Assassin's Creed Shadows preview: The first AC game for me since Black Flag?

Screenshot of Assassin's Creed Shadows.
It's astounding how long it took to take Assassin's Creed to Japan, considering how perfect this setting is. (Image credit: Ubisoft)

Assassin's Creed is one of the largest and longest-running franchises in the video games industry, but it has undoubtedly changed drastically from entry to entry — and in turn alienated its fan base. I know I haven't fallen in love with an AC game since the legendary Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, which I've 100% twice; even when I played Valhalla for dozens of hours, I found it well-made but ultimately dreadfully bloated and formulaic.

Now, though, I find myself looking forward to a new mainline Assassin's Creed game for the first time in... Well, forever, since I actually discovered Black Flag well after its initial release. At least with the limited information we have leading up to launch, it seems like Ubisoft is finally delivering the game fans have been clamoring for in Assassin's Creed Shadows, with a heavily requested setting, sleek and brutal combat improvements, and more flexibility than ever for different play styles.

During Summer Game Fest 2024, I was treated to an exclusive gameplay walkthrough of Assassin's Creed Shadows showcasing both Naoe and Yasuke, and I'm now eagerly waiting for November to roll around.

What is Assassin's Creed Shadows?

Assassin's Creed Shadows: First Look Gameplay Trailer - YouTube Assassin's Creed Shadows: First Look Gameplay Trailer - YouTube
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Assassin's Creed Shadows is the next mainline entry in the infamous Assassin's Creed series published by Ubisoft. While technically the successor to 2023's smaller, throwback Assassin's Creed Mirage from Ubisoft Montreal, AC Shadows feels more like the proper follow-up to the massive, Viking-themed Assassin's Creed Valhalla from the leading Ubisoft Quebec studio in 2020. Also led by Ubisoft Quebec, AC Shadows is the first title in Ubisoft's ambitious Assassin's Creed Infinity project.

AC Infinity is meant to transform Assassin's Creed from an iterative franchise to a live service platform, allowing players to access multiple AC experiences across various settings and periods through one in-world hub. It's an exciting prospect, but it's still unclear exactly what form AC Infinity will take when it's fully realized. All we know is that Assassin's Creed Shadows is big, built on an upgraded version of the Anvil Engine to take full advantage of Xbox Series X|S, Windows PC, and PlayStation 5.

Set in 16th century Japan during the feudal Sengoku period, Assassin's Creed Shadows follows two protagonists: the mysterious Shinobi Naoe and the powerful samurai Yasuke. The former is a fictional character created by Ubisoft, but the latter is the first playable character based off a real-world historical figure. Players will need to navigate the turbulent waters of civil war-stricken Japan, fighting alongside allies to achieve peace.

Assassin's Creed Shadows officially releases on Nov. 15, 2024, with early access opening on Nov. 12 for those who preorder the premium editions of Assassin's Creed Shadows. You can learn more in our in-depth Assassin's Creed Shadows FAQ.

The gameplay evolutions I've been wanting

Yasuke carries weight in combat, and it's properly brutal. (Image credit: Ubisoft)

At Ubisoft Forward, the company showed off over ten minutes of Assassin's Creed Shadows gameplay. That same day, I was invited to an exclusive, guided hands-off gameplay demo of AC Shadows that lasted for over 30 minutes. I saw what you all saw, but from more angles and perspectives, and with more information and context provided. It's the push over the edge I needed to truly be excited for AC Shadows, as Ubisoft showed me the gameplay evolutions I've been waiting for.

I saw the same mission three times, once with Naoe in full stealth mode (what was shown at Ubisoft Forward), another with Naoe doing a "Yasuke" and taking on her opponents head-first, and then a final round with Yasuke absolutely charging through with no regards for subtlety. I won't comment much on the state of the game here, like unfinished NPC animations and awkward AI, as the game is obviously still months away from release and there's plenty of polish to be done.

We also didn't see many aspects of the game, like the ability to design, build, and manage your own Shinobi hideout to regroup, converse with allies, and manage your gear. The focal point of the gameplay shown off was that Assassin's Creed will no longer force players into a specific play style. No longer will you have to be a stealthy assassin, or force a Viking to pretend at being stealthy, or anything else. Even how you'll be treated while exploring the world will change depending on which character you play as.

It feels like Naoe's gameplay style feels like it was made for me. (Image credit: Ubisoft)

Assassin's Creed Shadows will let you choose between two entirely separate and opposing characters (and you can apparently play 95% of the game as one or the other, if you choose), and each provides a ton of variance in movement, exploration, and combat mechanics that simply wouldn't be possible with a single character.

Naoe is the stealthy Shinobi that we're used to from classic Assassin's Creed titles, and is actually the most nimble and agile assassin we've ever seen, with incredible ability to traverse the terrain and take advantage of even the smallest enemy weakness. On the other end of the spectrum, Yasuke is the most powerful and brutal warrior to ever be playable in an Assassin's Creed game, towering over his foes and delivering devastating blows with each swing of his weapon.

We saw a lot more of Naoe during our exclusive preview than what was shown at Ubisoft Forward, and that alone made me desperate to play Assassin's Creed Shadows for myself. The way Naoe plays is exactly what I missed in Valhalla and why nothing I saw of Mirage interested me; she's graceful, skilled in a wide assortment of weapons and gear, and is impossibly deadly without relying on pseudo-magic.

It'll be interesting to see how the investigative portion of assassinations will play out. (Image credit: Ubisoft)

On top of that, AC Shadows seems to bridge the gap between Valhalla and Mirage when it comes to its RPG elements — enemies still have varying levels of strength and players can still dramatically change their character, but ultimately you won't be restricted simply because you happened to run into the wrong enemy.

I also like that Ubisoft is leaning into this idea of using information as a weapon; you'll be able to develop a network of spies across Japan and use them to gather data on your targets. When it's time to eliminate an opponent, you'll need to use this information and all the tools at your disposal to locate, identify, and eliminate them. In theory, it could make AC Shadows the best game about being an assassin, but we'll have to see how it all comes together in practice.

The potential to bring me back to AC

This world is gorgeous, but we expect nothing less from Assassin's Creed. (Image credit: Ubisoft)

When Ubisoft moved away from the classic Assassin's Creed formula with Origins, I understood why. The series had become increasingly formulaic and bloated, and the publisher needed a way to freshen the franchise and make room for all the mechanics and content it had introduced. Unfortunately, Origins failed to attract me back to the franchise for completely new reasons, and those problems only worsened as time went on.

I sank dozens of hours into Valhalla because it seemed, at least on the surface, that Ubisoft had perfected its approach to the Assassin's Creed RPG, but Valhalla is so unbelievably massive and lacks the variety and ingenuity to justify its size. After my time spent doing the exact same things over and over revealed a distinct lack of progress, I dropped the game and never returned. Ubisoft returned to the classic formula with Assassin's Creed Mirage, but the gameplay felt too stripped back and lacked the soul that made me fall in love with the series in the first place.

With Assassin's Creed Shadows, it seems like Ubisoft may have finally found the sweet spot. The setting is perfect, the visuals are absolutely gorgeous, and the core gameplay we've seen so far is the perfect evolution to AC that Ubisoft desperately needed to find. All the pieces are here for Ubisoft to win me back over, but I obviously still have some questions and concerns.

I'm very much looking forward to playing as Naoe in Assassin's Creed Shadows. (Image credit: Ubisoft)

Will Assassin's Creed Shadows learn from Ubisoft's past stumbles with formulaic open world design, or will it lade players with repetitive and lifeless tasks solely designed to populate a map? Will AC Shadows respect players' time and investment, or will it bombard players with endless microtransactions and in-game purchases that add nothing to the overall experience?

This and more can make or break Assassin's Creed Shadows, but I'm at least far more optimistic this time around than I have been about the last... six Assassin's Creed games. What I've seen so far both in official trailers and during my limited hands-off preview makes Assassin's Creed Shadows one of my most anticipated releases of 2024, and the game has the potential to become one of the best Xbox games of the year if it truly delivers.

Please, Ubisoft, don't mess this one up. I don't have any more chances to redeem Assassin's Creed in my gamer heart.

Zachary Boddy
Staff Writer

Zachary Boddy (They / Them) is a Staff Writer for Windows Central, primarily focused on covering the latest news in tech and gaming, the best Xbox and PC games, and the most interesting Windows and Xbox hardware. They have been gaming and writing for most of their life starting with the original Xbox, and started out as a freelancer for Windows Central and its sister sites in 2019. Now a full-fledged Staff Writer, Zachary has expanded from only writing about all things Minecraft to covering practically everything on which Windows Central is an expert, especially when it comes to Microsoft. You can find Zachary on Twitter @BoddyZachary.