Having had the privilege of playing a lot of Assassin’s Creed Origins ahead of its late October release through lengthy sessions across E3
and locally with Ubisoft Australia, I gained a unique perspective on just how far the game has come. Sure, it’s been in development for a very lengthy period, and the bulk of final content has been locked in for a while, but where the game is at as of the shipped product versus where it was across the aforementioned preview events, is parkour leaps and bounds apart. This is easily one of the most polished games of 2017, and the way in which it is presented through myriad components within its make-up, from your basic level-up “ding” to menus, cutscenes and its overall presentation is absolute.
Arguably, Assassin’s Creed Origins is the best entry in the series yet, but more than that it also represents a massive boost in design and artistic vision from a developer and a series that, for better or worse, has often fallen into its own repetitive design traps.
The open-world here is a thing of complete majesty. It’s easily on par with CD Projekt RED’s celebrated The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
in terms of vision and art-direction, and also gives Guerrilla Games’ Horizon Zero Dawn
a run for its visual money, while absolutely trumping it in the content department (as I’ve explored confidently elsewhere
). And running on Xbox One X, even supersampling on my ageing plasma, it’s truly gorgeous. On a proper 4K panel, it could be argued it’s the best-looking game this year, especially when you consider its size and scope. Oh, and the breadth of that aforementioned content.
Origins is a completionist’s dream come true, but it’s also one of the few areas where I have a problem with the game. It could be construed as a contentious (or trivial) point depending on what camp you sit in, but for mine, the game’s quest delivery and its heavy use of checklist-style objective tracking removes what would have been Assassin’s Creed Origins’ biggest drawcard: mystery and discovery. Origins is a game set in a period that still excites and mystifies an entire spectrum of people -- whether you’re an Egyptologist working at the modern Giza plateau to uncover more of its sand-covered past, or a basic game journalist pleb like me, Ancient Egypt’s mysteries and its place in history -- known and unknown -- has captivated the world, and the imagination, for centuries. And while there’s a lot of amazing stuff to explore and uncover in Origins, it’s delivered in a binary, hand-holding type of way -- a huge disservice to the game and game-world.
Really, it’s just a massive missed opportunity.
What I do need to be clear about here, is that it doesn’t break the game or make it any less fun. I just wanted to embrace the mystery and not have the game tell me as soon as I enter a tomb how many items are in there I need to collect in order to ‘complete’ it, despite having no actual knowledge of said tomb at all before entering it. But I digress.
From a story perspective this entry is really very good. Bayek is the first Assassin I’ve liked more than Altair in my long history with the series. His being a Medjay as well helps sell his transition into the Brotherhood (although his inexplicably perfect parkour skills out of the gate could have been sold with some sort of early childhood montage
, or something). And the expansive inclusion of his wife, Aya, as a central character is handled with aplomb. She’s as equally strong as him, and the relationship between the two characters is arguably among some of Ubisoft’s best ever storytelling. Their shared tragedy and unwavering loyalty to Egypt and its people is a compelling narrative tool. And it’s rare to have a game play out from the outset with love interests already established, which helps Assassin’s Creed Origins streamline its main character storylines. There’s a lot to discover about the pair, but early on their agendas are perfectly established alongside their love for each other. It’s utterly refreshing in the space.
The game also allows you to pace out your story consumption depending on your level of discovery and how much you like doing side-quests. On Hard, it’s important to level up to around 15-20 before really getting stuck into the meaty part of the game’s narrative because the game-world isn’t scaled to your level, and taking on enemies at a much higher level than you will almost always end in a deadly encounter, on your part.
And that’s a great segue into one of my other major problems with the game: combat. I’m both happy and sad with how it turned out, because there’s a positive in this AC development team wanting to mix up and change one of the series’ more scrutinised areas of design. And they’ve done their homework -- attempting to pull in combat design from different ARPGs with emphasis on things like parrying and timed blocks to create attack openings, as well as an in-depth weapon and weapon upgrade system (alongside the player-character skill tree). On paper, it sort of all works. Unfortunately in practice it’s a mess of overly-complicated input requirements (on a controller -- I haven’t played on PC with a keyboard and mouse, FYI), a shoddy camera in enclosed spaces and a target lock system that is barely ever friendly to use.
The weapons side of combat, as I’ve already alluded to, saves the shortcomings mentioned above. And staying on top of your weapon levels and buffs is a tactical way to breeze through a lot of the game’s conflict. But it’s also in this space that Origins elevates another equally questionable AC design tentpole in stealth.
In Assassin’s Creed Origins, stealth is a very solid tool for taking out the enemy trash, without having to face the aforementioned messy open combat. Moreover, patient players will be able to clear entire bandit encampments without ever really alerting other baddies. Dispatched enemies can be carried out of line-of-sight to make sure alarms are never raised, and with careful planning you can also booby trap alarms just in case. Upgrading your skills to include actions like Enhanced Hunter Bow allows you to control arrows after they’ve been fired too, so with your arsenal of stealth helpful skills, weapons and the way in which most camps are designed and set up, alongside stealth gaming’s biggest design trend at the moment -- tall grass, being able to avoid open combat is actually a dynamic challenge.
For comparison, the game’s combat is actually much, much better than the combat found in Middle-earth: Shadow of War
, it’s just still not nearly as good as it should -- and could -- be. But Ubisoft is on the right track.
Getting around this massive space is also a really fun part of the game. Unlocking vantage “synchronisation” points is still a thing, and doing so means you can forever fast travel to those points, which is a good thing because the map here is fucking huge. But, better than fast travel is taking your trusty mount on sandy expeditions. Horses, camels, rafts and more all serve as vehicles to get you where you need to go, with the added ability to just hold down the A button and select the option to auto-ride to your next objective or custom marker, which is awesome. The feature is made all the cooler because of the fidelity of the game’s visual design, giving a sort of eye-candy tour, without having to worry about how you’re getting around from an input perspective.
But heading back to the “synchronisation” point mentioned above, the last place the game tends to fall apart is in its future sections. I’m not going to spoil any narrative here, but Assassin’s Creed’s biggest design flaw is that it ever had the animus component at all. It’s largely detrimental to the experience and hamstrings narrative on a massive scale. Desmond’s story is still being played out here, a bit, but it just feels superfluous and unnecessary in the grand scheme of everything else the team has designed. It’s also obnoxious -- sniveling rule-breaking Americans over-exerting their penchant for ‘mischief’ in order to craft some sort of parallel good versus evil story to play out in the future, so that what you’re doing in the past makes some sort of ‘sense’. Except it already makes sense, and breaking our digital fourth wall with a fifth wall, which is more like a third wheel, really, is kind of nonsense in the end.
I get it, it has to happen because Petrice Désilets designed it that way, and maybe that’s his parting gift to the company he had such a publicised falling out with, but I wish the future in Assassin’s Creed never actually happened. The history side of the game is
the game, and it’s all we’ve ever really needed; all we’ve ever really wanted
And on that note, I’ll wrap it up. Our score might look less reflective to the negatives mentioned throughout this review, but it’s important I point out that those criticisms largely plague the series as a whole, in a similar way to how radio towers plague Far Cry
. They’re not necessary and should be fixed, but someone at Ubisoft just really loves radio towers (and future animus stuff), so you take the good with the bad and in Assassin’s Creed Origins there’s just so much good to embrace. The game’s story is excellent and Bayek and Aya are among the series’ best characters yet. And taking on the entire beginning of the Brotherhood through links to Ancient Egypt is a stroke of genius.
The period in which the game is set helps us look at Egypt with fresh eyes while still marvelling at the mysteries that precede it, something Ubisoft has done a brilliant job of here through Bayek’s connection to the land, alongside his respect for the past.
The RPG side of the game is handled very well, and its challenge is really very good in the larger modern gaming landscape. Combat still needs tweaking from a design perspective, but is more than passable while the checklisty mission system does need a major overhaul, but when stacked against the game-world created here, and how much content it’s filled with, it can be forgiven. It really doesn’t break the experience, either, it just could have been handled with more subtlety and player-agency. Those issues aside, however, Assassin’s Creed Origins is a gorgeous and engaging game that is a poster-child for Xbox One X while also advancing a series that has in more recent years lacked some identity. One of the year’s better action games and well worth some time in its scorching sun.