The first thing that strikes me when I load into Assassin's Creed Valhalla's England is how natural and rugged it is. Forests, marshland, and rolling hills blanket the landscape. There’s barely a viewpoint in sight.
I’m free to explore East Anglia in full, including Northwick, the most built-up town in the region. But even this is just a town hall, a few buildings and a church. What will one day become London sits far to the south, inaccessible to me during the demo - not even in range of my raven companion, who I can control in free flight.
This region features three or four viewpoints - castle ramparts and church towers - and most of my time is spent riding on horseback or sailing my longboat through the rivers that snake through Britannia. Assassin’s Creed is The Witcher now, but that’s no bad thing - if you’re going to be inspired, take from the best.
This portion of the world has a whiff of Velen to it, from its burnt fields to the orange glow of sunset beading through swaying tree branches. It’s all mud paths, rivers, and isolated townships. It is utterly gorgeous.
The game kicks off in Norway, but my demo places me straight to England in 873 as Eivor, a member of the Great Heathen Army - the Vikings - who seemingly has a heart of gold. He (or she, if you want) leads the Raven Clan and hopes to unite the Danes and the Saxons so they may integrate into society and farm these bountiful lands. Other Viking factions have different ideas, like pillage and murder. Though you do a bit of that as well.
Going through the main missions sees me gathering a small raiding force so we can assault the castle a rival clan has overtaken. We cross the waters by nightfall, spread out in formation, pulling our shields up to block flaming arrows that rain down from distant battlements. When we make land, heads roll and gates crumble.
As someone who recently replayed Assassin's Creed Odyssey, combat feels instantly familiar in Valhalla. You have shoulder buttons for light and heavy attacks, you can roll, and you can squeeze the left trigger to pull out your bow. There are four special abilities tied to both the bow and the blade - a rage-filled charge attack, a multi-axe throw, the ability to apply poison to my weapon, and a heavy hit that knocks enemies back. But the two games differ in some seemingly small, but actually major ways.
First off, you don’t have to press two buttons together to parry anymore. A well timed block as the attack comes in will do the trick. Oh, and now you can equip any weapon you want to each hand - I tried a shield and axe, an axe and flail, and a shield and a flail. The finished game will have many more options, including two-handed bastards. Then there’s a stun system, where you can knock your enemies off balance to deliver a canned animation that does big damage. And when I say big damage, I mean: impale-a-dude-through-his-own-spear-and-pin-him-up-like-a-warning big damage. I mean limbs gone. I mean deader than dead.
Then there’s the fact your health doesn’t automatically regenerate - you use consumable items to heal up mid battle and have to manually gather berries, mushrooms, and more to keep topped up. This last change means you have to engage more with the world, rather than legging it from fight to fight. Between those four tweaks, it feels significantly different in action. It helps that animations are heavy, too - you’re connecting with your weapon, and those flying body parts really sell it.
During the raid I occasionally take control of a battering ram to help my clanmates clear gates. I have to keep enemies back, raise my shield for arrows, pull back, and charge the ram forward when the time is right. Once the raid is over, I defeat the leader of the rival clan and his wolf, and I rescue Oswald, the man Eivor wants to be king of this region. There’s an RPG dialogue choice where you can kill or spare your rival. Oswald wants him to face his crimes in court, so naturally I lop off his head. This is seemingly the only “big” choice in the section shown, and I don’t get to see what the fallout from it is.
Fast-forward to the next main quest and we’re attending Oswald’s wedding. The baby-faced king is marrying Valdis, a Danish maiden with a scarred face and a half shaved head. She’s also about two feet taller than him. Oswald is definitely a bottom. This mission sees Eivor celebrating the unification of the Saxons and Danes the only way a Viking would: with a skol. There are a bunch of activities dotted around the wedding, and I swear I chose the drinking game first by accident.
The drinking minigame sees you tapping a button in time to the crowd’s chants, occasionally rebalancing yourself as you get more and more pissed. I won, then I decided to try some archery while still half cut. I smashed that as well. I knew the drunken axe throwing at the last Gamer Network Christmas party would come in handy for something.
Later, the man I had a drinking competition with tells me he admires me and wonders if he could impress me with his “ploughing sword”. His dick. He meant his dick. I ask if he wants to lay with me, he says yes, and I politely decline and watch him skulk off, red-faced. You can shag him if you want - whether you go for male or female Eivor - but I didn’t want to get our YouTube videos demonetised.
Later I head to a town and recruit a cat for my longboat which, believe it or not, is a thing Vikings used to do. Then I head to a nearby town for a spot of flyting, a Viking rap battle. These have you retort someone’s insults, choosing from one of three options while under a time limit. The idea is to be witty and make sure it rhymes. I smash it and pocket the coin. It’s a brilliant addition to a series that’s usually focused on fighting and sneaking - a battle of the minds.
It’s hard to get a sense for how this will all shake out into the full game, since I only got a small taste of the main missions and a handful of side activities. So much of your enjoyment of an Assassin’s Creed game comes from the main character, the story you’re told, and the missions you take on. But Ubisoft has nailed the world, the music, and made some smart refinements to how it plays. The early build I played was a bit janky in parts, though, and it feels like the game could do with a fair bit more polish at this point. Still, I’m excited to see the final thing when it releases later this year. I’m going to put my cat on a boat and rhythmically insult my wife in preparation.
You can preorder the Gold Steelbook Edition of Assassin's Creed Valhalla on Xbox One and on PlayStation 4 right now in the US. And it's here in the UK on Xbox One and PlayStation 4, if you want to take a look at the extras you get.