Assassin's Creed Valhalla: Dawn of Ragnarok's Creative Director on Expanding Odin's Epic Saga - Interview

Assassin's Creed Valhalla: Dawn of Ragnarok's Creative Director on Expanding Odin's Epic Saga - Interview

Richard Walker

As Assassin's Creed Valhalla prepares to expand once more, Dawn of Ragnarök bringing a 35-hour+ chunk of new content to explore, you might be wondering whether it's worth delving back into a game that's already given well over 100 hours of questing, fighting, and whatnot.

However, Dawn of Ragnarök presents a wholly different prospect, taking its cue from DLCs like Origins' Curse of the Pharoahs and Odyssey's episodic Fate of Atlantis. Continuing Eivor's questline within the pantheon of Norse mythology as an incarnation of Odin, the upcoming expansion heads back to Jotunheim and introduces the dwarven realm of Svartelfheim.

As Odin, you'll also have new divine powers to discover, and various ways to combine them using the dwarven 'Hugr-Rip' artefact. To find out more, we talked to Ubisoft Sofia Creative Director Mikhail Lozanov, who was more than happy to provide insights into Dawn of Ragnarök before it releases next month. Read on!

Did you learn any lessons yourselves at Ubisoft Sofia from the base version of Assassin's Creed Valhalla, and if so, how did you take those lessons into Dawn of Ragnarök?

Mikhail Lozanov: Basically, we have, as a studio, a long history with Assassin's Creed, with Assassin's Creed Liberation, Assassin's Creed Rogue, and all the major instalments. So logically, from that, we created quite a chunk of content in Valhalla, and we were responsible for the Jotunheim world, as well, and all of that content. All these things are [building] the team experience - we're learning how to do better pacing, what kind of stories to tell, how to interpret historical events and beliefs of people, [and] how to integrate them into the DNA of the brand. So we're constantly on this loop of learning, which is super exciting in creating games in general, and that's why we're here. We're definitely learning a lot, and it'll show in Dawn of Ragnarök - we're super proud of what we've created.

Is Dawn of Ragnarök something that you started out knowing was going to be a huge thing, because for a DLC, 35 hours is quite a lot, or is it something that snowballed a bit?

ML: We always wanted to explore the mythology further, because the team had so many ideas with Jotunheim. And we kind of gained experience with Curse of the Pharoahs, how to treat mythology within the brand DNA and how to integrate together with history, and interweave the beliefs of people within historical events. This was a natural step for us from Jotunheim with Dawn of Ragnarök. The Norse myths are so wide in terms of spectrum, they had stories of how whatnot disappeared, how that appeared, what Odin did... And the characters are quite colourful and diverse and the spectrum of their emotions and things is so wide, so naturally led to so many things to work with.

It's a nice, good chunk of new content that really will refresh the narrative to further explore who Odin is, what kind of character is this god, because in sagas, we have many different stories about him. He's a very different kind of character. In terms of gameplay, we believe that we expand almost every single aspect of the way players play. And this was our first goal, actually not to focus on one single thing, because we should have a very wide group of players. The spectrum of different players that we have in the brand itself is enormous - we have people who want to fight, people who want to explore, people who want to be very stealthy, like me, for example. I'm a very stealthy player.

We wanted to give every single type of player that we have in this broad group, something for them to have fun with. So the powers that we integrated, we basically succeeded in giving tools to every type of player to make a unique combination. People who want to play stealth maybe can try to fight, or to explore in different way.

Odin can only have two powers at a time, so how does that work? If you want to mix and match or attempt different approaches?

ML: The artefact the dwarves give you as a present (the Hugr-Rip) will have two slots, which is very much inspired by the way dwarves always create something for the gods. Mechanically, you'll have two slots in which you can slot different powers. These powers, you will need to [search] the world to find them first, in different enemies. And once you find them - you can acquire them from fallen enemies, from the dead bodies there may be after the battle, or you stumble on some mysterious location - [then] you can slot them and you have the combination of the two slots.

You can activate one power at a time and it will have a certain effect or certain ability that you can do. For example, one of my favourites is the Power of the Raven, which very much embodies the shape-shifting nature of the All-Father in one of the sagas, with the Mead of Poetry actually, which was explored in Jotunheim - Odin turns into an Eagle and runs away with the Mead of Poetry. The Power of the Raven was inspired by this, so this is one of my favourites - if you find a gigantic Raven and defeat [it], you can take this power out of the bird, and this enables you to turn into a bird.

You can be stealthily flying, observing, assassinating someone from the sky, and then another combination that I do love to play with is the Power of Muspelheim, where I do this and then I immediately turn into a Muspel. Everybody's like, “what happened?”, which empowers you and really makes you feel like a god. These combinations... I expect people to find some others because we as developers, we play a lot, we test a lot, we iterate a lot, [and] that I love, but we designed these systems with the idea that there will be some new emergent combinations that sometimes we can't even predict - that's the beauty of open world games.

You mentioned in the previous question how in Norse mythology there's a lot of versions; different stories and interpretations. How did you go about making yours different to all of those other versions?

ML: With every single project - not only Dawn of Ragnarök, but with all the Assassin's Creed projects we've worked on - we always start to do very deep research with our teams at Ubisoft that we study with people from universities, specialists, [and] external scientists in this. We meet with these people and we explore what is the core of these myths, what is the gist of it? Incorporating this in such a way that we're creating not just a fantasy, but rather what we love to call a documented mythological fantasy, we make you participate in the creation of these myths as a player, as we do with the history and position you as someone that is responsible for these historical events.

With mythology it's the same. You're a participant in this [version] of myths and this is our unique treatment within the brand.

Was your choice to go to Svartelfheim part of telling that story then?

ML: It's one of the nine realms we visited in the main game with Asgard and Jotunheim. I find this very interesting, because the dwarves are very famous characters within sagas - they are always involved in something. They always help the gods or do stuff for them, or do things for themselves, and they're always involved. So they were quite interesting as characters and stories to explore, and they connect a lot of other characters. It was a very good place to be and to explore, so it felt like the natural choice.

One of the things I really like about the new Assassin's Creed games are the different 'Order of the Ancients' cult members you have to take down. Have you brought any of that kind of stuff back for Dawn of Ragnarök, albeit a different interpretation?

ML: For Dawn of Ragnarök, because we're really striving to be consistent with all the enormous narrative and lore - these are memories of Odin from 80,000 years ago - because these are DNA memories of Odin via Eivor's incarnation of the god, embedded in Eivor's DNA, and you experience them like layers of memories through the Animus. So, in order to remain consistent with this, we didn't include the Order of the Ancients, because it didn't exist back then.

It's a study of these gods in Isu, but because Eivor is a ninth-century Viking, this is how the cultural matrix shows these events. This is how the human mind interprets these stories from ancient times. These are the stories that the grandmother of Eivor told them when they were kids and they went to sleep. So this is why you see these, but not the Isu and all that, which is very neat in terms of brand and how we can use history to create stories and tell stories, [and] dive deeper into this mythology and to remain consistent, which is the beauty of it.

During the gameplay presentation we saw, it was said that Eivor's saga is “far from over”. In Dawn of Ragnarök are you paving the way for what's next for Eivor or are you setting the scene for what might come next for the broader series?

ML: Dawn of Ragnarök is focused 99% on Nordic mythology and these events, so there'll be a tiny portion of Eivor's character development because it's impossible [not to]. With such enormous events that you experienced in Dawn of Ragnarök - I won't spoil them, because I really want the players [to experience] the mystery to be solved - but this will move the character of Eivor deeply, [although] the focus of the expansion is on Nordic mythology.

Have there been any difficult roadblocks developing during lockdown? Has it been really challenging building Dawn of Ragnarök under covid restrictions?

ML: It's different for every person in the team. I can't speak for everybody, [as] one senior voice. I can't say that it's easy, but we have technologies, we have the maturity as professionals, and the responsibility. So it's not easy, it's different, it requires certain adaptation. But I do believe that we did a pretty damn good job with all the viruses outside and all that.

You've been working on Assassin's Creed games for a long time. Is it a really fun place to make games in, within this enjoyable sandbox? Or are there limitations and things you can and can't do? Do you feel like you could go anywhere you want with an Assassin's Creed game?

ML: It's both, because the brand is so rich, it allows you to do a lot. At the same time, because the DNA of the brand is so strong, it leads you to do specific things. So, it's both - it's very challenging to find something cool and fresh, and to create something completely interesting. At the same time, it gives you this power, [as it's] something that is unique within the industry. Assassin's Creed games are unique because they're so grounded that you can feel them, like you can touch them. And this grounding into history or in mythology actually gives us a very strong base to build upon.

Ubisoft Sofia took the lead for Rogue, which was a really good Assassin's Creed game. Do you think you'll get the chance to take the lead on another Assassin's Creed game and build it yourselves?

ML: Thank you for recognising Rogue - it's very close to my heart. What lies beyond, we can't share at the moment, so let's focus on Dawn of Ragnarök, because it'll be here in a month.

Presumably you'd like to if you could, right?

ML: If I have a chance, of course.

Was it fun coming up with new stuff for Ragnarök, creating new places to explore? Are some of the activities variations on what you'd find in Valhalla, like tombs and so on?

ML: There are a number of small things that you can stumble upon in the world - this is the beauty of open world games. We want to tell the story of this world and what happened with the dwarves, and this is the base from where we start, actually - everything lies above this. This creates this grounded experience, this consistent experience so everything has a meaning. We have new small pieces of content that you will discover. I do like some of the World Events that you stumble upon - they tell really unique stories that are pretty cool, and they create this complete fantasy, in the sense that you experience a very human story. Although it's a god that you play as, actually, it's a very human story and the world is inhabited by alive characters, rather than just NPCs.

Another thing I really like the look of in Dawn of Ragnarök is the new polearm weapon (the Atgeir). Was that easy to integrate or was it really difficult, because you've introduced a new combo system, as well?

ML: It's inspired by one of the sagas, which talks about such a weapon. We wanted to refresh how you play with this weapon, to make it really special, and that's why we've added a combo system. [This] fits very well with the new powers you can have and combines with our ambition to expand the gameplay, and to refresh the experience, so you can enjoy your game that you've enjoyed for so long, even more.

Assassin's Creed Valhalla: Dawn of Ragnarök launches on 10th March.

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