant threat and your best chance against them is to be quick and decisive.
For example, near the end of my demo, I saw a passing group of enemy soldiers that looked to be travelling towards an encampment I wanted to invade. I didn't have much in the way of healing, but knew I couldn't just let them pass and reinforce the base, so I figured I'd just have to deal with them all in one fell swoop. I leapt from my horse at the soldier bringing up the rear and quickly cut him down with an assassination before they even knew what was happening. The rest scattered to surround me, with two archers taking a few steps back to begin peppering me from afar. I immediately fired a poison arrow at this big brute with a hefty-looking axe, stopping him in his tracks as he tried to deal with his sudden affliction.
I barely had enough time to turn and parry the blow of an enemy trying to get behind me, and stunned him long enough for me to take his weapon and kill him with it. An arrow stuck itself into my shoulder, I quickly ducked a second, and continued into a roll to avoid a third, only to realize that doing so had nearly exhausted my stamina and given the other soldiers time to surround me. With that first arrow carving out a nice chunk in my health and now three swords converging on me at once, I used my only adrenaline chunk to bulrush into the guy in front of me and used him as a human shield to charge the first archer. When I reached him, I knocked the archer back with my shield and crushed his skull. This gave me a segment of adrenaline, which I immediately expended to fling throwing axes at the remaining soldiers, killing all but the brute I had poisoned earlier, and the final archer. The big one tried to run and I rewarded his cowardice with a well-placed arrow to the back and then slipped into the cover of the nearby trees to break the remaining archer's line of sight and return to stealth. I knocked another arrow and took him out with a well-placed shot.
When his body fell, I let out the breath I didn't even know I was holding. It felt incredible to pull off a combination of attacks in such quick succession to overcome the seemingly overwhelming odds I faced--especially knowing that a major mistake would have likely resulted in my demise.
Eivor is a towering, well-muscled figure but they maintain that traditional brittleness that all Assassin's Creed protagonists share, so you have to think a lot like Vinland Saga's Thorfinn and rely on speed, ingenuity, and all-out brutality to win. There were just as many fights during the demo that I won by the skin of my teeth or I was badly beaten because I just wasn't being smart and forgetting to use every trick I had to even the playing field. There's a level of strategy to Valhalla's combat that pretty much every other title in the franchise lacks and, like Black Flag, this extra consideration can flow from or into the stealth mechanics. Eivor isn't sometimes a Viking and sometimes an Assassin--they're both, and it makes for far more interesting considerations while fighting a group of enemies.
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