Ubisoft has officially unveiled Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, a new installment that has players building a Viking settlement and exploring England during the Dark Ages. That premise alone is enticing; the combination of fierce combat and rich history seems like a natural fit for Assassin’s Creed. We interviewed creative director Ashraf Ismail to learn more about the new hero Eivor (pronounced Ā-vōr), the gameplay, and the world of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla.
GI: The name “Valhalla” evokes the Norse setting, but what does it mean in the context of the game’s story?
Ismail: There’s a lot that I can’t get into for spoiler reasons, but overall the idea of this place of glory that you’re trying to reach – this is very meaningful to the personal journey of our hero, Eivor. Eivor is a Viking raider who will leave Norway for the rolling hills of England – this is something that happens very early in the journey of our game – for the goal of settling their people and building a thriving settlement. Norway is beautiful, but it was a very harsh place to live; there’s war, there’s lack of space to grow. The idea of finding a better place to thrive was very important.
The thing we’ve tried to balance there in the identity of Eivor – this is someone who is a lone wolf, who has ambition and glory they want to achieve for themselves. But they also have a community that needs them. We kind of play off of this balance; at what point does your ambition override the needs of other people? This is a little bit more into the personal journey of Eivor, so the name “Valhalla” is significant to that journey in terms of this ambition. I can’t get into elements beyond that, aside from it being a very iconic Norse term and place.
What drew your team to the Viking-themed setting?
The Viking Age is an incredible time period. Assassin’s Creed always visits pivotal moments in history, and here we have a moment that gave shape to Europe and the England we know today … We have these incredible historic figures that have achieved really incredible things. It’s a time of war, a time of politics, a time of alliances. In terms of the bread and butter of Assassin’s Creed, it’s a really potent time period for us to delve into the series’ lore and also show a time period that has rarely been seen. That’s another one of the most attractive elements of this period: This is a history that we’ve barely seen realized in terms of a credible, nuanced experience. So here, we took the opportunity to tell our story … a personal journey through an incredible moment in history with one of history’s most iconic warrior cultures. So, this is an amazing, exciting time period for us.
On a very personal level, when I was 12 years old I read a novel by Michael Crichton which was about Vikings. And the lead character was a guy from the Middle East, so you have this Arab interacting with Vikings. The story was about their journey, but I’d never seen something like that before; I’d never seen Vikings painted in that light. I found a personal connection to it, and ever since then, I’ve loved Norse history and the time period.
What can you tell me about the scope of the world in Valhalla? Is it one big map of England? How does Norway figure in?
It is Norway and the Dark Ages of England – specifically the ninth century. In terms of England, it is quite a large map. We focus on four major kingdoms of England during this time period: Wessex, Northumbria, East Anglia, and Mercia. So for history buffs, they can look for that. It’s a large part of England, and within that you have three major cities: London, Winchester, and Jórvík (now called York in modern days, but Jórvík back then). And then we have a ton of towns, and of course, we have Norway as well.
That’s the core. We have other surprises that I won’t get into in terms of the world and map. But that’s the heart of the journey. We start in Norway, and we see the natural beauty of this world, but we also feel the difficulty of living in this barren land … so we move from there and settle in England. And then it’s about the journeys through the kingdoms of England. Of course, players can go back and forth to Norway as they please. There’s a lot to see and do in Norway.
Assassin’s Creed as a series has had so many potential elements – naval combat, base-building, forming a brotherhood, etc. – that no one installment can have everything. What pillars are you prioritizing for Valhalla?
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is our push to deliver THE Viking experience within the Assassin’s Creed world. That statement is very important for us. There are two key elements there. The Viking fantasy, and all of the features, systems, and narrative that needs to deliver that. But also the Assassin’s Creed world – the conflict between Templars and Assassins, and having Templars and Assassins in the world (of course, they go by different names during this time period). Having these elements and having it all merge together was very important for us.
I mentioned that we land in England and it’s about settling our people and building a thriving settlement, so the settlement is really key to this experience. It’s at the heart of the motivation, and a very important part of the features of the game as well. Every building that you place has gameplay value. Every character that you can bring into your settlement has some kind of value to Eivor and the settlement. There’s customization features for the settlement, as well.
But we’re in England, and England is hostile toward these Vikings. So in order to succeed and start thriving, players will go on raids. They’ll raid their enemies, but to raid, you need a longship. So you have a longship and a crew – these are characters that you meet in the world, characters that you go on journeys with. And there are characters you can customize and build as well – they’re called Jomsvikings. So a lot of effort has gone into your raiders – these are people who also live in your settlement.
Beyond raiding, there are assaults. Assaults are attacks on giant fortifications – these are big set-piece moments that are wrapped up in the narrative. This is something that we found in our research that happened quite a lot, so we needed to find a place for that in the game and give it a lot of value and make it shine. These are really incredible battles.
And we can’t claim to create the ultimate Viking experience if we don’t nail combat. So combat is visceral, brutal. We made sure that every swing of an axe, every defense with a shield feels good. A lot of effort has gone into the weaponry of the period, into the enemies. You can’t have a good fight system if the enemies don’t shine, so we have a lot of variety in enemies. A new take on progression, on gear – we’ve pushed every single envelope to deliver THE Viking experience.
There’s a lot to talk about there, but the first thing I want to unpack is the settlement. You said that is essentially your base? So you go out into the world, recruit people, and they serve a purpose back home?
That’s an aspect of it, yes. The settlement is really your home in the world. You grow this place in terms of both buildings and people. You always start in your settlement, and then you go out into the world – you go on a journey. These journeys bring back different things. Sometimes it’s other people, sometimes it’s resources you might need. Sometimes it’s surprises that I can’t get into. The idea is that it’s really at the heart of the journey; this is the place you come back to to customize your character and do a lot of things for Eivor. The settlement is unlike anything we’ve done in the past; it’s quite key to the motivation of the journey and to the world itself.
And you mentioned longships, as well. Your team worked on Black Flag previously – in Valhalla, is the importance of the ship equivalent to Black Flag in terms of travel and exploration?
The longship is one thing that we wanted to make sure that players felt in the world. We don’t want to always just be telling players something – we want them to feel it. The thing about the Viking age was that these Vikings gained success because they had these Ferraris called longships and they had highways called rivers that no one drove on, and they were able to pedal-to-the-metal drive wherever they want and get behind enemy lines. Eventually the Englishmen – or the Saxons, as they were called during this time period – they started putting up defenses against this kind of stuff. But generally, we wanted players to feel the power of that, of having that longship and being able to sail all across England. So it is a mode of traversal, yes. It brings your raiding party with you. There are a lot of surprises we have in the game with the longship itself.
Ubisoft Montreal’s last Assassin’s Creed game was Origins, which started the series down a path toward more RPG mechanics. How would you characterize the RPG qualities of Valhalla?
In terms RPG and player progression, we wanted a fresh take on it. We wanted something that’s more anchored in the world. So, the way gear works is completely revamped. Every piece of gear you find is unique. You can upgrade each piece of gear. If you wish to carry the same piece of gear to the end of the game, you can. Or if you want to collect everything, that’s up to you. Everything has its own unique value. At a certain point, you can start customizing gear. So it’s a new take on that RPG format in terms of gear.
In terms of abilities and skills, there’s also been a revamping. Players have this (quite large) skill graph that they sort of traverse through the journey of Eivor, picking up new skills, picking up a lot of playstyle elements to fine-tune to kind of Viking you are – whether it’s a more incognito Viking or more “get out there and throw your axes around.” Everything from abilities to skills to weaponry, we have a fresh new take on progression that we feel is anchored in the world and the Viking fantasy we’re trying to achieve.
So, would you say this skill graph is drastically different from the concept of skill tree, where you invest points and build up towards things?
I wouldn’t say it’s drastically different. It has a different form and a different wrapper. The content is what’s really different; the types of skills you can have and the synergies between skills is what makes it much more unique. In terms of moving through a skill tree, I wouldn’t say the mechanic of that is drastically different … our concept of how to craft your playstyle, this is where the content is different.
And what are the teams goals for combat? What are the sensations you’re going for?
Well, the Viking age was really brutal. We needed to deliver that; some of the key terms we were using early in the project were “visceral,” “crunchy,” “brutal,” “weighty.” We wanted every swing of an axe to mean something – you can feel it. A lot of effort has gone into that sense of impact. But also the weaponry; there are a lot of famous weapons that come from this time period. For instance, the Viking round shield. So we have the round shield. We have tower shields. We have flails, and spears, and bearded axes, and Dane axes, and longswords. (Laughs) We wanted the combat system to shine through the weaponry that made this time period unique and exciting.
Within that concept, we’ve introduced dual-wielding. You can pretty much dual-wield any combination of weapons, whether it’s a bearded axe and a sword, or two axes. If you want to dual-wield two shields, have fun! We don’t hold back from that. And there is a value to having different varieties mixed together; there are some synergies that work well together. A lot of effort has gone into the weaponry and the abilities the players has. You see in the trailer that Eivor throws an axe; that’s an ability you can gain.
The trifecta in this combat system is the enemy design. We’ve put a lot of variety into our enemies. A combat system can only shine if the enemies themselves shine. A lot of variety, a lot unique capacities, a lot of surprises in the ways enemies can use the environment (and one another) against the player. We wanted to make sure, if you’ve been playing for 10, 15, 20 hours that you’re still being surprised by what the enemies can do in the world and with one another.
Do the enemies have defined numerical levels? And does the player?
As part of our fresh take on the RPG elements and progression, I would say it’s less about levels and it’s more about the sense of power. Based on the skills you have, you gain power. That’s how we look at that mechanism in the world; it’s really about your capacities and what you can do. Yes, there is a rating that is given, which encompasses at some point your gear as well. But it’s really about the skills you’ve learned, what you can do, and that value is rated. So it’s a sense of power rather than levels.
In the trailer, we see Odin briefly. You’ve mentioned the game feeling grounded – how does it balance that spiritual element in the Viking world?
Our goal is to deliver THE Viking experience in all its nuance and glory. The Viking belief system was an everyday thing; it’s very different from other belief structures. It’s more about making deals with the gods. It’s less about an omnipotent being. They see signs in the world; if you see a squirrel running by, that has a spiritual significance to someone who believes in that. That’s sort of what we hint at in the trailer. Eivor sees something in the battlefield, and that, to him, meant something. We approach it from the perspective of a personal journey of Eivor – someone who has a background in Norse belief and who grew up in that culture. And who believes in the sagas and the stories of that time period. We kind of tease a little bit about how Eivor consumes that and the way it’s reacted to; it’s much more in that cultural framework of things.
Is Eivor going through a checklist of people to assassinate like the protagonists of previous games?
In the journey of Eivor, yes, we run across Assassins and Templars (or Hidden Ones and Order of Ancients in this time period). They are part of the journey. They are an important part of the journey. At a certain point, Eivor’s personal motivations will align with some Assassin characters that we meet. So there will be some alignment there and they will work together in a certain fashion. Now we’re starting to get close to spoiler territory, but players can expect a really cool link. Again, I don’t want to get into what systems or features or narrative is linked to that just yet. But our mantra when we started this game was, “the Viking experience within the Assassin’s Creed world,” and both of those elements carry a lot of weight and are crucial to one another.
Is this story still framed from Layla’s perspective in the present day?
We do continue the present-day journey, and continue Layla’s journey as well. We have some surprising, unexpected content for our players who love that kind of stuff. But we’ll save that for later down the road. But players can expect some surprising content within that frame.
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla releases holiday 2020 for PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X, PlayStation 4, Xbox One X, Stadia, and PC. If you want even more info about the game, read about the 25 biggest things we’ve learned about Assassin’s Creed Valhalla so far.
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