Sometimes Simpler is Better... or Not
For longtime fans of the Assassin's Creed franchise, few things are as contentious as Ubisoft's decision to add RPG mechanics to the basic Assassin's Creed gameplay formula. No one is denying that something had to change given that gameplay stagnation was a very real risk. However, turning a pseudo-stealth game series into an RPG was likely not what most people had in mind. Regardless, the latest in the franchise, Assassin's Creed Valhalla, doubles down on the RPG mechanics while sending players to raid English territories as a Viking warrior.
Indeed, the cumulative hour or so of Assassin's Creed Valhalla gameplay from UbiForward (Ubisoft's digital replacement for E3) made it clear that Valhalla is more of a realistic take on The Witcher 3 rather than an up-to-date version of the original Assassin's Creed. While the franchise's signature stealth mechanics still exist in some capacity, the down-and-dirty combat will very much be ARPG inspired. In other words, it's not going to matter how many times your axe would have realistically cleaved a man in two. If the number that's popping up isn't big enough to empty his health bar, then that man isn't dying.
To be fair, very few of the Assassin's Creed games have ever had particularly noteworthy, much less realistic, combat. For the longest time, counterattacks were the most efficient way to progress, second only to hiding in a bush and stabbing people. The addition of ARPG combat mechanics, while perhaps poorly implemented at times, was probably intended to diversify this singular approach to everything. There are many other ways that Ubisoft could've overhauled the combat (i.e. For Honor), but their current method serves two distinct purposes. It's not instantly off putting for more casual audiences and it lets Ubisoft to claim that their games aren't re-skinned clones of each other.
It's not the most far-fetched idea ever to keep a franchise fresh. Tiered loot existed to some degree as far back as Assassin's Creed 2. That you can actually see how much damage a weapon does little to change the fact that certain sword "upgrades" were outright better than its predecessors. Enemies had tiers too, to say nothing of the various archetypes. Not quite a full blown level system, but conceptually similar to what Assassin's Creed Valhalla is aiming for.
Then there's the inconsistent writing quality throughout the years. While RPG mechanics can't really solve this problem on its own, they are an effective way to make a story seem much deeper than it is. Coincidentally, Assassin's Creed Valhalla is supposedly going to allow players to choose how small parts of their adventure play out. What this will mean for the overall story is anyone's guess, but it's not an inherently bad thing. Indeed, the UbiForward footage gives the impression that it would help with world building, even if only to a relatively small degree.
If sales figures are to be believed though, it doesn't seem like players are embracing this change in pace. Origins sold about 10 million copies to date. Black Flag by comparison sold around 15 million since its release—but it should be kept in mind that Black Flag released earlier and was available on more platforms. Plus its reputation as a fun pirate game undoubtedly helped sales out. On the other hand, critic reviews for the Assassin's Creed games on Metacritic have been steady regardless of how different the mechanics are.
At some point, every game franchise must change. It's hard to deny that Assassin's Creed underwent a pretty drastic change, but it's kept the franchise in the spotlight for better or worse. Ubisoft could've absolutely made two separate games instead, a true stealth-based Splinter-Cell-esque Assassin's Creed Valhalla and some other new fantasy RPG IP. Yet it's doubtful that the hypothetical games would've stirred the pot as much as Assassin's Creed Valhalla did. Combining the two may not be the best decision in retrospect, but it's brought Ubisoft no small amount of time to consider where they ultimately want to take the franchise.