Upcoming Assassin’s Creed games always sound terrific in the spring, when the marketing machinery jolts into motion to describe the series’ next potentially great adventure. The new one will mix the best of what’s come before, plus new things, all set, this time, in the exotic era of (the Renaissance)(the American Revolution)(ancient Egypt) the Vikings. I won’t pretend to be unmoved.
Even the littlest details about the next game can be a big deal. For example, Ashraf Ismail, creative director for this autumn’s Viking-themed Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, recently told me that this latest entry won’t just bring back the series’ iconic hidden blade, but will once again make it lethal enough to regularly pull off one-hit kills.
If you’re not an Assassin’s Creed devotee that might not sound like much. If you are, it’s a positive signal to the many fans who’ve been grumbling that the series has lost its way, despite – or perhaps, because of – the popular success of recent releases. Don’t worry, he’s saying, they get it: It’s once again time for new Assassin’s Creed games to not just be good, but to feel more like their classic predecessors.
“We wanted to look at the old games and see the greatness that those games had and acknowledge what’s great about the updated formula,” Ismail told me. “There was an identity and a uniqueness that we wanted to bring back for Valhalla.”
Ismail is referring to a split among the dozen mainline Assassin’s Creed games, and among many people who enjoyed them. Some fans revere the so-called old formula – the original games starring Altair, Ezio, and the Kenways were focused, stealth-based action adventures featuring assassins in interesting historical eras.
And some fans are fond of the new formula – the recent Assassin’s Creeds of Bayek, Alexios, and Kassandra: loot-filled role-playing games featuring proto-assassins in interesting historical eras.
Visit Assassin’s Creed forums, subreddits, and YouTube channels and you’ll find fans of the old lamenting the approach of the new, saying the recent games, while fun, have abandoned too many of the series’ traditions and lore. Where they draw the line varies. For some it’s the introduction of dialogue choices, or the minimising of the franchise’s modern-day story. Other people mourn things like the faded relevance of the hidden blade, which Ismail wants to restore.
The hidden blade as seen in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla’s debut cinematic trailer
The hidden blade’s original implementation, dating back to 2007’s inaugural Assassin’s Creed, suggested a series of games meant to emphasise the sneaky and subtle. The series’ signature weapon, the blade was a wrist-holstered dagger used for quiet, short-range stabbing in the Assassins’ first 10 or so outings. This was a tool for stealth killing, for quiet close-range assassination: into a target’s gut while walking past them in a crowd, onto a target’s neck while pouncing from a cart full of hay, into a target’s back, undetected, while infiltrating a base full of guards.
But in recent Assassin’s Creed games the hidden blade lost its edge. In 2017’s Assassin’s Creed Origins, the previous game Ismail oversaw, it didn’t always kill its target in one thrust, turning it into an agitant that alerted guards and spoiled stealth missions. In 2018’s Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, players couldn’t even wield it. Only a non-playable character in the game’s first expansion could.
These changes came as part of a shift in how Ubisoft designed the games to be played. Their developers were so focused on delivering action that they made conflicts with enemies play out like violent shouts instead of vicious whispers.
But even as Valhalla’s trailer and initial marketing points highlight the potency and aggression of an axe-swinging Viking, Ismail’s revelation about the hidden blade suggests that the more subtle approach may be returning to series vogue.
“Eivor receives the hidden blade quite early on,” Ismail told me, referring to Valhalla’s main character. “We continue with the idea that Eivor is not a trained assassin. Eivor is a Viking who receives this badass weapon and has to learn very quickly. Early in the experience, Eivor will learn a technique that, with the right timing ... can one-shot-kill virtually anybody.”
That last bit is the key. If we can one-hit kill with the hidden blade (it will require some skill, he notes) then we can be stealthy. If we can be stealthy, then perhaps we can play this new game as we could the old: from the shadows or, cue another positive revelation from Ismail, from crowds.
Ismail promises that another recently abandoned Assassin’s Creed staple is coming back, too: social stealth. That’s the ability for the hero of our adventure to blend into a crowd and remain undetected in plain sight. That feature, too, was in the first 10 or so games, and then omitted from Origins and Odyssey.
“We have a cool new spin on it,” Ismail told me. “But, yes, social stealth is back.” He said bringing that back was a “major piece” of ensuring that Valhalla exhibits the series’ most distinctive traits. How does social stealth co-exist make sense for axe-swinging Vikings? Bear in mind that the game is about them invading England. “The idea that a Norse person or a Viking is in a place that they’re not wanted, for them to sort of go incognito and kind of hide in the crowd, if you will, made a lot of sense,” he said.
Plenty of fans of Origins and Odyssey will say moving on from certain franchise staples has been good. Many players were uninterested in or confused by the game’s modern metastory and probably don’t care that Ubisoft resolved much of it through spin-off comics rather than mainline games. Others may not miss references to the Isu, the god-like aliens who, in Assassin’s Creed lore, created humanity, or may be relieved that when Ubisoft decided to go deep into Isu lore in 2018’s Odyssey, it did so only in an optional 2019 downloadable expansion.
Not everyone’s going to be pleased with Valhalla, though the springtime art of hyping the latest and (Ubisoft assures fans) greatest Assassin’s Creed game mandates making the largest imaginable population feel like their specific tastes will be catered to, because sure, it’s possible... right?
To that end, Ismail and his fellow Valhalla creators have been conducting their initial socially distanced press tour with a lot of overt reverence for the series’ past. When I asked if Valhalla would connect to the Viking references in 2014’s Assassin’s Creed Rogue, Ismail declined to offer specifics. But he said: “We tried to anchor this game deep into the franchise and into what we’ve done, let’s say, across many of the games. So there are tendrils of the lore, of course.” And if you didn’t even know there was an Assassin’s Creed Rogue, fear not: It sounds like any such connections to prior games will exist as subtle bonuses to longtime fans rather than crucial aspects of the storyline. Connections to the other games will be there “for the fans and for the people who want to dig,” he said.
Perhaps riding high on the positivity and promise endemic to promoting a new Assassin’s Creed in the spring, Ismail speculated about potentially bringing both fanbases together by offering an “incredible Viking experience and fantasy,” that also “makes the Assassin’s Creed world shine in terms of what’s happened in the past.
Following his lead, I try to imagine a new Assassin’s Creed that truly celebrates Assassin’s Creed’s past. “How does this game sort of anchor all of that together?” he mused. “It was important for us that we had that reflection.”