Assassin’s Creed Shadows has the best-looking AC combat in ages, and I love that you can crawl through grass

One of my oldest videogame wishes is about to be granted. Assassin’s Creed Shadows is finally bound for Japan, but I’ve resisted getting too excited until I see it in action. Ubi says Shadows will return to the series’ roots as a stealth game, similar to last year’s Mirage, but it also said the same thing about Valhalla.

I caught an hour of hands-off Shadows gameplay during Summer Game Fest—Ubisoft also showed off gameplay during its Ubisoft Forward showcase—and it’s mostly good news. Stealth looks just as deep and viable as Mirage, combat seems surprisingly fun, and I want to know more about Naoe and Yasuke. I would’ve loved to play it myself, but in lieu of that, here are some thoughts based on a single mission that Ubi played through as both characters.

This is the best that Assassin’s Creed combat has looked in ages

(Image credit: Ubisoft)

The first chunk of the hands-off demo focused on combat. Shadows is still firmly in the territory of Valhalla combat—lock on, dodging, animation cancelling—but I noticed some improvements. Enemies seemed less spongy, and in general both Yasuke and Naoe are more deliberate (less spammy) with their attacks. The pace of combat was a bit slower, and looked really cool. It’s also great to see enemies actually react to each of Yasuke’s strikes. Nothing pulls me out of an Assassin’s Creed fantasy faster than guards who tank hits like it didn’t even bother them.

Shadows looks like a legit stealth game, thank god

Piggybacking off the last year’s Assassin’s Creed Mirage, stealth doesn’t seem to be an afterthought in Shadows. Naoe can scale walls, hop between clusters of rooftops, and quickly ascend to higher ground with her grapple hook. She has tools to silently kill, distract, or displace guards so she can avoid violence altogether.

Naoe’s prone stance rocks

A stealth game with prone! Outside the Metal Gear Solid series, this sneaky tactic is surprisingly rare. I love the way prone was used in the hands-off demo: Naoe hits the deck and slowly crawls through some grass right in the eyeline of guards. Having to crawl through somewhat tall grass to be hidden is way more believable and mechanically interesting than the modern stealth game convention of crouch-walking through fields while half of your body sticks out.

Exploration mode is back

(Image credit: Ubisoft)

The demo began with a quest to track down a corrupt samurai. Similar to Mirage, Shadows won’t always direct you straight to a target. It’ll give you hints collected by quest givers—the general area they’re in, what they look like, their job—and leave the rest up to you. This feature worked pretty well in Mirage, though sometimes it was too easy to find targets or locations.

Spy networks can help you track down targets

Mirage had a special currency you could use to bribe officials and learn your target’s whereabouts. It seems like Shadow’s “spy network” will fill a similar role. I didn’t get to see this feature in action, but it looks like you can designate an area on the map for your spies to search for information on your target. It sounds like an easy shortcut, but maybe you’ll have to use spies sparingly.

Naoe seems to be just as good at killing as Yasuke

Ubi has been saying that Yasuke is the more capable fighter of the duo, but that doesn’t track with what I saw. Sure, Yasuke has more brutal finishers, but the Ubi dev piloting my demo cut down handfuls of guards just as easily with Naoe’s katana and chain blade. I was already planning on playing Naoe most of the time, and now I don’t know what Yasuke has going for him beyond chopping guards’ heads off every time he triggers a finisher.

Apparently there are some mechanical differences between the two in combat—Yasuke can block attacks while Naoe can only evade, but is that a meaningful difference when both accomplish the same thing?

Shadows doesn’t look all that dark

(Image credit: Ubisoft)

Ubi has been talking up Shadows’ new dynamic lighting and how it enhances stealth. Our presentation didn’t call much attention to it, but I spotted a light meter at the center-top of the UI that indicates how hidden you are. When Noae was in a full shadow, she seemed nearly invisible. It’s a good thing the indicator was there, because the environment itself wasn’t very dark. Alleyways with no light sources were still fully readable, and after the demo pilot snuffed out a lantern with a kunai, I could barely see the difference.

Lots of stealth games are allergic to simulating real darkness, probably because it’s too hard of a design challenge unless you have Sam Fisher’s night vision goggles, but contrast between light and dark is really important when you’re asking players to stick to the literal shadows. I’m worried that Shadows’ promising new nighttime sneaking will be dulled by an overabundance of light. Hopefully cranking down the gamma will do the trick.

PCGamer.com

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