Valhalla creative director Ashraf Ismail, who has worked on the series for nine years and served as game director for “Assassin’s Creed Origins” and “Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag," shared new details about the game to The Washington Post this week during a Monday video interview and an appearance Wednesday on The Post’s weekly “Launcher Live” show.
The following is a breakdown of those conversations and includes details from Ismail that answered some burning questions about Valhalla’s development, setting, gameplay (such as the return of the hidden blade and changes to stealth) and character customization.
Why Ubisoft chose the Viking Age as a new setting for Assassin’s Creed
Ubisoft Montreal began conceptualizing “Assassin’s Creed Valhalla” once “Assassin’s Creed Origins,” a game from 2017, wrapped. Ismail was appointed creative director for the new project, and vikings immediately came to mind.
“It was up to me to pitch a setting,” Ismail said. “The Viking Age is something that I’ve been in love with since I was a kid. So this was an opportunity to bring the nuance of that time period, the culture, the people, in a way that only Assassin’s Creed can."
Ismail calls the Viking Age a significant era that shaped Europe as we know it today, with “incredible moments of politics, kings, kingdoms, intrigue and war.”
Ubisoft has a knack for choosing time periods that are rarely touched upon by games, like the Middle East during the Third Crusade, Ancient Greece and the American Revolution. Vikings and Norse mythology aren’t uncommon in video games — Ubisoft itself previously created the fighting game “For Honor” featuring vikings — but in typical Assassin’s Creed fashion, Ismail and his team hope to bring nuance to the rich Scandinavian history and challenge stereotypes about vikings.
Map size remains a mystery, but Valhalla has a large world with different kingdoms
“Assassin’s Creed Odyssey,” the most recent in the franchise released in 2018, took place within Ancient Greece and featured a huge map. With so much content and quest lines to play through in a massive world, some players felt it was bloated and too lengthy.
Ubisoft’s head of communications for the Middle East, Malek Teffaha, has stated previously that Valhalla “won’t be the longest or biggest game in the series.” As for Ismail, comparing map size to previous installments isn’t “directly meaningful," and he’s more concerned about providing a rich experience to players. There’s a lot to “discover and do" in Valhalla, and Ismail calls it a “big world.”
For example, in England, players can explore four kingdoms: Northumbria, East Anglia, Mercia and Wessex. Within these regions, they can venture through three major cities including London, Winchester and Jorvik (now known as York). Players will find a “ton of towns, villages, hamlets, locations and surprises,” according to Ismail. Iconic landmarks can be found, too, like Hadrian’s Wall and Stonehenge.
“The world is impressive,” Ismail said. “And the reason I’m not a huge fan of comparing is [because] we didn’t start out by comparing. When we do the development of this game, we’re not looking at what we had previously done or other games to say, well, how big should the map be? No, the way we start is, ‘This is the intention. This is the journey that we have.' We have a vision of what we want this game to be about."
Customization brings beards, tattoos and styles, and each piece of gear is unique
Past Assassin’s Creed games provided either a single protagonist with a predetermined gender or a choice between male and female siblings — like Jacob and Evie from Syndicate, or Kassandra and Alexios from Odyssey, as main playable characters. In Valhalla, you play as a single protagonist with a selectable gender. Whether you’re male or female, though, you’ll have plenty of options to change up your appearance beyond gear and clothing — a first for the series.
Ismail said there will be “quite a various amount” of hairstyles, beards and styles with different colors. You can also sport tattoos or cover yourself with war paint. As for gear, these are broken up into “gear pieces” that are separate bits that can be applied to your character. For example, a hood is “one piece among many.”
“Every piece of gear is unique,” Ismail said. “When you upgrade gear at certain moments, that gear also changes visual. If you really want to customize the look, we allow you to swap the look of a piece of gear so you can retain its capacities."
Ubisoft Montreal hones level design to polish parkour
Ismail didn’t detail the system, but indicated there will be some twist on parkour for the latest Assassin’s Creed game. “Yes, you can run on the ground and you can do whatever you need to on the ground, but if you decide to go up, you’re going to see the value, see the advantage that you have. So a lot of effort has gone into parkour from that perspective.”
It’s unclear whether any specific new mechanics will come to parkour, like the introduction of the grapple in “Assassin’s Creed Syndicate." But Ismail said exploration will feel “meaningful” for both narrative and gameplay.
“This is a meticulous building to make sure that we can achieve it to the scale of the world that we have,” he said. “We have some really incredible locations that shine when you decide to be, let’s say, the predator at the top, or even some navigation puzzles.”
“Assassin’s Creed Origins” and Odyssey leaned heavier into action. Valhallla brings more depth to stealth.
The hidden blade, which was omitted nearly entirely in “Assassin’s Creed Odyssey” (and only seen wielded by a non-player character in DLC content), is coming back in Valhalla. Eivor will wield the hidden blade, and according to an interview conducted by Kotaku, it will “once again make it lethal enough to regularly pull off one-hit kills.”
Social stealth is making a comeback, meaning you can blend into crowds to avoid detection (a feature that hasn’t been possible since “Assassin’s Creed Syndicate”). You will have a hood and cloak that can manually put on and off. It’s not purely cosmetic either, and will have effects on gameplay, particularly when it comes to enemy detection. If you need to distract enemies, your trusty Sýnin can swoop in and help so you can pass by quietly.
In an interview with USGamer, Ismail also detailed an entirely new mechanic, feigning death, though details remained slim.
Combat changes come with combining different weapons for duel-wielding
While Ismail remained mostly tight-lipped, he did give some insight to how much effort is being put into polishing combat and that a new approach for dual-wielding weapons is in the works. There’s also an ability to wield a two-handed weapon in one hand.
Since vikings are brutal warriors, “nailing combat” was important to Ubisoft. Bringing a steady and satisfying sense of “impact” for each swing of a sword or ax, for example, was important to the game’s conceptualization.
“In terms of customizing the way you play, one of the areas we wanted to push is the idea of dual wielding, that you can combine any two combination of weapons as you want,” he said. “Some weapons have synergies with one another. So there’s a lot of nitty-gritty crafting if you wish to go down that road. A lot of effort has gone into the dual wielding. If you want to wield two shields, you can do that. Why not?”
A side activity involves a viking-style rap battle
Ismail revealed a side activity called flyting, a contest that consists of exchanging rhyming insults between two parties. Think viking rap battle. It’s even prevalent in Norse literature, with gods like Odin and Thor facing off in a battle of words.
“Flyting was something that we found in our research," Ismail said. "It was something that was done during this time period in the 9th century on the north side. So the Viking side, but also in the Saxon side in England, in mead halls for fun, for enjoyment.”
Flyting takes skill, since it’s supposed to be quick-witted and poetic, which turned out to be a great fit for someone like Valhalla’s protagonist, Eivor.
“Eivor is someone who appreciates a good joke, but also appreciates a sense of poetry,” Ismail said. “And so it fit really well in terms of the character we were developing and building that this activity can take place. So yes, flyting, modern day rap battles, is something that you can find in the game.”
Valhalla won’t feature multiplayer
The last time multiplayer appeared in a main entry was with “Assassin’s Creed Unity,” where you could team up through online co-op modes. Valhalla will have some sort of “online component,” but we’re not sure what it entails. However, multiplayer is not part of Ubisoft Montreal’s vision for the game.
“Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is a single player game," Ismail said. "We do have an online component. There is a lot of value and a lot of features that come with being online. But to be clear, it is a single player game and and we thrive on that single player experience that we’re trying to make.”
Players build a settlement that evolves as they play
Similar to the homestead in “Assassin’s Creed 3” and upgrading the Villa Auditore in “Assassin’s Creed 2,” settlement building comes back in Valhalla. Eivor leads a viking clan, so exploring new regions and claiming territory will be part of the gameplay, though not all of this is achieved through brutal war.
“A little bit into the journey, you end up going to England where all of a sudden there’s a lot of space and there’s a lot of farmland and you settle down,” Ismail said. “You bring your people over. And now it’s about creating safety and growing this settlement for your people. And to do that, you have to gain alliances.”
You will want to “invite new people that can bring value to your settlement,” potentially similar to how you would recruit lieutenants in Odyssey for your ship or expand your creed in Brotherhood.
“Sometimes it’s about big assaults and big battles with people that don’t want you around,” he said. “This is with Saxons and Vikings alike. So the journey is quite dynamic.”
You revisit your settlement throughout your campaign, and over time it changes and grows with “new opportunities" and “new threats” arising periodically.
Modern day narrative tie-ins return
Ubisoft Montreal isn’t abandoning the modern day story line any time soon. Layla Hassan, the Abstergo agent-turned-assassin who we first met in Origins and last saw in Odyssey, will have a place in the narrative again.
“It’s after the events of Odyssey, a bit of time has passed since then,” Ismail said. “Of course, I can’t go into any of those details. There are some some really cool surprises I think for for fans and non-fans. Certain game play, that is an aspect, if I can call it that, for the present day that will, I think, surprise and hopefully thrill people.”
Dialogue options will still be prominent
Ismail didn’t confirm whether player choice moves the story toward new directions, but he said that dialogue choices are returning. He and his team considered what that means for the lore and the character, too.
“How do we embed that idea in a universe that says you’re reliving the DNA memories of someone? So that was an important reflection that we had made. And part of the conclusion of that is that we wanted to tell the story of Eivor, and that Eivor is a very defined character and someone who is complex, determined, introspective.”
Dialogue choices allow players to inhabit that character, helping to achieve that role-playing fantasy. Ismail says “all the choices you get to make and all the things you get to say in this game are things that Eivor would say or do at any given moment.”
Ubisoft’s Viking Age research
Since the birth of the series in 2007, Assassin’s Creed has plunged deep into history, but intertwines those moments with fiction. However, when it comes to landscape, architecture and politics, as well as the educative Discovery Mode (introduced in “Assassin’s Creed Origins”) that teaches you about certain time periods, Assassin’s Creed has put an incredible emphasis on historical accuracy.
This continues for “Assassin’s Creed Valhalla.” Ubisoft once again teamed up with historians, and Ismail explained that the first months of the project are devoted to research, conducted by several of the studio’s departments.
To truly understand the setting and its history, Ismail and his team traveled to Europe.
“We stayed in a longhouse [in Norway],” he said, noting the team also sailed in a viking longship. “We had a feast and we toured the land and we understood the beauty of this landscape, but also the challenges of living there."
In England, the team toured farmland and rolling green hills, imagining what it would be like to end a long journey from Norway with settling in this new country and home.
“You can understand the psyche of what it was [like to see] opportunity and see farmland," he said. "And then we went to England and toured a lot of England and met the people and really tried to soak in the culture, the history. This was easily the most insightful, grounding research that we had done.”
Ismail calls vikings not just fighters, but also settlers, explorers and farmers. During Ubisoft’s research, “one of the most interesting things” they uncovered was that when vikings invaded territories, instead of forcing others to behave like them, vikings instead tried to assimilate to the locals. They would “very quickly” acclimate themselves to the new area and its people, and it’s something that will come through in the narrative of Valhalla.
“And this is actually what historians believe led to sort of the end of the Viking Age,” Ismail said. “The Vikings changed themselves over time. Again our goal is to deliver the Viking experience, something that is anchored in the history and the culture in a time period.”
Mike Hume and Gene Park contributed reporting to this story.