From the moment it was announced, I had a lot of questions about Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. So when I recently spoke to the game’s creative director, Ashraf Ismail, I packed a lot in. I wanted to know about quests, controls, and colonization. I wanted to know about learning lessons from Assassin’s Creed Origins’ artificial intelligence experiments and from Assassin’s Creed Odyssey’s $10 XP booster fiasco. I asked a lot, learned a lot, and a public relations rep only cut in once.
Read on to see what I learned about Assassin’s Creed Valhalla.
For context, Valhalla is the next giant Assassin’s Creed game, set for release later this year on PC and every current and forthcoming console other than the Switch. It’s set in the ninth century during the age of Vikings, putting players in the boots of a raider named Eivor who travels from Norway to England, where he leads a settlement and battles through four Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Somehow, the Hidden Ones—the precursors to the Assassins order featured in most of the series’ games—fit into this.
Valhalla’s developers aren’t just building a game that looks to the future or to the recent blockbuster successes of their formula-changing 2017 Assassin’s Creed Origins and 2018’s Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. As I reported last week, Ismail says, the new game is also being designed to provide some of the feel of older Assassin’s Creeds by reintroducing former series staples, such as the one-hit-kill hidden blade and social stealth. As you’ll see below, Ismail and his team are also preparing to do things the series has never done before.
One of the innovations of 2017’s Origins, the previous Assassin’s Creed overseen by the core Valhalla team, involved a boost to the complexity of the people in its game world. The non-player characters milling about Origins’ ancient Egypt operated on a schedule, traveling from work to home as the game shifted from day to night and back to day again. In theory, this meant that a character that a player wanted to meet or assassinate (or both!) might be in different places at different times. Do you target the commander while he is sleeping in his heavily guarded base, or while he is out on horseback for a daytime patrol? It sounded great, but it’s a system I barely noticed as I played that game, and I rarely saw other players talk about it. I asked Ismail if the Valhalla team was hoping to improve that idea.
“Everything is being built on top of [previous games] and pushed much further,” Ismail said. “In terms of NPCs, the big push we’re making right now is the settlement. And so the settlement is a place that, when you arrive in England, you’re settling your people and you’re trying to grow. And we wanted to make sure that everyone in the settlement was meaningful to the player, that you have a name, you have a face, you can have relationships and be able to get to know them. And they have a life within that settlement.” He said it should feel like the people in the settlement “have a purpose,” and, he added, “as a leader within that community, you have to deal with this growing population.”
The main questline of early Assassin’s Creed games moved their playable protagonist through cities. The main questline of the more recent games moved them through countries, with rarely a narrative need to double back. Valhalla will move players through England, but Ismail said the game’s structure is “very different,” because a lot of player quests will emerge from a home base. “The idea is we want you to start in the settlement and to go out into the world. In the settlement, you might receive some kind of information about what’s happening out in the world, whether it’s contacts, or people that you’ve known in the past, or new opportunities that have arrived.”
Quests won’t always lead to violence. “When you set out into the world, to go after whatever that is, you get embroiled into politics,” Ismail said. “You get caught up into a journey. We give options within that. So sometimes, yes, it means that you can, let’s say, negotiate to resolve something.”
He said the settlement’s goal is peace and that forging alliances will be key. But, of course, there will be combat a lot of the time: “I will say: this is an Assassin’s Creed game. It is a Viking fantasy. It has got a lot of battles, and there are a lot of enemies where there’s just no negotiating.”
Ismail said Valhalla will have a similar control scheme to Origins and Odyssey, keeping combat options on the shoulder buttons. He mentioned there will be a new tool wheel.
The first Assassin’s Creed to offer players male and female playable characters was 2015’s Assassin’s Creed Syndicate. Players toggled between controlling Evie Frye or her brother Jacob, as the game chronicled the experiences of sibling Assassins. Three years later, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey gave players the choice to make the lead character of the game a woman named Kassandra or a man named Alexios. The choice was cosmetic. Both characters would speak the same lines of dialogue, go on the same quests and wear the same gear.
In Valhalla, players choose between a male and female Eivor. “There is a narrative about this choice and its meaningfulness,” Ismail said, clearly being cagey about spoilers. I asked if things would play out like Odyssey in that dialogue and quests would be the same regardless of choice. “Well, in that manner of speaking, yes, it is the same,” Ismail said. “However, there is…” He caught himself. “I don’t want to spoil anything.”
Valhalla may let players choose to be a male or female Eivor, each one fully voiced by a different actor, but the initial imagery for the game almost exclusively showcased the male version. The female Eivor wasn’t in the game’s debut trailer, nor its gameplay teaser video, nor in any of the poster-style marketing artwork. She’s only been in two screenshots so far. The public’s first good look at her came in the form of a statue that will be sold with the game’s $200 collectors edition.
Asked about why the choice was made to showcase the male Eivor, Ismail didn’t explain, instead reiterating that players have a choice. He promised players will see more of the female Eivor before the game’s release. “We will have assets, of course, coming up,” he said. “There’s marketing beats coming up that will highlight the female Eivor. And that’s, you know, that’s going to be across this long campaign ahead of us.”
Game developers at big companies don’t usually decide how their games will be marketed, so Ismail may not have been the best person to ask or at least to hold responsible for the decision. Ubisoft might expect more players to care about the male version, since they’ve said that players of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey chose to be Alexios rather than Kassandra at a ratio of two to one. But they are also surely aware of how sexist a lot of people are. Ubisoft appeared to have anticipated the protest from some players against female characters over matters of historical accuracy, shutting down such frequently disingenuous inquiries with a historian’s take that Norse Viking stories contain strong female warriors. And yet the company barely showed their strong female Viking at their game’s unveiling.
I pressed Ismail on this. Was there concern from Ubisoft that fans would react negatively to seeing a female Eivor?
As Ismail began speaking again, a PR rep cut in. “I think it’s kind of asked and answered, if that’s okay, Stephen,” she said, offering to field any more questions on that topic some time after the interview. When I followed up over email for any elaboration on the decision to focus on the male Eivor, the rep said the company would keep me posted if they wanted to pursue that topic.
From 2007’s Assassin’s Creed through 2015’s Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, the games’ lead character largely gained skills, gear and overall prowess through advancement of the story and exploration of the game world. In 2017, Origins turned the series into something more akin to a stat-driven role-playing game, giving the lead character a numerical power level that increased as the player accrued experience points via missions, exploration and defeating enemies. That stat-driven system allowed the developers of Origins and its successor, Odyssey, to keep players out of some regions and missions by associating them with higher character levels. Wander into a level 10 area filled with level 10 enemies while you’re level four and you’d be obliterated.
Fans didn’t complain much about the character leveling system for Origins, but some Odyssey players correlated that game’s relatively slow accrual of experience points with Ubisoft’s sale of a $10 booster to permanently raise XP by 50% (Correction, May 18, 2020: I misremembered and originally wrote that it doubled it. Apologies for the mistake.). In late 2018, when I had asked Ubisoft about these players’ complaints, a company rep told me such boosters “were not considered in any of the economy or difficulty balancing of the game.”
I wondered how progression would work in Valhalla, how the developers were thinking about post-release monetization of their game, and whether those XP boosters would be coming back.
“So we’ve reflected a lot since Origins on progression and what that means for players,” Ismail said, “and we have a new take on progression in this game. We have more the concept of power, power that is gained through, let’s say, the player gaining skills.”
He said that the developers are trying to avoid “any kind of big progression walls” or anything that would keep players from accessing the parts of the game they’re interested in. He specifically said he didn’t want people to hit a progression spike that would keep them from experiencing the narrative content. In other words, he wants players to be able to finish the game’s main story without grinding or going on a ton of sidequests.
As for the potential presence and drama of an XP booster, Ismail would only say that they’re not talking about monetization yet and want to “earn every single penny that you’re going to pay” for the game.
Of course, there couldn’t be an XP booster if there’s no XP system, and that’s what remains vague, since Ismail and his team haven’t yet unveiled their new power-based take on progression. It’ll involve a skill tree, but that’s about all we know.
As for how the game will be monetized post-release, Ubisoft is definitely going to do that, as a lot of their success of late has involved large increases in what gaming accountants call PRI, or player recurring investment. That’s players buying expansions, in-game items, boosters and more. Origins and Odyssey have featured real-money stores that sell some of the best-looking in-game outfits and other gear. While we haven’t seen Valhalla’s shop, special editions for the game are bundled not just with special outfits and weapons, but with alternate looks for the in-game bird and some snazzy items to put in the player’s settlement. It’s a safe bet that those types of things will be part of the PRI chase for Valhalla.
It’s one thing to describe Eivor and his supporters as settlers, but Vikings landing in England were invaders and conquerors. One culture’s discovery of new lands is another’s subjugation. Assassin’s Creed games get more political than most big-budget blockbusters (especially early in the series’ history), so I wondered how Valhalla would grapple with the ills of colonization.
“The history of the invasion itself in this time period is, of course, a critical part of the journey,” Ismail said. “What did it mean for the Vikings of the Norse to land in England and to cohabitate?” Ismail enunciated that last word carefully. He said the historians that his team worked with suggested that the “Viking approach to this invasion was cohabitation.” He continued: “Yes, there was war and it was bloody, and it was very brutal. But they adapted themselves to the people they came to. And this is an aspect of it that we do look at. Some historians will even say that this is maybe why the Vikings sort of lost their way of life and culture over time—that they adapted themselves rather than forcing others. And so that aspect is something we do explore to a certain degree in the game.”
Historians do believe that the Vikings adopted the Christianity of the Anglo-Saxon people they encountered and that there are signs they made an effort to integrate into new societies, but they were nonetheless invaders. Historical documentation of the time—the so-called Dark Ages, in Europe, at least—is scarce.
The ongoing covid-19 crisis has changed life everywhere around the world. For game developers it has required a shift to working from home. Ubisoft mega-projects like Assassin’s Creed games are already subject to the challenges of distributed labor, since they are always made by multiple game studios around the world, but no one probably anticipated that distribution being spread down to the individual game developer at each studio.
Ismail said that, despite that hardship, the game is proceeding apace. He credits the company’s IT team, which he said has “gone above and beyond to make sure everyone has what they need—hardware, software, anything they need to do their job—so, yes, there’s an adaptation, but things are going well. Of course, day to day, week to week, we’re monitoring how we’re doing and how things are moving forward.”
Phil Spencer, the head of Xbox, recently told Business Insider that he expects the impact of needing to develop games in a work-from-home situation to be felt more in 2021, when games that required work that couldn’t easily be done from home—motion capture, orchestral musical scores—will need their schedules shifted. I’d wondered about those exact aspects of the work needed for Valhalla, though I figured a lot of it might have been completed pre-pandemic given the game’s release timeline.
“There’s been an adaptation on every angle,” Ismail said. “I think what this pandemic has shown is that hardware and software have drastically increased in capacity and power and what they can do to up to this point. And so we’re able to continue working on all that stuff. We’re able to continue pushing across the world. We found really unique options of making sure that we’re able to get the content we need. I won’t get into those.”
Shortly before Ismail and I spoke, a Ubisoft spokesperson tweeted that Valhalla wouldn’t be the largest game in the series. The tweet was soon deleted. Ismail didn’t want to talk map size when I asked him about it. “Honestly, I don’t compare the maps,” he said. “I think these are meaningless. We’re going to give people Norway. We’re giving people England. Four kingdoms. There’s more than that. But we’re not ready to talk about that just yet. This is going to be a very fulfilling journey.”
Recent Assassin’s Creed games—including Origins, which was overseen by Ismail—have been enormous, giving players more than 100 hours worth of things to do and places to explore. Many players don’t come close to exhausting that. On PlayStation 4 only 20% of the game’s players have earned the trophy for completely exploring—and thereby defogging—Origins’ map of ancient Egypt. The trophy for reaching each named region of the even more sprawling ancient Greek archipelago of Odyssey was claimed by just 6.2% of PS4 players.
Ismail wouldn’t give me a target number for any such achievement for Valhalla players, but did say this: “I would love that people feel so enriched by the world itself that they hopefully want to continue playing in it and discovering. This is a meticulously handcrafted world.”
That’s what any developer would say, right?
But Ismail kept talking about “handcrafted,” as if he was trying to hint at something, maybe the idea that there’s more intentionality to this game world, more stuff actively hidden for people to find. That’s part of it. He also promised that there’s a lot of cultural variety in this game. “We want to make sure that you really feel the essence of Dark Age England in all its really beautiful details,” he said. “Different parts of the country had different practices, different beliefs, different ways of living life. And we used those details. So we were meticulous about this, and we want people to discover that. A lot of this is optional content. But there’s a lot of deep storytelling that’s happening in all of this optional content. So, for sure, it’s there because we want people to see it.”
I’d told him I’d spent over 100 hours in Origins and that, for all the fun I had, monotony could creep in. The map would be full of question marks teasing discoveries, but so many of them ultimately felt the same: more forts, more treasure chests, more of the same loops.
“You said you put in 100 hours,” Ismail said. “I want you to be able to tell me that every single one of those hours was worth it.” He continued, talking more about the hand-crafted world: “There’s a lot of studios involved, as you know. But the goal was, it’s about uniqueness. It’s about respecting our players’ time and giving them mysteries and puzzles to sort of resolve. And here I’m speaking a bit conceptual, but there are bigger mysteries at play. There are bigger puzzles that need to be unraveled with really intriguing truths behind them.”
Late last year, I received a tip from someone I didn’t know. They told me the next Assassin’s Creed would be called Valhalla and involve the Viking invasion of England. They said players would build a settlement, could take over territory and dual-wield weapons. They said players would be able to create characters that could raid other player’s games. They had no proof to share, and we already knew and had reported that the game would be about Vikings—a detail Ubisoft themselves seemed to tease in the weirdest possible way—so I thanked them and decided to wait, to see how credible they proved to be.
All of those details were confirmed when Valhalla was revealed last month. But there was one thing they had told me that wasn’t. They said players would be able to fight gods from Norse mythology in dream-like sequences.
I told Ismail about my surprisingly accurate tip and about this one extra detail. Sure, you can fight a giant snake in a dream sequence in Origins, but the tipster certainly could have gotten that wrong.
“I don’t talk about rumors,” Ismail said.
And with that, I was five minutes and two questions into overtime. I thanked Ismail for his time. There’s clearly plenty more about Valhalla to discover in the coming months.