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Assassin's Creed Shadows' reveal gives us our first look at the series' revamped technology

Ray tracing, improved physics, 30fps and more.

Assassin's Creed Shadows has finally been revealed. After a short CG trailer debuted a few weeks ago, Ubisoft has finally unveiled a lengthy gameplay demo for the upcoming title. As the first current-gen only effort in the long running series, it seems poised to take advantage of current-gen technologies, like ray tracing. At the same time, early impressions suggest a game that might provide a more iterative uplift over previous titles. So what kinds of technology gains are we finding under-the-hood? Where does AC Shadows improve over prior series entries - and where is there still room for further development?

The most headline-grabbing - and possibly most important - AC Shadows tech innovation is the addition of ray traced global illumination. Ubisoft's Anvil game engine now supports RTGI, according to key developers and the tech press. Here, I think the visual results are a little ambiguous. On the one hand, the lighting in broad strokes looks appealing and there is proper occlusion around larger elements of static geometry. There's a similar effect in wooded areas, where dense pockets of underbrush appear to occlude light in a fairly realistic manner.

That said, the effect isn't quite so pronounced on smaller environmental elements, while shadows often look flat, without much of a gradient. The visual results are still perfectly fine, but there's less of an impression of per-pixel detail in these areas. Later in the demo, there's some obvious light leak within an interior space and there are a couple instances where lighting detail appears to pop-in as the camera moves forward. These factors, taken together, may suggest a probe-based, and not per-pixel, RTGI technique. Skull and Bones - another Anvil game engine title - also supported probe based RTGI, so its inclusion here would make a lot of sense. We've seen probe-based RTGI in games like Star Wars Jedi: Survivor, and it can produce very effective results depending on implementation.

Oliver Mackenzie's tech breakdown of Ubisoft's fascinating Assassin's Creed Shadows gameplay reveal.Watch on YouTube

A giveaway here is how lighting information changes as the player moves through the environment. A probe based system can suffer from more obvious pop-in as the player nears, as chunks of detail from the probes pop into view. A per pixel system should more gently change its lighting characteristics as the player draws close, becoming more granular. Of course, presented with this limited and relatively low-quality YouTube feed, it's not possible to get the kind of clarity that would make this evaluation easier. I think regardless of the technique used, Assassin's Creed Shadows has a good-looking lighting presentation, and the switch from a pre-calculated to real-time GI system likely helps to minimise install size. The game also has a variable time of day and multiple in-game seasons, creating additional complications for a 'baked' GI system.

In other aspects of the game's lighting, there are the same flaws we've seen in recent Assassin's Creed titles. The shadow rendering is mostly good, especially on the clean and sharp character shadow. However, during traversal, various shadow cascades - different quality shadows depending on distance from the camera - are visible. There's not much in the way of shadow aliasing, but these are giveaways that we are still looking at shadow maps, as opposed to, say, a ray-traced solution.

Likewise, reflections seem to be mostly based on less advanced tech and appear to lean heavily on screen-space reflections. The camera in the reveal gameplay capture is manipulated to mostly avoid occluding the information needed to create coherent reflections, but again, there's little evidence that we have RT reflections in play. Assassin's Creed Shadows is set in a more naturalistic environment composed mostly of organic elements that tend to have less specularity to them, so this probably doesn't have a huge visual impact, but it again is worth noting.

Beyond that, a since-deleted tweet from a Ubisoft graphics programmer - in addition to reporting from a press outlet - suggested that the game is using virtualised geometry. In the footage we do have, I really struggled to spot any level-of-detail transitions, so it does seem like Assassin's Creed Shadows is throwing around a lot of geometry in any given shot, and could benefit from such a system, but the onscreen results at the moment are a little ambiguous.

As a test, I matched up Shadows gameplay with AC Mirage, the last Assassin's Creed title - and presumably the final one to ship on eighth-gen consoles. You'll see that comparison in the video above. I think there's a big uptick in the overall level of visual clutter, including the volume of NPCs and the complexity of the decoration in the surrounding world. No singular visual element really stands out, but the overall density does seem to be a considerable upgrade.

One last thing that AC Shadows really nails is its presentation of small-scale destruction. When the player engages in melee combat as Yasuke, he sends an enemy careening into a couple baskets of fruit, sending little orange and red globes flying. These persist across time, though they don't appear to have physics properties after they land, as they don't respond to player attacks or movement. Later, the player hits an enemy into some clutter on the side of the street and it breaks apart in a very granular way. Ubisoft is promoting increased destruction in this title and it remains to be seen exactly how widespread this is in the final game - or if it extends to more than bits of window dressing around levels, but it is visually pleasing in what we've seen so far.

Ubisoft Forward actually gave us some AC Shadows gameplay - and here it is in its entiretyWatch on YouTube

One thing that isn't so positive from the Assassin's Creed Shadows demo is the absence of motion blur. Other post-processing niceties - like bokeh depth of field - do make an appearance, but motion blur is missing during gameplay. Recent Assassin's Creed titles have had at least object-based motion blur, and I really do think it would give the game's action a smoother quality, in addition to adding some cinematic effect. Curiously, cutscenes do feature camera and object-based motion blur, which I hope will be enabled for gameplay in the final release.

This footage is only at 30fps, which just exacerbates the issue. It's actually at a very unevenly-paced 30fps, suffering from significant stutters throughout its playback. I hope this won'tl be reflected in the final game's visuals, but it is something that Ubisoft should try to improve for their press materials going forward. The game looks very choppy and inconsistent here and that's just not a good way to introduce a game to the public.

I did manage to count out a fair number of shots here and they all resolved to a native 2160p. This doesn't tell us a great deal, because there's every possibility we're looking at PC capture. The game's image quality is sharp and clear, though the relative lack of post-processing is probably as responsible for that as the game's high internal resolution. I wouldn't be surprised to see the premium consoles deliver a credible 4K image though at 30fps - it's just hard to judge from this showing. It will be interesting to see if there is a 60fps mode available for Assassin's Creed Shadows, as at the time of publication visual modes have not been announced. I could really see it either way, but I'd hope for a 60fps option.

Assassin's Creed Mirage was the last hurrah for the franchise on the last-gen consoles, opening the door to 60fps on current hardware.Watch on YouTube

That's particularly true because of the high pedigree of other Ubisoft games, including the visually stunning Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora, which packed 30fps, 40fps, and 60fps modes on PS5 and Series X. There you had RTGI plus RT reflections in an incredibly dense open world, with high frame rate support to boot. Star Wars Outlaws is an upcoming game built on the same Snowdrop game engine, and I think that game's overall visual quality - with its excellent ray traced lighting and true-to-life materials - exceeds the Shadows demo, though we don't know what its frame-rate targets will be on consoles at the moment.

Overall I think Assassin's Creed Shadows is probably the largest technical leap the series has taken in many years. The introduction of RTGI, even in possibly a more limited form, is a big technical overhaul that should have positive impacts on lighting quality and the game's install size. If virtualised geometry is part of the picture as well, that should prove very compelling in the final game. At the same time, the final visual results are lacking slightly in overall lighting fidelity relative to Massive Entertainment's recent efforts and some other big-budget current-gen titles, especially Unreal Engine 5 based games. Ubisoft Quebec seems very focused on increasing density within the game world, perhaps to the slight detriment of materials and lighting quality.

Our final impressions will have to wait for the game's launch though. In this early showing, Assassin's Creed Shadows represents a substantial technical upgrade for the series - but there are still some rendering problems left to solve.

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