The Assassin’s Creed franchise has long been beset by leaks and spoiled plans. Recent rumours suggest that the next entry will be no different, though the first hint may have emerged from an unexpected source: official release material.
The Division 2 players have discovered in-game posters that appears to depict both Assassin’s Creed and Viking iconography, leading to the widespread supposition that the next entry in the long-running series will take the adventure far from the Mediterranean climes of Ancient Greece. Supporting the rumour is Kotaku’s claim to have verified the new setting with two independent sources.
Aside from the tired, expected complaints that the series steadfastly refuses to visit Japan or (in a mainline entry, at least) China, the response to the rumour has been positive. Fans have a reason to be intrigued too. A Viking setting suggests another entry where the sailor’s life takes centre stage, and Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag remains a perpetual favourite for many.
Despite the justification for positivity, something niggles about the revelation. That ‘something’ is a sigh—not of disinterest or disappointment, but of a smothered wish for something more exciting.
Exciting? How is the prospect of pillaging across ancient Scandinavia not exciting? How is getting to learn the history of runestones, burial mounds, and those intricately designed warships not exciting? In all honesty, of course those things—and many others about the setting—are exciting. What is dull is how rote the Viking age feels in 2019.
Media does not exist in a vacuum, and the cultural cachet around the Viking era cements it a logical choice for Ubisoft to make. Beyond the television show Vikings, Norse mythology appears in the dominant cinema product of the last decade: the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In games, the setting is even more prevalent. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, 2018’s God of War, Rune, and even Eternity: The Last Unicorn draw on the Norse myths and legends to a greater or lesser extent.
Despite the saturation, those whose interests have been piqued by those aforementioned titles will be glad to dive in and immerse themselves in the mythology and history of a time that the media industries are painting as sexy. Furthermore, what better game series to do it than Assassin’s Creed, which, in some ways, is as much a document as an experience.
The problem with Vikings is that it continues a trend in the series towards the expected.
When Assassin’s Creed burst onto the scene in 2007, it brought with a fresh perspective. The game may have been a successor to Prince of Persia, but it was bolder than that earlier franchise ever was in its attempt at depicting the Holy Land, a world largely ignored by gaming. The move to Renaissance Italy began also a move towards the familiar. Assassin’s Creed: Revelations’s detour to Turkey shook things up, but then came Colonial America, the French Revolution, and Victorian London.
Each setting was interesting, but they became ever more familiar thanks to their saturation in gaming, the wider media, and the social consciousness. Meanwhile, Ancient Egypt and Greece are eras revered. Who, as a child, doesn’t dream of the golden sands and towering pyramids or later dream of the democratic ideal in Plato’s Athens?
However, the series began—and deserves to continue—as a challenge. Instead of retreading locations and histories that can be found elsewhere, Ubisoft could blaze a trail through wars, conflicts, and eras that most people overlook.
An intriguing prospect, if Ubisoft wanted to look at the Viking Age, would be to do so from an Irish perspective, showing the uneasy alliance between the multitudinous kingdoms under a single High King of Ireland in the seventh century.
Elsewhere in the world, while still remaining in the ancient past, might be the Silla-Tang Wars or the later Imjin War in Korea.
Jumping forward in time—matching only Assassin’s Creed Syndicate in its proximity to the present day—might take the Assassins and Templars to New Zealand during the Musket Wars and New Zealand Wars between the native Māori populations and the colonial Europeans.
Each of these settings is broadly unknown, with the potential to take players to exciting new locales and introduce them to foreign cultures. They are also only a handful of the intriguing historical moments that could transform Assassin’s Creed back from a follower to a thought leader.
But Vikings? Ubisoft, you can be more creative than that.