Eivor doesn't truck with the idea that her hidden blade should be hidden.
Swaddled with furs and tattoos – her Iron-Star flail swimming around her like the ill-behaved tentacle of an angry iron octopus – she's a curious recruit to the Assassin's Creed roster, not least because her propensity for violence makes her one of the game's most unusual protagonists to date. She's unimpressed by the pomposity of the Hidden Ones, and while she accepts the secret blade they offer her, she refuses to wear it on the underside of her wrist like the Assassins that have come before her. Eivor is a Viking, and as such, she has no desire to conceal her blade from anyone. Warriors have no time for that kind of cowardice.
You'd be forgiven, then, for wondering how, exactly, the pillaging mayhem of the Vikings fits into the Assassin's Creed brand. Whereas Assassins-gone-by might have stealthily scouted a fortress before creeping through the restricted grounds, silently assassinating anyone in their way, Eivor and her clan go as far as to announce their arrival with the blast of a Viking War Horn. Raids are noisy, bloody affairs, stuffed with screams and shouts and oodles of delicious violence. Bodies litter the ground as you stalwartly stride through every defence, robbing the riches and stabbing anything that moves.
They're not always easy victories – life is precious here, and it's not always easy to recuperate from your injuries, particularly in early-game – but there's no denying that they're bloody good fun. Literally.
In fact, many of the things we took for granted in prior games – the Leap of Faith, for example, or the stealth assassination – aren't available from the off. Consequently, Valhalla forces you into playing a little differently than perhaps you're used to and to be honest? It's no bad thing.
Odin them back
If you spent any time at all with Ubisoft's most recent Assassin-y offerings, Origins or Odyssey, Valhalla won't feel unfamiliar to you. While some may argue that Ubisoft's routinely recycled open-world template is feeling a little stale, there's no doubting that it works best in the Assassin's Creed universe. The world is huge, yes, but ripe for exploration, and stunning in a way that'll have you forever reaching for that photo mode, especially if you've made the leap to next-gen.
At first, you'll be restricted to the glacial glory of Norway, but eventually, Eivor and her brother Sigurd scout further afield and capitalise on the Viking expansion across Europe, including Anglo-Saxon England. Here, you'll wander through the ancient English counties of Mercia, scaling heights to synchronise the area and unlock it's deepest secrets.
No, the mechanics of the gameplay haven't changed much – there's loot to find and people to kill and mountains to climb – but it all works so well here, it would be churlish to complain about it. Yes, the map is overwhelming. Yes, the endless blinking of mysteries and side missions and unclaimed treasure can be offputting and repetitious, but the story's an engaging one, and you'll be as keen to see Eivor avenge the stained memory of her parents' deaths as perhaps she was.
I say she but, of course, you can play as either a male or female lead in Valhalla. Like the games before it, this decision has little bearing on the story, although the choices you make along the way will impact on how the tale concludes. It's a little wild in places, admittedly, but it's a satisfying ride. It was probably no easy feat to take Viking lore and chisel away at it to make a story fit the Assassin's Creed mould so well, but it's to Ubisoft's credit – and perhaps a signal of how adaptable the series can be – that it fits the franchise so well.
A Thor loser
The combat may take a little getting used to, though. The control scheme has been refreshed, which means it might take a couple of hours to retrain your muscle memory, and unlike Origins – which was forever throwing new gear and armour at you – Valhalla is a sedate affair that instead offers a more limited range of weapons, but tasks you to upgrade it as you go. Each armour item comes from one of three sets that, when equipped together, can offer a combat advantage once you've unlocked the perk on the skill tree. But you won't find them easily.
Talking of the skill tree – wow, what a delightful touch. We all know how, despite the brutality of the Vikings approach to international relations, they were a spiritual bunch that put a lot of faith in the will of the gods. How perfect it is, then, to have a skill tree up in the skies, where Eivor can draw on the strength of Odin and pals to buff her stats and improve her combat skills.
While loosely categorised – the Bear line is for melee, Raven is for stealth, and Wolf if for ranged combat – it's actually pretty difficult to follow one single branch as much is hidden in fog, and only revealed as you progress through each upgrade. But if you're traditionally a stealthy player that prefers to silently assassinate than run in all guns (well, axes) blazing, this lack of foresight results in a surprisingly well-rounded warrior, which is no bad thing, let's face it.
Fight or flyte
You're also able to complement your gear with parrying and dodging skills, plus special abilities. The latter are unlocked when you find Books of Knowledge out in the world. While they're often squirrelled away and tricky to reach, keep trying – they're well worth the effort. Like prior instalments, you'll need a full Adrenalin meter to let them loose, but if you're in the middle of a brutal raid battle, for example, it should fill up often enough to keep combat fresh and exciting.
It also touches on life as a Viking. You'll have drinking competitions and wagers and flyte – a posh word for poetry or rap – battles. There's a settlement to build for a clan that's warm and inviting to its own, if furiously distrustful of outsiders. You'll spend time building alliances and hunting Order agents, but your choices and decisions have a meaningful impact on your adventure and it's eventual conclusion.
And regardless of if you're sailing or riding or hoofing it through the English countryside on the back of your astonishing wolf mount, it's such a vibrant, exciting, world. You'll keep telling yourself you'll play for just ten minutes more, only to realise an hour's flashed by and you still don't want to stop.
ASSASSIN'S CREED VALHALLA VERDICT
If you were unsure how the stealthy mechanics of an Assassin's Creed Viking game would work, wonder no more. Though it deviates little from the template of the games that come before it, Valhalla is stunning in scope and ambition and looks fantastic on next-gen hardware, albeit marred by technical glitches and a lack of last-minute polish that could've turned this great game into an unmissable one.
Still, if you're looking for an open-world epic to sink your teeth into during the long winter months ahead, consider yourself sorted.