Going a-viking with Assassin's Creed Valhalla

Ubisoft Montreal

Assassin's Creed Valhalla, the 12th main game in Assassin's Creed franchise, releases this week for the new Xbox Series X and Playstation 5 as well as Xbox One and Playstation 4.

As its name indicates, Valhalla features a heavy dose of Norse mythology. It's a Viking saga that follows your character, Eivor, setting out from Norway in 872 CE to settle in England at a time when the Angles and the Saxons rule the land

Like the franchise's two previous games, Origins and Odyssey, Valhalla continues a trend toward becoming more of an open-world RPG game. It features a familiar storyline in which you will have to eliminate members of the shadowy Order and shares a lot of gameplay similarities with its immediate predecessors, but it also incorporates some interesting new features. It's a long game that I'm still in the middle of playing, but after 20 hours of gametime, here are some takeaways.

Customizing your experience

The start of the game provides many options for customizing your playing experience. Rather than choosing one level of difficulty for your gameplay, you can customize three different aspects. The first involves how difficult you want exploration to be -- that's basically about how much info you want displayed on screen to guide you in your missions and finding items. Regardless of how easy you make exploration, I still found it quite a bit harder than previous games when it came to finding items like loot chests and artifacts. It appears to be an intentional choice by Ubisoft to make exploration more challenging in general and make the entire world more immersive (more on that below).

The second level of difficulty determines your combat experience, with skald being the easiest and ranging up to vikingr, berserkr and the hardest level being drengr. The last aspect regards stealth. Do you want to easily walk past enemies or do you want it to be more challenging to evade their sight?

The other aspect of customization is choosing your gender. Like Odyssey, you can play as a male or female version of your character. Eivor was a woman in my playthrough, but not because I chose that. What's a little different about this game is that if you don't want to choose, you can just let the Animus decide your character's gender.

More immersive gameplay

I found Valhalla more immersive than Origins or Odyssey. Finding items is more challenging in this game. You really have to use environmental clues to help you find hidden passageways that'll lead you to loot chests and other items. All of the various gameplay elements feel complementary to each other. Engaging in raids is necessary to find the items you need to build up your settlement, while you also need to gain allies to expand your presence in England, which will often involve eliminating members of the Order, which is your ultimate mission underlying everything. Everything tends to weave together and contribute to the main story arc.

There aren't a bunch of side missions that are tangential to the main storyline in this game. Instead, you'll find some "mysteries" scattered across the map, which are basically side quests. When you activate your Odin Sight -- taking the form of a raven in this game -- to survey the site of a mission, your raven won't mark the location of enemies like in previous games. Instead it'll give you an outline of the area you need to explore further. And when you need to investigate an area for a mission, don't expect clues to be obvious and concentrated in a small area like in previous games. All of this contributes to a more immersive experience.

Powering up

Unlike previous Assassin's Creed games, you don't progress in your story by leveling up. Instead, the XP you gain powers you up. After gaining enough XP through completing story missions, you earn skill points that add to your overall power and that you can invest in different skills. The skill tree is shaped like a constellation and the more skills you acquire the more stars you see and the larger the constellation. It's quite pretty to look at as you consider where to invest your skill points.

Every region in the game's world map is given a certain recommended power level that indicates when you should be taking on missions in that area. The story mainly dictates where you should be going, but it's helpful so you don't inadvertently take on a raid or try to look for treasure, artifacts or other side missions in certain areas before you're sufficiently powered up. Once you leave Norway, the first few regions you'll explore in England have a power level of 20. The next regions start are 55 and 90, and the most challenging regions suggest you have a power level over 200 before entering them.

Building your settlement

One of the core gameplay elements of Valhalla is building out your settlement. Once you get to England you'll establish your first settlement and you'll have to acquire raw materials and supplies to construct buildings like a trading post, shipyard, fishing hut, tattoo shop or bakery. Every new building helps level up your settlement and opens up new and unique ways to grow it. It reminds me of the board game Settlers of Catan minus the frustration of unhelpful dice rolls or the fun of denying your friends resources when playing the tabletop game.

More: The top 15 games to play on the Xbox Series X

You acquire the materials you need to build out your settlement mainly by going on raids with your longship's crew. Every raid involves plundering a monastery where you can find not only materials for your settlement but loot various other kinds of wealth, including treasure chests and "books of knowledge," which are useful to help your character learn special skills.

I found building out my settlement to be sort of tedious, and much preferred to engage in some of the other main story missions. It was only once my settlement reached Level 3 that I felt like I was making substantial progress on it. Plus, I found raids to be a little awkward. It gets a little confusing when you're fighting enemy soldiers while surrounded by your crew, and I was never quite sure about my strategy. Should I try to take out all the enemy soldiers first before looting? Or should I go straight for the treasure chests and just take out enemies along the way?

Traveling by longboat

Besides traveling by foot or horseback, your longboat is useful to help traverse long distances, and with rivers crisscrossing much of the map, it's convenient. Your crew will naturally come with you, which is weird if you're just trying to get somewhere to complete your mission, because your crew will just stay put in the ship after you get off. You can also travel via smaller boats, but obviously if you're going on a raid you should take your longboat.

One of the fun aspects of traveling by longboat is being able to set it on autopilot, allowing it to follow the river to your destination. You'll be able to sit back and put down your controller for a minute or two and enjoy the landscape while listening to your crew sing or someone on your boat tell a story.

Fun mini games

I found the mini games to be entertaining diversions. There's a dice game called Orlog, a drinking game and flyting, which is kind of like a poetry slam duel. Orlog consists of several rounds of dice rolls in which you and your opponent attempt to deal damage to each other. I found myself coming back to this game whenever I was in a settlement that had an Orlog player. The strategy is relatively easy to grasp but nuanced enough to keep it challenging. The drinking game is basically a series of quick-time events in which you and your opponent drink ale from your respective Viking horns and try to outdrink each other. There are even moments when you appear to lose your balance and you have to readjust yourself in order to keep chugging. In flyting duels you need to choose clever and rhythmic comebacks in a timely fashion in response to the insults your opponent hurls at you.

Cody Bellinger!

Ok, this is a lot less consequential than any of the aforementioned gameplay features, but as a fan of the World Series champion Los Angeles Dodgers, I was particularly excited when I found out Bellinger voiced a character in this game. As Sam Alipour wrote last week, Bellinger plays a bat-wielding Viking named Otto Sluggasson. I still haven't met his character, though I suspect he's probably someone you'll encounter in a side mission.