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One of These Things is Not Like the Other(s) - An In-Depth Interview Feature for Assassin’s Creed Valhalla: Dawn of Ragnarök
Post by Steve Farrelly @ 05:20pm 18/02/22 | Comments
We go in-depth on the forthcoming expansion for Assassin's Creed Valhalla, Dawn of Ragnarök, and chat with creative director, Mikhail Lozanov. Read on for more...

The pandemic has shifted a lot of practices. People who used to spend chunks of their day commuting to and from work, are now working from home. Business overheads in many cases have become redundant with this setup, while productivity and creativity -- across myriad industries -- has proven the paradigm shift from a traditional 9-5 work life is a good thing. But it’s also dragged elements of business out, often causing places of work to pivot production and outlay. Disruptions to planning and workflow and schedules has meant a new attitude of thinking on your toes is the only way to navigate these relatively uncharted waters.

In the case of what brings us here today, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla: Dawn of Ragnarök, it’s the latter that helped see this new expansion see the light of day, and certainly in my own rose-tinted hopefuls, the former that helped spark such a creatively fresh, and mechanically unique, addition to the lengthened life of Valhalla and its post-release content.

You see, by now we’d probably have been readying for the next Assassin’s Creed. Valhalla released in 2020, and it’s initial post-release roadmap was just a single year long. But the pandemic appears to have forced Ubisoft to apply its own development timelines to the pivot effect, offering Valhalla an added year of life with confirmation more DLC and expansion-level additions to the base game would find their way to market. Eivor’s conquering of England, in a pandemic-stricken world, would not be over so quickly.

In fact, it awarded a key Assassin’s Creed support studio, Ubisoft Sofia, the chance to bear its wares for all. And no stranger to the world of expansions, having introduced a fantastical add-on to the more grounded world of Assassin’s Creed Origins with Curse of the Pharaohs, Sofia’s penchant for game-changing additions and for going all-in on the mythology is already a known quantity, but the studio resolutely acknowledges both the opportunity that has come with Dawn of Ragnarök alongside the challenges of making it still fit into the overall Valhalla package.

"[It takes place] before Ragnarök because after Ragnarök we don’t have the memories of Odin anyway, so we can’t extract those,” he adds with a cheeky smile...”

“Valhalla is a pretty expansive game,” enthuses Ubisoft Sofia creative director Mikhail Lozanov when we ask about the challenges faced with crafting such a departure(d) expansion. “However, with our (Sofia) background as a studio [we have had] a lot of experience with the brand. So while it was a challenge, it was not an impossible challenge.

“You met Odin before in Valhalla, but there are gaps within [that] memory available,” he continues. “And how the [DNA] memories of Odin overlap with the memories of Eivor, who we know is a reincarnation of Odin, [helped us] positioned Dawn of Ragnarök as a continuation of Eivor’s story and a continuation of Odin’s story.

“Within this… it’s [hard to] comprehend the structure of Valhalla because in Valhalla you know that everything ends with Ragnarök,” he says expressively. “Everything is obliterated and the world starts anew. This is the heritage and culture of the Norse -- that the whole world is cyclic and it repeats itself.

“So we used this as a [way] to position the story of Dawn of Ragnarök, [which] takes place right after the storyline in Jotunheim (from the base game). [It takes place] before Ragnarök because after Ragnarök we don’t have the memories of Odin anyway, so we can’t extract those,” he adds with a cheeky smile. “[So] it will [all] make sense for our longtime players like you, but it will still be understandable and exciting for new players, without needing the main game. We needed to make it accessible [for them] as well.”

You won’t be locked out of being able to enjoy Sofia’s efforts if you’ve straggled on the base game and all other expanded Valhalla offerings, despite the expansion itself being positioned as endgame-style content. Dawn of Ragnarök will offer players the chance to boost stats and levels inside the expansion in order to enjoy it. And as an entirely new adventure set within the mythological realms of Valhalla, this extensive slice of DLC is an equally good departure from what players like myself, with over 300 hours into the whole product at this point, have been refamiliarising ourselves with since the vanilla release back in 2020. It’s a departure Sofia is incredibly proud of, but one that was born from fully embracing the source material.

“I think we managed to find a very good way to tell this story and to be exciting and to be mysterious,” Mikhail enthuses. “And there are surprises… of course, since this is a story of Odin from 80,000 years ago, before total catastrophe (Ragnarök) ... when we look at this [mythological] layer, there will be some exciting [things] for the most demanding and dedicated players.

”We wanted to give every single style and way to play this game… something new...”

“In terms of gameplay, the mission for the expansion was to expand gameplay possibilities to help you engage with challenges and with the world in a… refreshed way,” he continues. “Still preserving Valhalla and what you love about the (base) game, but since, you know, you’ve played for 300 hours, [we wanted to] refresh the ways you play. And not only with combat and not only with stealth and not only in exploration but in all directions.

“We have a very broad spectrum of players -- we have combat players… we have players that want to explore and don’t [care about] the combat or stealth at all. [So] we wanted to give every single style and way to play this game… something new. Odin as a character is somewhat wide on a spectrum of emotions and traits so that gave us an opportunity to integrate gameplay in Odin as a character… take inspiration from the Sagas and how Odin was described there. The result was the Hugr-Rip.”

The Hugr-Rip is one of Sofia’s key differentials to all Valhalla content before Dawn of Ragnarök, and it harbours a huge amount of potential for explosive gameplay. It’s one of the first times a more system-heavy mechanic has been introduced to Assassin’s Creed which, on the whole, tends to feature fairly binary options around how you go about combat, stealth and exploration and puzzles (oft tied to climbing and jumping). These things always work together, and so the overall sense isn’t as robotic as that last sentence, but approaches to most challenges within the series have been fairly straightforward. What Hugr-Rip promises to introduce, however, is a dynamic model of varying degrees centred around how players approach impediments and parts of the world.

"The Dwarven realm of Svartalfheim is massive, and full of unique architecture, stories and embedded mystery...”

“It was inspired by various artefacts that were given as presents to the gods by the Dwarves and it’s one of the things that drove us to select such an artefact; to find such an artefact,” Mikhail tells us. “And at the same time Odin as a shapeshifter -- an ability that allows him to resemble something else; in one of the Sagas -- the one with the Mead of Poetry -- that original Saga ends with Odin stealing the Mead of Poetry and shapeshifting into a raven and [flying] away. So this is another inspiration.

“And so all of these things [start to] blend and one of the major things that we added into this expansion is this Hugr-Rip which allows you to take these powers and use them against your enemies or to solve puzzles to explore the world.”

The impact of this new set of tools cannot go understated. And nor can creation of the world in which they can be used and exploited. The Dwarven realm of Svartalfheim is massive, and full of unique architecture, stories and embedded mystery. Techland might have had to face backlash at its boast of 500-odd hours of playable content in Dying Light 2 Stay Human, but Ubisoft has been more strategic in placing any gameplay expectations around Dawn of Ragnarök, suggesting a conservative 30-odd hour experience when enjoying the game’s main story. Of course as with any open-world game, even one that is just an expansion, there’s room for larger chunks of hours to sink into when you factor in exploration and treasures and world events and stories not specifically tied to the main path. And the hint of more here is very real.

This is a story, of course. And as Mikhail has already mentioned, it fits in after the events of the Jotunheim jaunt in the base game. Odin, or Havi as the devs like to refer to him, is trying to rescue his son, Baldr, from the unkillable fire giant, Surtr. Why he’s taken him is yet to be revealed, but why it’s happening in Svartalfheim brings things back to Ubisoft Sofia’s respect for the source material.

"The Dwarves are scattered throughout the realm, forced into hiding after the invasion, and sussing out their hideyholes is a mini-game unto itself...”

Dwarves, you see, are involved in almost every aspect of Valhalla, and appear in more Sagas than any other race from the Nine Realms. They basically have their hands in everything. And so in our Dawn of Ragnarök setup, the Muspel from Muspelheim have invaded the land of the Dwarves seeking its many hidden treasures. Mikhail is very firm in telling us this invasion is actually really important, but refuses to go into too much detail. But as part of this what’s important to note is that Odin is alone here, and won’t have much help. The Dwarves are scattered throughout the realm, forced into hiding after the invasion, and sussing out their hideyholes is a mini-game unto itself. But throughout, Mikhail emphasises, your back is truly against the wall.

“You cannot rely on anyone,” he says. “Instead you need to rely on your skills. [But] in order to progress you will need information in order to find out where Baldr is. And so this changes how you progress through the story; you need to explore this world and discover [its secrets].”

The Dwarven shelters will each be unique, and in a gameplay demo we were privy to, it was showcased that they’ll also come packed with opportunities. Whether it's basic shops and smiths, or side-quests and lore-gathering opportunities, no two locations will be alike. Thus encouraging players to seek them all out and engage in what they all have to offer.

“[What we have] is from the same source of inspiration and the same source of design, but [Dawn of Ragnarök] is something fresh and new that will surprise a lot of people, please a lot of people and makes you experience the beloved [Valhalla] in a different way… in a still exciting way.”

It’s difficult to convey, but Sofia has taken almost all known ‘formulas’ around what it means to explore and progress in Valhalla proper, and sort of turned them on their head. And leading this is the heavily-touted Hugr-Rip. You can upgrade it with things like “Power of Muspelheim” which means you don’t get hurt by lava or fire, but secondary to that is that Muspel don’t see you as anything but one of their own, unless provoked.

Meanwhile, Power of the Raven lets you shapeshift into its namesake for a limited time, allowing you to scale large heights and distances. These are all also upgradeable, like the addition of Raven Assassin to Power of the Raven which allows you to target an enemy in Raven form and assassinate them while in flight.

"Odin can sacrifice himself to… himself. Yep, in the ultimate god-complex flex...”

Power of Rebirth -- a likely candidate for overuse due to its nature of awesome, is an ability that means that any enemy slain while the power is active, reanimates and fights by Odin’s side. They, of course, have a cooldown (alongside all other new powers) forcing careful management of them. However, Odin can call upon Hugr -- the lifeforce of every living thing in the game-world -- and use it to extend the life of any new ability he has active. There are even shrines the Dwarves have erected around Svartalfheim at places where the roots of Yggdrasil grow. Here, Odin can sacrifice himself to… himself. Yep, in the ultimate god-complex flex, doing this will cost Odin a chunk of HP in order to boost Hagr.

Moreover, when adopting new powers, players can use the moment-to-moment option to think tactically about what’s going to work for them in any given area, situation or against specific enemy-types. But the catch is, only two Powers can be accessible at any given time, and only one active. And you can’t just swap them out as you see fit. Instead, you need to find someone to assassinate and pull the specific power from. The team hopes all of this will promote lateral ways of thinking through scenarios that go beyond just combat, and help craft unique playstyles player to player, scenario to scenario.

“You need to observe more and plan more in order to overcome challenges,” Mikhail says.

Other new additions that will separate Dawn of Ragnarök from Valhalla and the likes of Wrath of the Druids or The Siege of Paris is an entirely new weapon class -- Atgeir, which is a type of pole-arm weapon used by the vikings. Also, all gear can now be upgraded to “Divine Quality” which boosts all stats and offers new rune opportunities that are exclusive to Svartalfheim, further bolstering the gameplay opportunities beyond the main questline, as we’ve hinted at throughout here.

There’s even a combat-focused mini-game called Valkyrie Arena. In here the player can add Boasts as part of each arena sequence, playing into the telling of these events to the Valkyrie, by Odin as a very tall tale, for colour and challenge and verve. And the more you mix it up, the greater the reward. And this is simply one more example of how Ubisoft Sofia has treated the mythology.

“With [Dawn of Ragnarök] I believe that we have found our voice and that you can recognise the mythology [but] done within the Assassin’s Creed brand,” Mikhail concludes. “And it’s with the same weight as we treat history. So we didn’t just study it … [and] we always respect the mythological fantasy.”

Assassin's Creed Valhalla: Dawn of Ragnarök releases on all platforms supporting Valhalla March 10.

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