After spending three hours with Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, we got to sit down and chat with Laurence Letalien, assistant level design director, to chat about what’s new for Ubisoft’s stabby series.
You can read the interview in full below.
I thought I’d start off with social stealth, because I played three hours of the game and I didn’t really get to see how that works, but you’ve spoken about it in the past. And Eivor’s really stylised, he has a distinct look. But how does he blend in with peasants and the like in the game?
LL: Right. So, you’ve played the demo, correct?
Yes. And I didn’t see the social stealth in it.
LL: Alright. So, what we’re bringing that’s new- so, yes, we are bringing social stealth back. I don’t know if you had the chance, but we have this new mechanic called disguise. So, what that consists of is that Eivor can put his hood on, and in certain areas where they have civilians, and areas that are guarded, you can put your disguise on, and you are detected less easily. You have a chance to walk around. And we do have some new gameplay stealth ingredients at your disposal that will help you navigate and reach through stealth in civilian zones.
So, it’s not a case of blending, like with the old Assassin’s Creed games, then?
LL: We do have that also.
Okay, cool. What are the new mechanics that you mentioned there?
LL: I can’t really talk about it in too much detail, but maybe the monks from the old Assassin’s Creed game are back.
Another point I wanted to touch on was, England at that point was really flat, right? It’s not so built up. So, does parkour take a back seat? Obviously in the demo, the area we saw was quite flat, but are there more built-up areas around England than that as well? Like London, for example?
LL: Right. So, we definitely kept the topology of England as a whole in mind. First, it was important to be historically accurate. The parkour, though, does not take a back seat at all. It’s really an important part of Assassin’s Creed. It’s a core element to our game. You played the demo, so, in East Anglia, so you see where areas are flat, but we do have a lot of places that you can climb, locations that you can do parkour. Also in the raids, or in the assault locations. So, we always support the parkour. And we do have, for example, a mechanic that we call the Flying Sheet. So, we do push the parkour where you have to follow while parkouring, jumping, let’s say, from tree to tree, or from beam to beam, and catch a flying sheet that’s flying over the objects.
And what’s it like down in London in 873?
LL: I can’t really talk about London. I would really like to, because I worked on it a lot. All I can tell you is the parkour was really a focus for us, because as you said, it’s not in East Anglia, a vast space. It’s way more buildings. So, parkour will definitely be cool in there.
How did you go about researching the map? Because obviously it’s ancient England. My home county of Lincolnshire’s on there. So, will some of it be recognisable to me if I go there, do you think?
LL: I think so, yes. We did a lot of research on paper before building the world. What I said is we really try to stay true every time we build a world, especially since we respect the historical aspects of it. I think you will be able to recognise it, yes.
Is the city of Lincoln in it?
LL: I can’t really say.
LL: I’m sorry. All I can say is you’ll be probably pleased.
Good. That’s great. So, talking back to the stealth again, in Odyssey and Origins, stealth kills were gated by levels. So, if you stealth attacked someone who was a higher level than you, it wouldn’t outright kill them. Is that gone from this game? Is it just, stealth is stealth, and assassinations kill outright, now?
LL: Pretty much. It’s similar, but the hidden blade is back. If you’re not detected, and you want to kill an enemy, you can one-shot kill him. We’ve really pushed stealth, and I’m saying this with a smile on my face. I’m really, really happy it’s back. Because all the approaches that you get into certain situations, or in quests, are all supported for stealth. And also, if you want to just jump in and go berserk, like a Viking could. But, yes. We do have a new progression system, but the old feeling of being an assassin, and killing someone with your hidden blade, is definitely back.
That’s great. Because I loved Odyssey and Origins, don’t get me wrong, but it felt like nearly every encounter devolved into a fight, even if you wanted to try and stealth it through an area, if you know what I mean.
LL: Right, right.
Before, one of your writers said that the narrative structure of Valhalla is different to anything that they’ve seen in a game before. I was wondering if you could expand on what that means.
LL: Yes. So, I’m guessing it’s our wonderful narrative director Darby (McDevitt, narrative director) that probably said that. It is different from any other Assassin’s Creed we’ve made. The way that it works is we have this overall narrative structure of the game, and what happens is that all the territories - so, East Anglia as an example, is a part of this overall structure. And the way that it works is that Eivor can embark on these sagas. They’re each their own, they have their own theme, their own stories, and their own characters that you can meet and build relationships with. And you can choose the order in which you want to embark on those sagas. So, that’s mainly the big structure that we have.
Okay. So, I could go straight to Lincoln, then?
LL: You could, probably, yes. But the thing is, it depends where you are in the game. We do have it open. You have definitely a couple of choices in your way. But it depends which part of the game you’re in.
I can’t believe you just admitted Lincoln was in the game.
LL: I mean, it maybe is. You’re tricky with Lincoln.
I know, sorry. So, there was one big choice in the demo where it was to kill or spare this rival Viking clan chief. But we didn’t get to see how that choice plays out. I was wondering how different the story will be, depending on those big choices.
LL: So, there are definitely territories or sagas where your choices will impact. Here is a good example of, if you kill someone, will he take power after that? Who will take power after that? We do have those impactful choices that can impact the world afterwards. I can’t really go into too much detail, because I don’t want to spoil it, but players will be able to do that.
If these regions and sagas are self-contained, do some of the choices and the consequences of those choices also spread out to the rest of the world, or is it all just that region that you’re affecting?
LL: So, there’s both. It depends which territories you’re in. But the thing is, let’s say you’re in one of the territories like East Anglia, when you’re done with that saga, you come back to your settlement. Maybe it impacts your people, maybe it impacts the world itself, England itself. Like, who becomes the leader? You have those political decisions that you have to make. So, there’s meaning behind those decisions.
And in the demo, I noticed someone mentioned Ragnar Lothbrok. Does he show up in the game, or is he already dead at this point?
LL: That I can’t really talk about. I’m sorry.
Damn. You’ve got one of the composers from the Vikings TV show, but did you take any other inspiration from that show?
LL: Well, we did take a lot of inspiration from TV shows, movies. The Viking era is a super cool era. We did do a lot of research that we had from paper, and we also had a historian that was with us during the conception of the game.
And how many awesome shield maidens are in the game? You don’t have to give me a number, just are there some good shield maidens, is what I’m asking.
LL: We don’t have shield maidens, if you look at the exact definition of it. We do have some awesome Viking warriors though, especially Eivor. You can play her as a female. But you will meet, along the way, Viking female warriors.
Cool. And I recruited a cat at one point. I’ve seen on Twitter that that’s actually historically accurate as well, which is cool. But are there any other weird things you can recruit for your longboat?
LL: Yes, there will be. There are a lot of surprises. What you did with the cat was what we call world events. So, there are a lot of those throughout the world, where you can maybe gain a cat and put it in your boat if you want. There are different types of world events. There are funny ones, there are sad ones, scary ones, and some that will give you something afterwards.
And what about the flyting? How much of that is in the game? Is it just one per region, or is there more than that? Because that was really cool.
LL: Did you get a chance to play it?
I did, yes. I loved it. It was great.
LL: Yes, it’s awesome. First of all, to answer your question, there are a lot of them in our world. It’s kind of like the Viking rap battles, we could call them. It’s basically like a battle of words, a battle of poems, and whoever sounds the best, wins. And you also can put money on it, as you saw in the demo. But there are a lot throughout the world.
Back when Odyssey came out, the developers called it ‘the final transformation of Assassin’s Creed into an RPG.’ So, if Odyssey is that, what’s Valhalla to you?
LL: Yes, I read that article. It was a pretty interesting one. So, yes, we worked to continue what Odyssey did with the RPG. I guess for Valhalla, it’s a bit more, for us, you know, it’s an action RPG. It’s a stealth RPG. But there is a new progression system. All the things that you find that you can equip are all unique, and as we talked about before, the decisions that you make will impact the whole world of England sometimes, depending on what decisions you make. So, it’s definitely building on that.
And how does it work with the start? Because you’ve said that you start in Norway, but can you travel back to Norway whenever you like as well?
LL: That I can’t really say. I’m sorry.
It’s alright. What about the secret locations, can you tell me anything about them? The surprise ones? That’s going to be a no as well, isn’t it?
LL: Yes, it will be a no. Sorry.
Are there a lot of them? Can you tell me that?
LL: I can’t really say. But, I mean... no, I can’t.
You were nearly there. Go on.
LL: I mean, I want to, but I can’t. I’m sorry, Kirk.
It’s alright. One of the things you spoke about a lot in the build-up to this was wanting to show the human side of the Vikings, but do you also show the barbaric side, the side that was recorded in the English history books?
LL: Right. Of course, I think it was important for us to show both sides. In the demo, you’ve probably played one of the assaults, one of the raids. The fighting itself is pretty gruesome at times. We also have this stun mechanic, or system, we call it. Let’s say you shoot an arrow at a specific part of the body on an enemy. It will stun him, and then you will be able to perform some kind of devastating blow. So, it will definitely showcase the brutality of how the Vikings used to fight.
What about from the Saxons' perspective, though? Does it show the impact that the Vikings are having on the land?
LL: On the land?
Yes. Like, obviously Eivor and his crew want to integrate, but there are some Vikings who just want to pillage. Do you see that perspective of it as well?
LL: Yes. Eivor as a Viking wants to build a land for her people, but you will encounter people along the way that just want to survive, and want to live that Viking life. You will definitely be able to make those decisions if you want to, let’s say, go with them, or do your own thing. So, you’ll be able to play it.
I have to say when I was playing, I got kind of Witcher vibes from it. Did you take any inspiration from that game?
LL: We took a lot of inspiration from our past Assassin’s Creed games. Like I said, we took inspiration from TV shows and movies. But for us, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla was our own game. It is our own RPG, with a welcome back to stealth.
Yes. It felt like its own thing. I just saw shades of that game, that’s all.
A piece of concept art I saw sees Eivor standing next to a big polar bear. Does that mean you can recruit big polar bears?
LL: I can’t really go into much detail, but what I can tell you is that you will meet or fight legendary animals, maybe face off against some beasts, and then we’ll see what happens from there.
What about the mythological side? I know you’ve said before that this is more grounded than, say, Odyssey is, but do you have any of that in it? Or is it all just metaphor?
LL: Well, you know, we have, and we showcased Odin in our reveal trailer. I can’t go into any details on that side of it. That’s all I can say, I’m sorry.
VG247 also brought up some topics relating to studio culture at Ubisoft, but these couldn’t be answered in the interview. An assistant level design director isn't the right person to ask about studio culture, and so Ubisoft agreed to follow up with the answers to some of the questions we asked on the topic.
However, this interview was conducted before the recent revelations about the Ubisoft HR team, and the news that some of the top Ubisoft executives had been let go. Ubisoft also made the decision to not address studio culture during the Ubisoft Forward stream, which we weren't aware of at the time of our interview.
Creative director Ashraf Ismail recently stepped down from his role as lead on the project, due to allegations of infidelity with an Assassin’s Creed fan. There’s also been numerous other cases of improper conduct at Ubisoft, including sexual harassment, leading to the departure of more employees and ongoing investigations of others.
A Ubisoft spokesperson followed up afterwards with these short statements:
Has the departure of Ashraf affected development and who has stepped into that role now he’s gone?
No it hasn't affected development as we're a few months from launch now. At this point in production there’s not a need to replace that role on the team. The team is doing a great job on this final stretch.
Has the recent conversation around the culture at Ubisoft taken you by surprise and do you feel like it’s being handled well now it’s all out in the open?
Yves Guillemot is taking the matter very seriously. You can find more details of his commitments here.
Hopefully Ubisoft does more to address the problems in the company because it's clear these issues run deep. And for all the statements Yves Guillemot puts out, that doesn't address the fact that he's allowed the company to operate this way for all these years. Many claim they raised their concerns internally, yet it took a public story for any of it to get addressed. Many more questions need answering.