Platforms: PC, Xbox One, PS4
Reviewed On: Xbox One
It has been two years since we last had an Assassin’s Creed game, the previously yearly franchise taking a small break in order to go back to the drawing board for a sorely needed refresh. Except what we’ve gotten is more of a patchwork quilt made up of pieces from lots of other popular games, resulting in the best game in the franchise in years while also being a poor Assassin’s Creed game.
Wait, what do I mean by that? Well, when you first stab somebody with your hidden blade and they don’t die because you’ve not upgraded your blade enough becomes pretty clear that this isn’t your grandad’s Assassin’s Creed. The hidden blade assassination has been with the series since the very beginning, a guaranteed kill if you can sneak up to the target, but here higher level foes can survive a direct stab to the neck or you may not have upgraded your blade enough in order to do enough damage. In other words, there were a lot of times when I felt like I wasn’t actually playing an Assassin’s Creed game. There is a palpable shift away from the enforced stealth to a more freeform nature that one one hand feels good to play, and on the other arguably means that the series is losing its identity and becoming another generic open-world franchise.
This time around we’re jumping into the memories of Bayek, a man who lived in ancient Egypt around the time of Cleopatra, at which point the great pyramids were already considered to be extremely old. It’s a sizable leap backward in time but one that works well as we not only see the birth of the assassin’s order but also get to explore a beautifully rendered version of Egypt which is vast, covered in bloody sand and, once you’ve journeyed through it, covered in bloody sand. The time period that Ubisoft have opted for means there’s a melting pot of Egyptian, Roman and Greek cultures so you can travel from rolling sand dunes into simple villages, past towering pyramids and into lavish cities adorned with frivolities. I often found myself stopping just to admire the scenery, or to go exploring an abandoned tomb where the lighting engine gets to flex its muscles as your torch attempts to beat back the darkness. There’s no mini-map, instead there’s a compass at the top of the screen and while side-quests and story missions are all highlighted by exclamation marks the rest of the map is littered with question marks. Many of these are just outposts to clear of treasure and targets, but there’s also a lot of cool stuff to find for those willing to just hop on a camel or horse. It mimicked The Witcher 3 in the sense that I often got distracted by a question mark, investigated, found a tomb, wound up on a side quest and about 3-hours later remembered that I was supposed to be doing something important to the plot.
The open world is a bit of an illusion, though. You’re technically free to amble around the vast landscape as you see fit, but like an MMO it’s divided up into areas and each area has a level recommendation attached to it, so if you’re just a measly level 8 and decided to stop by a piece of the map rated 16-20 or something then you’re going to get absolutely flattened by any enemies you encounter. Sure, you can go wherever you like, in the same sense that you’re free to walk straight off a cliff; you can do it, but it’s probably not the best idea you’ve ever had.
The Assassin’s Creed series has often struggled with its protagonists, so it’s nice to see that in Bayek they’ve managed to again create a likable lead character to follow. His motivations come down largely to revenge for the death of his young son at the hands of a mysterious group who are extending their influence across the country, but as a Medjay he also feels a need to help the people of Egypt. He’s a simple, likable man who finds himself pledged to violence, along with his wife Aya who sadly doesn’t get to share much screen time with him. Like Bayek she has become a hunter of people seeking revenge and the moments the two get to share are touching, but she’s often away in other areas. They form the emotional core of a story that eclipses them, and I found myself wanting to spend more time with them and their place in the grand story of the assassin’s order rather than focusing on the bigger picture.
But while Bayek and Aya are a pleasure to spend time with the overarching narrative is largely forgettable stuff supported by a raft of bad guys who remain faceless and lacking motivation right up to the point where you jam a blade into their necks, at which point a typical Assassin’s Creed timeless moment before death thing happens and you get some exposition. The game just never manages to paint them as either horrible people that I want to murder or villains with understandable motivations, leaving you completely apathetic to their existence. They exist purely to be objectives in missions, and while their masks might make sense from a structural standpoint it also serves to make them more forgettable.
All of the modern stuff hasn’t been ditched yet, despite it being divisive over the years and seemingly have forgotten the original storyline, which I swear still hasn’t been properly resolved. Still, it’s kind of cool to see Ubisoft keep an overarching story going throughout so many games, even if it feels like they don’t have a proper plan laid out and are making it up as they go. What we get here, though, is thin on the ground with very little plot advancement.
Egypt is a sprawling land and like prior Assassin’s Creed games this open world has quite a lot of side-quests to do, but it seems Ubisoft have been playing a bit of The Witcher 3 because they’ve ditched the entirely copied and pasted missions in favor of designing each one individually, giving them all their own little storylines. They may not have the same quality of writing or scope as The Witcher 3’s often epic quests, but there’s absolutely no denying that the more carefully crafted quests found in Origins are a vast improvement over the repetitive tat of previous games. There are even a few quest chains to get drawn into. It’s a shame the actual mission design almost always falls back on going to a location and sneaking in to rescue someone or steal something or kill a specific person, but the narrative wrapper helps keep you from focusing too hard on the fact that you’re repeatedly doing the same couple of things over and over again.
Another downside is that the optional side-quests tend to feel less optional and a whole lot more mandatory. In keeping with the heavier RPG focus many of the quests, including the primary story ones, all have recommended levels. While you can generally take on a mission a few levels above your own, anything more than that results in a near impossible game as even standard guards can survive an assassination, making stealth a bit troublesome. And if you get into a fight you’ll be whacked down so hard that you would think you said something bad about their mothers. While you can level up by raiding outposts, exploring tomes and doing random it’s a slow process, so tackling the side-missions is really the only option to level up enough to keep the story progressing, unless you’re willing to dive into the Ubisoft store in order to spend cash on XP boosts and weapon packs.
Yes, microtransactions have invaded yet again, although thankfully not to the degree of a certain other title I’m in the middle of reviewing. There’s a store tab on the main menu which can also be accessed from the pause screen, and you do get some advertisements for items. Given that you can buy XP boosts, weapons and other loot there’s no denying that paying gets you an advantage, but since there’s no multiplayer it’s less of a problem. They also aren’t too intrusive, even if I do feel like progression has been tweaked to force you into doing lots of optional side-quests or purchasing an XP boost. Regardless, there is absolutely no reason for microtransactions to be here.
Another way in which the RPG emphasis makes itself felt is in the steady acquisition of loot in the form of new weapons like swords and huge axes, as well as bows and shields. There are plenty of chests to be looted along the way, and slaughtered enemies will often drop stuff, too. Weirdly despite the setting being a fairly realistic recreation of ancient Egypt, provided you ignore the usual Assassins’ Creed sci-fi gubbins, some of the weapons have special abilities like stealing health or even being cursed so that you trade half of your health for a lot of extra damage output. I’m roughly 99% sure that ancient Egyptians did not have the skills needed to forge a spear capable of healing the owner, but I could be wrong. History never was my strong point. And once you find a particular weapon that suits you it can be upgraded at a blacksmith so that you never have to abandon it. Or you can dismantle gear in order to upgrade Bayek’s hidden blade, chest-piece, quiver size, tool pouch, and bracers.
All these sharp, blunt and pointy instruments feed into the combat system which has been heavily revamped, the team at Ubisoft having finally noticed that fighting was often regarded as a major weak point in the franchise. This time inspiration seems to have been taken from Dark Souls of all places with fighting being more about timing and positioning. The two bumper buttons on the controller are mapped to light and heavy attacks with X letting you dodge and B performing a parry if you can nail the actually quite tricky timing. To my surprise combat feels challenging and rewarding, and while it is possible to tackle multiple foes at once it’s usually not advisable, combating a criticism of earlier games where wading into a battle against a dozen opponents would still usually leave you as the victor. The more difficult combat pushes you toward being stealthy, just like a game about assassins should, while still giving you the chance to fight your way out of a bad situation.
leveling up not only bumps up your basic health and damage stats but it also grants ability points that you can hurl into a skill tree lets you focus toward outright combat, sneaky stuff with hidden blade and bows or using more tools such as sleeping darts.
But while swinging a sword or dropping a firebomb on some unsuspecting guard can be fun it’s all for nothing if the actual assassinating stuff sucks. Truth be told very little has been altered here. The parkour system has been tidied up a tad so you’re less likely to end up getting angry due to Bayek not quite doing what you want or leaping off the side of a building into space, and using it to get around the nicely balanced mixture of low and high buildings is still a lot of fun, especially when you take out your target with a sweet aerial assassination or hightail it away from some chasing guards. Other than that the mechanics governing stealth are pretty simple; patches of long grass or convenient bushes will magically mask your presence, there’s no chance of being detected due to noises provided you’re crouched and guards have cones of vision with a handy-dandy on-screen meter telling you how close you are to being spotted. Really, the stealth is largely unchanged but it works quite nicely. Systematically dismantling an entire location after scouting it out feels satisfying and fun.
There are loads of opportunities to flex your assassin muscles thanks to the map being liberally sprinkled with outposts to tackle, from the very small (one is just some guy’s house) to big-ass forts bristling with guards. Again, patiently observing a fortress before proceeding to pick off the guards one-by-one is a blast punctuated by the occasional frantic fight and desperate bow shot to stop some guy running for the alarm beacon.
Considering the number of outposts to tackle, loot to be found, tombs to raid, sand dunes to clamber, question marks to check out and side missions to complete it’s safe to say that in terms of pure money to playtime Origins is strong. Like so many others I tend to get easily distracted so it was at around the 25-hour mark that I had to curb my own curiosity in order to finish up the main story missions. It’s a chunky game filled with stuff to do.
More importantly, though, it all feels worth doing, whereas a lot of the extra busywork in previous Assassin’s Creed games felt more like chores. I said it earlier in the review but it bears repeating; Origins does feel a lot less like an Assassin’s Creed game at times, and much more like something stitched together from various other pieces and then laid atop of Ubisoft’s now standard open-world template, yet despite this, it all comes together remarkably well. There were even a lot of smaller details that indicate a team who were genuinely enjoying working on the game, like how you can light arrows on fire by passing the tip through a torch or how cats wander the streets and will actively come up to you.
You even get a little taste of the naval combat that made Black Flag, another Assassin’s Creed game that didn’t feel much like Assassin’s Creed, so damn fun with a few sequences involving large ships and lots of archers with flaming arrows. In fact, there’s qoite a lot of water in Origins with underwater areas to find and islands to sail out to.
But let us bring this review to a close, shall we? To be honest I’m almost surprised by how much I enjoyed Origins. Its story never did manage to grip me, but Bayek was enough to carry me through that, as was the gameplay itself. The revamped combat isn’t superb and doesn’t come close to matching Dark Souls from which it so clearly draws inspiration, but it’s still fun while the stealth has been largely left alone yet holds up well. But the real stars of the show are the gorgeous world and the many, many side-quests it hides. It’s a huge, sprawling game that in many, many ways has been glued together from the pieces of other titles, including even stealing Destiny’s menus for some reason with a bloody stupid cursor. It’s a combination of parts you’ve seen elsewhere mixed in with Ubisoft’s predictable open-world template and thus many people might heave a sigh and skip this one. Part of me feels like this is a great game, and another feels as though it’s somewhat lost what the Assassin’s Creed series is about. Stealth has become less needed in favor of letting you just run in and fight, there are more RPG mechanics and even the science fiction stuff is being sidelined. For the franchise to survive going forward, though, maybe that’s what needs to happen. But tossing away it’s name and lineage for a second, as its own game I’m giving this one a recommendation.
I mean, how many other games let you clamber around on the sphinx? Or explore underneath it?