Hands-on: Assassin’s Creed Valhalla thrills with combat, stumbles with content

I spent six hours with Assassin’s Creed Valhalla ahead of its launch, thrown right into the middle of an epic Viking story that takes place across 9th century England. With the option to pick between the male and female Eivor, I started out the preview in the middle of the story in the region of Leicestershire, with little to no context given.

Throughout my six hours with Valhalla, I was able to get a pretty solid idea of how the game plays, how it compares to previous entries Origins and Odyssey, and how it evolves the game into a more RPG-focused experience. Overall, my time has me excited to jump back into the story and combat but I’m honestly less interested in everything else surrounding it.

Combat Feels Great If You Don’t Prefer Stealth

Assassin’s Creed Origins redefined the series after a necessary break, reinventing the combat to become more brutal and fun. Following up on that, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla takes the gameplay even deeper. Every weapon that I tried out felt wildly different and catered to a different style, making the combat engaging and fun.

My preference was the new dual-wielding feature that allowed me to pick up two one-handed axes and slice and dice my foes to death. But you also have the usual two-handed weapons, one-handed weapon and a shield, and so on. These melee weapons are in addition to the bow and assassination techniques you have available at all times.

Regardless of what weapon you choose, you have up to eight skills that you can activate at any time to poison enemies, jump up and slam down on them, and more. Like the past two games, each weapon has a light attack, heavy attack, and the ability to block or parry.

What is new is a special third attack that each weapon could do by default by holding down the left bumper and it varied for each of them. For the greatsword, it would allow you to charge at the enemy across the map and slice at them while dual-wielding would allow you to release a flurry of attacks on the foe in front of you, which I used all the time.

For the most part, the combat felt deep and fulfilling in nearly all places with a difficulty that was only somewhat punishing if you mess up the dodges and blocks but highly rewarding if you find the weapons that work for you. For me, the bow was great and a solid replacement for assassinations.

While Assassin’s Creed Valhalla finally brings back the hidden blade, everything surrounding assassinations and stealth, in general, is messy. Sure, the assassinations will work largely as you remember from past games but stealth felt nearly broken in this demo. I wasn’t told if this was a known issue but it could be something that will be fixed in the full release, however, I have no confirmation of that.

While you are sneaking around, enemies will notice you and the bar will fill up until they attack as you would expect but the time for them to notice and the range that enemies had made stealth not fun anymore. And to make matters worse, the bard didn’t stay there or have anything at all to notify me that I lost their attention when I ran away.

I tried several times to infiltrate different bases and was noticed much quicker than the last two Assassin’s Creed games. And when I ran away and heard the signature sound that I was hidden, it wasn’t accurate at all. There was even a point where I waited nearly five minutes to run back to try again and they were still trying to attack me from before like I never left.

What Valhalla does do is bring back the classic hiding system where you can blend into the surroundings and pretend to be one of the locals or cause a distraction. However, because enemies noticed me way too easily, it wasn’t useful at all. My favorite part of these games is sneaking around assassinating everyone and, so far, you are better off just charging in arrows blazing.

Enticing Story With Interesting Choices

Even though I was thrown into the middle of the story, I immediately felt interested in Eivor and their companions as they play their role in the Vikings invading England. I won’t go into spoilers at all for the chunk of the story I played but I was able to enjoy an entire arc of the tale in which the group attempted to take over one particular section.

In the midst of this, I was introduced to fascinating characters like Ivarr and Sigurd who joined Eivor for the journey. Many of the main story missions involved other characters attacking places with me, and through that, we were able to have little bits of story sprinkled throughout and find out more about each other.

Main story segments felt impactful and meaningful, be it sneaking into a forbidden area to find someone or having full-on fortress battles with dozens of soldiers on my side as well as the enemy’s. The main quests never left me bored and had me wanting to do the next main story quest immediately after completing one.

The interactions and writing during all of that were solid from what I played, more than making up for the main story that I found lackluster in Odyssey, despite loving the overall game. It follows the same system from that previous entry where you are able to select various responses with little to no differences in the dialogue except for in key moments, but still retaining welcome humor and memorable characters.

There was one particular moment towards the end of the story where I had a major decision to make. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to see much of the outcome of that decision in the preview since it ended soon after but it has me invested and curious enough to see how else I can shape Eivor’s journey in the full game.

A Fairly Empty World So Far

While the main story has me excited for Valhalla, the rest of the content does not. It is the opposite situation of Odyssey for me where, in that game, I enjoyed the side quests and didn’t really care too much for the main story. But in Valhalla, there really aren’t any side quests, at least in the traditional sense.

While exploring the region in the preview, there were four main types of content that I could find. The first was wealth, which was just items that you could find in the world typically in camps. These required infiltrating camps, taking out enemies and then locating the treasure there.

The next one was secrets that I didn’t really see much of in the preview while the last two were mysteries and minigames. The mysteries are basically what side quests are in Valhalla: hidden stories that you can locate on the map but don’t actually show up in your quest log (that is reserved for the main quests only).

The mysteries are more organic quests where you stumble upon someone needing help, interact with them, and then help them. Since there is no quest log for them, you really have to pay attention to what they say to know what to do next. Unfortunately, this also means that they were almost all extremely simple and short.

Because of that, none of the stories were interesting and many of the mysteries were puzzles that took me literally a minute or two to complete while others were just annoying fetch quests. The first I did was stumbling upon a woman screaming for help as a guard watches over her locked in a tower.

I snuck over, assassinated the guard, and she revealed that it was all fake. She then asked me to stand as her new guard, someone attacked, I defeated them, and the mystery was over. This took me less than two minutes, lacked any detail, and I left the woman and her tower of lies more confused than before about what her deal was. But perhaps that is the mystery of it all.

And the worst part is that was one of the most engaging mysteries I encountered. Another was just an annoying fetch quest to keep finding viper eggs by killing vipers with no direction on where to even find them. The mysteries are problematic and I found myself eventually ignoring all side content besides the usual eagle points to expand the map and the minigames.

When it comes to the minigames, I actually spent way too much time playing these when I was done with the main story. There were three that I encountered: flyting, dice, and drinking. All three were good, though flyting is more of a poetry battle than a rap one, with the dice game being especially good with its complex, card battle-like matches of attack and defense.

It just sucks that outside of the minigames I felt no reason to hop on my ship and explore the world, which was contrary to my previous experiences with Origins and Odyssey before it. Raids were fine but repetitive and without a story to back up the messy new take on side quests, I currently see myself only wanting to do the main path when Assassin’s Creed Valhalla releases next month.