Assassin's Creed has changed with the times. It's the progenitor of the Ubisoft open-world formula, the mold that other games like Watch Dogs and Ghost Recon have cast themselves in. Over the past 13 years, the franchise has joined other long-running franchises like Final Fantasy or Resident Evil in reinventing itself.
In my opinion, the series fits across three major eras. There's the slower, more methodical Assassin's Creed, the original title that's as much investigation as it is parkour murder. There's the more action-oriented style that stretches for Assassin's Creed 2 to Assassin's Creed Syndicate. Then there's the current RPG-laden turn for the series that started in 2017's Assassin's Creed Origins and continues in the upcoming Assassin's Creed Valhalla.
If you were a fan of the second era of Assassin's Creed, you're currently going hungry. I've talked about this before, but those fans don't like the RPG-style focus on loot and levels, with soft gates preventing them from reaching certain regions. They dislike the inability to one-hit kill certain targets with an assassination, which they feel is pretty core to the experience. Ubisoft is addressing some of those points with Valhalla, but it's still a RPG in a broad measure.
Enter Sucker Punch Productions and Ghost of Tsushima. The last hurrah of the PlayStation 4 feels like an experience that grew from the ground that Ubisoft abandoned with Origins. It's a much more straightforward action-adventure, with an assassin-like samurai riding around the theme park version of Tsushima, killing foes and taking back territory. Ghost of Tsushima not only feels like the Assassin's Creed Japan that players have been asking for forever, it's also a return to that second era of Assassin's Creed. At the same time, it straddles some ideas from the action and RPG styles of Assassin's Creed, never quite being one or the other.
Having played a preview demo of Assassin's Creed Valhalla and reviewed Ghost of Tsushima back-to-back, I felt it was time to explore the comparisons and differences between both titles. And perhaps, in that comparison, give some folks an idea of which game might be more to their liking.
The Ancient Art of Parkour
Assassin's Creed began life as a sequel for Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. Prince of Persia had a very rigid version of parkour; a flavor that found its way over to the original Assassin's Creed and its sequels. In the early days, Altair and Ezio could only climb on very specific handholds, ledges, and surfaces; spend time watching a neophyte play some of the earlier Assassin's Creed games, and you'll likely see them waste time needlessly running up walls or other objects trying to find the proper way to climb a structure. Ubisoft has gotten better at hiding the seams over the years, with enhancements including Assassin's Creed Unity's more refined descent mechanics.
Origins and Odyssey are far more freeform, allowing their heroes to climb pretty much anything. Assassin's Creed Valhalla carries forward this idea for the most part, but slides back to the older style in some respects. I was able to climb pretty much anything as Eivor, with the burly Viking finding scant handholds in a statue or wall, but there were certain spots where I found my upward ascent halted, making me move Eivor to the left or right to continue moving.
Despite the dense forests of England, I was also surprised to find fewer climbable trees than I would have expected. That feature first appeared in Assassin's Creed 3—Connor could traverse through whole sections of forest without touching the ground—and continued on to Black Flag, Liberation, and Rogue before eventually fading away. I was able to climb certain trees in Valhalla, but I didn't have enough time to really work out the proper way to ascend those I did find, and they were pretty sparse overall.
One issue with the parkour anywhere style of the newer Assassin's Creed games is the minimization of more skillful traversal. As you progressed in the older AC games, you got better at reading the environment, knowing which handholds, overhangs, and branches were things you could parkour on. This in turn became the basis for various challenges and missions. Since then, though, tombs have been more puzzle focused, rather than traversal focused.
Ghost of Tsushima is firmly in the older style of Assassin's Creed, or perhaps given the Sony pedigree, closed to the Uncharted games. There are specific ledges Jin can reach, handholds clearly denoted by staining on rocks, and grapple points that require you to be a certain height to reach. Much of Ghost of Tsushima's stealth play and traversal is figuring out where those objects are in the environment.
There are several shrines around Tsushima that require you to determine the path forward. Some jumps that are more difficult to perform, but most of the skill is in figuring out how to read the environment. I admit, it was fantastic to see things like traversal puzzles making a return in Ghost of Tsushima. They were the focus of Prince of Persia—they would literally show you the endpoint and challenge you to figure out the way forward—which was what made it such a fantastic series.
That said, it is worth noting that Assassin's Creed Valhalla does have some traversal puzzles akin to Ghost of Tsushima, called Animus Anomalies. In my demo, a giant obstacle course was laid over the environment, with glowing blue animus blocks stretching into the sky. By separating these Anomalies from the standard environment, Ubisoft Montreal is able to play around with the idea of the player finding the right path forward again. It's an interesting idea to bring forward traversal puzzles, while retaining the "climb anywhere" style of play elsewhere.
Progressing Through Each Level
Much has been made about Assassin's Creed's switch to RPG levels and extensive loot drops. As you play Origins and Odyssey, you'll collect reams of weapons and armor from enemies. Much of which will be only slightly better than what you currently have equipped due to level scaling. This means a lot of time spent in menus, weighing your available gear options or dismantling the stuff that's quickly filling your bag.
Assassin's Creed Origins also introduced character levels. As you kill enemies and clear outposts, you gain experience which levels up Bayek. This system served as a way to gate progress, as certain regions were much higher than your current level, and there was very little reason to try and tackle enemies far above your level because you'd do next to no damage. Levels keep you on a treadmill controlled by the developer, rather than letting you truly explore anywhere.
Ghost of Tsushima is once again similar to the older Assassin's Creed titles in that there are limited upgrades available for Jin's key weapons (Katana, Tanto, Half Bow, and Long Bow), ammo pouches, and armor, accessed by collecting resources around the island. Jin can also obtain several several different armor sets, each of which provides certain bonuses. What you lose in weapon variety, you gain in straightforward progression.
Unfortunately, Ghost of Tsushima hasn't learned certain things from Ubisoft. While the amount of visual customization is pretty strong, your look is tied to your abilities. If you want to use the Divine Wind to find a specific type of location around Tsushima, like a Shrine, you need to have the Traveler's Attire equipped. Origins and Odyssey realize part of customization is allowing the visual look to be different from the abilities certain gear impacts. I liked the look of the Ghost armor, for example, while not really needing the bonuses that armor applied. That said, it's less annoying to be done-in-one with a piece of gear, rather than repeatedly change this bracer or that helmet on your way to max level.
Despite not having levels, Ghost of Tsushima also prevents you from reaching certain areas ahead of time. Certain outposts and future regions of the game give you a message warning of excessive force when you approach them. If you keep moving into these locations, you'll start getting hit by arrows out of nowhere that do a ton of damage. You're prevented from even attempting those outposts by phantom damage. It's a weird, obtuse system and I actually preferred level gating to the invisible, insurmountable walls randomly strewn about Tsushima.
For Assassin's Creed Valhalla, it's a bit harder to tell how this will be tuned in the final game. Valhalla will have gear, but it really dropped from bosses during my demo, which I'm guessing isn't how the retail version will work. There's also a shift in how Valhalla deals with leveling; as you gain experience, you get skill points that you can spend on skills in three categories: Raven, Wolf, and Bear. The number of spent skill points feeds into a general power level.
What I didn't find in the demo were region levels. We only had access to a single region, East Anglia, with no differentiation in that region at all, and a fake Animus wall preventing us from walking into a second region.
From Darkness They Strike
Finally, let's talk about stealth. Assassin's Creed has always been about stealth as a power fantasy, giving players a lot of tools to control enemies, the ability to easily disengage from alerted guards, and strong survivability in combat. (Remember the counter-kill body piles of Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood and Assassin's Creed 3?) Enemies in Assassin's Creed aren't wildly intelligent, with pretty straightforward vision cones. They also have little understanding of the placement of their compatriots, so you can pick them off one by one, without much alarm going up. It's not a stealth experience in the vein of Hitman or Splinter Cell, where failure to stay hidden is far more punitive.
This playful stealth has been the key cornerstone of Assassin's Creed for a long time. Origins and Odyssey saw a slight shift towards more open fighting with a new combat system, but character and enemy levels also factored into it. If an enemy was too far above you, trying to assassinate them from cover ended with a "critical hit" instead of a kill, after which you were dropped into proper combat. For players in love with the stealth side of Assassin's Creed, being unable to stealth kill every enemy was a step back.
Valhalla rectifies this situation with the unlockable Advanced Assassination skill. Once this is unlocked, a timed mini-game replaced the old critical hit system. The timing for a successful seems to be quicker the higher level the opponent, but this means skillful players can once again return to killing most enemies. (There are still world bosses and other encounters where you won't get a chance to stealth to your target.)
Ghost of Tsushima largely works the same way as many older Assassin's Creed titles. Vision cones are limited—enemies don't even look upward—and it's pretty easy to jump a smoke bomb if a guard finds you. You have a number of tool to move enemies around: Wind chimes target a single foe, even if other enemies should be in ear shot, and Firecrackers can get a whole group of enemies into assassination range. Tsushima also has a chain assassination option that, once unlocked, allows you to kill up to three targets are once.
Valhalla seems to be down to a two targets with a single assassination, with Eivor killing one target with a hidden blade, and another with a thrown axe. It's interesting, because while Valhalla has the old standby whistle to draw guards to a location, the demo lacked those tools available in Ghost of Tsushima. My guess is the smoke bomb will be an unlockable skill in the Raven skill tree, but some of those other tools won't make an appearance.
These are a sense of play and power in having all of those tools to move enemies into position for an assassination. That's strong in Ghost of Tsushima, while Valhalla seems to carry forward more direct attacks. Take Odyssey's Predator Shot, a high damage bow attack from long range. Those are the kind of options that look to be available in Valhalla, focusing on more ways to directly kill the target from stealth.
I'm less certain about which model I prefer, and to be honest I'd prefer to have more tools and more ways to kill from stealth. Sometimes I'd like to do something other than a straight assassination, but I'd also like the ability to control enemies a bit better. Playing both Assassin's Creed Valhalla and Ghost of Tsushima, I found myself looking longingly at the other for those additional options.
One thing that might give players pause is that Ghost of Tsushima also has critical hits, despite not being level-based. Camp commanders cannot be killed in a single hit, forcing you into open combat after a damaging strike from cover. Tsushima does eventually unlock an option that kills a commander in one strike, but that option also pulls you into combat directly. So even without levels, Tsushima lands under Valhalla in the ability to ghost an entire camp, assassinating every target without raising an alarm. Ghost of Tsushima is most of the way to an older Assassin's Creed, but this might be the stumbling block for players that purport to dislike the inability to assassinate every target.
Despite the places where Ghost of Tsushima goes its own way, it still feels like a loving homage to the older Assassin's Creed games. Whether that intentional, or a testament to Assassin's Creed impact on open world design, I don't know. Valhalla on the other hand pulls back on the hard RPG leanings of Assassin's Creed Odyssey, but still keeps a foot planted on that side.
If you're one of those players who dislike loot and levels, I'd say that Ghost of Tsushima should be a definite purchase for you. It retains some of the issues of modern Assassin's Creed, but I enjoyed the return of traversal puzzles and a wide variety of tools, not skills per se. That's said, I've not tired of the current model of Assassin's Creed, so Valhalla is still looking great to me. My major problem was a lack of verticality in my demo, which could just be a problem with the chunk of England we were given.
For me, 2020 is going to be a great year, because I get two Assassin's Creed games: one looking forward and one looking back. And I'm hopeful that Sucker Punch continues to make Ghost games into the future, so that every kind of fan can be satisfied.