Out with the Greeks, in with the Vikings. Assassin's Creed Valhalla launched on Tuesday to strong reviews, including an 8/10 from GameSpot. It's particularly exciting for Xbox Series X/S owners, as it's arguably the biggest launch game on Microsoft's new platform.
In Valhalla you play as Eivor, a Norse raider who leaves the homeland behind to start a new life in Anglo-Saxon England. Vikings have long been a subject of fascination in the popular imagination, and you probably have a good idea of what they're about -- raids, horns, Chris Hemsworth -- even if you found history to be a giant snoozefest in school.
Valhalla is set in the ninth century. It's a period we generally call the Early Middle Ages, and it's also when the Norse decided to kick England's ass. But you could probably figure that out from the trailers. Knowing some of the history will help you get the most out of Assassin's Creed Valhalla.
First, a disclaimer. The Norse weren't big on writing down their history. They scribbled on the odd runestone here or there, but since stones are heavy and hard to carve (I imagine), they mostly passed on their history through the oral tradition of storytelling. "Skalds," or bards who were the keepers of a clan's history, recited epic poems regaling the brave deeds of valiant warriors and powerful kings.
These sagas weren't actually written down until the 12th century, 400 years after the peak of the Viking Age. By then, these sagas had morphed into fantastical tales with larger-than-life heroes, romance, and the odd appearance of Thor, much like the stories of King Arthur and the knights of the round table.
Because of this, our knowledge of the actual happenings of early medieval Scandinavia is a bit limited. However, we do generally accept some events in the sagas as (more or less) fact.
Why are you heading to England?
Around the time of Assassins Creed: Valhalla, Norway was the center of the Viking world. It wasn't a country like it is today, but rather made up of several small entities called petty kingdoms. These petty kingdoms were made up of clans, and each had its own leader: a jarl or chieftain king.
These kingdoms weren't the most peaceful places to live. They didn't stay in their respective lanes, and were often at war with each other, encroaching on territory or settling blood feuds that spanned generations.
While you were busy keeping Fjordane from stealing your land, you were also fighting Hadeland because their great-grandfather looked at your great-grandfather the wrong way. It was a poor use of everyone's time.
In 872-873 CE, when Valhalla begins, the petty kingdoms of Norway were unified by Norway's first king: King Harald Fairhair. Harry had inherited a few kingdoms from his father, and conquered a few more along the way. This regional conquering clearly got Harry all cocky, leading to his desire to unite all of Norway.
Early in the game, our hero Eivor meets this King Harald Fairhair. Assassins Creed's King Harald is a young and kind (and fair-haired) king, with a desire to unite Norway under one banner -- his. In Valhalla, Harald comes to Eivor offering the peace and stability of a united country if Clan Raven bends the knee.
The Nords, in both Valhalla and real life, got a compromise. On one hand, everyone could put their differences aside and not have to fight the battles of their grandparents or worry. On the other, they must give up their titles and lands to Harald and be his subjects rather than equals. It's a win-win, if by win-win you mean one person wins and everyone else pays taxes to that person for the rest of their lives.
Many of the jarls, tired from years of bloodshed, take up his offer and swear fealty to him. It's with this backdrop that, in Valhalla, Eivor's foster father Styrbjorn also swears fealty to King Herald. Great! Except Styrbjorn didn't mention his plans to give up the titles promised to his son, Sigurd. Not great!
Sigurd, your brother, feels betrayed and annoyed that his father gave away his birthright, and decides there is no place for him and Clan Raven in this new united Norway. That's when Siguard, Eivor and Clan Raven decide to get their raid on and establish a new kingdom in England.
What's happening in England?
Anglo-Saxon England consisted of seven kingdoms: Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, Essex, Wessex, Sussex and Kent. The Norse had been invading, and sometimes settling, in Britain since the 793 raid of Lindisfarne in Northumbria. The raid of Lindisfarne began what we know as the Viking Age, lasting until 1066 when some new folks moved into England (spoilers for a future Assassin's Creed game: It's the Normans).
Many of these Norse clans settled in England because, like Sigurd, they were essentially driven from their countries after refusing to swear loyalty to new kings. Others just fancied a bit of an escape to the countryside after they realized how nice it was to own some proper farmland and grow their own food.
By the time Eivor (that's you!) settles in Mercia, a coalition of warriors from Denmark, Sweden and Norway, known as the Great Heathen Army, have taken Jorvik (now known as York), and Norse settlements are being established throughout Northumbria, Mercia and East Anglia. The Norse (derogatorily called the Danes by the Saxons) are growing in power, either by violent conquest or installing Saxon puppet-kings on the throne -- or often both.
As the unofficial second-in-command of Clan Raven, Eivor gets to play kingmaker all over Britain in order to garner alliances. It's "I put you on the throne, you scratch my back... and also fight my battles for me whenever I want because you owe me so much" politics.
The Vikings' power and presence reach from the south side of Hadrian's wall, near Scotland, all the way down to Lunden (London). So dominant is the Norse culture that this area is known as the Danelaw -- the place where Norse laws and culture are dominant over that of the Anglo-Saxons. Think of it as Little Norway, but covering most of England.
This expansion and growing cultural dominance that's going on as Valhalla plays out is understandably making the Saxons a bit hot under the collar and wary of these "Danes." In Wessex, King Alfred fights against the Norse invasion. He's the bloke in the trailer for Valhalla, declaring war against the Vikings and their efforts to conquer Britain.
In the game, he's positioned as a sniveling antagonist with a glint of cruelty in his eye. All understandable, since he's in opposition to our hero. The real Alfred, however, may have been more complex than just "Evil English Guy."
He inherited a divided and war-weary Wessex from his brother, Æthelred I, who spent his whole reign fighting off the Great Heathen Army. Alfred the Great is generally considered to have been a strong leader, capable not only on the battlefield but in diplomacy as well. Alfred is also the only other monarch of England, along with King Cnut the Great (do not laugh at his name), to have been given the title "The Great." (OK fine, you may laugh at Cnut the Great a little bit.)
That tidbit has nothing to do with Assassin's Creed: Valhalla, I just think it's cool. If this is ever a question at trivia, you owe me a Guinness in thanks.
Alfred is more noble in real life than he is depicted in Assassins Creed: Valhalla. But then again, history is written by the victors. And sometimes it's fun to beat up history's victors.
Assassin's Creed launches on Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One, PS4 and PC on Nov. 10. The PS5 version follows on Nov. 12.