Assassin’s Creed Shadows Preview – More Freedom Than Ever

A return to the big, blockbuster Assassin's Creed experience.

In a series about an altruist brotherhood of assassins attempting to thwart a global network of magical Templars who seek to harness an ultimate power against the world, Japan has long been the fertile ground Ubisoft has neglected to explore—until now. One must wonder, in a world where Sucker Punch kind of beat them to the punch making an Assassin’s Creed-like set in Japan, whether it’s too little, too late. The series, which had remained pretty consistent up until Black Flag, has taken so many big swings in the last decade that it could be mistaken for a crisis of identity. 

With several irons in the fire, and the Infinity platform looming, Assassin’s Creed Shadows feels like an ideal opportunity to concretely and proudly declare what that identity is. The lukewarm response to Mirage, Valhalla’s expansion that spun out into a full budget-priced release, likely spells the end to truncated titles and everything we saw today of Assassin’s Creed Shadows seems to confirm that big, vast experience they’ve become known for is here for good. 

More than anything, our hands-off presentation sought to demonstrate the variety of play on offer in Shadows. And after seeing the same short assassination contract executed in three distinctly different ways, I feel there’s a freedom of choice that I’ve not seen in Assassin’s Creed for a while. 

The first obvious point of difference comes from the game’s dual protagonists, Naoe and Yasuke, who fit tidily into the shinobi and samurai archetypes. The former is a slow, unseen blade that’ll serve up a death by a thousand cuts, while the latter has the crushing force of a tsunami. The contrast is clear as each character serves a different purpose with Naoe being tailored toward those more geared to the quiet, careful approach while Yasuke feels like a total validation of the raging bull playstyle that traditionally sees me come undone in stealth games. As someone who never sticks to the brief by hiding in long grass and shadows, the idea of being able to wreck shop and have it be a completely acceptable way to go about things feels liberating. 

In fact, by offering the contrasting styles, it feels as if Ubisoft is attempting to honour the Assassin’s Creed franchise in its entirety. The original games, back in Altair’s day, placed a greater emphasis on stealth than the more action-centric role-playing games ever did, and combat in general seems geared toward that crowd. The fighting feels tactile and hefty as armour breaks offer narrow paths to decimating a worn down enemy, and it’s often with spectacular brutality that their life is cut short and they’re sent to an honourable death. During his approach to the palace, Yasuke wielded a spiked club that, with powerful efficiency, removed heads from shoulders like a home run baseball. I don’t recall combat ever being so confronting or graphic in an Assassin’s Creed game, however it makes complete sense when we’re dealing with forged katana instead of Middle-Eastern sabres and Viking axes dulled from fierce pillaging.  

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With the way bladed duels with targets are presented cinematically, it’s impossible not to draw comparisons to Ghost of Tsushima. Of course, you don’t need to manage posture and balance in the same way, though it feels filmic and closes down the field of vision, creating a tense one-on-one that makes you feel like a powerful samurai. 

Yasuke can also yield a matchlock in keeping with his go loud approach, it’s obviously slow and packing it for reload leaves you rather vulnerable so it’s a good get out of jail free card rather than a primary approach. Although she can be caught up in melee combat herself, Naoe’s experience as a shinobi means a lot of avenues are available to you to operate more sneakily, such as submerging in ponds using a bamboo thicket as a breathing apparatus and using kunai at range. If you’re forced to close the distance, though, Naoe’s grappling hook just as effectively hooks its claws into flesh as it does the ceramic tile of buildings you’ll scale. 

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While I’m sure advancements have been made since Valhalla, the presentation inadvertently demonstrated the imperfect nature of A.I. in the game’s guards, specifically during Naoe’s attempt to sneak into the palace under the cover of darkness. After being blatantly exposed on a rooftop, all it took was laying low in prone on the far side of the roof to cut the pursuit disappointingly short. The grand chase and scrambling up the walls to get at you I’d expect didn’t come. 

There’s no denying that Assassin’s Creed Shadows is a pretty game, there’s a clear focus on dynamic lighting that leads to so many opportunities for emergent gameplay whether it’s snuffing out an oil light to remain concealed or identifying a guard’s silhouette behind a screen before plunging a blade through his back, I do love how the shadows themselves inform parts of the gameplay experience. Although old hardware has been left behind with Shadows, I’m not sure the needle has moved quite enough for that to be immediately apparent. The mountainous Tamba region, where our demo took place, is undeniably gorgeous and the blend of nature and township is perhaps as striking as it has ever been. The world itself feels populated and busy enough, as the villagers go about their lives until they’re effectively forced to stop and bow in reverence to Yasuke, whose enormous presence sees him stick out like a sore thumb.

Another way that Shadows ensures no two experiences are likely to be identical is through its change of seasons, which ticks over passively in the background just as its day and night cycle would. Where one player might encounter a pond to wade through in the warmer months, another might find that same pond iced over and therefore impossible to make use of. The way in which the world transforms under the duress of the elements doesn’t seem to extend to bigger exploration in a Click Clock Woods fashion, it merely adds an unpredictability to each and every encounter. 

There were hints at a clan system similar to the one that debuted in Brotherhood and has been a series mainstay in subsequent games, though we weren’t given a larger context outside of being able to send intel scouts into the world. I think the work done here informs the information available to you when hunting a target, for example their behaviours and patrol. 

Assassin’s Creed Shadows feels like a statement that these big, enormously scoped role-playing games aren’t going anywhere soon. It is evident that, through its dual protagonists, a large focus for the team has been player agency and freedom to play your way, but whether it’s going to respect your time in a way I feel Valhalla didn’t is still a question I’ve got.


Brodie was a guest of Ubisoft with travel and accommodation covered for the purpose of this preview.