They say Ancient Egypt is (or was) the cradle of humanity. And while that statement is disputable in the modern context of ancient history as we know it now, for Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed series, the desert plains of Ancient Egypt, the Delta Nile, Alexandria and its myriad surrounding areas has now become the cradle for the Assassins Brotherhood. Assassin’s Creed Origins is set to tell the story of how it all began, taking players back to the mysterious ancient world where our new protagonist Bayek -- last of the Medjay who served as protectors of Ancient Egypt -- will become instrumental in setting up the secret order we’ve known and loved (and maybe hated, here and there) since 2007.
The game is set in the year 49BCE. By now, the pyramids, the sphinx and more are all already thousands of years old, with Ubisoft opting to avoid setting the game during their construction because, as game director Ashraf Ismail explains “not a lot was really happening then”. It also means with so much history already around you, the options for mystery and exploration are tenfold. Ismail explains that we’ll see rituals (including mummification) and that Origins will have a massive, seamless open-world harbouring dynamic life, hidden secrets and a systemic ecosystem open to us and all with a refocused purpose on making the game-world feel more alive than ever before in the series.
“AC is normally about cities, and we have cities, but this is a country. We built a country,” he enthuses.
The alluded to point of the game feeling ‘alive’ mentioned above is a large part of their larger
open-world picture. The period in which the game is set isn’t reflective of the modern Egypt we know today. Water and greenery were abundant then, and the ancient city was alive with commerce, agriculture and global-leading architecture and design. The world is also a seamless entity all its own, with equally compelling interiors living alongside exteriors. And we’ve barely seen anything of the game beyond what was shown at Microsoft’s pre-E3 media briefing, and what we, ourselves, were privy to not long before that event kicked off.
So we not only saw a short, but concise presentation for the game outlining some of the main differentiators between Origins and every other entry in the Assassin’s universe, we got hands-on with the game, too. In fact, we played the game on Xbox One X -- possibly the first non-official cats to do so, and it looked pretty stunning running at 4K up close and personal. The build is pre-Alpha, so bugs were there and the game is clearly in need of polish in certain areas, but as a base and with full knowledge that this is barely the complete experience, it’s hard not to acknowledge this as an ambitious direction and change up for what has become an iterative game-design pillar among Ubi’s key franchises.
There’s a bigger lean towards RPG in the action-RPG hybrid that is the series, while the meta games we’ve always thoroughly enjoyed with each update in Assassin’s Creed are, at first, alarmingly absent. But after a chat with Ismail, which we’ll have posted in the coming days, his and the team’s focus on making this open world the best and most alive it can be, was more paramount than player distraction. In my 45 minutes with the open-world available to me with no real barriers, I ‘borrowed’ a small boat to board a larger one. Sailing is, as you’d expect given the water-developed side of the game is in the hands of Ubisoft Singapore, brilliant. Swimming is also a refreshingly expanded part of Bayek’s exploration and animation arsenal (I could watch him swim for hours), and we’re promised a robust and rewarding experience beneath the game’s waves. You can even use weapons while submerged, something I think has been implemented to help deal with the Nile crocs.
There’s also a greater emphasis on quest discovery, rather than quest giving. It’s not a new system to open-world RPGs or action-RPGs, but it’s new(ish) to Assassin’s Creed, while investment in your character and inventory are more in line with the modern blueprint for these types of games too. There are no towers or areas to ‘unlock’ (at this stage), and a lot of the game-world is optional to discover. We’ve also been promised lots of tombs and hidden areas lay in wait for both scaling and exploration and with the game’s larger focus on loot and rare, epic and legendary items among common ones, the experience is both a fleshed out familiar one to other open-world junkies, yet still new to the Assassin’s Creed universe, and hopefully even more unique in their own delivery.
Which leads us to combat. It’s another area of the series that has seen a dramatic shift and I’d be lying if I said it was for the better. It felt confusing at times due to button placement, and the timing of attacks and counters. We’re promised it’s deep and engaging, with a renewed focus on challenge against AI with things like weapon and defence loadouts having an adverse knock-on to how well you can handle each individual encounter. And, for the first time in the series we’re going to have boss battles, only the one we faced in the shortly-exposed gladiator arena section of play didn’t feel like a good way to introduce any of the changed combat nuance. But, as with any pre-Alpha build of an ambitious product where get less than an hour with it, without a true tutorial or even major context, we need to hold final judgement.
Right now, as a setting I’ll go out on a limb and suggest this might be the best in the series, and with an open-world in tow and a larger emphasis on character development and exploration in a mysterious and ancient land, while building the origins for a now renowned game-universe, Assassin’s Creed Origins is on more than the right path. Provided the studio holds nothing back in terms of delivering on what such a setting and period deserves, while also harnessing the power of Xbox One X (and PlayStation 4 Pro), new and old fans alike are bound for an absolute sphinx of a time… (okay, leave me alone, jet-lag and a lack of obvious puns forced me to do it).